The early 19th century was a time of tremendous dynamism, really a second Renaissance.
Britain was at the forefront of literary, scientific, agricultural and industrial invention at the time, even as she led the fight in the long war against Napoleon and the French.
Of course, it’s the age of our greatest military heroes too, of Nelson and Wellington. But it’s also the epoch of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam-powered engine. While up in Scotland, Sir Walter Scott was inventing the historical novel, down in Hampshire Jane Austen was developing the domestic novel, and Keats and Byron were writing poetry which transformed our emotional lives.
Mozart’s operas were first staged in London in the spring of 1812, while in Vienna, Beethoven was just writing his symphonies.
And in the midst of all this, at the turning point of the war against Napoleon–just as he was poised to invade Russia with a half a million men, and Britain was on the brink of war with the United States too–on 11 May 1812, the British Prime Minister was assassinated.
Can you imagine it?
The trauma? The terror?
They didn’t know that Napoleon was far away in Poland–they didn’t have instant media coverage. Their news took weeks and months just to get across Europe.
But it’s this world I wanted to convey and to capture. The dynamism and freshness and artistic exuberance, the terror, the hard slog, the war-weariness. The everything blending into the next thing, all without walls between the art, the science, the war, the life.
When I was at university, I lived in a cottage on a very old private estate. And living there allowed me, forced me even, to look beyond the stereotypes we’ve built up over decades about the land-owning gentry–stereotypes often created by literary taste or 20th century political theory. I have to tell you, first hand, in most cases, it’s nothing like either of those.
What I learnt was that generation after generation, the men of these families gave the country everything they had. They served in the army, the navy, they sat up all hours of the night year after year in Parliament, stopped in for a hand of cards at their club, then they crawled home to walk the boundaries of their land in search of broken fences which might be trampled by herds of escaping cows and to find that the wind had blown the chimney off their old house and the roof was leaking. Again.
And it was living amongst the kind of people whose family members had served their King and country so tirelessly through all the centuries, often in thankless jobs in times of turmoil, that made me want write that kind of character and try to view the world of 1812 through his perspective.
The columnist and journalist, Charles Moore, once wrote: “In studying history, you must imagine yourself into the truly difficult choices people had to make in the past…”
This marriage of fact and imagination is at the heart of May 1812. Love and war, espionage and family, music, poetry, property, society, politics and the military, these all overlap and meld into one whole. I hope you enjoy the result.