The MM Bennetts Award

As some of you will know, the MM Bennetts Award was founded after MM’s passing in 2014. The award came from a wish to remember MM, to celebrate her work and life, and also to give other talented writers of historical fiction the encouragement that MM herself would have given.

MM Bennetts firmly believed that historical fiction should breathe life into the past, and recreate a world we have lost. For her, history wasn’t just a list of facts, figures and dates from long ago; history was made up of people and the stories they lived out. She strongly felt, too, that historical fiction shouldn’t be just a set of modern characters in old costumes with outdated names. It should give us a glimpse into a past world – how those people thought and lived, fought and loved.

We have had so many inspiring entries in the past two years, and we hope that through this award, MM’s work to create and promote fiction of literary brilliance and historical excellence will be continued.

In 2016, the MM Bennetts Award was awarded to Stuart Blackburn for ‘Into the Hidden Valley’, an intriguing book which looked at both sides of the British Empire in Assam. It is a wonderful read, and truly captures the attitudes of the natives and those serving Queen Victoria.

Now, for our third year, we’re calling all historical fiction authors who have published in 2016 to submit their entries.

For more information, please visit  http://www.mmbaward.org/ .

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This isn’t usual for self…

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…?

A glimpse of Austen’s England. 

Bennetts and that little white pony, a salutary tale for authors.  Or parents.

Slainte!

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Whinge-bucketing

dragoon2Hallo Lovelies, this is a whinge.  It’s about research. And about asking for others to do one’s research for one.

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, printshopwindow1what 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.

Whinge over.

Slainte.

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It’s all in the detail…

It appears, as happens to all of us, that I deeply offended someone recently by having a less than rose-tinted pair of glasses on when I wrote a new blog about Napoleon.   Why this should have been, I don’t rightly know.  It’s not like his atrocities are news or anything anymore.  But so it was.

And anything I said in support of my argument was, er, dismissed by this individual and then, going for the kill, she advised me that I needed to learn what a good historian does.  (Which as far as I was aware was something about taking all the information in–even the bits that don’t support one’s pet theory.  Or have I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ fine novel about the subject, Gaudy Night, too many times? And believed it.)

Favourite bootsHence, in my personal defense, I wish to say this.  Once upon a time there was a little boffin named MM Bennetts.  (No, the MM does not stand for Montmorency, whatever certain people may tell you…)  And this creature, Bennetts, was not perhaps cut out to be an historian.  No, the heart and soul of this child were in music–a pianist first and Beethoven the first and great love.  

But history was what our little boffin read, fascinated by the lives and hopes and losses of all those fabulous artists and poets and people who had lived before.  (And the novelist part is all Dorothy Dunnett’s fault–a great friend and mentor, as it happened.)

strathtyrumNor did Bennetts arrive at Napoleonic controversy by a straight path.  Indeed, for a long time, our boffin was immersed in the glories of the Italian Renaissance and specialised as a mediaevalist.  But, these twists and turns happen…and through Beethoven and the architecture of the brothers Adam and all sorts of other things, this Bennetts became immersed in this world of early 19th century Britain.  (To be fair, I would have liked to have been frivolous and write immensely successful somethings or other…but the research, you see, it always drew me in further and further.  Like down Alice’s rabbit hole.)

conciergerieI had been to a huge exhibition of Goya’s etchings of the atrocities of war, from the Peninsula, you see.  And then I was in Paris at the Conciergerie.  And if you’ve not been there, well, all I can tell you is that it’s one of those places where the cries of the innocent condemned still weep from the very stones.

Anyway.  At the end of the tour, I asked about atrocities against the population committed after the Reign of Terror.  And the tour guide–after assuring me I couldn’t be English, my French was too perfect–was emphatic that there had been no atrocities committed by the Napoleonic regime or any other regime after the Terror.

Obviously, the party line.

But I knew it wasn’t true.  I had seen the evidence.

And this was shortly before the French celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution–wherein curiously I noted that there were no mentions of the September Massacres, no mention of the  genocide against the aristocracy nor the clergy…it was all a great party.

napo-creepAnd as the years have gone by, and I have relied more and more on first hand accounts of events, more and more turned to other countries’ non-partisan views and accounts, as the accounts which for 100 years were kept from us by the Berlin Wall’s presence and no sharing, and now all the forensic examination of Napoleonic grave sites, I find I am in a world of quotidienne atrocity, about which I have become, with no little reservation, an expert.

In my defense, it’s not what I like.  I like cakey, horses, poetry and antique roses.   I adore P.G. Wodehouse, Shakespeare and Donne.  I still play the piano and fill my world with music–it’s what we’re here for.

But I cannot turn aside from the sufferings of others and pretend they didn’t happen because Napoleon had the best air-brushing artist and propagandists the world has ever known.  And if that’s what you’re wanting, well, look elsewhere I guess.

I don’t, I hope, court controversy.  But I’m not going to lie.

DJ

My Top Ten…No, that’s not right…

I know, I know, where have I been recently and why have I not been blogging and administering my fortnightly dose of historical hilarity?  Er, a lot on my plate and no clear head space in which to organise amusing historical jaunts and japes for you?

Okay, it’s lame, but it’s the best I’ve got.

So recently, I was describing the deep black ooze that covered the streets of Paris to my children–and no, I’m not going to describe it for you, this is a sanitary blog–when they arrived at what they felt would be the brilliant subject of my next blog:  The Top Ten Most Disgusting Historical Things I Know.

It may surprise you to know that I did not leap upon this as blog-manna.  Rather, I point-blank refused to discuss the Top Ten or even the Top Fifty.  As I pointed out, I don’t want to think about the Most Disgusting Things I know.  I don’t want that in my head. Not now.  Not tomorrow…Yes, they truly are that heinous.

So instead of grossing out my audience for the next decade, I thought I’d write about something I was asked to write about recently:  Napoleon’s various dabblings with poison.  (No, honestly!  Someone did request I write about this!)

The first headline-hitter of this topic comes to us from the snirpy little Corsican’s Egyptian jaunt in 1798.   You may or may not remember that he was bored and the French government, the Directory, of the time thought it would be a super idea to get him out of Paris where he was more popular than they were, so when he put forward this jolly prospect of taking over Egypt and turning it into a French outpost from which they could interrupt British trade, the Directory said, “Quelle bonne idee!  Swell idea!  There now, off you go…though you’ll have to finance it yourself…”

So he got himself a bijou army-ette (composed mainly of those who had served in the Vendee) and sailed first for Malta, which he took over, re-organised to suit himself and raided the treasury, then skipped off to Egypt.

napoleon mounted1Where he invaded, marched on Cairo, slaughtered the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids–they hadn’t a hope, they’d got sabres and no organised cavalry and he had French infantry squares.  And he had his savants begin raiding tombs and homes for historical artifacts and knickknacks they could pilfer.

He marched his soldiers all around the place, declared he intended to found a new religion with himself as chief priest, combining the best of Christianity and Islam in a religion that would suit everyone (I kid you not) and have chucked out the Egyptian rulers, set the place up to suit himself, with him as Lord High Executioner, Koko or Pooh-Bah, if you prefer.

Strangely, not all the Egyptians thought this was fun.  And with his underlings acting like arrogant conquerors, tempers grew a tad frayed.  All of which bubbled to the surface in an area of Cairo surrounding the Al-Azhar mosque in October, where the leaders decided to take on the invading infidels and took the Frenchies by surprise.

Napoleon reacted, er, shall we say badly, to this assault on his authority and ordered a full-out assault on the community with artillery, howitzers,  and everything else.  I will not repeat the atrocities committed by French troops here–suffice it to say that women were murdering their children and then themselves rather than submit.

So, now the Egyptians having been reduced to awe and trembling, the magnanimous Corsican upstart–yes, he did believe he was an image of magnanimity; others might have spelt it more like megalomania–decided to have a go at pushing up along the coast toward Turkey, but first he meant to take on Ali Pasha at Acre in Syria.

There was some resistance to his plan at Jaffa–where they had plague–and after defeating the troops there, he ordered his men to gun down the 4000 prisoners of war on the beach, so that the tide would wash them away.  His troops initially refused, but a Napoleonic tantrum or nine convinced them that they’d best get on with it.  But not before plague was spreading through his men.

sir sidney smithSo off he marches them up to Acre, where he plans to besiege the citadel.  Unfortunately, as arrives, he finds that Sir Sidney Smith (three cheers!) has arrived in the harbour to bolster Ali Pasha’s supplies and to provide military support and intelligence.  However, due to Smith’s wiliness, his intelligence, his superb organisation skills, the French did not take Acre as planned.  It did not topple to their late-arriving siege engines, they just lost a lot of men to dysentery, dehydration, starvation and…plague.

And it was this last which annoyed our French general the most.  He’d realised belatedly that things weren’t going exactly to plan and that he needed to get back to Egypt rather promptly because things weren’t going to plan there either.  They hadn’t made him a god or something or carved his face on a statue at Luxor maybe.

The problem was all these troops sick as proverbial dogs in the field hospitals with plague.  So our inventive general had a plan–let’s call it Plan B.  He decided to have their drinking water poisoned, so they’d all die and he wouldn’t have the faff of dragging them back to Egypt in litters and carts.

Curiously, the doctors in charge had the temerity to refuse to follow these orders.  Can you believe it?  And it appears none of his previously successful attempts at intimidation, bullying, threats of courts-martial, worked.  What were they thinking?

Hence, the half-pint conquering hero (not) was forced to transport his ailing and dying troops back to Egypt, where before long he abandoned them to high-tail it back to France, proclaiming the entire venture a rip-roaring success.  His remaining troops were eventually rescued by the Royal Navy and transported home by them–though they refused to allow the French to keep the ancient texts and treasures they had pillaged and stolen; these they took home to Britain for the British Museum…

But I digress.  We’re talking about poison here.  Ehem.

Napinwinter1812So, skipping ahead to the next risky venture–the invasion of Russia in 1812.  Another little Napoleonic conquest that didn’t go according to plan.  Hence, when Napoleon abandoned Moscow in October, and then his troops on their march  home in December of 1812, he kept a vial of poison about his neck to be swallowed in case he was captured by Cossacks, whom he had reason to believe would not treat him, er, kindly, in the event of his capture.  And knowing what they did to those French troops they did capture, I fancy his suspicions were not far off the mark.

He was not captured.  (I know, I know, you wanted a disgustoid story here…sorry.)  So he kept the vial in a handy place.  Just in case, you know.

And when at last in the early days of April 1814, Paris had fallen to the Allies (Prussia, Russia, Austria) and his generals had come to insist he abdicated, he did what any self-respecting tyrant would do, he administered the dose of fatal poison which he had been keeping just for such a moment.

Only one problem.  The sub-zero Russian temperatures which had frozen his retreating troops in their boots and turned the tin buttons which held up their breeks to powder so their trousies wouldn’t stay up had also deteriorated the poisons in the vial.

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauSo though Napoleon allegedly detested the weakness of suicide, on the 13th April 1814 at Fontainbleau, after signing the abdication papers and finding his former friends and allies deserting him in droves, he swallowed the contents of the aforementioned vial.  And was vilely ill.

But no funeral.

And there you have it..

Now, it’s urban legend or according to Hercule Poirot or something that poison is a woman’s or a eunuch’s weapon.  Thus, in the light of that and of all the above, was Napoleon was telling us something, do you think?  And to think we missed it all these years…

A Progress Report…

You know that part of a project when you’ve got about a billion different elements clanging about in your head demanding recognition and attention and to be top dog and you know all of them are probably important or essential but you can’t for the life of you sort out how to make anything other than goulash out of the whole mess–maybe a bit more paprika will help?  Well, it’s rather like that.

europe1815A break-through occurred on a day-trip with my rather ingenious and maths-minded daughter a bit ago, when I put forward my difficulty with all the research (no, I am not going to tell you how many tomes or how many languages…) and asked if she could see her way to organising it all for me.  She, being very whizzy at these sorts of problems, had three different solutions in about 30 seconds.  All of which were excellent.  (I hate that.  It’s so breathtakingly easy and she makes it all seem so obvious…)

So we spent several days together with me downloading the contents of my brain and the many books and journals into her magic notebook, which she then turned into a frighteningly efficient thing for cross-referencing as well as a series of maps and other such intellectual delights…we still have several volumes to go.

But it was at this point, when she looked at the pages and pages of notes she’d made, the outsize cast of historical personages (I hadn’t even mentioned the fictional additions…) that she observed, “No wonder you’ve had problems.  This is like a game of chess with twenty players!

“For heaven’s sake, you’ve got five separate armies on the move…”

And that pretty much sums it up.  (Okay, yah, there are a great many generals and staff officers with Russian and Prussian surnames, I admit that…)

But since then, since then–and even with the delicious manifold diversions offered by the Christmas season–progress has not only seemed possible, but has got underway.  Of course, no one is more astonished at this than self.  But there it is.

NPG 891,Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (Lord Castlereagh),by Sir Thomas LawrenceA new opening chapter has presented itself which makes brilliant sense of all sorts of things and which just popped out of the too many notebooks of research notes and I find myself in the unusual position of being quite positive, hopeful and even feeling a bit of the old Bennetts wit returning to the page…

So that’s me.  Yes, a trifle overwhelmed by the too much that I know, but with help gaining some sense of control over it all…and you know what that means, don’t you?  That means a book will dribble itself out of my thoughts onto the page and into your hands eventually.

So thanks for all the support, cheer, and encouragement.  It’s meant more than you’ll ever know…

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

[do follow me on Twitter: @mmbennetts ]

Reflections on the Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813)

Leipzig4I’ve just completed a brief segment for a television programme on the Battle of Leipzig…and I’ll be frank, I think I sounded a complete numpty. So I thought I’d jot down a few bits of what I should have said and would have said if I’d had my wits about me, rather than…er…whatever it was I did say.

So let me begin by saying that the Battle of Leipzig, or the Battle of the Nations as it’s often called, was the game-changer of the Napoleonic wars, and Napoleon’s loss there opened the door for the invasion of France in early 1814 and eventually his abdication in April of that year.

So what happened to turn the Emperor of France and the Victor of Europe into the world’s biggest loser.  Well, let me put it to you this way, a lot of things just went hideously wrong on the day.  And when I say hideous, I mean inconceivably hideous.

napoleon1814For a start, there was the French army itself.  You may recall that when he lost those 450,000 men in Russia the previous year, well, when he’d got back to Paris on the 18 December, on the 19th at a levee, he’d announced that by spring he would need a new Grande Armee of 350,000 troops.  I can only guess at the boggling that went on behind his back.

The authorities did their best, but by October of 1813, the Nouveau Grande Armee was still an army comprised of raw recruits.  The seasoned veterans which had been the glue holding the whole together for over a decade were all gone–dead in the snows of Russia.  So too were thousands of the officers.  As for the French cavalry–they’d been pretty much wiped out by the Russian campaign, and they couldn’t be put back together again–France simply didn’t have the horses.  At all.

Another thing had happened in the meantime too, and that was, the three main armies of the Allied forces–the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians–had all instituted sweeping reforms to their military structures so that the combined armies of the Allies were not the same badly led badly trained troops that Napoleon had faced and walloped previously.

Moreover all of the Allied forces were now driven by a patriotic fervour to rid Europe of the enslaving French…

leipzig3Let me quote for you the order of the day which was read out to the troops from the Allied command on the morning of the 16th:  “Brave soldiers!  The most important epoch of this holy war is at hand.  The decisive hour is striking.  Prepare yourselves for battle!  The bond which unites mighty nations in one great enterprise will be drawn closer and tighter on the battlefield.  Russians!  Prussians!  Austrians!  You fight for a cause!  You fight for the independence of Europe, for the freedom of your sons, for the immortality of your name!  All for one!  One for all!  Victory is yours!”

On that first day of the battle, things were pretty evenly matched.  There were mistakes of course, and the fighting was fierce.

The Allied forces surrounded Leipzig from the north, south and east, but the west remained open and Napoleon, at the end of the day, had he had his wits about him, could have forseen that they’d fought each other to a draw and the wise move would have been to sue for peace and an orderly withdrawal…

But that’s what he didn’t do.  Because Napoleon was at heart an obsessive gambler and he was convinced as he always was that just one more throw of the dice at double or nothing stakes would deliver the victory he craved.

leipzig2On the 17th, there were minor skirmishes, but both sides were resting their troops.  But then on the 18th, all of those many mistakes caught up with the Emperor.  The weather was appalling and mired his troops in mud as they attempted to manoeuvre into place.  Due to his lack of cavalry and thus reconaissance, he didn’t have accurate reports on the Allied dispositions or troop numbers. Overnight, large reinforcements had arrived in the Allied camp, so that he and his 160,000 troops now faced an Allied army of 300,000 troops.  He was running low on supplies and ammunition.

All during the 18th, both sides fought like tigers.  By the late evening, it was clear that the Allies had won the day.  The Allies had over 60,000 casualties; French losses were in the region of 40,000…and by 2 a.m., Napoleon had given the order for retreat.

The battered French troops began streaming out of Leipzig over the western bridge even as the Allied troops rallied and threw themselves once more into the breach with a ferocity which stunned the French.  The narrow streets and lanes of Leipzig were crammed and locked with the wagonloads of wounded, guns, and soldiers…

Then, an even greater catastrophe occurred.  The chappie who’d been ordered to blow up the bridge after the French had fled the city got his timing or his charge wrong and blew the bridge while there were men on it and while many French were now trapped within the city walls.

Again, let me give you an eye-witness report, this from the French Marechal Macdonald:  “Our unhappy troops were crowded together on the river bank, whole platoons plunged into the water and were carried away; cries of despair rose from all sides.  The men perceived me.  Despite the noise and the tumult, I distinctly heard these words:  ‘Monsieur le Marechal, save your men!’ I could do nothing for them!  Overcome by rage, indignation, fury, I wept!”

leipzig6The French retreat was the antithesis of orderly; it was chaos–with many abandoning their field guns, deserting, and many more contracting typhus as they ran away.  The Allied troops swept into the city of Leipzig and in so doing brought the number of French prisoners to over 30,000.   To be honest, the French army never recovered.

Meanwhile, those French prisoners of war fell victim to their own folly–before the battle, in fits of rage and destruction, they had pillaged widely, throwing on the fire whatever they could not consume.  Indeed, they ripped up hundreds of fruit trees from beyond the city walls and fed these to the fires as well.  Thus, as prisoners of war, there was literally nothing to feed them and they starved to death, or survived by eating the flesh of the dead horses, or even, according to some eye-witnesses their fallen comrades.

Over 600,000 men had taken part in this four-day battle.   But of the many losses, Napoleon’s were the worst, for he could not replace them–he’d already exhausted France of her young men for this New Grande Armee and there simply were no new recruits to be had.

Indeed, he had so impoverished France with his war-lust, that in the spring of 1814, when the Prussians–keen for revenge and lots of pillage–invaded France, their letters home tell of unspeakable poverty–they write that although they had meant to pillage and rob, there was nothing to take and the French peasants were so destitute, they made Prussian peasants look like wealthy burghers…

And finally, the Battle of the Nations taught the Allied leaders the one thing they’d always doubted:  they could win; they could defeat the military genius of Napoleon–he’d never been beaten before, but now victory could be theirs!

And it was…

(And it would take poor France another 75 years to recover…)