A Jacketing Concern

Written by Margaret Southall
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1811, within a mansion in London’s Somers Town, Lord Roderick, sixth Baron Davenant, lies in bed in the arms of Harriette, a renowned courtesan. He dreams of frolicking in a perfumed garden until, with a downpour of bricks and a cloud of soot, something wrapped in rags comes crashing down the fireplace, startling the adulterers. Thinking it’s an animal, Harriette screams, “Bloody Hell!” The tumbled bundle turns out to be a bruised and battered seven-year-old, Addy, a climbing boy – a chimney sweep’s helper. Out of pity, and with Harriette worried about their reputation, Davenant takes the boy home and leaves him in the care of his sister. He forgets about the lad until his groom informs him that Addy speaks perfect English and even French, believing him to be an abductee from a prosperous family (a “jacketing concern”). Initially confused, Davenant agrees, with his sister’s encouragement, after seeing that Addy also knows Latin. He confidently takes up a wager with another adversary, and even the Prince Regent, and sets about finding the urchin’s parents.

In this debut novel, Margaret Southall’s strong, evocative writing brings the Regency era before our eyes as we travel alongside the characters involved in Davenant’s quest. The plot thickens when mysterious eccentrics, including a murderer, trail Davenant from his fashionable home in Mayfair to the seedier districts of London, the slave ports of Liverpool, and smugglers’ caves on the Sussex coast. Davenant is ably assisted by his groom and another brazen but knowledgeable climbing boy. He encounters not only brothel ladies but also an attractive Quaker heiress eager to help him, which introduces a touch of romance into the narrative. The inclusion of East India Company clerks, Bengal nabobs, smugglers, and slavers add to the historical aspects of this complex story.