Recognising Robert Neill: The Shocking Miss Anstey

There was a gap of four years between Wonder Winter and Robert Neill’s ninth novel, The Shocking Miss Anstey, but the moment the book opens, in Regent Park in the autumn of 1815, with the long Napoleonic War at last ended, with Waterloo a present and very recent memory, with England in the process of changing from war to peace, there’s a sense of restoration. This is the Neill we know, and already the calm, assured detail begins to pile up as he describes a scene none of us will ever see, bringing its reality back into our sight.
The Master is back, where he belongs.
But it only takes a handful of chapters before we’re very rudely apprised that this is not the Neill of old, and that The Shocking Miss Anstey is to take an unanticipated course, throughout which the England that is adjusting to the dramatic change of times becomes almost wholly irrelevant, and what is central to the story in this novel can be summed up in one word: sex.
For Anice Anstey, young, beautiful, forthright, the Talk of the Town, the Shocking lady of the title is, from the outset, openly a Cyprian. Or, to use words more recognisable to this century than the early Nineteenth, she is a courtesan, a harlot: a prostitute.
True, Miss Anstey (who not that long ago was merely Ann Atkins, village girl from Dorset, granddaughter of a witch) is at the top of her profession, one who chooses as much as is chosen, and who receives the favour of Prinny in Brighton (the Prince Regent, the future George IV). And Captain Richard Grant, fifteen years at War, uncertain ashore, but with £30,000 prize money to his account, is not of the fashion, the ton, where Miss Anstey’s trade is plied, but he captures some part of her heart, and she his, even before he is climbing into a bed to which she has led him, naked.
This isn’t the Robert Neill we are sure of. And, from a critical reading, looking at the book’s merits on a continuum of his whole output, it’s not a book of which I’m sure either.
Once again, the story is a purely personal affair, without a substantive plot. Indeed, for most of the book, there’s no sense of anything that requires resolution. So Fair a House had the mystery of the ghost story to unravel, Wonder Winter had Helen Ireby to unpick, but The Shocking Miss Anstey never gives any real idea of where it is going, and its ending is less a conclusion than a off-stage manipulation to give Richard Grant the best of both worlds.
To understand that, let’s try to lay out the course of events. The Anstey sets herself out to make a big splash, advertising her trade but takes a somewhat inexplicable shine to the inexperienced Captain Grant. They can each only be their real selves with each other, but that isn’t going to stop Anice carrying on her profession among a class to whom, it appears, the idea of fidelity is nonsense.
Richard bumps into John Wickham, an Army Captain with whom he was acquainted during the Wars, and is invited down to stay in Dorset, where he meets John’s sister, Mary, the widowed Lady St Hilloth, and his uncle, Lord Barford. Richard finds himself very attracted to Mary, and she to him, which makes Anice something of a complication.
When he returns to London, Richard discovers Anice has moved on from the easy-going Lord Hildersham to the Corinthian, coachy, out-and-outer, the reckless, deeply unpleasant and highly chauvinist Sir Thomas Luttrell. When Anice rejects Tommy, the latter forces a duel upon Richard, in which Richard generously aims over the head of a helpless opponent. Anice then drives off to Brighton with Tommy Luttrell whilst Richard finds himself exiled to Bath for the winter.
The novel picks up again with the first of several changes of viewpoint, mostly to the elderly Mr King, Master of Ceremonies in Cheltenham. With the highly popular Spring season coming up, a host of characters descend on Cheltenham, both of the ton, and former village girls seeking to make a career as Cyprians.
Into this mix come Mary, Lord Barford, Lord Hildersham, Tommy Luttrell, Richard Grant and Anice Anstey, at one point or another. Social scandals of all kind threaten, but the clever manipulations of the Anstey eventually secure (in slightly deus ex machina fashion) the goodwill of Lord Barford, a home for Richard to live in with Mary when he marries her, and a home for herself, to which Richard can sneak off every now again to shag her senseless, behind the compliant back of Mary who, despite having registered strong opinions about such things when married to the late Lord St Hollith, will turn a blind eye to Richard and Anice because they won’t be shagging as often as Charles used to, and besides, it’s very heavily implied that she’s got nothing to talk about because she did it with Tommy Luttrell, and when she was married, not that Tommy remembers it.
In short, when you get down to it, everybody’s a cheat, nobody actually believes that a relationship actually means anything, and the bloke gets both the girls, even the one who’ll fuck anyone who’s got enough money.
Now there are writers who can sell that worldview to me and I’ll take it because I’ll believe it, and given that the story is set between in the Regency Period, it’s doubtless a true reflection of the times, but it doesn’t work coming from Neill (who doesn’t try this sort of thing again in the remainder of his novels), and it’s an awful slight peg on which to hang so many words.
There may be some of you, with retentive memories, who will recognise the name Wickham from So Fair A House, and you’d be right to do so. Neill makes no bones about it: these Dorset Wickhams are direct descendants, grandchildren in fact, of the John Wickham and Mary Marlow whose relationship caused George Marlow’s death, and Ann Atkins, the future Anice Anstey, is the granddaughter of the witch girl Ann Hart who influences the final confrontation.
It’s an amusing link-up, but as Neill doesn’t use this trick anywhere else in his writings, it’s also a bit jarring. It’s the contemporary doings of John and Mary that matter, and little is gained by tracing their tempers to their namesakes two generations earlier, especially when the laxness in morals of the current John and Mary aren’t mirrored in their ancestors.
There is time for one more racy revelation, and an oddly modern one at that. Quite a lot of stories in the past decade have turned on the discovery, close to the climax, that two passionately shagging people are, shock, horror, brother and sister. Personally, I’m getting bored with such revelations, and would rather they came out earlier in the story, so that we can at least have some cheap perversion to titillate us, but that’s exactly what this almost forty year old story gives us.
Ann (Anice) Atkins’ grandmother is Ann Hart, who was caught in bed with Squire Harry Wickham in So Fair a House, and he is her (unacknowledged) grandfather. But her father was Squire Harry’s son: yes, Anice is the product of incest! Shocking!
When all’s said and done, this is a well-written, beautifully researched, convincing historical novel, of the kind Robert Neill made his reputation on. But I find it hollow, in want of a decent story to keep the end-papers properly separated, and I’m not impressed by a conclusion that sets up a relatively undistinguished bloke to have wife and mistress to shag, for him to enjoy and wifey to put up with.
That might have gone down well in 1965, when I was turning 10, but it doesn’t wash with me now. However, better was to come as Neill’s tenth novel marked a genuine return to form, and to those characteristics that had made him famous in the first place.

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