In which Bennetts tells the truth…

History is messy.

We might like to think it’s not, but it is.

We may like to believe that it all unfurled like a rolled-up flag in the breeze of time, rippling forth smoothly and infinitely.

But the fact is it’s rather the reverse of the case.

At any given time, about any given situation, there were at least twice as many opinions of how events would unfold as there were people–and there was no inevitable about it.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at any war, any battle. 

Historians will say, “Oh, well, it was obvious because of such and such factors that the French or the Germans or the Americans would win…”

But if the outcome had been so obvious on the day, trust me, the losing side wouldn’t have turned up.

And this variance of opinion is most blatant when the balance starts to shift–when the previously losing side, perhaps led by some canny general, starts to study the tactics of the winners and says to himself, “Well, they may have ________, but I see a way I can beat this.”  And then he does.

But the change of fortune is put down to the weather, or the terrain, or to some other thing, and the new losers in the match go on believing they’re invincible for another little while…until it becomes clear that it’s not just terrain, or weather, or new uniforms, or better pay, but that they’ve been whooped.

You see, nobody knows the outcome.  Not on the day.

But that’s not how historians teach the stuff.  We don’t say, “History is a mess.  It’s the story of nobody doing what they should be doing, it’s a tale of people falling in love with the wrong people, of good people muddling through, of bad people, cowards, cads, heroes, of spending too much money, and miserliness, and all sorts.”

Added to that, there’s always the suspicion that history was written by the winners, or at least by those who could read and write and had access to a printing press or publisher.   And naturally, they’re going to tell a version of events that makes them look rather more heroic, gentlemanly, wise, sensible, compassionate and all that good stuff.

They’re very unlikely to say, “Well, you see, the Prime Minister was a rotter and a complete numpty, and the war was a family squabble that got out of hand, run by generals who couldn’t organise a drunken brawl in a brewery…” unless, of course, they’re saying it about their opponents.

Which brings me to the subject of spies.

Now in the twentieth century, we liked to think that we invented everything (clever old us)–sex, drug abuse, rock and roll, information overload, coffee shops, and naturally, spying.

Indeed, here in the UK, we had this theory, written by gentlemen to promote the view that the British were always gentlemen even when they were running about in blue war paint and very little else back when they were fighting the Romans.   Always honourable!  And we would never do anything so underhanded as spying.

According to this view of history, spying was what everybody else got up to–the French, the Italians, the Spanish, the Chinese, but not us.   Never us.

Er…and then there’s reality.  As I discovered when I set out to research the subject for my latest novel, Of Honest Fame–a historical spy thriller set during the Napoleonic wars.

At first, I couldn’t find anything at all.  Because there wasn’t much to find–most historians still hewing to the ‘we were always gentlemen’ line of reasoning.

Yes, there was plenty on Napoleon’s earliest and most infamous and remoreless head of the secret police–Joseph Fouche.  But nothing about the British–except as I say, that they were gentleman.

Though there were just beginning to be cracks appearing in this facade.

There was the success of Patrick O’Brian’s series of Aubrey-Maturin novels in which, among other things, Dr. Maturin is a spy for the Admiralty.

There was a biography or two of the man upon whom some believed O’Brian based his character of Captain Jack Aubrey–one George Cochrane, who nipped about the Mediterranean in a smallish ship, destroying French semaphore towers and stealing their code books–and he was most certainly a spy and made no bones about it.

Then, courtesy of the great Tom Pocock,  there appeared the interesting information that among other things the British navy got up to in the years before Trafalgar (1805) they were spying like crazy because they’d recognised that Revolutionary France was a terrorist state and determined to export that terror as far and wide as they could.   And spying was just one of the means at the Royal navy’s disposal to prevent that happening.

And on it went, drip by teasing drip.  Feeding my craving for information, keeping it alive (just), but never answering all the questions I had and which I felt I needed to understand in order to write a thoroughly researched spy thriller.

Until a few years ago, when a remarkable woman, who’d spent years fossicking through the journals and letters and diaries and finances of various offices of various ministers of state, wrote a remarkable book, Secret Service:  British Agents in France, 1792-1815.   And in it, she recounted the early years of the spying industry in Britain, (as ministers struggled to comprehend the invention of state-supported terror such as was happenning in France) onto its culmination and wind-down with the fall of Napoleon.

Eye-opening doesn’t cover it.

Eye-popping comes a tad closer, but it’s still too vague and perhaps over-used to convey the astonishment one felt on just about every page as the author quoted letters to new recruits outlining their missions, recounted the vast sums of money which were spent–all without a paper trail or any need to justify their expenditure–and the Europe-wide remit which their spies had.

These were the letters of the actual men who ran the business, the ministers of state (who publicly denied all knowledge of the business and resisted any attempts to get them to discuss it in Parliament), the details of their involvement in the various coups against the French leaders and Napoleon, their areas of expertise, their ever-expanding role as Napoleon’s military grip on Europe grew ever stronger…who their contacts were, who was recruited, how they tracked agents in the UK, their hare-brained escapes from French prisons, the bungled assassination attempts…

It was all there, laid bare.

For me, it was a goldmine of information (including the nugget that France’s minister of secret police was probably in British pay).  It enabled me to build on the knowledge of the political scene I already had, and allowed me to weave through the history which I knew, a story, a plausible story, of intelligence agents and assassins–of cat and mouse and more cats and some fairly nasty rats.

Then came another break in the form of a book called Wellington’s Spies, which recounted the lives of just three spies in the Peninsular Wars, and all taken from their letters home and their journals.

This too was invaluable, because this provided the details of the daily lives of the intelligence agents and all sorts of useful information like everything was arranged on an informal basis as they were all amateurs and there was really was no secret service, per se:  You just sort of volunteered if you happened to have heard something you thought was useful.  You used your position, wherever you were to gather information.  You used whatever was to hand to get information.

And when you were fed up, you might just go home and not tell anybody you’d decided you didn’t want to any longer.  You just disappeared from the scene and nobody had a clue why.

And all of this fit with everything I already knew of the period.

Ministries overlapped, nobody told anybody else what they were doing, there was no civil service of any kind (that’s a Victorian invention, by the way); kings didn’t necessarily trust their ministers who might represent some faction they didn’t privately agree with, so they’d have their own spies who reported directly to them…

All of which, I may say, did give me a pretty free hand when it came to knitting a plotline or two through the web of history–because it was generally a case of “anything goes”.

So that’s pretty much it.   The actual historical characters, the timeline of events, the descriptions of the cities of London and Paris and of the events of the years 1812-13 are as accurate as vast amounts of research could make them.  The tale of spies is of my own imagining.

But I hope that like all good historical fiction, it allows the reader to focus on history as it really was–messy.  And about people.  None of whom had the benefit of twenty-first century hindsight.

And while it took a bit of work to get all of it onto the page, I think it was well worth the effort.  (I trust my readers will think so too.)

Because, to me, that’s the whole point.  To learn all this stuff and weave it together into a seamless, fascinating whole, with intriguing characters who engage a reader’s every emotion so that it puts the reader in the room, capturing the imagination and eventually earning that ultimate accolade:  a ripping, great read.

Though perhaps I should have titled it A Messy History of Napoleonic Spies.  Ha ha ha.

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4 comments on “In which Bennetts tells the truth…

  1. Messy? Poppycock! POOP MONSTERS are messy (alas, they suck at espionage).

    I tell my students this very thing, that history is only history after the fact. At the time it’s happening it’s current events, full of confusion, terror, and angst.

  2. See, you wrote it too long and now the tired masses have no time nor energy to read your most excellent piece to the end and then leave comments. 🙂

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