Because I wanted very much to evoke the world of 1812-13 in this novel, and also because I always want to take the reader there (wherever there is) the whole book presented a challenge due to the wide range of ground covered–the action travels from Paris to London to Scotland to Eastern Germany, Silesia, Poland and modern-day Czechoslovakia–but also due to a lack of information and our own misguided sense of what the world was like 200 years ago.
Wherever possible, I rely on period drawings, paintings and engravings–and fortunately, engravings of places were very popular at the time, so there can be quite a wealth of information available if one only stops to look.
Still, we imagine we know what London was like two hundred years ago. The West End was all built up, the Regency was in full swing and elsewhere there were lots of little red brick houses and no skyscrapers, right? Er, not quite.
London had burnt down in the late 17th century, and been rebuilt, yes.
But the rebuilding hadn’t touched much of the city and so what was left were neighbourhoods of crumbling Tudor buildings, half-timbered, lurching into the streets, nearly touching, often propped up by blackened beams and inside divided into the meanest living spaces.
Equally, as much of the West End with its beautiful neo-classical rowhouses was built, well, the rest was still a building site. So rubble everywhere. Regent Street wasn’t yet built. Several smaller rivers which now have been diverted underground were still part of the surface of the city.
Gas-lighting wasn’t introduced until 1814 and then only on the Mall. And there was the fog which almost never cleared away entirely.
Many of the neighbourhoods were viciously dangerous, even in broad daylight–Clare Market, the Rookery, the Almonry, the Mint. There were still many areas of frame houses, tumbling down…Much of it had changed little or not at all since Hogarth had captured it in etchings in all its grim decay in the 1740s. All of it would be cleared by the Victorians and all those neat little terraced houses constructed in their place. But that was years away.
Paris too was not the city we think it today. Most of what we associate with Napoleonic splendour was constructed long after Napoleon’s death, by his brother and then by his nephew–the wide tree-line boulevards, the Arc de Triomphe, all that belongs to the second half of the century.
Like the Caesars of Rome, Napoleon believed that building works and employing the population in this scheme would keep poverty and crime in check and keep the populace happy. So he always had some municipal building project or other on the go–most of them in celebration of the military and its victories.
The problem though, of course, was that he was always running out of money, because he also had a vast standing army to feed. So the projects kept being abandoned. No sooner would he commission a building, than he’d be off to fight somewhere else…Hence Paris was littered with half-wrecked buildings and building sites. And unemployed builders.
The Left Bank was a repository of empty enclaves of all the various religious orders which had been shut down during the Reign of Terror (1794-1796) and left to decay. And there were dozens of these.
The churches had been ransacked of their statuary and relics and were being used for other things–military schools, meeting houses, markets. Homelessness and begging were a serious problem. The Arc de Triomphe was only 1/4 built–it was abandoned as a project when the base was just five metres high.
Yet however difficult it was to clean the canvas of what I know is now there and envision these lost cities in order to write them, the segments that take place in Poland, in the Sudeten and Czechoslovakia were the most difficult to put together. For London and Paris at least, there are some fine histories of the cities to hand.
About Eastern Europe in this period, there is virtually nothing.
There is little in the way of pictures or engravings or descriptions of houses or villages or farms during the period of the Napoleonic wars. There are some drawings by soldiers or geographers from Napoleon’s armies–but that’s a limited and perhaps not a reliable source. Everything else dates from the days of the Soviet Bloc or WWII.
Then too, those were the passages in the novel which touch on the devastating effects of having an army of half a million men plus their horses quartered on some of the poorest communities in Europe, and what happened. So emotionally that was very stark. Yet I was determined to do them justice and to find, even in the ruination, some remnant of beauty and to paint the images as clearly as I could.
A big break-through for me came through the serendipitous offices of a delayed train at Bath. Because while waiting the three hours, I met a Slovakian architect. And in the course of the afternoon’s conversation, when I learned her nationality, I told her of the difficulties I was having. She kindly provided me with pictures of traditional houses in what would have been Bohemia, and described them in loving detail. I shall always be immensely grateful for her help.
I should also add that I study the historical ornithology of the places, the crops and, of course, the landscape. I visit as many of the places as I can and write therefore of what I have seen and known and touched. All of which, I sincerely hope, adds up to a sense of place and gives the reader being there–in the room, in the forests, among the ruins.
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