London, 1735. Covent Garden offers a world of pleasures and diversions, even for a blind man. Tom Finch approaches life with boundless good cheer and resilience, whether he’s pursuing a musical career or pursuing women. And as for his blindness, to him it’s merely an inconvenience.
Join Tom for a picaresque romp through high and low Georgian society among rakes, rovers, thieving whores and demi-reps, highway robbers, bigamists, and duelists, bisexual opera divas, castrati, mollies, and cross-dressers, lecherous aristocrats, and headstrong ladies. This meticulously researched, witty and lively tale overturns stereotypes about disability and revels in the spectacle and excitement of 18th century opera.
Targeted Age Group:: adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was inspired by the Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro, which I think is the most perfect opera ever composed, although I ended up setting my novel a few decades earlier. I love the 18th century setting, especially the gorgeous clothes–the robe a la francaise for women, the white stockings, long hair and tricorne hats for men. While the Victorian era is maybe more popular now, I find the Georgian era much more interesting. Morals were a bit looser, there was much more sexy drunken behavior in public. The Georgians really knew how to party.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
There were quite a few blind men in the 18th century who were highly accomplished in their professions: Sir John Fielding, composers John Stanley and Turlough O’Carolan, among others. John Stanley conducted several oratorios for Handel, learning all the notes by ear, as Tom does. I borrowed the scene of Tom recognizing a woman by holding her hand as she steps into a boat from the life of Carolan. His drinking and flirting with women also come from Carolan, at least in part. I borrowed Tom’s unusual method of cane use and echolocation from the real life of James Holman.
At the beginning of the novel, Tom is composing a ballad called “London.” The real composer is Henry Carey, who like Tom was the illegitimate son of a nobleman, and made his living composing both operas and ballads. His life was a model for a character who is educated but not upper class, and who alternates between high and low society.
Many of the secondary characters are based on real people of the era: Betsy Careless, Sally Salisbury, Princess Seraphina, Lord Mordington, Farinelli, Anna Maria Strada, Veracini, among others.
London is a dainty place,
A great and gallant city.
All the streets are pav’d with gold,
And all the folk are witty.
Singing this tune quietly to himself, a tall, lean figure rapped with the chased silver head of his walking stick at the stage door of the Rose, a small worn-out theater well past its prime, if indeed it could ever have been said to have had one. The company within was rehearsing for the latest production, a revival of Dido and Aeneas, an opera as superannuated as the theater itself. Still, a job is a job, and the rent must be paid.
“What cheer, Mr. Finch?” said the young stagehand who opened the door.
By way of greeting, Tom Finch doffed his tricorne hat and held it out for the boy to take.
“Thank you, Frankie,” Tom said as he stepped inside. The boy plucked the hat from his hand. Tom did not, however, surrender his walking stick, as it was no mere fashionable ornament, but his primary means of finding his way as a blind man, and he was almost never without it.
“I say, Frankie, what is Mr. Betterton cracking on about?” Tom cocked an ear toward the interior of the theater, listening to the racket issuing from the stage.
The stagehand looked up at him in surprise. “Ain’t you heard, Mr. Finch?”
“Miss Fenton quit the company. Mr. Highmore engaged her to sing Rosamund at Drury Lane and off she goes. She only left a note for Mr. Betterton this morning.”
It was not so unusual for a theater of higher standing to poach the talent of a lower company, and Miss Margaret Fenton was widely admired for her wit and charm, if less so for her skill at singing.
“Oh ho, and why should our esteemed Mr. Betterton inform me? I am only the lowly conductor,” Tom muttered as he set off down the hall toward the stage, with Frankie trailing behind.
In point of fact, his position in the company was significantly less exalted than conductor. He had been hired only recently to conduct during the rehearsals and train the singers and musicians in place of the gouty maestro Mr. Holden, who would resume his lofty position in the pit once the performances began. If there was now to be any performance at all.
“Pardon me, sir, but the painters left the boat in the hall to dry,” Frankie called out, pulling at Tom’s sleeve, and preventing him at the last moment from running at full speed into the large but flimsily constructed replica of a boat that would carry Aeneas away at the start of the third act. With Frankie’s guidance, Tom skirted around the boat, wrinkling his nose at the sharp odor of wet paint.
Shaking loose of the boy’s anxious grip, Tom swung open the door to the auditorium. Within was a scene of even greater confusion than usual. Rather than arranging themselves in neat rows on the stage for the rehearsal, the singers and dancers were pacing about, gossiping in small groups, and the musicians had ventured out of the pit to lounge among the stalls, while three finely-dressed men argued loudly to the right of the stage. Mr. Betterton, the manager, was conferring at top volume with Mr. Holden, the conductor, and Mr. Brookings, the first violin. Holden had squeezed his bulk uncomfortably into a chair with one leg painfully extended to the side, while Betterton paced about in agitation, scratching at his head and setting his wig askew as Brookings hovered anxiously.
“Ah, Mr. Finch, late as usual I see,” Betterton rounded on Tom as he entered. “How kind of you to join us for the rehearsal.”
“Your servant.” Tom ignored the sarcasm in the manager’s voice and executed an abbreviated bow. “Is the production to go forward, then?”
“And how are we to mount a production of Dido and bloody Aeneas without a Dido?” Betterton thundered.
“Sir, your language,” wheezed Holden from his seat. “There are ladies present.” He glared meaningfully in the direction of the stage.
One of the said ladies took this as her opportunity to step forward, a sweet-faced light soprano named Jane Carlyle, who sang the part of Belinda. “Sirs, if it please you, I have a suggestion,” she called from the edge of the stage.
Betterton stopped his pacing. Jane was not very high in the company, this role being her first promotion from chorus girl to comprimario, but her father was sergeant-trumpeter to the king, and a man of some importance in the musical world.
“Well, what is it?” Betterton demanded.
Jane curtsied. “If I may make so bold, sir, my father has through family connections been introduced to an excellent soprano who has just arrived in London from the continent.”
Betterton made a dismissive sound and waved his hand at her, but Brookings, a small man with a kind face, whispered urgently, “Begging your pardon, sir, we should at least give her an audition, as we have no other options at the moment.”
Betterton sighed dramatically. “Very well, send for her.”
“But sir,” said Jane, “she is already here.” She gestured behind her on the stage, where a young woman with brown curls dressed in a modest blue striped casaquin stood hesitantly. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, rather on the short side, but with large, expressive brown eyes and a comely round face. The entire company—owner, musicians, singers, stagehands, all turned to gape at her. Jane gestured again with more of a flourish.
“May I present Mistress Tessa Turnbridge, just returned from a tour of the continent.”
Tess stepped forward to the edge of the stage with a show of more confidence than she felt and regarded the company. The shabby old Rose was not what she imagined the theaters of London to be, and the company seemed far less professional than what she was accustomed to, but she found she could not pass up the unexpected opportunity for a leading role with even a second rate theater.
Tess curtsied very low with a formal, studied air. “Mr. Betterton, Mr. Holden, I am at your disposal.” Her voice was strong and steady but the color stood out on her cheeks, betraying her nervousness.
“Yes, yes the continent, so you say, but your accent suggests that you are a Londoner. What exactly is your training, pray tell?” Betterton demanded impatiently.
Tess straightened her back. “I spent my childhood in London, but I have trained these past eight years in Naples. Perhaps you knew my mother, Giovanna Battista.”
Astonished whispers circulated about the company. Naples was the very seat of opera seria, home to the most exalted composers and the most accomplished singers. Among these, Giovanna Battista had been much fêted in London as the Italian coloratura, until her retirement to marry a British composer.
“Oh indeed!” Betterton exclaimed. Tess noticed his attitude towards her warmed significantly upon hearing this. “I did not have the pleasure of hearing her sing in person, but I know her by reputation. And your father must be William Turnbridge. I know his works very well. My dear Miss Turnbridge, that is a remarkable pedigree.”
Tess colored even more, although this reaction was not unexpected. “You honor me, sir, but you must also know that they are both dead these many years, and have left me only their good names to recommend me.”
“That’s no small portion. Come now, let us hear your audition directly. You know the part of Dido, I trust?”
“I have studied it, yes,” Tess replied.
“Then why are we still wasting time?” Betterton demanded. He clapped his hands, waving impatiently at the musicians to resume their places. “Mr. Finch, if you please!”
Tess watched as the musicians shuffled back to their instruments and the latecomer who had been scolded by the manager leapt to attention from the seat on which he had been lolling during this exchange. She had taken no notice of this Mr. Finch when he came in, but now she observed curiously as he stood, one hand gripping his walking stick and the other reaching out into the air. He followed Brookings to the pit as the other musicians scrambled back to their neglected instruments. There was something unusual about him but she could not say exactly what, and in any case she had no time to reflect before starting her audition.
As Betterton cursed the orchestra for their lazy and slovenly ways, the music master took his place on the conductor’s box and rapped on the stand. The cacophony of dissonant notes quickly resolved as the orchestra tuned up.
The music master raised his head toward the stage, and for the first time Tess looked straight into his face. It was a remarkably well-formed face, but what struck her above all else were his eyes—they were completely scarred over, and where the irises and pupils should be were flat blue-white orbs that twitched and rolled slightly. His expression was unreadable. He was unlike anyone she had ever seen before.
“Very well, Miss Turnbridge, if you are quite ready, let’s have ‘I Am Press’d with Torment.’”
Tess nodded distractedly, but of course he did not see it. Before she could collect herself, Mr. Finch started the orchestra playing, and she missed her cue to come in by half a beat. Flustered, she stumbled through the first bars awkwardly, for while ordinarily she was as at home on stage, now with this strange blank gaze aimed in her direction, she felt her throat constrict and her breath come but shallowly.
After a few more bars, Mr. Finch frowned and rapped again on the stand, stopping the orchestra. Tess quivered with shame and frustration. To her surprise, he did not comment on her poor performance, but instead pointed his baton unerringly at the hautboy.
“Mr. Hart, tune up for God’s sake!”
The youth on the hautboy mumbled an apology as he adjusted his reed then blasted out a few strangled notes.
“Very well, that will have to do,” said Mr. Finch breezily. “My apologies, Miss Turnbridge. Shall we begin again? On three—”
With a clearer cue, Tess came in on the beat correctly. This time, she looked away from the odd music master and sang out with more confidence, feeling the breath move through her easily.
Holden leaned toward Betterton, who was seated beside him in the stalls scrutinizing Tess’s performance. “Finch did that on purpose to give her a second run at the aria, the sly bastard,” he hissed.
Betterton smirked. “No doubt. How does he always know which tarts are the prettiest?” he replied in an acid tone.
“He’ll be seducing her before the rehearsal is ended, mark my words,” Holden added, shaking his head.
As Tess came to the end of the aria, she hazarded a glance at the music master’s face and found he was smiling.
“A very solid technique, d’ye think, sirs?” he observed, turning to where the manager and conductor were seated. “Our Jane would do well to emulate it, hey?” he added, causing Jane to turn away in a pique.
“She’ll do,” Holden intoned.
“Not that we have a choice,” Betterton muttered, then called out in a louder voice directed at the stage, “Very well then, Miss Turnbridge, welcome to the company!”
The theater was instantly abuzz as the other singers, the dancers, the musicians, even the stagehands and the costumers weighed in with their thoughts on Tess’s talents, her countenance, and any idle gossip, real or imagined, attached to her person. The second violin heard from a cousin in Naples that Tess had come to England under somewhat scandalous circumstances. An aged costumer was eager to share the tale of a dress she had once sewn for Signora Battista. It took Betterton shouting and cursing at top volume, threatening to sack the lot of them, and dire reminders that there were dozens more singers and musicians waiting to replace them, before order was restored, with the singers seated in rows on stage and the dancers behind them awaiting their cues.
The music master rapped his baton on the empty music stand before him and started the orchestra in on the overture. Tess sat stiffly in her seat beside Jane, watching him, her head whirling. Just yesterday she had stepped off the carriage that had carried her to London, the last leg of her difficult journey from Naples, with nothing more to her name than a letter of introduction to Mr. Robert Carlyle. She had never dreamed that the very next day his daughter Jane would send for her with news of a possible role, much less that she would be cast already, and in such a curious company. This music master, for example. What a singular individual.
As the orchestra droned on through the overture, Tess leaned towards Jane seated at her right. “That man,” she whispered, indicating with her chin. “The music master. Is he blind?”
Jane glanced at her with an expression of incredulity at the overly obvious question, then gave a quick nod. “It don’t seem to bother him none,” she added with a shrug.
Tess stared at the music master. About thirty years of age, he was very tall, smartly dressed in a dark blue surcoat with just a bit of heavy gold trim, his sandy brown hair tied back with a wide black ribbon. He had a thin but handsome, well-proportioned face, with a long nose that looked like it been formed by nature to be straight as a razor but was now slightly crooked, as if it had been broken more than once. But those opaque eyes above all caught her attention. Beholding that one deformity in an otherwise pleasing countenance gave her the queerest sensation in the pit of her stomach, like pleasure mixed with pain. It was not pity, but more like a kind of attraction she could not name.
The music master led orchestra as surely as if he were sighted, pausing here and there to point to the various players.
“You there, the second violoncello. Forgive me for not knowing the measure number, but at the part that goes tum tum tiddle, I think you’ll find it’s an F sharp, not an A.” He sang the phrase perfectly on pitch, naming each note.
“Yes, sir,” said the second violoncello, staring down at the score in consternation. “You has the right of it, sir.”
“Right then,” Mr. Finch said, pointing his baton toward the first violin. “The measure number, Mr. Brookings?”
“Thirty-two, sir,” the first violin replied.
“At thirty-two,” he ordered, and they were off again, with the music master smiling and nodding as he waved his baton.
Tess leaned over to Jane again. “You know the gentleman? His name is Mr. Finch?”
Jane gave a quick laugh. “Aye, Tom Finch, but I wouldn’t call him gentleman.”
“Why ever not?” Tess raised her eyebrows in surprise, watching as Mr. Finch again with good humor chided the hautboy for falling out of tune. Instead of answering, Jane gave a rather unladylike snort, just as the overture came to an end.
“Silence, if you please!” Mr. Finch snapped, never losing the rhythm as he conducted. Tess turned dark red and clapped her mouth shut. “Now then, Belinda, Dido!”
Tess stood up along with Jane, and again her first notes came out in a tight, thin voice, to her shame. This was not how she had envisioned her brilliant career in London at all. She had imagined taking the opera world by storm, quickly rising to the most prestigious stages just as her late mother had. But here she was at the Rose, a lucky break to be sure, but in this strange company, and even worse, giving a poor performance. She would never fulfill her lofty ambitions like this. If only that odd music master were not distracting her.
Again she shifted her gaze away from the music master’s frowning face and fixed instead at the empty space at the back of the theater, forcing herself to put him out of her mind. At last she was able to relax and let the notes flow out of her with a rich, open tone, giving voice to the lament of the unhappy Queen Dido.
By the end of the rehearsal, Tess was faint with exhaustion, but at least she had managed to sing through her part passably well. As she was preparing to leave, Mr. Betterton the manager stalked over to her, never dropping the scowl affixed to his face throughout the entire rehearsal. Jane repeated the formal introductions and Tess curtsied low, thanking him for giving her the part.
Betterton looked her up and down. “You’re comely enough to sell tickets, but Holden has made it a condition of your casting that you take lessons with the music master.”
“I beg your pardon?” Tess said faintly.
Rather than replying, Betterton gestured impatiently for her to follow him down from the stage and into the pit.
The music master was deep in conversation with Mr. Brookings, the first violin. Mr. Betterton clapped Mr. Finch roughly on the shoulder without warning, causing him to jump slightly in surprise.
“You’re to give the new Dido lessons,” he commanded. “See to it.” He strode off to bark orders at the dancers, leaving Tess gaping after him.
“Ah, Mistress Turnbridge? Are you here?” Mr. Finch asked, his blank eyes searching sightlessly. The color was so very blue. Tess again felt a sharp, twisting sensation.
“Yes, it is I. Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Finch,” she murmured.
He gave an elaborate courtly bow, showing a leg very neatly, and Tess curtsied unthinking, carried on by force of habit. Was it proper to curtsy even though he couldn’t see her? What ought she to do?
At these close quarters, she could see his clothes were of a fine cut, but perhaps a bit threadbare. Real silver buckles on his shoes, white silk hose, with silver buttons at his knees. His close-fitting dark blue surcoat flared stylishly at the waist and wrists, but the gold trim was frayed and the elbows were shiny and worn. A few stains stood out here and there.
“My dear Miss Turnbridge, I am delighted to make your acquaintance,” Mr. Finch said and put out a hand.
Tess extended her hand as well, then paused for an awkward moment as she realized he would not grasp it unless she put her hand into his own. He waited patiently, and when at last she placed her hand on top of his, he pulled her unexpectedly close. He brought the back of her hand to his lips, caressing her palm at the same time. Even when he lowered it again, he did not let her go, but stroked the back of her hand and wrist with his long, slender fingers. Tess felt the blood rise to her cheeks, but made no move to escape.
“Sir, I must beg your pardon most sincerely for disrupting the rehearsal,” she said, but he only laughed.
“My dear, think nothing of it!” He flashed long white teeth in a grin so artless and honest Tess could not but feel more at ease. “The company is lucky to have you. Just returned from the continent, have you? I thought I detected something Italianate in your voice.” As he talked, his eyes gazed upward of their own accord, as if he was looking up over her head. It was so odd, yet Tess could not help staring at him. He seemed prepared to continue with their conversation, but Brookings pulled him away with a pressing question, and Jane swooped in to tug Tess in the opposite direction.
Jane gave her a sharp look as she led Tess back to the stage to collect their cloaks and scores.
“I’ll give you a bit of advice—I would watch yourself with that one,” she warned. “I tell you, he’s a terrible rake.”
“Is he now?” Tess replied a bit defensively.
The music master was joined by a man much closer to the profile that Jane had painted of Mr. Finch: a shorter, heavier man in flashy brocade, with colorless hair tied into a queue, and a curved mouth that moved easily into a sneer. Now there is a rake, Tess thought. Mr. Finch greeted the man as if they were the best of friends.
“And who is that?” Tess prompted, for by her disapproving look, Jane clearly knew him as well.
“Jem Castleton, an unrepentant rogue. You see what sort of company your Tom Finch keeps.”
Tess watched as Betterton handed Tom a small purse of money, which he weighed in his hand then pocketed, under Jem’s considering gaze.
“My Mr. Finch?” she mused, her eye still on Tom.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Jane replied darkly.
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