Way back when–sort of somewhere between the Flood and Moses it was–when I began reading everything I could find on Britain in the early 19th century, I came across the not-very-interesting fact that the Prime Minister, Sir Spencer Perceval, had died in office and been replaced eventually by Lord Liverpool. Fair enough, thought I.
Then as I read on, I discovered that the fellow had been murdered. Which was a little bit shocking. Especially the manner in which the author of whatever history it was went blithely on as if this was nothing out of the ordinary.
Hang on a tick, I thought. This was the Prime Minister! Britain was at war! Just how jolly would people have thought it if in 1943, someone had decided to pop Winston Churchill?
So I kept searching. And eventually came across the admission that Prime Minister Perceval had been assassinated in the Lobby of the House of Commons by a chap called John Bellingham–who incidentally was, as we like to say, not the full ticket…
But still there was this glossing over of the affair, this cheerful tone of getting over heavy ground lightly, as if everyone just said, “Heigh-ho, ” and got on with the business of living.
At which point I thought, “This cannot be right. An assassination is a traumatic experience for any nation. Look at how the United States has suffered over the centuries…And Britain was in the midst of a world war! What must they have thought and felt?”
All of which led to further study of original sources–the newspapers and the journal of prisoners from Newgate Prison being most informative). Following the assassination, the militia was called out to occupy the streets of the capital. There was a widespread fear of rioting as well as the concern that Perceval’s murder might be the first strike in a French coup. Then the opponents of the Government from their own benches used the moment to settle some old scores…
All of which research led May 1812 to being the book it is today, a novel in which I tried (how successfully I cannot say) to capture the essence of what it may have been like to live through that tumultous, unprecedented, month.
Similarly, as I was doing the background reading for Of Honest Fame, I came across all the latest research on Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, which proved beyond cavil that the ruination of that vast body of men did not start with the onset of wintry weather in early November. But rather that the whole expedition had been a chaotic mess from the outset, with disease, and lack of food and safe drinking water, contributing to the deaths of Napoleon’s troops (and horses) in their thousands–long before they had ever crossed into Russian territory.
And this knowledge, combined with what I had been discovering about the repressiveness of the Napoleonic police state, the German secret societies of the period, and the terrible plight of war-refugees and those unfortunates who had had that army of 500,000 quartered on them in Poland, provided both the framework and engine for that novel.
Still, there has been a great deal of noise made roundabout various historical fiction sites (on the internet especially) about the importance or not-importance of sticking to the facts in historical fiction. And, as the reader will have guessed, I do aim for a high degree of accuracy. Partially at least, because whether we like it or not, many people believe that what we write is what actually happened.
Therefore in the interests of truth, I hereby confess and do admit that there have been times, though not many, when I have taken liberties…
Although in most things in May 1812, I unfailingly stuck to the journal, newspaper and letter accounts of events from the time, there are two areas where I did not adhere…
The first is the person of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh’s, private secretary, Joseph Planta.
The fact is, in the spring of 1812, Planta was not Castlereagh’s private secretary. The young Lord Clanwilliam was, though I didn’t know this until just recently. Planta wasn’t employed by Castlereagh until the autumn of 1812–though from then on, he did accompany the Foreign Secretary during all his Continental travel of the next few years.
So this alteration of personnel was not intentional. However, it also affects Of Honest Fame, which begins in the summer of 1812, because Planta is a character of some importance from the outset.
And it’s such a great name, you know. “Plan-ta!” You can just hear it being bellowed out, can’t you, as Castlereagh summons him into the inner office.
So that’s inconsistency number one.
The second concerns Almack’s and the introduction of the waltz into English society.
It can be very hard to prove what people knew or did not know at a given time.
However, it’s generally a ‘given’ that the waltz was not introduced into London Society and Almack’s until after Dorothea, Countess Lieven, came to London, accompanying her husband, the Russian Ambassador. And they didn’t arrive until October 1812. Also, giving them time to establish themselves and sort their household out, that probably puts the date at sometime in 1813.
Even though it’s likely that Princess Esterhazy, also a Patroness of Almack’s, was more than familiar with the dance and was said to perform it very well–but as I say, it can be hard to prove what a person knew and when they would have spoken of it, if indeed they did.
We do know that by January 1814, the Duke of Devonshire was allowing his London house to be used as a kind of dancing school where ladies and gentlemen of fashion could learn how to perform the steps. The Patronesses (especially Lady Jersey) didn’t want the thing introduced to Almack’s until they could be certain of excelling at it. We also know that during the summer of 1814, when Tsar Alexander and his sister, the Grand-Duchess, were in London celebrating the defeat of Napoleon, it was performed–Alexander enjoyed it and he was Tsar, so that was pretty much that.
All this I did know. However, I chose to play with the facts in this case because I wanted the physical shock–and it was a physical shock (this was a very non-touching society)–for an innocent girl to be taken into the arms of a man, a man about whom she really knew little, yet who held all power over her.
I wanted the stark contrast between Myddelton’s almost raffish experience and her relative inexperience–and in public, where she had to maintain a facade of dignity. Also I wanted something which would illustrate his growing sense of possession and physical attraction–and having them waltz together allowed me all that.
It seems a little thing now, but it’s important to recall that to that society in 1812-13, the idea of a man putting his hand on a woman’s waist and in public was not a little alarming.
Even Lord Byron (with his more than fair share of amours) had this to say of it: “From where the garb just leaves the bosom free, That spot where hearts were once supposed to be; Round all the confines of the yielded waist, The strangest hand may wander undisplaced…”
In short, many saw the dance as an invitation to licentious behaviour.
So there you have it.
If I have offended or misled in these small things, I apologise unreservedly…but as a friend who frequently tries to get through my rather thick skull says, “There’s a clue in the name, Bennetts. It’s called historical fiction…you’re allowed the odd extrapolation…”
And please do follow me on Twitter… @mmbennetts