In VENOMOUS SECRETS we first encounter Cait on a mission to retrieve a serpent located above a bookshop on Holywell Street – in an old section of London that no longer exists. Though the street had once been the location of mercers (sellers of textiles) and second hand clothes, by the 1860s it had become the territory of booksellers (Bookseller’s Row) who were notorious for selling pornography (novels, prints, etches and, later, photographs) often displayed in the store’s front windows to entice customers within. Cait enters and makes mention of a number of “naughty” books, one of which is an actual novel, The Lustful Turk.
By Cait’s time, plans were already underway to demolish both Holywell and Wych streets. The city wished to both rid itself of such “moral degradation” and widen the roadway between the two churches of St. Mary-le-Strand and St. Clement Danes. Demolition, however, would not begin until 1901.
“The crank hack clattered to a stop.
Two long rows of crooked, timber-framed houses stood shoulder to shoulder, hunching over the narrow street. Secretive, furtive. Casting storefronts and pavement into half-shadow beneath the anemic light of a gray sky.
And enticing a small crowd despite the early hour and a persistent morning drizzle.
A knot of men gathered beneath black umbrellas upon the street. Didn’t most men pursue their vices under the cloak of full dark? What illicit amusement pried them from their warm beds? The promise of a new, risqué postcard? Did she dare sidle close enough to find out?
Cait mentally slapped at such ill-bred curiosity.
“No one must recognize you,” Janet had warned. Repeatedly and at length. A steam maid would fuss less. Neither, however, would a mechanical servant provide critical tips and hints as to the many shadowy secrets London hid in plain sight. “That’s no place for a lady of quality to be spotted. Indecent images propped up in the windows of those so-called bookstores. All those gaping men offering uncouth opinions about women’s unmentionables.” Janet’s voice dropped to a whisper. “And there’s worse, I hear tell, inside. Photographs of a pornographic nature.”
A detail that failed to deter Cait the slightest bit.
Cait hurried down the street under her own umbrella, hunting for the correct address. There. Number thirty-seven , a secondhand bookshop, lay just past an alley that reeked of urine and beneath the figure of a golden crescent moon with a long, sullen face.
Keeping her face turned away from the crowd that gathered next door, she ducked inside.
Dark and musty, the interior was mercifully devoid of occupants, save the lone shopkeeper who eyed her and her case with decided suspicion.
“I’m here about Mr. Dryer’s snake,” she stated. Direct and businesslike, yet the man sniggered.
“Whatever you say, miss. Stairs are in the back.”
Though she lacked the nerve to inquire about any titles secreted behind the counter, she slowed her steps as she passed a prominent bookshelf, scanning the titles. The Lustful Turk. Colonel Spanker’s Amatory Exploits. An Erotic Philosopher’s Lectures.
Goodness. Perhaps she could be shocked. If she dared lay as much as a finger upon a book’s spine. But not now, not here.
Cait climbs from her crank hack and proceeds down the street where she arrives at No. 37 a building near an alleyway and next to an old, gilded wooden sign – a sullen, crescent moon. This passageway was known as Half-Moon Passage or Pissing Alley and connected the Strand to Holywell Street.
Across the way would have been entrances to the Globe Theatre and the Opera Comique. Both theaters shared a wall, reportedly so thin that one could hear the production on the other side. The two theaters were built on the former site of Lyon’s Inn (one of the Inns of Chancery that had lost its moral way and was demolished in 1863). The builders were aware of the (eventual) plans to widen the road and were, therefore, loathe to sink much money into the building materials of the two theaters, hence the shoddy construction.
Before demolition, the cranky half-moon was rescued and transported to the Museum of London (alas, not always on display) as an example of an early street sign from the times when literacy was not something to be assumed. The half-moon sign originally marked the location of a shopkeeper who was a staymaker for George III.
But what of the street’s name? Yes, it was named for a holy well mentioned in early documents dating to Saxon/Norman times, a well that lay in the general vicinity of the demolished Lyon’s Inn. Although there is some dispute as to exactly where it existed in relation to the buildings of Cait’s time, reports indicate that it was in the basement of, or perhaps behind, the Old Dog Tavern. Surprisingly, the well still exists today beneath the Australia House in the Aldwich, Strand where it continues to produce drinkable water.
Though USA TODAY bestselling author Anne Renwick holds a Ph.D. in biology and greatly enjoyed tormenting the overburdened undergraduates who were her students, fiction has always been her first love. Today, she writes steampunk romance, placing a new kind of biotech in the hands of mad scientists, proper young ladies and determined villains.
Anne brings an unusual perspective to steampunk. A number of years spent locked inside the bowels of a biological research facility left her permanently altered. In her steampunk world, the Victorian fascination with all things anatomical led to a number of alarming biotechnological advances. Ones that the enemies of Britain would dearly love to possess.
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