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July 23, 2010updated 10 Jan 2016 3:56pm

Gentlemen & Blackguards

By Spear's

Gentlemen & Blackguards, or Gambling mania and the plot to steal the Derby of 1844
Nicholas Foulkes
W&N, 288pp

Buy Gentlemen & Blackguards in the Spear’s/Amazon bookstore

Review by Peter York

The Queen Mother would’ve adored Nick Foulkes’ book, subtitled Gambling Mania and the Plot to Steal the Derby of 1844. It’s about the Romance of the Turf; it’s full of 19th-century toffs whose families she would’ve known; there’s a lot of aristocratic extravagance and engaging walk-on parts for the other Victorians — Irish trainers and stableboys and Faginesque financiers and the whole 19th-century novelist’s cavalcade. She might not have quite finished it though, since there’s a fair lot to get through.

Foulkes’ inspiration here is William Powell Frith’s Derby Day of 1858, a hugely popular painting in its time, which played back a new, more mobile, mass society to itself as a disorderly panorama. Like his Paddington Station of 1865, or Ramsgate Sands, which Queen Victoria bought in 1854, there is a social order in Frith’s paintings, but the settings — mass transport and leisure — are essentially modern and so is the coverage, with the roughs and the Romanys taking some major roles.

It’s this rather unfashionable 19th-century idea of a Big Way-We-Live-Now story that links the Queen Mother, Frith, Dickens (Frith was inspired by Dickens and painted scenes from the novels before he got going on his 1850s/60s blockbusters) — and Foulkes. Foulkes is commonly described as a dandy, because he’s very keen on clothes and wears some very fancy ones. In my mind’s eye he is perpetually three-pieced, wearing a tie with an embonpoint all its own. He knows all those retro things about buttons and stitching, Huddersfield woollens and the social orders of tweed.

And he loves the world they come from — the Hispano Suiza and the drop-dead, drop-head Bentley, the Concours d’Elegance plutocratic world, and earlier aristocratic ones too. I can’t have imagined it, can I, that, working with Hackett, Foulkes gave the world a new tweed with a sort of mauve overcheck which had its own coming out party somewhere in St James? And his last book — about the ball on the eve of Waterloo, the set-piece in Vanity Fair — was called Dancing into Battle.

This is quite a rich mix but, it has to be said, not remotely like the later idea of the transgressive dandy — the recently, dramatically dead Sebastian Horsley, with his hard drugging and buggering, for example. Nick Foulkes is a highly respectable, clubbable fellow, a family man of Shepherd’s Bush.

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The story of the Derby plot of 1844 must have seemed to Foulkes like the book he was born to write. He got inside the Regency buck culture for his earlier book, and will have followed his characters and their obsessions in later life.  And Foulkes has, as he describes in his introduction, a print of Derby Day above the fireplace in his office (‘It’s one of my favourite things. I never tire of it.  It speaks to me like a visitor from another time’).

Me too. I love Frith and masses of other Victorian painters (been/gone/will come again in saleroom fashion terms). But I like them for their essentially middle-class perspective and levelling view, while I suspect Foulkes feels more aligned with the classes than the masses.

This is a wonderful story set on the cusp of change from ‘late Regency’ to the Victorian world.  The toffs he describes are immensely rich — the Earl of Glasgow, for instance, spent the equivalent of £19 million a year on racing, killing horses on a whim, and defenestrating waiters, too. They were utterly unconstrained and unclouded by doubt or the later pieties. Queen Victoria married the ‘progressive’ science and industry-loving, Great Exhibition-supporting Albert in 1840, but he took a while to set the tone.

This Derby Day, only 11 years before Frith’s, is an altogether more 18th-century affair and the set-piece at the heart of it is a dramatic piece of race-fixing.  A Jewish businessman (at what point would it have been ‘financier’?), Abraham Levi Goodman, a racehorse owner, clearly on the wrong side of the 1840s social divide, plots to win the Derby with a fraudulent masterstroke, passing off a stronger, faster four-year-old as a younger horse in a race for three-year-olds, concealing his ownership with a hapless nominee, George Worley, and betting thousands on the outcome.

The horse is subjected to a Ten Years Younger makeover with hair dye — the kind bucks used to restore their whiskers to living colour — and some very interventionist dentistry. Equine dentistry is a world of its own and the most veneered metrosexuals will probably learn something about horsey dental developments between two and four. You literally get it from the horse’s mouth.

Goodman’s persecutor/prosecutor is Lord George Bentinck, younger son of the 4th Duke of Portland, who spends his early years and his father’s money on racing before switching to Westminster as a serious-minded champion of the landed interests and dying early in 1848. After Running Rein won the 1844 Derby, Bentinck does his own detective work, following Goodman’s trails along Regent Street, quizzing the hairdresser who supplied the dye and practically kidnapping the stable-lad Who Had the Dirt.

It’s terribly engaging stuff, and the making of a kind of lost screenplay of 1948 (Alec Guinness, perhaps, as Goodman and Michael Redgrave as Bentinck). There’s even a walk-on part for Disraeli in the prologue, as a passionate friend of Bentinck’s. (John Gielgud?)

For a modern, turf-illiterate sensibility there are two small problems. One is a cast of characters so large — so Victorian panoramic — you literally lose the plot from time to time. The other is the curiously archaic tone — half Dickens, half Wallace Arnold — that Foulkes adopts, under the influence of the great tranches of 19th-century text (letters, books, court proceedings) that he quotes. I had the feeling sometimes that I was reading W Montgomery Hyde, and that’s not 100 per cent a good look. 

Buy Gentlemen & Blackguards in the Spear’s/Amazon bookstore

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