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… )

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 and

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’.


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.



My Journey with Jane Austen…

Over the last little while, I have got to know a rather splendid person, one I’ve come to admire immensely.  Her name is Sue Pomeroy and she’s the director of a film-to-be about Jane Austen…

You know, there’s so much hype and chatter and all sorts about Austen’s work these days, but so often, at least to me, she seems to have got lost in it all.  Forgotten.  And perhaps it was that which made me warm so much to Sue and her ideas.  Because she puts Jane herself back into the picture.  And I love that.  I just love it.  And I thought you would too.

Ovecoming Pride & Prejudice coverSo without further ado, please welcome Sue Pomeroy talking about her Journey with Jane Austen

“My first encounter with Jane Austen was on a school trip to a stage production of – I think it must have been Emma.

“All I remember was an old fashioned ‘box set’ and actors wandering about with cups of tea in tights and carpet slippers, speaking very archly.  It was a total turn off and it put me off Jane Austen for years.  If that was the best Jane Austen could offer I wanted nothing more to do with her.

“The highlight of the evening was when one of the students dropped a box of Maltesers in the back row and they all bounced down under the staggered seats for ages.  That at least made us laugh.

“How wrong first impressions can sometimes be!  As the plot of her novel of that name reveals, sometimes first impressions prove to be the exact opposite of the truth.

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

“When I turned back to Jane Austen some years later to read Pride and Prejudice I realised how wrong I had been in my estimation of her.  I had reacted to the creaky theatre production and not to her at all.  So, somewhat humbled, I started afresh with a rediscovery of this rather brilliant novelist.

“The other major factor in my re-assessment of Jane Austen was my stay in East Berlin.  Strange, but true.

“I was thrilled to be awarded an arts bursary to work behind the Berlin Wall with the world famous Berliner Ensemble.  What an amazing experience that was.

“One of the things I saw at very close quarters were the tactics employed by writers and playwrights to step around the censorship of the communist regime, and get their ideas across.  For instance there were no less than three productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare in East Berlin during one season, which bemused me – until I realised they were using ‘the Wall’ in the Pyramus and Thisbe story, acted out by the rude mechanicals as a comment on the ‘die Mauer’, the Berlin wall.

“The more productions I saw in East Berlin the clearer it became – writers were using symbolism, humour and comedy as well as adaptations of classical work, to communicate their ideas. The audience knew this and were looking out for all the clues to the author’s real views.  In a repressive regime you have to employ all sorts of inventive ways to step around the political restrictions.

“That opened my eyes when I got back to reading Jane Austen.  It was her delicious wit and mischievous sense of humour that allowed her to find her own unique voice and deal with issues that would not have been considered palatable for a woman to voice openly in Regency England!

20130609_151400“She exposes hypocrisy within the church, the obsequious behaviour of the landed gentry to anyone of title, the blind obsession among the upper classes with breeding, the limited opportunity for intelligent women when a good marriage offered their best, and only, chance of happiness.

“In the period in which she was writing, novels were dealing with fantasy, great adventures, romantic extremism and epic subjects.  Jane on the other hand created novels which reflected the real world which she observed in great detail.  She had strong opinions and her characters played out her views on the world she lived in.  I am sure she got away with it through her wit and comedy.

“By the time I was working on an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I was smitten.  The more I worked on the adaptation, the more Jane Austen’s novel resembled a beautifully crafted cut jewel, shimmering as you hold it up to the light.

JA1“We took the production on an extensive UK tour of No 1 theatres at the same time as the BBC series was broadcast, and enjoyed the same rapturous reception.  It was fascinating to see the audience response to the characters and the twists and turns of the plot.  They picked up all the nuances of the hidden barb, the ‘off the cuff’ witticism, the send up satire. As readers would have done when first reading the novel, published during Jane’s own lifetime.

“Over the years, I feel I have become closer and closer to Jane Austen.  I feel I have got to know her as a person.  And my feelings toward her are of the greatest admiration, and an almost sisterly pride in her achievements.  I also feel a little protective of her.  To watch the public enthusiasm for her work grow to such proportions is breath taking.  And I sometimes wonder when I hear the experts pronouncing on her work, see the opulent screen adaptations and observe the universal delight in dressing up in frocks and breeches, what would Jane have made of it all?

JA2“I see her in her modest cottage in Chawton, writing away quietly, leaving the squeaky door so she could hide her papers when someone came in and I wonder if we have forgotten her individual journey to bring those novels to fruition and then to publication. Hers was not an easy life, as a poor country parson’s daughter, and it became less easy after her father died and she and her mother and sister had to rely on the generosity of others to get by.

“Her sense of humour, her love of family and her deep faith must have sustained her through some of the difficult times, but I do feel for her.  My heart goes out to her. This single woman, writing, keeping the flame of hope and love alive.

“That has been the catalyst for wanting to make this film. The growing love and enthusiasm for her work across the world is wonderful, but amid all the adulation and admiration and commercialisation I see a woman at her desk, in a small English village, having the tenacity and courage to keep on writing, to keep on hoping, to keep on loving.  I want to celebrate the events of this 200th Anniversary year, and the people we have met on our journey to film them.

“But before we all get carried away with the delight and the fun of it all, I want to bring the focus back to Jane herself and remind ourselves of her story.  To look at what it must have taken to write six brilliant novels as a woman at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and how Jane overcame the pride and prejudice of her own life and times to become a published author.  That’s what my film will be exploring.


Sue Pomeroy is currently making a new film about Jane Austen’s life and work.

Fuschia Films logoTo find out more about this new film, and to help make it happen please visit

For more on Fuchsia Films see

For regular updates follow the project on twitter @JaneAustenFilm and @FuschiaFilmsLtd



The Latest on an Austentastic film…

I was about to grumble, you know.

About to start out, “Bloggetty, bloggetty, blog blog blog…”  (In fact I had written those very words…) Because I’m at a kind of stage of deep research into the events of autumn 1813 and frankly, there’s nothing worth burbling in your shell-likes, I just talk piffle at the minute as my thinking about the events sorts itself out…

But then, the news of this rather superlative project slid into my in-box.  And suddenly I have something I want to share with everyone! Because I subsequently had a long chat (well, actually it turned into quite a heated agreement!) with the director of this film about Jane Austen and I’m frankly in a state of holy wow about it all.

So I wanted to copy you in on the latest newsletter because I just can’t keep it to myself.  *wink*


“Dear MM,

“We’d love to share with you the latest news about a wonderful new film on Jane Austen’s life and work, with a special focus on this two hundredth anniversary year,Jane Austen – Overcoming Pride and Prejudice. The film explores Jane Austen’s impact and her struggle for the freedom to express herself in her novels.

“Some fantastic names have already pledged their commitment to the project, including the actor David Bamber and legendary music composer Carl Davis. We’re currently in the exciting early stages of production and have been inspired by Jane Austen’s incredible achievements, and the courage she must have found to publish her novels at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Fuschia Films have an extensive portfolio of theatre and film productions and this film is our latest venture.

“To find out more please go to our website or Jane Austen facebook

“At Fuschia Films we have a passion for making meaningful films that resonate with people, sharing the stories of pioneers in life who we think have made a difference. For us Jane Austen is one such pioneer. This film is dedicated to exploring how she surmounted the pride and prejudice of what was, for her, a repressive society and what it cost her to find her own inimitable voice.

“The film has a strong and experienced Production team: Director Sue Pomeroy has adapted and directed several of Austen’s novels (Pride & Prejudice, Emma) as part of an extensive career, the film will be cast at the highest level and Nick Hamson of Studio Soho with a slate of films behind him joins the team as Producer, with Phil Taylor of Film Engine as Executive producer and Chris Wood of Fast Films as Finance director.

“During our filming this summer we’ve met Jane Austen lovers from all over the world, and we welcome the widest involvement in the film. To find out more and to support the film please go to  where you can also pre-order Love and Marriage – Jane Austen style, celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, as a download and on DVD and there are even exciting opportunities to be Regency ‘background artistes’ in the film and be shoulder to shoulder with the stars on the film set. We look forward to welcoming you.

“Please do share this newsletter with everyone who loves Jane and her work. Thank you.”

So there!  Now you can be as excited as I am…


Castles, Customs, and Kings…

I may have the reputation of being a walking encyclopaedia, but I can assure you, there are shed-loads of things about which I know nothing.

Quantum physics for example.  Well, I can spell it.  But that’s about it.  And alchemy at the court of James VI and I.  I don’t know anything about that — and in the main I don’t wish to find out.  Not a fan of old James, me.  The fellow gives me the creeps.  I mean, think about it, all that drool…Blech.

But I do know about a lot of other stuff — otherwise refered to by my nearest and dearest as ‘little known facts of doubtful value…’

The only thing is…well, allegedly the detritus which litters my tiny grey cells does in fact have a value.  (I know!  Whoever would have thought it?)

But it’s true.  For this condition which has over the years been the source of much amusement, has now apparently made me the ideal choice as an editor for the soon-to-be published compendium, Castles, Customs, and Kings — which is a ‘best of’ collection of the first year’s worth of blogs on the increasingly popular English Historical Fiction Authors blog, a website on which, each day, an historical novelist (Barbara Kyle, Sandra Byrd, Nancy Bilyeau, and Judith Arnopp among them…) writes a bit about some of their research or historical events and people which interest them.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddIt hits the shelves on the 23rd September 2013, this tome does, courtesy of Madison Street Publishing.

And I’ll tell you an interesting thing.  I’ve genuinely enjoyed editing it.  I’ve truly enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with the various periods of English and British history which are not my specialisms and with which I had sort of lost touch.

I’ve loved reading about mediaeval bathing and banqueting.  I’ve loved learning about different unknown to the world places in England and Wales.  I’ve been fascinated by the various individuals who have peopled this English stage over the centuries and I’ve loved how the authors have brought them to life for me.

(And yes, I am a contributing author of several essays as well as editor…)


The sections range from Roman Britain all the way up to World War II…yes, there are gaps, I suppose.

But whether your eye is fixed on the rival queens of Wars of the Roses or Jane Austen’s London or the languid Lady Mary of Downton Abbey — whether you just enjoy history or revel in historical fiction, this book, well…what I would hope is that readers would enjoy dipping in and out of the various periods of history by means of these essays, as much as I have.

Because these many authors have written engaging looks at the periods and places and people which drew them into the web of writing historical fiction in the first place, and they bring to their work a love and an enthusiasm which is just infectious and winning…and it’s all just made me appreciate more than I ever could have imagined this wonderful country in which I live, “this sceptre’d Isle, this England…”

Below is one of the first reviews we’ve received on Goodreads for the Advance Review Copy, and I can’t tell you how chuffed I am that our collective work has been so well received.

“Full disclosure: I received an advance copy and am writing this about 2/3 of the way through (I will update when I finish the book). I am also not a fan of historical fiction. I rarely read anything on the fiction shelf and even less of books that do not relate to royalty and the daily lives of their subjects across all eras and continents.

“I opened the book expecting to find something akin to a conference proceedings without “trained” experts. Instead I found a new appreciation for the meticulous research and knowledge of the genre’s authors.

“The book is divided into diverse subjects or historical periods. Each author has taken a topic and in a few pages given a succinct, well sourced overview. I find myself adding books to my wish list with every chapter. 

“The book itself first appears daunting in length. The short topic ‘chapters’ make it eady for on-the-go readers to read in small portions or even skip topics. The editors did a great job with transitions and order for each topic. Despite the length, there is no encyclopedia feel and each author’s voice is well preserved.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.indd“This book is a scholarly treasure trove with a wide appeal. It covers everything from the first English word to the food (and recipes) served at a Tudor feast. If you are interested in nonfiction works on England, history, and/or royalty you will find a book that you will return to. Fans of historical fiction and England will find the book rich in supplemental information to complement their reading with an introduction to authors of works they might enjoy.”

So, the short and the long — I hope you’ll have a look at the new book, and I hope very much that you’ll enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together for you.

So there you go.  Looking for something to read?  This may just be the book for you.  Castles, Customs, and Kings…


That old chestnut?

The one about a picture being worth ten thousand words?

Well, I’ve been thinking about it a great deal over the last several days, and I’m bound to say, I think it’s rubbish.

Take la Joconde for example.  Or the Mona Lisa if you prefer.

We’ve got the picture, all right.  The image.  But how many words have been expended on the subject of that smile of hers?  Or is it a smile?  Is it not perhaps just a ‘pleasantly bored but not wanting to give offence by yawning’ expression?  How many words?

Ten thousand?  Ten million?  Who knows?

Maybe it’s just the way her mouth is shaped?

And then there are all the thousands of words that have been expended telling us what her smile may mean.  But here’s the thing:  We don’t know.  Because we’ve only got the picture.

We haven’t got the words, not her words, not her husband’s words, not the artist’s words.

We don’t know what she’s thinking about to produce that dreamy expression, and will never will.  Because we’ve only got the picture–which in this case is not worth ten thousand words.  It’s only worth three:  “I don’t know.”

Which brings me to a recent trend in film-making–the filmic extension of this picture being worth ten thousand words–the paring down of scripts to their barest minimum with a palimpsest of plot remaining whilst giving the cinematographers free rein to show us scene after scene of gorgeousness, but…well without the words there, they don’t connect to mean much of anything really.

I recently saw the newest remake of Jane Eyre with Michael Fassbender.  It was beautiful–visually lush.  Lots of scenes of the formal garden, its box hedges whited with hoare frost and all that.  Beautiful.  Breath-taking.  But what did it add to our understanding of the developing relationship between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester?

I thi-ink it may have been intended to indicate a passage of time.

In which case, it failed, because they seem to have got the seasons out of sync, with frost followed by non-frosty scene, followed by more frost.  And if the development of their relationship over the winter is meant to parallel an inner thawing of Rochester’s perception of life and a springtide of hope, then that was altogether lost by the disenfranchised scenes of frost and thaw and frost again.

Or maybe it was just there to tell me that it’s really cold in winter up in Yorkshire.  (Here’s a clue, lads: I already knew that…)

bronteAnd thus, although we’d had a delicious montage of beautifully set-up shots–every one deserving a place on a wall in an exhibition of fine photography–and there was lots of ‘big music’ telling us that there were significant emotions swirling about and this was an important scene, a turning point, at the end, we were left with only questions.  The biggest of which was, “Where’s the last line?” or “Is that it?”  [Spoken with voice raised in incredulity.]

Obviously, we were also left stumped by the cluelessness by means of which this greatest of literary love stories with characters who become so united in spirit that she can “hear” him in his hour of desperate need got turned into a travelog for the Yorkshire Tourist Board.

Anyway, as we launch into a new season or even era of costume dramas–some of which are based on novels of significant stature–perhaps it would be well for film and television series makers to remember one vital thing–without a script, you’ve got nothing…so, learn to linger on the words, to love those, the taste those in your mouth and find them good…and you’ll find your audience.

As for me, I think I may reread Jane Eyre, just to remind myself…and after that, A Tale of Two Cities…and maybe after that…some John Donne, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, as in this first verse of his poem, Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Because words?  They are paintbrush and a rainbow palette of colours, hue and shade, with which to wash the page altogether…

A short story…

This was written by a 13-year old of my acquaintance, and I thought it was rather fabulous and wanted to share it.  I trust you’ll enjoy it as I did.

Princess of the Flames

I knew that he had no idea how I had got out again.

He had done everything: bolted the door, taken down the ladder, locked the windows, and yet he still discovered that I had some means of escape when he left for town and saw me there.  I shouldn’t have run when I saw him. He wouldn’t have taken any notice of me then.  

Once I knew he had seen me I did not run any farther – I knew it would have been useless and he would have caught me eventually.  In fact, all it would have done was madden him, and he had little sanity anyway.  So I just turned, and stopped, and let him snarl at me the whole way back to the house he was keeping me in.  However, once I had sat down on the cold, hard ground next to the fireplace, my cooperation lost existence.

I could feel him looking at me from the back, but no matter how persistent the feeling of someone staring at me was, I continued gazing into the happy, dancing flames.

“How did you escape?” His gravelly voice broke into the still silence.

I turned to him then, my eyes pummeling straight into his, which were colder than the snow outside and more loveless than his heart.  No words escaped my lips.  I knew what would happen if they did.  And it would end in me washing my blood from my face.  But I did not cry either.  I just kept my face as still and smooth as ice, showing no fear in my expression.

He smiled a sickly smile at me.  Is that meant to be reassuring?

“Tasia, if you want any food any time soon, you’d better tell me how you got out.”  I could tell by the tone in his voice that he didn’t plan on letting me get away with not telling him.

Don’t speak, DON’T SPEAK!  “Why do you keep me here?”  I swore and spat at myself in my mind, wishing, hoping and praying that he wouldn’t hit me again.

Once again the sticky-sweet smile was plastered into his features, and he was very calm – surprisingly so – in his reply. “Why, because when they realize that the princess is missing,” he chuckled as I grimaced at the title, “they will surely pay a high price to get their lost princess back.”

“But I wasn’t lost!” I yelled, knowing that I was giving him what he wanted by showing anger at his remarks.  “I ran away! I…” I sighed, “I could have been happy.  I could’ve been free, my own person.  Whoever I wanted me to be.  I could’ve – no, I would’ve – climbed mountains, ridden on clouds, touched stars.  But even running didn’t bring me freedom.  It brought me to you,” I spat.

His smile dripped off his face, and he suddenly got a look in his eyes that could send the bravest of men to his grave.

But I was no man, cowardly or otherwise, and I knew what was coming.  And as his hand quickly swung towards my head, I swiftly grabbed his arm, and used the force and energy that he had used to try to hit me against him, and dragged him in one quick movement into the fire, head first.

He leapt back almost as quickly as he had gone in, and after leaping about to put out the fire on his head, he yelled after me as I ran out of the room, “One day, you spawn of Satan, I will kill you.”

The inimitable Georgette Heyer…

It would seem I’ve been procrastinating…but that’s not actually the case.

What is the case is that I’ve got so much on my plate that any multi-tasking capabilities I may have possessed have run for the proverbial hills, leaving me with about three half-written blogs, piles of reading on Russian foreign policy circa 1812, half a sonnet frollicking about in my head, and too many characters from the next books standing in the wings, tapping their feet, waiting for their cue to come on.

[And the answer to "Ha ha, how do you sleep well at night?" is "Not very well really...I wake up at about four and..."]


Recently, I was reminded by a friend’s complaints about the cheesiness of much of today’s literary marketing of a letter I received from a literary agent, a female of the species.  Which actually, in retrospect, amused me.

blokeI had sent this individual the opening chapters for my novel, Of Honest Fame, you see, along with the usual charming, banterful letter and a synopsis.

Then, after the obligatory wait of several months, said agent had returned the sample chapters along with a rejection letter in which she compared the work to the novels of Georgette Heyer–novels for which, she assured me, there was no market.

From this fatuous comparison, I deduced she had either been drinking…and/or was terminally stupid…and most assuredly had never read any of Heyer’s work.  [Even since her death in 1974, Heyer's works have NEVER been out of print.]

Hence after my incredulous, “What?” you will understand that my uppermost emotion was relief at the lucky save!

[Exactly what about a boy setting a corpse alight and later getting the basting of a lifetime could possibly remind anyone of a novel by Georgette Heyer still eludes me.  But then, I fear I am too literal in my understanding of these things.

What I'm guessing this creature was dim-wittedly trying to say was that the novel was set in the early 19th century, quite possibly the Regency, and therefore something or other...And I confess, one longed to meet the dotty female and say, "Yes, dear, the novel is set in the early 19th century.  And so is War and Peace.  Or can you not spell that?"]

But lately, you know, I’ve been seeing Miss Heyer’s name splashed about a fair bit–usually on the cover of some allegedly Regency novel  [just like Georgette Heyer, the endorsement gushes] a term which was coined to describe some, though not all of her work–and this has actually made me want to spit teeth.

1812_greatcoatFor this comparison can only be based on the crudest and most simple-minded assessment of Heyer’s work–although, interestingly enough, in Heyer’s lifetime, critics of her work dismissed it with the words, “another Georgette Heyer.”

And perhaps this is the problem.  And it’s an ongoing one.

Because both of those statements about Heyer reveal how little the author/reviewer knows or understands of Heyer’s work, whilst at the same time committing  the absolute bimbonic folly of fancying that a novel’s quality can be deduced from what the characters are wearing and where/when the thing is set..

To imagine that a novel is nothing more than a plotline, a time period and a few stock characters–thus anyone who writes a thing set in the early 19th century must of necessity be writing like Miss Heyer–is to wholly underestimate and undervalue the extra-ordinary talent, apparently effortless prose style, and wit of this quintessentially British author.  It’s like saying all bars of soap are the same.

Or put another way, it is to be criminally stupid and terminally, intellectually myopic.  Ehem.

(Just as when I see contemporary authors comparing their own works to hers, I mark them down as delusional.)

Because Georgette Heyer is inimitable.

There is no one like her.

Just as no one is like P.G. Wodehouse.

Heyer was a one-off, an original, a woman of tremendous talent who backed up every book with oodles of hard work and endless research, at a time when the historical novel–light, dark or in-between–hardly existed.

She was a pioneer.

Both Wodehouse and Heyer were authors of a certain era, who because of the tremendous ease with which they created their fictional worlds, their prodigeous talent for making prose flow like rippling, streams of wit, dominated the literary scene for more than five decades of the 20th century, without equal.

Like Wodehouse, her sentence and paragraph construction are peerless.

Highgate Tunnel Mail coachAnd like Wodehouse and the world of Blandings Castle, Heyer created a parallel Regency London and initially Sussex (where she grew up)–one without politics, the nastiness of war or assassination or Napoleon, one where the West End and Mayfair were clean and bright and rarely raining [we wish!] and most people rubbed along tolerably well.  And it is against this delicious confection of a backdrop that she set her tales, many of which were plays on the traditional favourite, the Cinderella story.

You know the drill, poor female requires handsome rich prince to see through the tatters of her shyness and the ashes of her genteel poverty, her lower position in society, and recognising her true merit, her lovely laughter and wit, sweep her off to a happy, rich, life…Yadda yadda yadda…

And certainly given that during the early 19th century and indeed looking honestly at the career opportunities for women in the early 20th century, the Cinderella story is a fitting one–without a man, particularly a rich one to provide, life didn’t offer many choices, and even fewer bonuses.

Equally, unlike in real life, in Heyer’s world, the aristocracy and gentry were plentiful; the male of the species were witty, urbane, amused, well-dressed and loaded–all alpha males with a sublime sense of humour, great shoulders and a starched cravat.

But this, my friends and companions, is where Heyer gets interesting.  Because she is not writing the standard Cinderella story in as many permutations as she can manage.  Rather she is subverting the genre even as she is creating it.

Georgette Heyer was born in 1902, in Wimbledon.  She lived through and remembered all her life that period of turmoil when women got the vote, when at last they were allowed into universities like Oxford and Cambridge, when a certain equality with males appeared possible.  For women, the world in which Heyer grew up was one of new, untried and unexplored horizons.  And Heyer, rather than writing the same old same old took that standard formulaic romance, broke the mold and turned it upside down, bless her.

If, as the Arab saying has it, “stories teach people how to live”, then Heyer was writing the template for the new millenia’s women.

Indeed, from the outset, Heyer’s females were not the simpering, swooning simpletons beloved by her fellow pioneers of historical fiction, Baroness D’Orzy and Raphael Sabatini.  [Recall, Heyer's first published work, The Black Moth, came out in 1921.]  Instead, she started as she meant to go on and in her works, it was all to play for.

tea on the lawn-sandbyThe Masqueraders, published in 1928, gave the female protagonist the lead male’s role and gave to her brother the role of pantomime princess, beautifully dressed and undetected in female garb.  And whilst this may have been a play on the history of the Scottish uprising of 1745 and the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped from Scotland dressed as a servant woman, and equally, the British stage has a long tradition of males in female roles, I cannot begin to imagine how this played in 1950’s America.  If it played at all.

The Corinthian, published in 1940, took the Cinderella lead and gave it to the rich hero.  Sir Richard Wyndham is rescued (he says it himself) from the onerous duties and ties of family and financial expectation by the young rebel, Pen Creed–the ashes of his wealth and the tatters of his fine clothes seen through by this rebel-child of a girl with decided opinions, a wicked sense of humour and wearing boy’s clothing, thus ensuring Richard’s future happiness.

The Grand Sophy (1950) takes matters even further.  Sophy isn’t just masterful, she masters the whole family–who admittedly need it.  But there is nothing shrinking or feeble or swooning about her.  She’s about as far from the Victorian virgin-ideal as one could hope to get.  And reading her, I have no doubt, empowered a whole generation of young women, engendering in them the belief that they could surmount any and all obstacles, even as it encouraged them to be amusing, wise and formidable, and still be lovable.

(Since girls of the 1950s were still being encouraged to laugh at a bloke’s jokes, even when they weren’t funny, to shut up and listen and hide their own intelligence, this is probably a great deal more subversive than we might today think.)

tomkinsVenetia (1958), Frederica (1965), A Lady of Quality [Annis Wychwood] (1972), all provide further proof of her talent for upending convention.  None of these main female characters are blushing debutantes.  They are all older, wiser, savvier, pragmatic, with good, sound heads on their shoulders, shouldering burdens that the men in their lives have shied from.  They are vibrant, confident, self-assured, the intellectual equal if not superior of their male counterparts, with a self-knowledge to rival that of a seasoned philosopher.

And none of them want rescuing.  Indeed, often it is they who are more likely to mount the white charger and ride to the aid of their men…

But while Heyer may be mounting a subterfuge of a campaign on behalf of capable women everywhere, she does so with such finesse, such charming irony and delicious wit, that what might be a provocative storyline of female empowerment is couched in a flow of easily digested, apparently innocuous delight.

And yet, what an ironic wit she had.  Her authorial voice was unique.  Delicate, graceful, laced with genial good-humour, and without the cruelty of some of Austen’s observations, Heyer poked fun without poking anyone in the eye.

Listen to this:  “Fashion was not kind to George…”  Or she will write of a lady “enjoying ill-health”–how much more tolerant than Austen’s descriptions of Lady Bertram?  That lightness of touch has more in common with Wodehouse, surely.

And she is, I will be honest, quite possibly greatest though when she writes of sisters, aunts and mothers.  She captured these relationships with all their  invisible, manipulative, endearing and powerful strings attached as no one before her or since.  She writes them all honestly, graciously, humorously, with her tongue firmly fixed in her right cheek…

Her prose is as smooth and effortlessly elegant as the unfurling of silk pennants in the breeze–like “drowning in honey, stingless”–and is unmatchable and unrivalled.

And behind of and in back of all this was the strength of her unending research, her notebooks filled with slang, with details of dress, of society, family, invention and history.

Interestingly too, unlike the current craze for implausible aristocratic titles that one may encounter between the pages of contemporary historical romances, as she grew older, Heyer came more and more to favour stories of the gentry and professional classes.  

Almacks CruikshankBlack Sheep, A Lady of Quality, Frederica, Charity Girl, The Nonesuch, Cotillion, Arabella, The Toll-gate…whether she was playing to the new ideal of meritocracy and equality in the 20th century or whether she was sidestepping the Labour-inspired class warfare issues, I cannot tell you.  But these novels are most assuredly not filled with scenes at Almack’s, tales of the ton, or tired witticisms allegedly spoken by George Brummell–the cliche-ridden world of so-called Regency romances.

If Heyer has a failing at all, it is in her male protagonists–too many of them read exactly the same and might be carbon copies of one another:  bored, well-dressed, sporty, self-indulgent.  And they become invariably soppy at the end–which I personally find sick-making.  But that’s just me.

Still…when I recounted the sorry tale of my rejection to a friend, an Oxford don (male), his reaction was as far from mine as could be.  “She compared you to Georgette Heyer?” he said.  “No one has ever paid me a compliment like that.  If they had, it would have been the greatest compliment of my life!  I would give anything to be compared to her…Wow!”

Which also makes me laugh.  For truth is, I know how hard she worked and I respect her too much to even dream of aspiring to be her equal…

The Lion at Bay…

Let’s be totally clear here.  I am an absolute fool for beautiful language.

Actually, I go well beyond “fool”.  Indeed, it might be more accurate to describe me as careering into abject devotion territory.

I know, you thought that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 57, which begins, Being your slave, what should I do but tend/Upon the hours and times of your desire…was written for some female or other who might or might not have been called The Dark Lady.

But that’s where you’re wrong.  Because, in fact, it’s about me.

Yes, that’s right.  Shakespeare was writing about me, and my starry-eyed breathlessness and utter self-abnegating devotion to the sheer blissfulness of his poetry and language…

He was also writing about me and my relationship with John Donne–also on account of his poetry and language.  Ehem.

And he was writing about me and Gerard Manley Hopkins…and me and Sir Christopher Fry…and Sir Tom Stoppard…and Pierre de Ronsard…and Homer (the Iliad recited in Homeric Greek is one of the most resplendent works ever to be heard, I promise you)…and Sorley Maclean…and now, the historical novelist, Robert Low.

(Yes, I know he looks like Father Christmas…he might well be Father Christmas for all I know…this writing lark could be his day job, you never know…)

Let’s be clear about another thing, shall we?

I don’t–that is DO NOT–read novels set in the Middle Ages.  I just don’t.

And it’s not that they’re outside my comfort zone or something, it’s that they’re well within it because a long time ago, when camels ruled the earth and all that, I was a mediaevalist and spent my time studying things like the mediaeval European Economics and Anglo-Saxon open field farming and the rise of the guilds and the demographic changes wrought by the Black Death…that is, until I hit sensory and intellectual overload and said, “Nope.  Can’t stick this.  Not at any price.”

lionatbay2For Rob, however, I make an exception.  Because of the immaculate and exquisite artistry he brings to writing in the English language.  I can’t help myself.  I say this having just finished reading his superlative novel, The Lion at Bay–second in his sequence of historical novels about Robert the Bruce, entitled simply The Kingdom.

This is the third paragraph of the new work.  Listen to it.  Feel it.  See it.

The riders were dripping and miserable as old mud, the horses standing with their heads down, hipshot in a sea of tawny bracken and the clawed black roots of heather and furze, only the moss splashed a dazzle of green into the mirr.

Right, that’s it.  I’m his.  Wholly and unconditionally.  And I can no more walk away from this book or these visions of a Scotland, beautiful and rain-swept, riven by conflict–both personal and national–than I can walk away from an eclair au chocolat.  It is not going to happen.

(And if it didn’t make you swoon with the wonder and beauty and wet of it, well, you’re a heartless, soulless, poetryless, anti-literary  nincompetantpoop, and there is nothing I can do for you…)

But that was only the opening.  And that’s what gets me about this guy!  Because every page has at least one paragraph–usually two or three–where I have to stop and read it again, savour it in my mouth, hold it there, breathing through it, allowing its flavours to seep into my head like the finest old wine–I mean, honestly?  This is Chateau Lafite 1929 for the mind.

How about this for literary gorgeousness?

Steam from horses and riders blended with the fine gruel of churned up mud and snow in a sluggish mist that will filled with shouts and grunts and clashes of steel so that the men behind Bruce shifted their horses…Beyond the mud-frothed field loomed the great, dark snow-patched bulk of the castle, where ladies of the court watched from the comfort of a high tower, surrounded by charcoal braziers, swaddled in comforting furs and gloved, so that their applause would sound like the pat of mouse feet…

How beautiful is that in imagery?  In its cadences?  In invention?  In evoking the sounds?  The smells?  The atmosphere?

And so deliciously expressive in its use of language!  Fine gruel of churned up mud and snow in a sluggish mist…?  Mud-frothed field…?  How wondrous is that?

roberthebruceAnd yet, despite the marvel of his language, his artistry in depicting the people and the canvas that was mediaeval Scotland at its most ravaged and clan-torn, this is not lavender kid-glove historical fiction, to be peered at, refinedly, through one’s mother-of-pearl encrusted lorgnette.  For The Lion at Bay charts the period from 1304, between Robert Bruce’s tentative peace with Edward Longshanks–which temporarily halted the English ruination of Scotland–through the saddening decline of William Wallace’s band and his execution, Bruce’s hasty coronation and onto the death (whew!) of Longshanks himself.

It was a dark, terrible and savage time, and Low makes no excuses for depicting the reality of that period which forged the Scots nation and character.

Through a handful of fictional characters with whom one has bonded in quite a personal way in the previous novel, through them–Hal of Herdmanston, Dog-boy (my favourite!), Sim Craw, Kirkpatrick–Low enables the reader to see what they must have seen, to hear and to know, to experience their fears, their grim war-fatigue, their despairing longings for peace, their ruthlessness and vindictive  rage–against the English, against themselves, against their fellow Scots.

I will admit–at one point, I just had to stop reading for a bit.  The level of destruction wrought by the Scots upon each other as they sought to redress imagined and real slights to their honour and loyalties, was so relentless and hate-filled, that I, like Low’s characters, experienced a level of sinking battle-fatigue and loss.  That is fine story-telling!

Low’s depiction of the Bruce–surely the central character around whom all others revolved at this period of history–is masterful.  At once cunning and courageous, physically flawed, driven by doubt, by hubris, by rage, by honour, by glory.  Bruce is no Hollywood hero, but a fracturing and real individual, one whose longing for the crown and his determination to wear it has cost him (and his compatriots) more than he ever knew existed.   Truthfully, he takes my breath away.

As ever, Low’s attention to detail is a wonder–his knowledge of weaponry and warfare (and horses and people) an inspiration.  He is articulate and precise without ever being heavy-handed or pedantic.  Then too, I particularly appreciate his innate understanding of how vital religion and the religious controversies and politics of the day were to everyone.  He never ducks the issue for the sake of squirming by the political correctness brigade.

RobertLowTo the mediaeval Christian mind, especially to those who were bound by their vows as knights, there was no doubt in the truth or the sanctity of the Church’s teachings–doctrines which permeated the very landscape of the inner selves–their daily rituals, their thoughts, their speech defined in detail by the Church–even down to how they might or might not kill their enemy on the jousting field in God’s tourney.  And whilst, again, Low is not heavy-handed, he expertly fashion this world in which the Church was integral and powerful and the common expression of approbation, “Christ be praised!” was always followed by the response, “Forever and ever.”

But as ever, it is the glory of his language that rejoices the heart:  He heard distant laughter, a burst on the breeze, saw the red-flower flutter of flames and shrank away from it, crabbing towards the wall of the garth until the stones nudged his back…

Though Low writes of the barbarity and horror of civil war, of decency and devotion among the ashes and stones, the keening loss of the Scots for their lands and children, all of it, every last morsel of it is written with the pen of a lover and poet, transforming this most bitter of conflicts into a raw and savage beauty.

(Even if he does look like Father Christmas…in the event that Father Christmas wears beads in his beard.)


The Lion at Bay by Robert Low.  Harper Collins, London, 2012.  422 pps.  £14.99.

I’ve been tagged for the Next Big Thing…

It will come as no surprise to those of you who know me that I’ve been tagged by the rather charming Debra Brown, author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, in a blog game called The Next Big Thing.

This game involves answering questions about my work-in-progress or a piece that I would like to become the next big thing!  And after the questions, I will tag five more authors.

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing:
1.) What is the title of your book?
Or Fear of Peace
2.) Where did the idea come from for the book?
From the British viewpoint, the historical and fictional focus during the Napoleonic wars tends to be the Peninsular Campaign (fought under the command of the Duke of Wellington), the Naval conflict in which the Royal Navy led by Lord Nelson and others trumped the French, and Waterloo where the British and Allied forces–again commanded by Wellington–defeated Napoleon for good and all. 
But those battles and campaigns, as outstanding and inspired and ginormous as they were, aren’t the biggest, the most costly, or the most devastating campaigns or battles of the Napoleonic era.  Not at all.  The big battles, the battles which determined the fates of nations, towns and millions of souls, were fought in central Europe–in modern-day Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia. 
And it was there, in the heart of Europe, that the Russian Tsar and his indomitable and long-suffering troops (paid for by British subsidies of over £1 million) forged a final Coalition of forces–Russians, Prussians, Austrians, British and Swedes–who fought like stink to defeat Napoleon and his vast military machine. 
It was the most extra-ordinary uprising by these–on the surface–fairly mediocre monarchs to throw off the enslaving yoke of Napoleonic tyranny which had destroyed their kingdoms, their empires in some cases, their economies, their populations. 
Napoleon was a warlord.  A monster of war, if you like.  And his vast appetite for conquest, for military glory, for pillage, had consumed all of Europe.  And these three countries–Prussia, Russia and Austria–all of which had been badly beaten and appallingly treated by Napoleon in victory, managed to pull themselves and their outmoded armies together to defend themselves and to defeat him in the years 1813-14.  And I just think that’s so inspiring. 
It transformed the way people thought about themselves, their national interest, their lands…
It’s a story that has everything:  cowardice beyond your wildest dreams, monumental folly, courage and sheer bloody-minded determination, heartbreak, love, glory, treachery and triumph, love and defeat…and out of the ashes of that a European peace that would last nearly a century. 
3.) Under what genre does your book fall?
Generic historical fiction, I’d guess.  More specifically, historical spy thriller probably…I always have spies and I enjoy writing history with the pace of a John LeCarre novel.
4.) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is probably the most difficult question of all, because I don’t think in terms of modern actors.  Not ever.  I work from period portraits and miniatures.  Then too, many of my characters are actual historical figures, so whoever played them would need to have their look.  And mostly, I don’t even try to put together a face or imagine any actors in the roles when I’m writing.  But I’ll give it a go.
Captain Shuster:  possibly Rob James-Collier–he has the right colouring, he’s tall enough and I imagine he’d do very well with the extra-ordinary and harsh drive that propelled these men.
Boy Tirrell:  Absolutely no idea!  An unknown would be best, because that kid is a shadow…(though my view of the character has very much been influenced by the portrait used in the cover for Of Honest Fame.)
Laurent Picamole:  A Frenchman in his mid-30s.  Tall, and a good horseman.
Brundle:  No idea.
Lord Castlereagh:  someone who looks like him?
Sir Charles Vane Stewart:  (Castlereagh’s younger half-brother) Again, someone who looks the part, but also someone who can play drunken wildness very well. 
Lord Dunphail:  A tall, dark-redhead of a Scot. 
The main thing would have to be they’re all fighters…determined, steely, fighting men.
5.) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In a world engulfed in war, the only thing more fearsome than Napoleon’s army is peace–for when did peace with Napoleon lead to anything but ceaseless woe?
6.) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I expect that my current publisher, Diiarts, will publish it.  They’ve given every indication that that is their intention…I have the contract which says so, somewhere…
7.) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  And read the intro.
Since I don’t write a straight draft, not ever, that’s moot.  I write a chapter at a time, editing and rewriting, until that chapter is perfect or as perfect as I can make it.  That may take 3-4 weeks or even longer.  And only when it’s complete do I move on to the next scene or chapter…
“Sat like a phasmid, still and wingless, his mouse-coloured coat no more seen among the tiles and slates and chimney-stacks than a heap of old sacking, for three days the boy had been watching the house on Mount Street.  Watching from the leads beneath the summer moods of a fitful London sky, watching as the shadows and light trailed across the classical portico and fine brick face, patient under a patient sky, watching as the morning was bleached of colour and the linens dried white in the yard.  Measuring out the hours from first waking to the lingering midsummer dusk which tarried like a dawdling gabey and counting the number of servants that remained within–the housekeeper, a maid, and two menservants. 
“Clocking their comings and goings, from that time when the scullery sashes were thrown open to admit the day, until the hour of shutting in when the jowly steward went about locking the doors and checking that the upper windows were shuttered and barred.  Perched beside an attic dormer or slouched against the flaunching of an adjacent chimney, the boy watched as the long hot hours dropped like weights, indifferent to the herring gulls and house sparrows which congregated near and far, chirruping and raucous, across the red tile ridges of the rooftops that stretched away in every direction.”
8.) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Dorothy Dunnett’s novels covered a vast array of themes, characters and plots and sub-plots against a backdrop of impeccable research…I’d like to think I follow in her footsteps, though in a different time period obviously.  I’m told I write John LeCarre collides with Jane Austen in a Charles Dickens’ Sauce–is that a genre?
9.)  Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My last book, Of Honest Fame, didn’t end the way I expected it to.  I had intended for the third book I wrote about the Napoleonic wars to pick up the story of Ned Hardy, a character from May 1812.  And to begin with, I spent a lot of time trying to work out how I could combine the unfinished business from Of Honest Fame with the stand-alone story and themes I’d been intending to explore in book three.  But I eventually realised I couldn’t do it. 
But I knew that I had to take the story of those characters from Of Honest Fame forward to the natural conclusion of the war–which is the Congress of Vienna in 1814…
And in the meantime, I’ve had readers–who were as surprised as me by the open ending of the previous book–nagging (it’s the only word for it and I love them for it!) me to carry the story forward…
Then too, there are all those men who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and fought on against these incredible odds to beat the most powerful military machine the world had ever seen.  They didn’t start out as anything special, these men, but through their tenacity in rising to the meet the exigencies of their age, they became magnificent.  I have just untold admiration for every last one of them.  They just go on inspiring me to want to get their stories out there.
10.)  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 
I’d like to think readers appreciate the extent and depth of the research I bring to my work.  I’d like to think too that the literary style is something quite special.  Though probably the fact that I always write about spies and the intelligence networks and weave that through the narrative is what gets most people going. 
But more important I think is this:  that my aim is not just to maybe a little show the reader what things looked like, but rather to put them in the room.  I don’t want them to read it.  I want them to live it.  To experience it.  To breathe it. 
At the end of the novel, if I’ve done my work correctly, the reader shouldn’t feel that they just read a great book about the last act of the Napoleonic wars, but that they were there.  That they saw it.  Heard it.  That if they reached out–they could touch the crumbling walls of Leipzig or the pristine painted surfaces of the Hofburg…
Because that’s what the best historical fiction can do.  It’s history that breathes.
With special thanks to Debra Brown for including me in this…and I shall now contact five other authors to see if they consent to being tagged–and among those five I’ve tagged are Terry Kroenung, Jonathan Hopkins, Alaric Bond, Jenni James…