On 25th August 2014, MM Bennetts passed away at her home in Hampshire, England. We can tell you all that it was painless and she was very peaceful.
Although she had been fighting her illness for some time, MM Bennetts was determined not to be known or remembered as the victim of a disease. She wanted people to know her as a writer, historian, keen horse-rider, great friend, mother and general smarty-pants.
Many people have asked or wondered if MM was every inch the person that she seemed to be on this blog. The simple answer is yes. She was exactly as witty and knowledgeable in person as she was in writing, and talking to her was delightful. She had a quirky sense of humour that appreciated both sophisticated word-play and plastic slug pranks. And what she wrote was based on experience or extensive research.
When it came to her work and her research, she was passionate about both. She would try anything to get a better understanding. In previous blogs she talked about shooting with the guns from Waterloo, about her riding, tying a cravat, taking snuff, and a great many other things. I can safely tell you that I personally witnessed the big green bruise on her arm from the kick of that gun (the same bruise of which she was very proud, parading it around like an old battle wound). I heard her complain of saddle sores, and she showed me how to take snuff for myself.
The woman herself was something of a walking paradox. MM was both the simplest and most complicated person. Her love of horses and ‘cakey’ was clear to anyone, and it was impressive how she managed to consume as much tea as she did. The horses she knew and loved were more like members of the family than anything else. Riding was one of her favourite things, particularly riding dressage and hacking out in the countryside. She loved art, and beautiful gardens – she was particularly fond of roses. She was also a fine pianist. She could be reduced to tears by certain pieces of classical music, and it was a pleasure to hear her play. However, when you spoke to her, especially on history, you knew that you were talking to the brightest and sharpest of minds.
That sharp mind never stopped working. It has been working brilliantly for decades. Whilst we may not be able to enjoy what was to come in the next book ‘Or Fear of Peace’, this does not mean that she has nothing left to give. We have yet to go through her notes and computer, and if there is anything we can tell you regarding the later books we will publish it here at a later date.
Should you miss her, and we know that many of you will, we invite you to stick the kettle on and open one of her books, or return to this blog. In all honesty, she is not truly gone. She left behind her words and plenty of cake-related references for us to enjoy again and again. She inspired so many people and I know that I, among many, are so happy to have had her in my life.
Now, to finish, I would like to rely on someone whom she felt, in this song, summed her up perfectly. Al Stewart, and his wonderful number Red Toupee. (And yes, many of the things he mentions were things she either did, or wanted to do. I kid you not, she was possibly quite mad.)
With love, the Bennetts clan.
A couple of years ago, some very wise boffin at a talk at Oxford expressed the opinion that the internet was not quite the sooper-dooper resource we had been sold. That whilst it did offer an infinitude of information at the click of one’s mousie, what it did not offer was understanding or any ability to weigh the importance of a fact or see and understand the significance thereof.
Which sounded very intellectual and savvy to me but I had other things to think about so I didn’t do a wulie wulie dance or anything.
But, you know what, that ancient boffin was spot on.
Because every day one encounters, if one is cruising about the internet, a bazillion blogs and articles which basically repeat what some other individual has talked about either six weeks ago or six months ago. It’s endless. And what does it contribute to the understanding of the past or past lives? Nothing! It’s just blah blah.
For many historical novelists it appears to be a form of publicity. (I don’t know that it works in one’s favour…to me it’s just internet glut and more and more I see it as proof of not an original thought in said novelist’s head…)
Or maybe, in terms of some of it, it’s the historical version of celebritocricy–an effort to shew me the Kardashians of 1800–let me tell you, they were about as interesting as buckets of dried wallpaper paste, the same as today, and the study of their empty little brains will not even add an ice cream cone to your day. (I like ice cream==not as much as cakey obviously, but…) And as for enhancing your understanding of the past…(I may need some ice cream here to recover the will to think…)
So today’s brief ranty-pants is to encourage the ladies and gentlemen of a writerly perhaps quasi-historical leaning to reconsider before they repeat what’s already been blogged about ad nauseum and where half the time, one can trace the line of the information from first appearance to its endless rehashing.
To remind everyone of a dictum that came about in the wake of the crammingness of stuff in Victorian houses so that there was so much STUFF in there you couldn’t see the taxidermy squirrels for the squiggley flocked wallpaper, less is more.
Okay, that’s enough grumping for today…well, not really. I mean the weather’s foul but the roses, somehow amazingly, are still blooming their heads off, so I shall stop complaining and think how grand they are…pink and red and yellow and blowsy!
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…
1) 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.
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?
As for reading about it, well, much of my research for this next book has had to be from Russian and Prussian sources, which might make reading about a little tricky…that’s why you have me, isn’t it? But as things unfold, I shall keep everyone alerted to my…er…trials, tribulations, (expletives) and transmogrifications…
7) When can we expect the book to be published? As soon as one can manage it. But I will say this…the novel does have this bijou extravagance-ette of five different armies swanning and swarming about the European countryside, (they have generals too and posh uniforms) so sometimes all these fellows get a bit unruly…and they just don’t listen, do they? And they won’t stay where they’re put. So rude…
(A bit of the musical landscape for you from Helen Jane Long’s Porcelein… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mj446lUR-js )
There are other authors who will be following along in this blog hop, beginning with the fascinating and knowledgeable
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?
But 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…”
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 Hotspur’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…”
“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.
But I shall try it anyway.
The thing is, in the last few days I’ve done an interview, which if I’m honest I actually truly enjoyed! And I kind of wished to share that.
And not only but also, I’ve done another thing on the state of the country–at war– during that era we’d like to think was uber-friv, parties, pretty dresses, aristos in high cravats and Beau Brummell–the early 19th century. And I kind of wanted to put that out here too.
So, do you mind if I just give you two charming links to these bits and say, Thanks jolly much for reading…?
It may or it may not amaze you to know that I get asked all sorts of questions about all sorts of historical subjects all the blooming time.
I am, after all, in the eyes of the public a walking encyclopaedia. So I can, can’t I, just open a crack in my brain and let some of those years’ worth of research just pour out, right? I mean, it doesn’t cost the would-be novelist anything, not like an investment of time or study for understanding…and it’s just easy for me, right? And I’ve got nothing else on my plate, right?
Or, often and often, I shall be reading the responses to a question of research and I’ll find that many say they were reading such and such a well-researched tome full of the details of the fabric of daily life, but it didn’t help their story, it wasn’t a priority, so they ditched it.
And now the whinge. Sorry, folks, that’s not good enough!
You want to know why I know so much, on so many subjects covering the breadth of politics, the military, trade, exploration, the Navy, the daily life customs, the scandals, the interlaced relationships between families across the country, it’s because I read. I read everything. And I don’t put it down just because it might not be germane to some diddly plot point I want for a novel.
Yes, sometimes it’s a hard slog. Some books much sloggier than others, I can assure you.
But you never know–on page 254, there might be some footnote or some paragraph which entirely throws open your understanding of secret societies and their history in Prussia in 1812,which are going to play into the next novel. And nobody but me knows about these, because no one else has stuck it all the way through the current tome on Napoleon and Berlin. (Not sure I blame them entirely.)
I know all this stuff because I have sat for days and weeks in research libraries, reading whole volumes of newspapers and magazines from the early 19th century. And pretty boring many of them were too. But because of this, you may believe me when I tell you that popular serialised fiction in Austen’s period was every bit as gagging and twee as pop fiction we could produce today. The only difference is the vocabulary. It’s just as badly-written, improbable, and silly, otherwise.
If I want to know what they wore, I pore over portraits of the period, in museums. I study their maps. Their etchings.
This is how it works: I do the work, I get the pay-off.
Because here’s the deal. When you trouble your sorry-self to read a whole biography, an entire history, you’re going to be learning heaps more than just what did the leather dying process smell like in 18th century London, or why did Castlereagh shoot Canning in the thigh, or some such small detail. You’re going to gain the very weft and warp of another world’s existence.
You’re going to pick up a narrative about how they spent their evenings, where people from one part of town liked to congregate, what kind of fabric came in cheap that year, why did red and pink dyes suddenly become affordable after 1805, what the public opinion on the state of the king’s health was, who was cousins with whom, whether the weather was bad or brilliant and how that affected the crops and were there bread riots. You’re going to begin to get it. To gain some broader understanding of another era, another epoch’s choices and lives–the very fabric of their lives. What they had for brekkies, and when. Everything! And then you’ll know.
And when you go to write it, therefore, all that wider context, that breadth and depth of knowledge is going to show. It’s going to be there, quietly, in understated details and comprehension of mores and attitudes and will spare many a reader the agonies of emotional and real anachronisms which are the bane of so much history and historical fiction.
So, to put it bluntly. Do your own work. You want to write a good historical novel and receive the plaudits for it? Put in the work. Do it. And don’t look for it to be handed you on a platter. No, the internet isn’t the brilliant research tool they promised, but lots of university libraries now have their collections on line, as do museums and the British Library.
You want to fill your head with the gems of past lives? Do it. No excuses. For through that doing, you shall build a palace of wisdom to the heavens. But you have to earn it and there are no shortie-cuts.