The handsome, mysterious highwayman is the stuff of legend – and many a romance readers fantasy. I’ve been captivated with them since watching ‘Dick Turpin’ as an impressionable pre-adolescent, so when I was contracted by Mills and Boon to write my first ever Regency ‘The Virgin Courtesan’ I knew straight away that my hero Guy would be a highwayman. Or at least that’s how he first appears to my heroine Juliana, when he kidnaps her on her way to her first assignation as a Covent Garden courtesan.
The reality however was rarely so romantic. Highwaymen were outlaws and bandits, usually on the run from the law, and often violent and without mercy to the gentry they preferred to pick on. In the Regency area travelling at night presented a very real danger, and for this reason dinner parties and evening soirees were deliberately held on nights when the sky was expected to be clear and the moon full and bright, leaving less shadows for a highwayman to lurk in. Highwaymen sometimes travelled in gangs and if their victims put up a resistance would beat and sometimes even kill them. These were desperate and dangerous men and when caught, were executed swiftly.
Yet we still love them, at least as a fictional device. We have the Victorians to thank for romanticising the Dick Turpin legend, but even before this, in the Regency era itself when highwaymen were greatly feared, the myth of the ‘gentleman robber’ sprang up. A highwayman on a fine horse, who robbed his victims politely and then sent them on their way. Although this was the exception rather than the rule, there were a few real-life examples.
French-born Claude Duval comes immediately to mind. He was a highwayman in England in the 1600s and was largely responsible for the original ‘gentleman robber’ myth. He was said to have been incredibly handsome and a charmer with women, often seducing his female ‘victims’. Although eventually caught and hanged at Tyburn his admirers – and even a few former victims – put on a lavish funeral for him. His tombstone advises men to watch their purse, and women to watch their hearts…
In ‘The Virgin Courtesan’ I tried to incorporate both some of the myth and the reality into Guy’s initial appearance as a highway rogue, and whatever the truth, he certainly steals Juliana’s heart….