Not many authors begin their novel with a horseman galloping at top speed along the “northern turnpike road to Harrogate.”
But Precarious Fortunes is no ordinary book.
Believed to be the first fictional book to use the town as the main setting since a story by A.A. Thomson in 1935, this period costume adventure is packed full of real historical detail about 19th century Harrogate.
Written by businessman turned writer, Ian Townsend, this gripping novel is loosely based on the much-documented visit to Harrogate in 1838 by the remarkable Angela Burdett Couts, who, at 23, inherited the Coutt’s fortune making her suddenly the richest woman in the whole of England.
He said: “As soon as she inherited this vast fortune, all the would-be suitors turned up. It made Angela have a deep distrust of men. She didn’t go on to get married until she was 67.”
Already praised by leading local historian Malcolm Neesam as a “well-crafted novel”, Ian’s book will launched officially in a lavish affair at Cedar Court Hotel in Harrogate on Tuesday, June 7.
The book turns fact into fiction, the debut author skilfully conjuring up a web of deception, abduction and extortion involving the young heiress, a captain in the 11th Light Dragoons and a sinister party of Russians.
Ian Townsend’s research was meticulous before setting pen to paper, including many meetings with Malcolm Neesam, the letters of famous local Victorian artist William Powell Firth, who was a hotel manager in Harrogate for a time, and a good few back back issues of the Harrogate Advertiser from nearly 150 years ago.
Ian even took to visiting by foot possible locations in North Yorkshire for the setting of Precarious Fortunes and investigating a few real-life mysteries for himselg.
He said: “If you go to the Devil’s Arrows Stones near Boroughbridge and walk round in an anti-clockwise direction, you will envoke the devil, supposedly.
“I also discovered that there were four standing stones near the Pinewoods lying in a straight line. No one has any idea where they are now so I made up my own legend about them.”
One of the things made clear in Ian’s richly detailed, rip-roaring yarn is just what an important place Harrogate was in the 19th century.
The spa town was a magnet for the aristocracy and royalty of the day and not only from other parts of the UK.
Ian said: “Harrogate was regarded as an oasis in what was then the industrial north. It was a hotbed of everything that was going on in the world at that time.
“Part of the aim of the book is to show how fantastic the town would have been around 1848.
“There was horse racing on The Stray, elegant balls in town and gambling in magnificent surroundings.
“Harrogate was St Tropez, Monte Carlo and Cannes all rolled into one. It was Europe’s premier spa town.”
Ultimately, however, Precarious Fortunes is a novel about one woman,
And it’s a woman who the author clearly admires and has much sympathy for.
Ian said: “Angela was a visitor to Harrogate and rented houses in the town. The facts are there.
“She was a good friend of Charles Dickens and was concerned with the social problems of the day.
“She was known as ‘Queen of the Poor’. She devoted her life anonymously to good causes and funded churches all over the world.
“Angela was an incredible woman.”