What matters?

It’s a curious thing. 

I realised last week that despite the fact that I’m blogging and posting all this historical stuff, pretty much weekly–which may or may not be useful to someone–I rarely write about what truly interests me. 

Possibly I’m secretive.  Or paranoid.  Or both. 

Certainly I might rightly be considered a private individual…so this actually is a long shot for me.  And unfamiliar territory for one who is as guarded as I tend to be. 

Still.

Yes, I know I rant about the upstart Mushroom Corsican (to give him his early 19 century soubriquet).  Probably ad nauseum. 

But the fact is, that’s a bit of a feint.  Because Napoleon is not at all why I research or write the novels I do. 

He’s maybe the stone; I’m interested in the ripples. 

And it’s those ripples, those historical events or situations his actions caused across Europe, those people who rose to new heights of courage and strength through resisting him or even merely enduring all that his war machine unleashed, that have truly captured and held my imagination. 

What interests me therefore is the people.  They were caught up in these events so catastrophic or world-changing or wonderful, through no fault or invention of their own.  Trapped by an accident of birth or a will to survive or because they weren’t somewhere else at the time.  Or because the French army happened to be marching through their country. 

And it’s the lives of these voiceless millions which keep me captive. 

When I was doing the groundwork for Of Honest Fame, working with a calendar and the maps to see who was where in Europe at any given time and hence who would require spying upon (it’s a bit of an historical spy novel, that book), I came upon all the recently unearthed information about the six months before Napoleon’s Russian Invasion in late June 1812.  And it shocked the heck out of me–on a very basic level. 

I doubt any of us can imagine what it must have been like to have an army of 500,000 men (plus untold civilians) camped out across the entire landscape of our country–eating all our food, what little there is of it, slaughtering all our livestock, destroying our crops in their rage that the corn is not yet ripe, stealing the thatch from our roofs to feed their starving horses, their officers quartered in any house that was bigger than a cottage, putting their boots on all the furniture to shew their contempt for us, abusing our wives and daughters, taking whatever trinkets appealed to them, wrecking whatever they couldn’t carry off. 

And there was no redress.  Not any. 

Think of it.  Half a million men doing that. 

Silesia and Poland took more than a generation to recover from those depradations. 

Subsequently, my research led me to forensic studies of the mass graves of French soldiers outside Vilna and Smolensk.  And these studies all confirmed that advanced syphilis was found in 80% of the skulls they examined.  Which is a terrifying figure.  Especially considering that syphilis in 1812 was like Aids in the ’80s–a sure killer with some three to five years between initial infection and painful death.

All those women across Silesia and Poland who suffered the manhandling the French forces handed out–as if gang rape wasn’t bad enough–were probably left with syphilis. 

There’s a crying need too to take apart society and the casualty lists, the statistics and all the numbers and to find the individuals.  And to see their world through their eyes. 

And one Armistice Day as I watched the Queen laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, I thought, “Hang on a tick!  The men, the soldiers, they all get their war memorials and their Arc de Triomphes, but what about the women?  What do they get for having died of starvation or abuse by passing soldiers?  What do they get for having been left widows and orphans by these two decades of war?  Isn’t it time someone honoured their most grievous loss?”

And what about the refugees?  What about all those who were displaced by these vast armies taking over their country, or by two armies thinking that their town would make a great battleground?  Where did they all go?  Often they fled to the nearest woods before a battle–that much we do know. 

And over the decade, the woods had become home to increasingly large bands of refugees, bandits (deserters or conscription dodgers now making an illegal living)…but what about after the battle?  When you return home to find your town destroyed, workshop and house and garden flattened by artillery, dead soldiers still littering the streets?  How do you survive?  How did they survive? 

All this then, these events and these women, became a sub-theme or perhaps not a sub-theme at all of Of Honest Fame.  I had to tell this story–or rather weave it through the narrative.  Because it’s important.  Because it is what a spy of 1812-13 would have seen and known.  It was the ruinous reality of that war.  And that holds me rapt.

I realise it’s kind of a thing at the moment to write about queens. 

They seems to be quite popular with the literary agents and publishers…but the fact is the queens of the Napoleonic period seem to inhabit a carefully constructed unreality which had no contact with the world in which they lived and which supported them.  This is particularly true of Napoleon’s two wives, Josephine and Maria Theresa. 

But also of his sisters with whom he decorated various of the European thrones.  Nor are their, er, exploits clean enough for the kinds of novel I wish to put my name on. 

Because above all, I believe passionately in good writing.  And not just good writing.  Beautiful writing, replete with imagery.  Lyrical, transcendent with cadences that sing like music in the heart and head, with all the rhythm and poignancy of the truest poetry, so that even those  scenes of war and devastation will ache with a terrible beauty in the ear and the mind…

And it is this alchemic mixture of plot, research, humanity and literary style that interests me most. 

(Oh, and Beethoven.  I mean, think of it, all these disasters were happening in his world, yet out of this suffering he composed symphonies of sesquisuperlative wonder.  My admiration for him is unbounded.  To write novels like he wrote music, now that would be something.)

I say all this because, in early commemoration of the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 and the invasion of Russia for which the forces were gathering throughout the spring of 1812, my publisher Diiarts is offering both my novels free on Kindle through Amazon–for two days, from 8 a.m. BST Saturday 31st March to 8 a.m. Monday 2nd April. 

And I hope that many of you will take advantage of this offer and/or spread the word to those who might have an interest in these books which embody what I believe matters most.  Slainte.

8 comments on “What matters?

  1. Really, really fantastic post M.M. I am left spell-bound and desiring to write something, but not just anything, I want to write something that will be all that you have described – Beethoven in writing – and to change just a little of my readers’ worlds.

    P x

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with you about good writing, M.M. I love your lyrical prose. I’m rather fond of Beethoven too! I’ve tweeted your news!

  3. cavalrytales says:

    This is quite brilliant. And I’ll tell you why: because people generally know little about the wars beyond dates and battles. The information been lost. Or suppressed, for whatever motive. Or has only recently come to light

    And without knowledge there can be no understanding; without understanding no caring, and without that it could happen all over again. Only worse.

    I came across a forum signature recently, taken from a well-known historical work: a quote which might serve as a cry from all victims.

    “Thus the war terminated, and with it all remembrance of the veterans’ services” – Gen W F P Napier.

    More, please.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The more, please…I’ll be drawing up a list of staff and Cic’s for the autumn 1813 campaign this afternoon. Care to join me?

  4. My Gt Gt Gt Grandfather married his first wife in 1796 just as Napoleon was rising to power. After marrying his second wife in 1811, my ancestor fathered my Gt Gt Grandfather who was born, as far as I can ascertain, in June 1815, the month of Waterloo. These personal links bring the long ago era so much closer

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Wow!

      I stay close to the era by living in a Georgian house with all its foibles, having artifacts from the period around me–their money, musket balls, snuffboxes…And whenever I can, I shoot a 14-bore rifle which was used at Waterloo…

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