Feeling a degree of intellectual jaundice? Yes, I am.

A couple of years ago, some very wise boffin at a talk at Oxford expressed the opinion that the internet was not quite the sooper-dooper resource we had been sold.  That whilst it did offer an infinitude of information at the click of one’s mousie, what it did not offer was understanding or any ability to weigh the importance of a fact or see and understand the significance thereof.

Which sounded very intellectual and savvy to me but I had other things to think about so I didn’t do a wulie wulie dance or anything.

But, you know what, that ancient boffin was spot on.

Because every day one encounters, if one is cruising about the internet, a bazillion blogs and articles which basically repeat what some other individual has talked about either six weeks ago or six months ago.  It’s endless.  And what does it contribute to the understanding of the past or past lives?  Nothing!  It’s just blah blah.

For many historical novelists it appears to be a form of publicity.  (I don’t know that it works in one’s favour…to me it’s just internet glut and more and more I see it as proof of not an original thought in said novelist’s head…)

Or maybe, in terms of some of it, it’s the historical version of celebritocricy–an effort to shew me the Kardashians of 1800–let me tell you, they were about as interesting as buckets of dried wallpaper paste, the same as today, and the study of their empty little brains will not even add an ice cream cone to your day.  (I like ice cream==not as much as cakey obviously, but…) And as for enhancing your understanding of the past…(I may need some ice cream here to recover the will to think…)

So today’s brief ranty-pants is to encourage the ladies and gentlemen of a writerly perhaps quasi-historical leaning to reconsider before they repeat what’s already been blogged about ad nauseum and where half the time, one can trace the line of the information from first appearance to its endless rehashing.

To remind everyone of a dictum that came about in the wake of the crammingness of stuff in Victorian houses so that there was so much STUFF in there you couldn’t see the  taxidermy squirrels for the squiggley flocked wallpaper, less is more.  

Okay, that’s enough grumping for today…well, not really.  I mean the weather’s foul but the roses, somehow amazingly, are still blooming their heads off, so I shall stop complaining and think how grand they are…pink and red and yellow and blowsy!

Meet a Main Character

When I first became enamoured of early 19th century Britain, I had only one novel in mind.  Who can think beyond that, honestly?

And then I had this cunning plan for four novels with each focusing on one of the four friends introduced in May 1812, and through each of them addressing one or another aspect of the period.  

However, I quickly found myself immersed in the historical quicksands of the period, finding first the terrible consequences of the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval, and then being drawn further into the war that nobody was mentioning, the war raging across the Continent, war which tainted the lives of every single Briton of the period.

Hence May 1812 became my ‘home front’ novel…

Then, Of Honest Fame came along.  And strayed.  It had its own ideas about what it wanted to be.  The one-plot about one-aspect novel plan went, er, to be fish bait, and Of Honest Fame expanded into a skein of many colours and characters, plots and places…it was about war.  How could it be otherwise?   (Or perhaps I read too much Dickens?)

So–to me–unexpectedly (those fish really did dine off the initial idea and of that there is now little trace…) the next novel is an historical follow-on of Of Honest Fame, featuring some but not all of those characters, plus a raft of those you haven’t yet met.  But today may I introduce  or reintroduce you to…

Raeburn redcoat1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person? As in my previous novel, Of Honest Fame, there are a plethora of central characters, both historic and fictional.  But the one I’ve chosen to talk about today is Sir George Shuster, otherwise known as Captain Shuster or Georgie.

2) When and where is the story set? Well, it’s A Tale of Two Cities set slightly later and gone hideously panoramic, with the action and manifold plotlines extending from London to Hamburg to Berlin to what was then Saxony or what is now Germany…so to Dresden and finally to Leipzig and from thence into France.  I’m trying to keep it contained, do you see?

3) What should we know about him? Georgie stepped from the shadows in the first of my novels, May 1812.  He was a spy, with a cheeky younger brother, a delicious sense of humour, and in that novel, he experienced a cataclysmic loss which truly marked him.  He was a soldier.  He had been a soldier under Wellington in Spain, so he had seen too much, experienced too much as they all had, but seeing it happen to others is different from such events happening to oneself.

Tea or coffee, sir?Then he took up his post again in Of Honest Fame, investigating a series of leaks, escaped POW’s and murders connected with the British Foreign Office.  But he was home in Great Britain where there were clean shirts and clean water and no one shooting at him, and after all the trauma of war he’d experienced, he was more than eager to put down re-establish himself there, to settle back in and leave the past and its nightmares behind.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his life? The war against Napoleon which is reaching its nadir.  The Prussians and Russians are now allied against Napoleon and are determined to boot him from power at long last, and Britain is funding the Allied armies with everything from rockets to uniforms to muskets to spies to specie.  Georgie’d like to stay home.  But he’s s soldier.  And when his orders come, he follows them, however torn between duty to his King and the desire to melt from his former life, but he will do his duty.  They all did.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

Foremost with Georgie is always to stay alive amidst the battles, the backstabbing, the vicissitudes and devilry of war and espionage and still to do his duty, to follow orders regardless of where they take him.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The title is Or Fear of Peace, which comes directly from a letter from a diplomat of the period in which he is describing the worries besetting Allied command. Too delicious, don’t you think?

leipzig2As for reading about it, well, much of my research for this next book has had to be from Russian and Prussian sources, which might make reading about a little tricky…that’s why you have me, isn’t it?   But as things unfold, I shall keep everyone alerted to my…er…trials, tribulations, (expletives) and transmogrifications…

7) When can we expect the book to be published? As soon as one can manage it.  But I will say this…the novel does have this bijou extravagance-ette of five different armies swanning and swarming about the European countryside, (they have generals too and posh uniforms) so sometimes all these fellows get a bit unruly…and they just don’t listen, do they?  And they won’t stay where they’re put.  So rude…

(A bit of the musical landscape for you from Helen Jane Long’s Porcelein… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mj446lUR-js )

There are other authors who will be following along in this blog hop, beginning with the fascinating and knowledgeable

Sue Millard.

Judith Arnopp ~ the 15th April.

Helen Hollick ~ the 15th April 

Linda Root ~ the 15th April.

May 1812 (an Authonomy Gold Medal winner) and Of Honest Fame are available from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com

Literary Credo…

Sometime ago, I attended a rather fascinating exhibition on the work of J.M.W Turner, called Turner and the Masters at the Tate Gallery in London.

Of course, I loved it.  Yes, I admit it, I’m a Turner-holic.  What can I say?

turnerBut there was this rather insightful comment about Turner’s study included in the programme notes, which encapsulated my own thinking about writing, but also set for me a new and ever-rising bar against which I must measure my work, and it was this–that he believed “the all-important lesson that artists were meant to aspire  to greatness by copying and trying to rival those masters who had come before…”

And it is in the spirit of that, that I bring this credo before you…I wrote it some time ago, yes, but to me today it seems truer than ever…It is a celebration of and a homage to the power of language.

Or, put another way–I believe poetry can teach you everything you need to know about writing.

We live in an age where there is this relentless drive to reduce everything to what is seen as its lean, mean, no-frills, efficient essence.  And everything else is viewed as non-essential.  Whether it’s extra letters in texting (why write ‘you’ when ‘u’ is so much quicker, easier and cheaper?) or the literary fondness for throwing out every adjective and adverb with the insistence that one only needs nouns and verbs, a few articles and the occasional pronoun.

Many people credit Ernest Hemingway with this stripped down literary approach, but I rather think Albert Camus is the true font of this school of writing.  Still, today, we find novels which are little more than extended screenplays–though without the skill and talent of the fine actors to breathe life and emotional depth into them.  These, I dare say, are meant to go with our minimalist kitchens, houses and gardens.

But, for me, at least in language, this minimalism ignores and discounts the many diamond facets of language’s impact.  Because language isn’t just about a word’s definition.

Every single word in our glorious English language is so more than that.  Every single word has sound, it has the length of its vowels and hence it has rhythm.  It carries with it centuries of connotation too.  And history.  It even has appearance on the page.  And all of these aspects, but particularly those first, are aspects which hit a reader viscerally, hence they are utterly vital to understand and employ.  Though, of course, all of these aspects are essential and should not ever be discounted.  But it’s these qualities combined that mean that ‘u’ is not a true substitute for ‘you’.  ‘Look’ is not the same, will never be the same, as ‘ogle’.

turner1

Think about it.  Words have drive.  Or they can convey lassitude.  They have assonance and dissonance.  They can be combined alliteratively so that the reader is quite simply swept away and, like the indrawing of Scylla and Charybdis, one cannot resist the strength and powerful motion of them.  And when we go to write our prose, we need to be aware of these various aspects of language, we need to engage with them, cherish them, love them, use them. And let them use us.

Now regardless of one’s view on Puritanism, on John Milton’s politics, religious views and piety, his views on women, or his even taste in clothes, this fellow could write.  He had a sense of assonance and alliteration which few have ever rivalled.  And with those tools, he gives his poetry such a sense of action and motion, that there’s no keeping up with him.  He takes what we might simplistically call the action verbs and he turns them into superheroes.  To be sure, my favourite is the famous:

“…Him, the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.”

Just listen to that.  You can’t help but feel it.  You can’t help but respond.  He takes that already strong verb, hurl, and through combining it alliteratively with Him, headlong, th’ethereal, and hideous, through the assonance of those vowels he creates a thunderbolt of language.

You can’t help but be driven along with it.  And that is the power of the English language.  This is the bar against which we should be measuring ourselves.

Though if you prefer, you can have Camus’ version:  “God threw him out.  Today.  Perhaps yesterday.  I don’t know.”

Another fellow who had it right is obviously William Shakespeare.  And here, let me turn your attention to his ability to convey everything about a character through that individual’s speech.  Take Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I.  Now as we know, Shakespeare often delineated class by using prose for the lesser mortals, and blank verse for the aristos–which is a fairly straightforward device.

But when he gets to Hotspur, he excels himself.  Because Henry Percy is a hot-blooded, hot-headed man of action.  So Shakespeare writes him thus.  When the others, the courtiers, are dithering and considering and pondering and soliloquising (all Latinate roots on those words, please notice) over the plot to take the throne from Henry IV, note how Shakespeare writes Hotspur as basically bursting out of his doublet with vim and swashbuckling strength of purpose:

“…Say you so, say you so? I say
unto you again, you are a shallow cowardly hind, and
you lie. What a lack-brain is this! By the Lord,
our plot is a good plot as ever was laid; our
friends true and constant: a good plot, good
friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot,
very good friends…”

Out of the fifty-eight words in that passage, all but nine are monosyllables.

Not only that, but in this passage Shakespeare restricts his vocabulary almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon derivations, which to an Anglo-Saxon audience, are words that are understood without a thought process–these words are learned from infancy.  We know what they mean and they hit us–literally punch us–in the gut.

(Winston Churchill was aware of this and used it to great effect when he wrote such lines as “blood, sweat, toil and tears…”)

And really, the above passage has so much drive with the staccato rhythm, so much emphasis, that it becomes nigh impossible to speak these lines without speeding up, without having those words tumbling out of the mouth.  Try it.  And in that, you now have Constable cloudsHotspur’s character–he speaks as his name is.  And in him, Shakespeare demonstrates just how great a master of language he is.

But Shakespeare also had another great knack which may be worth mentioning, and that was using the same word in its various shades of meaning, using one word, often as noun and verb, mirroring itself within the lines of his sonnets.  So he’s playing with sound and meaning all at once.  And always to astonishingly good effect, though perhaps never to such extent as in Sonnet 43:

“Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!”

And I always do think that if one can learn to write a sonnet, and write one well, then one can write anything.  And well.  For the sonnet form, with its demanding scheme of iambic pentameter and fourteen lines, demands such a disciplined skill, such a learning of the inherent rhythm of the language, such a mastery of the tools and craft of writing, that if you can say what you need to say in that format, well, then…you will have learned to listen and to write and to control your art.  And in turn be controlled by it.

And with that, may I turn your attention to another dear friend, and a contemporary of Shakespeare, John Donne–not just a great philosopher, not just a great lover and dean of St. Paul’s, all in one lifetime, but also a great, great poet.  When I think of him, and what I might say about him, frankly, my mind becomes blank.  Because he is, quite simply, great.  And I remain, though I read him often, in a state of awe.  And there is only one reason why he is not included on every syllabus of English literature, and that is that we have become afraid of true greatness.  Or perhaps of our own diminution in the face of it.

Because if you have any wish to ever write about love, the kind that is all-consuming or that which is platonic, lust, something between all of the above, you must look to him.  For no one else in any language has ever had the courage or honesty or genius to write about it so.  To write so close to the bone, that one can feel the ebbing of his blood.

Whether he is writing of grief:  “Language thou art too narrow, and too weak/To ease us now; great sorrow cannot speak…Sad hearts, the less they seem, the more they are…”

Or love:

“I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass ;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make it more.”

Or the physical embrace of love:  “Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below…”

Or his most perfect, most sesqui-superlative, The Sunne Rising:

BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.”

“She’s all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.”

Imagine that.  “Nothing else is.”  Those words conjure up a love so transcendent that one almost shudders and fears for its beauty, strength and power.  They reduce all things to mere dust before this so vital and consuming a force.  And it is by contrasting the somewhat flowery language of all that has gone before–the lassitudinous complaint of being woken from after-love–with this stark pronouncement that the emphasis is doubly given to these words:  ”Nothing else is.”

You wish to write of love, read John Donne, he will teach you how.  He will teach you what to feel, how to listen to it and how to wield the knife of your pen so close to your own heart that you will write greatly.

For always, always his poetry demands that we listen, feel the heartbeat of it, of him, rest our cheek against the beauty of his language, his thought, his effervescent love of language and rhythm and sound and let them seep, osmosis-like into our emotional bloodstream and transform us.  He engages our minds and our hearts so that we will never, as writers, shy away from that embrace of passion.

So, I believe, we must begin with poetry.

We must begin the journey the ancient Greeks knew through the hypnotising power of Homer’s formulaic poetry of war and nostalgia.  We must listen.  Lean our faces close against the warmth and power and grace of the words.  Or feel their cruel thrusts of pain.

Take them into our mouths, test them, try them as wine, hold them upon the tongue.  Taste and see, they are good.  Rejoice in them.  Embrace and use them well and let them embrace us and use us for their part.  And let the poets who used this, our great and glorious English language, who understood just how powerful and intimate and utterly beautiful it could be, guide the way.

Slainte!

DJ

This isn’t usual for self…

But I shall try it anyway.

The thing is, in the last few days I’ve done an interview, which if I’m honest I actually truly enjoyed!  And I kind of wished to share that.

And not only but also, I’ve done another thing on the state of the country–at war– during that era we’d like to think was uber-friv, parties, pretty dresses, aristos in high cravats and Beau Brummell–the early 19th century.  And I kind of wanted to put that out here too.

So, do you mind if I just give you two charming links to these bits and say, Thanks jolly much for reading…?

A glimpse of Austen’s England. 

Bennetts and that little white pony, a salutary tale for authors.  Or parents.

Slainte!

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Whinge-bucketing

dragoon2Hallo Lovelies, this is a whinge.  It’s about research. And about asking for others to do one’s research for one.

It may or it may not amaze you to know that I get asked all sorts of questions about all sorts of historical subjects all the blooming time.

I am, after all, in the eyes of the public a walking encyclopaedia.  So I can, can’t I, just open a crack in my brain and let some of those years’ worth of research just pour out, right?  I mean, it doesn’t cost the would-be novelist anything, not like an investment of time or study for understanding…and it’s just easy for me, right?  And I’ve got nothing else on my plate, right?

Or, often and often, I shall be reading the responses to a question of research and I’ll find that many say they were reading such and such a well-researched tome full of the details of the fabric of daily life, but it didn’t help their story, it wasn’t a priority, so they ditched it.

And now the whinge.  Sorry, folks, that’s not good enough!

You want to know why I know so much, on so many subjects covering the breadth of politics, the military, trade, exploration, the Navy, the daily life customs, the scandals, the interlaced relationships between families across the country, it’s because I read.  I read everything.  And I don’t put it down just because it might not be germane to some diddly plot point I want for a novel.

Yes, sometimes it’s a hard slog.  Some books much sloggier than others, I can assure you.

But you never know–on page 254, there might be some footnote or some paragraph which entirely throws open your understanding of secret societies and their history in Prussia in 1812,which are going to play into the next novel.  And nobody but me knows about these, because no one else has stuck it all the way through the current tome on Napoleon and Berlin.  (Not sure I blame them entirely.)

I know all this stuff because I have sat for days and weeks in research libraries, reading whole volumes of newspapers and magazines from the early 19th century.  And pretty boring many of them were too.  But because of this, you may believe me when I tell you that popular serialised fiction in Austen’s period was every bit as gagging and twee as pop fiction we could produce today. The only difference is the vocabulary.  It’s just as badly-written, improbable, and silly, otherwise.

If I want to know what they wore, I pore over portraits of the period, in museums.  I study their maps.  Their etchings.

This is how it works:  I do the work, I get the pay-off.

Because here’s the deal.  When you trouble your sorry-self to read a whole biography, an entire history, you’re going to be learning heaps more than just what did the leather dying process smell like in 18th century London, or why did Castlereagh shoot Canning in the thigh, or some such small detail.  You’re going to gain the very weft and warp of another world’s existence.

You’re going to pick up a narrative about how they spent their evenings, where people from one part of town liked to congregate, printshopwindow1what kind of fabric came in cheap that year, why did red and pink dyes suddenly become affordable after 1805, what the public opinion on the state of the king’s health was, who was cousins with whom, whether the weather was bad or brilliant and how that affected the crops and were there bread riots.  You’re going to begin to get it.  To gain some broader understanding of another era, another epoch’s choices and lives–the very fabric of their lives.  What they had for brekkies, and when.  Everything!  And then you’ll know.

And when you go to write it, therefore, all that wider context, that breadth and depth of knowledge is going to show.  It’s going to be there, quietly, in understated details and comprehension of mores and attitudes and will spare many a reader the agonies of emotional and real anachronisms which are the bane of so much history and historical fiction.

So, to put it bluntly.  Do your own work.  You want to write a good historical novel and receive the plaudits for it? Put in the work. Do it.  And don’t look for it to be handed you on a platter.  No, the internet isn’t the brilliant research tool they promised, but lots of university libraries now have their collections on line, as do museums and the British Library.

You want to fill your  head with the gems of past lives?  Do it.  No excuses.  For through that doing, you shall build a palace of wisdom to the heavens.  But you have to earn it and there are no shortie-cuts.

Whinge over.

Slainte.

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It’s all in the detail…

It appears, as happens to all of us, that I deeply offended someone recently by having a less than rose-tinted pair of glasses on when I wrote a new blog about Napoleon.   Why this should have been, I don’t rightly know.  It’s not like his atrocities are news or anything anymore.  But so it was.

And anything I said in support of my argument was, er, dismissed by this individual and then, going for the kill, she advised me that I needed to learn what a good historian does.  (Which as far as I was aware was something about taking all the information in–even the bits that don’t support one’s pet theory.  Or have I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ fine novel about the subject, Gaudy Night, too many times? And believed it.)

Favourite bootsHence, in my personal defense, I wish to say this.  Once upon a time there was a little boffin named MM Bennetts.  (No, the MM does not stand for Montmorency, whatever certain people may tell you…)  And this creature, Bennetts, was not perhaps cut out to be an historian.  No, the heart and soul of this child were in music–a pianist first and Beethoven the first and great love.  

But history was what our little boffin read, fascinated by the lives and hopes and losses of all those fabulous artists and poets and people who had lived before.  (And the novelist part is all Dorothy Dunnett’s fault–a great friend and mentor, as it happened.)

strathtyrumNor did Bennetts arrive at Napoleonic controversy by a straight path.  Indeed, for a long time, our boffin was immersed in the glories of the Italian Renaissance and specialised as a mediaevalist.  But, these twists and turns happen…and through Beethoven and the architecture of the brothers Adam and all sorts of other things, this Bennetts became immersed in this world of early 19th century Britain.  (To be fair, I would have liked to have been frivolous and write immensely successful somethings or other…but the research, you see, it always drew me in further and further.  Like down Alice’s rabbit hole.)

conciergerieI had been to a huge exhibition of Goya’s etchings of the atrocities of war, from the Peninsula, you see.  And then I was in Paris at the Conciergerie.  And if you’ve not been there, well, all I can tell you is that it’s one of those places where the cries of the innocent condemned still weep from the very stones.

Anyway.  At the end of the tour, I asked about atrocities against the population committed after the Reign of Terror.  And the tour guide–after assuring me I couldn’t be English, my French was too perfect–was emphatic that there had been no atrocities committed by the Napoleonic regime or any other regime after the Terror.

Obviously, the party line.

But I knew it wasn’t true.  I had seen the evidence.

And this was shortly before the French celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution–wherein curiously I noted that there were no mentions of the September Massacres, no mention of the  genocide against the aristocracy nor the clergy…it was all a great party.

napo-creepAnd as the years have gone by, and I have relied more and more on first hand accounts of events, more and more turned to other countries’ non-partisan views and accounts, as the accounts which for 100 years were kept from us by the Berlin Wall’s presence and no sharing, and now all the forensic examination of Napoleonic grave sites, I find I am in a world of quotidienne atrocity, about which I have become, with no little reservation, an expert.

In my defense, it’s not what I like.  I like cakey, horses, poetry and antique roses.   I adore P.G. Wodehouse, Shakespeare and Donne.  I still play the piano and fill my world with music–it’s what we’re here for.

But I cannot turn aside from the sufferings of others and pretend they didn’t happen because Napoleon had the best air-brushing artist and propagandists the world has ever known.  And if that’s what you’re wanting, well, look elsewhere I guess.

I don’t, I hope, court controversy.  But I’m not going to lie.

DJ

My Top Ten…No, that’s not right…

I know, I know, where have I been recently and why have I not been blogging and administering my fortnightly dose of historical hilarity?  Er, a lot on my plate and no clear head space in which to organise amusing historical jaunts and japes for you?

Okay, it’s lame, but it’s the best I’ve got.

So recently, I was describing the deep black ooze that covered the streets of Paris to my children–and no, I’m not going to describe it for you, this is a sanitary blog–when they arrived at what they felt would be the brilliant subject of my next blog:  The Top Ten Most Disgusting Historical Things I Know.

It may surprise you to know that I did not leap upon this as blog-manna.  Rather, I point-blank refused to discuss the Top Ten or even the Top Fifty.  As I pointed out, I don’t want to think about the Most Disgusting Things I know.  I don’t want that in my head. Not now.  Not tomorrow…Yes, they truly are that heinous.

So instead of grossing out my audience for the next decade, I thought I’d write about something I was asked to write about recently:  Napoleon’s various dabblings with poison.  (No, honestly!  Someone did request I write about this!)

The first headline-hitter of this topic comes to us from the snirpy little Corsican’s Egyptian jaunt in 1798.   You may or may not remember that he was bored and the French government, the Directory, of the time thought it would be a super idea to get him out of Paris where he was more popular than they were, so when he put forward this jolly prospect of taking over Egypt and turning it into a French outpost from which they could interrupt British trade, the Directory said, “Quelle bonne idee!  Swell idea!  There now, off you go…though you’ll have to finance it yourself…”

So he got himself a bijou army-ette (composed mainly of those who had served in the Vendee) and sailed first for Malta, which he took over, re-organised to suit himself and raided the treasury, then skipped off to Egypt.

napoleon mounted1Where he invaded, marched on Cairo, slaughtered the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids–they hadn’t a hope, they’d got sabres and no organised cavalry and he had French infantry squares.  And he had his savants begin raiding tombs and homes for historical artifacts and knickknacks they could pilfer.

He marched his soldiers all around the place, declared he intended to found a new religion with himself as chief priest, combining the best of Christianity and Islam in a religion that would suit everyone (I kid you not) and have chucked out the Egyptian rulers, set the place up to suit himself, with him as Lord High Executioner, Koko or Pooh-Bah, if you prefer.

Strangely, not all the Egyptians thought this was fun.  And with his underlings acting like arrogant conquerors, tempers grew a tad frayed.  All of which bubbled to the surface in an area of Cairo surrounding the Al-Azhar mosque in October, where the leaders decided to take on the invading infidels and took the Frenchies by surprise.

Napoleon reacted, er, shall we say badly, to this assault on his authority and ordered a full-out assault on the community with artillery, howitzers,  and everything else.  I will not repeat the atrocities committed by French troops here–suffice it to say that women were murdering their children and then themselves rather than submit.

So, now the Egyptians having been reduced to awe and trembling, the magnanimous Corsican upstart–yes, he did believe he was an image of magnanimity; others might have spelt it more like megalomania–decided to have a go at pushing up along the coast toward Turkey, but first he meant to take on Ali Pasha at Acre in Syria.

There was some resistance to his plan at Jaffa–where they had plague–and after defeating the troops there, he ordered his men to gun down the 4000 prisoners of war on the beach, so that the tide would wash them away.  His troops initially refused, but a Napoleonic tantrum or nine convinced them that they’d best get on with it.  But not before plague was spreading through his men.

sir sidney smithSo off he marches them up to Acre, where he plans to besiege the citadel.  Unfortunately, as arrives, he finds that Sir Sidney Smith (three cheers!) has arrived in the harbour to bolster Ali Pasha’s supplies and to provide military support and intelligence.  However, due to Smith’s wiliness, his intelligence, his superb organisation skills, the French did not take Acre as planned.  It did not topple to their late-arriving siege engines, they just lost a lot of men to dysentery, dehydration, starvation and…plague.

And it was this last which annoyed our French general the most.  He’d realised belatedly that things weren’t going exactly to plan and that he needed to get back to Egypt rather promptly because things weren’t going to plan there either.  They hadn’t made him a god or something or carved his face on a statue at Luxor maybe.

The problem was all these troops sick as proverbial dogs in the field hospitals with plague.  So our inventive general had a plan–let’s call it Plan B.  He decided to have their drinking water poisoned, so they’d all die and he wouldn’t have the faff of dragging them back to Egypt in litters and carts.

Curiously, the doctors in charge had the temerity to refuse to follow these orders.  Can you believe it?  And it appears none of his previously successful attempts at intimidation, bullying, threats of courts-martial, worked.  What were they thinking?

Hence, the half-pint conquering hero (not) was forced to transport his ailing and dying troops back to Egypt, where before long he abandoned them to high-tail it back to France, proclaiming the entire venture a rip-roaring success.  His remaining troops were eventually rescued by the Royal Navy and transported home by them–though they refused to allow the French to keep the ancient texts and treasures they had pillaged and stolen; these they took home to Britain for the British Museum…

But I digress.  We’re talking about poison here.  Ehem.

Napinwinter1812So, skipping ahead to the next risky venture–the invasion of Russia in 1812.  Another little Napoleonic conquest that didn’t go according to plan.  Hence, when Napoleon abandoned Moscow in October, and then his troops on their march  home in December of 1812, he kept a vial of poison about his neck to be swallowed in case he was captured by Cossacks, whom he had reason to believe would not treat him, er, kindly, in the event of his capture.  And knowing what they did to those French troops they did capture, I fancy his suspicions were not far off the mark.

He was not captured.  (I know, I know, you wanted a disgustoid story here…sorry.)  So he kept the vial in a handy place.  Just in case, you know.

And when at last in the early days of April 1814, Paris had fallen to the Allies (Prussia, Russia, Austria) and his generals had come to insist he abdicated, he did what any self-respecting tyrant would do, he administered the dose of fatal poison which he had been keeping just for such a moment.

Only one problem.  The sub-zero Russian temperatures which had frozen his retreating troops in their boots and turned the tin buttons which held up their breeks to powder so their trousies wouldn’t stay up had also deteriorated the poisons in the vial.

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauSo though Napoleon allegedly detested the weakness of suicide, on the 13th April 1814 at Fontainbleau, after signing the abdication papers and finding his former friends and allies deserting him in droves, he swallowed the contents of the aforementioned vial.  And was vilely ill.

But no funeral.

And there you have it..

Now, it’s urban legend or according to Hercule Poirot or something that poison is a woman’s or a eunuch’s weapon.  Thus, in the light of that and of all the above, was Napoleon was telling us something, do you think?  And to think we missed it all these years…