When I look at the journey on which writing May 1812 has taken me, I know it’s a blessing that no one told me where it would take me, nor how long it would take me to get there.
It started life as a desire to show the men of the period as they were–all-rounders in a way. They were none of them military strategists, they had no financial advisors, and there wasn’t a civil service. If they had a secretary, they paid his salary. And they did their business not just in their offices; but as most of them were society figures, they did it in their clubs and tucked away in the corners of the social events of the year–yes, even at, probably at, Almack’s. The Foreign Secretary’s wife, Lady Castlereagh, was after all, one of the patronesses of the place. And because their work was all-consuming, it affected every aspect of their lives. No part was free of the political dilemma in which they found themselves.
Then, shockingly–because Britain saw itself, and not wrongly, as a peaceful country amidst the maelstrom of Napoleon’s wars–the Prime Minister was assassinated.
Yet it wasn’t until I was in London the week after the July 7th bombings–there for a conference on Lord Nelson and Trafalgar–that I realised how unsettling and disconnecting such an event is. There’s an eeriness which cannot be explained and a knowledge that everything has changed although one has no clear idea what that will mean.
And so they were no longer just fighting the war across the Channel which had already been an all-consuming political fight, they now had a constitutional crisis on their hands. And the constitution was already in a state as it was–what with the old King mad and blind, and the Prince Regent none too popular. (Or to put it frankly, hated by most and despised by the rest.)
And yet, despite all the many odds against them, they beavered on. They remained resolute, driven by their understanding of duty, honour and loyalty to their King and country. Their allies were weak-willed, vacillating, and venal. The press in its determination to retain its traditional freedoms often even published secret military plans–and that’s where Napoleon often learned of British military and naval intentions.
So out of all that grew the character of Myddelton, the hero of May 1812. He is in one way an everyman, representing these fine young men who gave what they had, contributed what they could to bringing down the greatest tyrant, the ruler of the most effective and far-reaching military state the world has ever known. And it turns Myddelton’s life upside down. Though I trust, that unlike William Pitt, he will not work himself to death in the cause.