A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Still life rose

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
   The breath goes now, and some say, No:Still life
So let us melt, and make no noise,
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
   Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
   Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.
Still life mantlepiece
But we by a love so much refined,
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.
Study DoorIf they be two, they are two so
   As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
   To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.

John Donne


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In Loving Memory…

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.

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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.

002Many 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. IMG_0444In 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 MM 01gardens – 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.

Feeling a degree of intellectual jaundice? Yes, I am.

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!

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… 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

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 www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com

The strange world of revisions…

May 1812I did something I should never do today.  And I regret it.  I glanced at some of the readers’ reviews for May 1812.  Some of them were fab, I have to say.  And for those which were helpful and loved the book, I am immensely grateful.  It’s wonderfully uplifting to know that someone somewhere found the book a great read and was reading it again because they’d enjoyed it so much.

As for the others, well, crikey…I shouldn’t read them and I know I shouldn’t read them and probably I should just go back to my corner and have a cuppa and get over myself.  Or it.  Or something.

(I’d just like to say to my detractors–I never claimed I was the greatest writer of the 21st century…I wrote the book I wanted to write, I explored the issues I wanted to explore and that I felt were important and in the style that I thought worked and if you have a different point of view, that’s great, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make me or my work substandard…it just means you have a different point of view and thank heaven we’re all individuals, it makes for a wonderful rainbow of mankind!  So let’s shake hands and raise a glass to diversity.)

But that’s not what I meant to say.  What I meant to say is that over the last few days I did something that I’ve been wanting to do for some time, something that many of my readers have been urging me to do for the longest time, I uploaded a revised version of May 1812 onto Amazon.

The thing is, when I wrote the book and over the years of researching and studying the period, not only did the plot evolve, but also information about the period grew more accessible.   When I began work on the thing, no one–and I mean no one!–discussed the Continental Blockade, for example.

I had to piece the story together on that from scraps of information and finally from reading the Napoleonic decrees that made the system law.  It was painstaking work.  And then, I had the fun of figuring out how it all played out–what those decrees meant to the people on the ground.  More fun.

Ditto with the information on the Prime Minister’s assassination.

But the most difficult of all was accessing the information on the lead-up to the outbreak of hostilities with the United States–because on that, there was very little.  And most of what was available was propaganda.  It wasn’t until the bicentennial of the outbreak of war that it became a matter of interest to anyone but me.  But–blessings upon their heads–in the last couple of years (since May 1812 was published) a few historians have published works of great merit, filling the historical blanks in with gorgeous detail.

Meanwhile, over the period of working on the book, I had come very much to admire the works of Dickens and Trollope.  In particular, how they weren’t limited to one plotline per novel, but explored many characters whose lives intersected and told several stories all under the aegis of one title.  And I love that–it’s more a tapestry of life.  And in May 1812, successfully or unsuccessfully, I had wanted to give that a go too.  So I’d written a second love story to contrast with the main storyline.

However, as some will know, when it came time to publish, costs of publishing a book of over 600 pages had escalated into outer space. Moreover, I was told many times by many people who presented themselves as the utmost authority, that one could not sell a book of over 120,000 words.  Full stop.  No ifs, ands or buts.

So I cut, as much as possible, the second storyline (about Ned Hardy, which incidentally, I had planned to pick up and write about in a later book…) leaving only enough so that it would make sense…

Then, about a year ago, some friends urged me to put the ‘cut scenes’ up on this blog.  And behold and lo, people loved them!  And urged me to reinstate them in the novel.

Which bring me to the revisions.  As I learned from my study about the approaching war of 1812 and an in depth examination of Napoleon’s manipulative relationship with the Americans during the period, it wasn’t that I had it wrong, it’s that I had it naive and clunky.  And I wanted to get it right.  The more I’d read, the more shocked I’d been by how underhanded so much of what was going on was–and Napoleon was at the heart of it!  And the Brits knew it!

And I wanted to put the opening chapters of Ned Hardy’s story back where they belonged–in May 1812.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddHence, over the past week, sort of to coincide with the marvelous publication of Castles, Customs, and Kings, the collection of historical essays which I co-edited, I have gone through May 1812 with a…well, not so much a fine-tooth comb as line by line with a red pen…and brought the historical conversations up to current understanding of the issues, as well as putting Ned back where he belongs.

The button to upload the changes to Amazon was pressed yesterday late afternoon.  I hope the newly fattened May 1812, that is to say the Revised Second Edition, will be available very soon–probably today or tomorrow sometime.  (As ever, I owe a debt of gratitude to my editor whose patience, erudition, and further patience got me through this event.)

And I sincerely hope the new Revised edition pleases and that you find it as uplifting and engaging and enjoyable as I did reading it afresh, revisiting those loved settings, conversations and characters over these last few days.

Bless…

It’s out now! Castles, Customs, and Kings…

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddI confess, I am molto molto excited about this.

It’s out!  It’s been released a couple of days early:  Castles, Customs, and Kings…

And I have to tell you, I think it’s an utterly grand book.  And not because it’s got my name on the cover or because I contributed some essays to it.

No, this book is fab for all sorts of reasons.  One, the quality of the book itself.  It weighs nicely in the hand.  It’s really just a pleasure to look at.  The paper weight is good too.  These are all reasons why people like me still prefer to buy our books in paper…and for all of those reasons, it’s just a really satisfying book.

But the other, of course, is all the cool snippets of information inside–all those bits of research that go in to weaving the fabric of our characters’ lives for you our readers.

So I hope you’ll have a gander.  More than that, I hope you’ll buy a copy.  But most of all, I hope that you’ll enjoy these essays as much as the authors have loved learning about and researching all the varied topics on which they write.

Slainte!

Allerseelen ~ To the uncounted lost…

To the uncounted lost

Auch die keinen Frieden kannten,
Aber Mut und Stärke sandten
Über leichenvolles Feld
In die halbentschlaf’ne Welt:
Alle die von hinnen schieden,
Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden!

                                                                                                                                   ~ Johann George Jacobi

Those too who knew no peace,
But still offered courage and strength
On the corpse-strew fields
In a world half-asleep:
May all who have parted hence,
May all souls rest in peace!