William Keeling is a former foreign correspondent of the Financial Times who exposed a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal in Nigeria. Accused of being a CIA spy, he was summarily deported. Suitably traumatised, he left journalism for chocolate, becoming co-owner of the historic chocolate company Prestat. Like his uncle, he, too, has a creative mind. Belle Nash and the Bath Soufflé is the first in The Gay Street Chronicles, a series of satirical historical novels set in the Royal City of Bath.
An Introduction to The Gay Street Chronicles by William Keeling
Ten years ago, I inherited a Queen Anne silver toast rack and a small trunk of undisclosed contents from my late uncle and namesake Dr W.B. Keeling. As an avid eater of toast and being without a toast rack, I visited my uncle’s home, a Georgian townhouse on Gay Street in Bath to collect my inheritance.
I barely knew my uncle but on entering the house, which had not seen a decorator’s brush for half a century, the family ties soon became clear. In a faded photograph on the grand piano, I recognised Uncle William standing next to my father as a young man. In other pictures, he was in the company of a gentleman of his own age: the two men wearing RAF uniforms, smoking cigarettes on a WWII airstrip; a decade later, affectionately holding hands in front of the Duomo in Florence.
In the dining room among the crystal glass and silver cutlery, I found the toast rack. And, in the study, there was the trunk, the contents of which have changed my life by opening my eyes to others.
It enclosed letters, diaries and records from the nineteenth century, along with a host of muddled manuscripts written by my uncle. I discovered yet more papers lining a cat’s litter tray. Over the past few years, I have forensically sought to make sense of what I found.
My uncle’s principal interest was in a man – a bachelor like himself – who once lived on Gay Street: Mr Bellerophon Nash (1796-1864). More commonly known as Belle Nash, he was an exuberant public figure, a city councillor unashamed of his bachelor status. In an era when sexual relations between men were a criminal offence, he was afforded protection through his family name. His great-grandfather, the famous Beau Nash, was the Master of Ceremonies who had made Bath the social hub of England a century earlier.
My uncle also uncovered Belle Nash’s close friendship with the extraordinary Mrs Gaia Champion (1795-1873). In modern parlance, Gaia Champion was a feminist outlier. Endowed with a brilliant legal mind, she became Lady Magistrate of Bath in 1831, nine decades before women were permitted to occupy posts of public authority.
My uncle, however, did more than simply collect their records. With a spirit of creativity, he sought to bring Belle Nash and his friends to life, for inside the trunk were hundreds of pages of typed manuscripts visualising their lives.
Whilst some of his work was lost to the cat much has survived, and I am now able to publish the stories that comprise The Gay Street Chronicles. The first book – entitled Belle Nash and the Bath Soufflé – is the story of how Gaia Champion came to be magistrate. The role of Princess Victoria in the enterprise. And of the calamitous love affair between Belle Nash and his companion Herr Gerhardt Kant, the flamboyant nephew of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel.
It is a tale of tea parties and corruption. Of lady spies in silk-lined carriages. Of enlightened citizens tired of bigotry and prejudice. And of a soufflé whose failure to rise triggers social upheaval never before seen in the fair city of Bath.