Young Adam Hanaway is a man on a mission, fleeing London for eighteenth-century Lisbon in hopes of restoring his family’s fortune after the financial ruin and subsequent suicide of his father. Known by his contemporaries as “Adam Runaway” (he has a penchant for flight in crisis), Adam is prepared to establish himself through the good offices of his uncle, Felix Hanaway. Adam also hopes to prove his nickname false.
Thanks to Adam’s father’s bad advice, Uncle Felix was affected by the London stock crash but retains enough of the family fortune to live quite nicely with his wife and two daughters. Although willing to give Adam an opportunity for redemption, Felix leaves the decisions to his clerk, Bartolomeu Gomes, a Portuguese who is jealous of his position and has no intention of letting young Adam usurp his place in the pecking order.
Adam has adequate, if shabby, lodgings at the Baixa district in Lisbon. There he comes to the aid of an elderly Englishman, Allen Hutchinson, and his daughter, the widowed Dona Maria Beatriz Fonseco. Also living in reduced circumstances, these kind neighbors embrace the young man. Through the Hutchisons, Adam meets an important figure in the Portuguese Inquisition, although he fails to take seriously the religious fanaticism that has ruled the country since the Spanish Inquisition of the fifteenth-century.
In a cultural contrast of values and behavior, the young English rakes make merry while the country burns with the fires of the autos-da-fe. Moving through a very rigid if somewhat permissive society, Adam sets his sights on the beautiful but unattainable Gabriella Lowther, whose father is a well-respected businessman. Adam enjoys a flirtation with Gabriella and fondly entertains thoughts of a possible union, but his plans are ruined, as is his burgeoning career, by Gomes’ behind-the-scenes machinations at Felix’s place of business.
Ever ready with an inappropriate action or foolish boast, Adam is forever out of step and out of place, his plans of saving his family’s fortunes all but shattered. Utterly without prospects, Adam contents himself with his good friends the Hutchinsons and works with them until his fortunes take a turn for the better. What has been a relatively uneventful life has suddenly plunged into the most difficult of straits until Adam seizes an opportunity to advance himself.
Time and experience do for this young man what circumstances could not, and he is forced into maturity in a most unexpected manner. The young man becomes a gentleman of honor, although his path takes many twists and turns, most of them painful and at great personal cost.
Historically precise and brilliantly detailed, Prince’s novel is a vast tapestry of cosmopolitan Lisbon, center of great wealth and the taint of the Inquisition. Adam Hanaway is the perfect character to run the labyrinthine streets of this city at the height of prosperity. All is destroyed in 1755 in a fatal combination of earthquake, tidal wave and fire. By then Adam is a man of considerable courage that no one would think to call “Adam Runaway.”