Like business men and women and politicians; like writers, directors, actors; the gentry families of Eighteenth Century Ceredigion were always on the hustle. The network was everything - arranging advantageous marriages, business deals, local government and judiciary appointments and even major political roles at county level and even in Westminster made all the difference between a family, an estate on the 'up' and a dynasty on its way down.
The Powell squires at Nanteos - variously MPs, JPs, High Sheriffs, were constantly pushing, jostling for influence and favours. It's fascinating to read their correspondence, riddled as it is with pleas for support and pledges of allegiance. The women played their part too. It's tempting to look on them all as disaffected, pampered, dissolute yet, since doing the ten years of research around these families for the two Nanteos novels, I don't see them this way anymore. Spoilt physically - yes of course, especially in comparison with much of the population that was a half a store cupboard from famine during the winter months, but they were constantly looking over their shoulders. Rather than being secure, as they seemed, many of these small gentry estates were financially precarious, mortgaged and indebted, their owners playing with the big boys across the border ( many of who were themselves on credit). The cost of their lifestyle was always just that little step beyond them so that, by the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, we see land and assets being regularly sold off for cash and by the Twentieth Century, even the mansion itself rented to a tenant who agreed to undertake essential maintenance.
My session last Thursday, dressed in jodphurs and hacking jacket and delivered from the 'Boot Room' in Nanteos Mansion's Mews House, was all about the Hunt, the Chase - the many and varied blood sports that were commonly indulged in on country estates in the Eighteenth Century. The provision of good 'sport' was a major way in which an estate's owner could demonstrate his wealth and acted as an opportunity to socialise and network that was at least as important as the ball or dinner. It was about control - controlling every single thing that had access to your land, and as such had a highly ritualised element - from the costume, to the tack used to control horses and dogs and to the food, drink and etiquette applied to the behaviour of those invited to take part. As an author, hunting is a gift: you get to split the men up from the women so that both groups can reveal a different side. You get to mix social classes, mix the squire with the gamekeeper, terrier men, beaters, hunt staff. Your characters are filled with adrenalin and the contents of hip flasks and out to prove themselves in unfamiliar ways. You can get them with their guard down. Across the two novels there are fox and squirrel hunts; bull baiting; rat catching and, most importantly of all, the otter hunt that is the climax of The Shadow of Nanteos. Here the brutal action on the February marsh is cross cut with the tragedy unfolding amongst the women back at Nanteos.