Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
Well, because I’ve always enjoyed the Dickensian sense of multiple storylines all woven into one, there isn’t one main character or protagonist, there are three. Each has his own individual story, but these are also working as part of the whole.
The novel opens with a boy, Boy Tirrell–a nameless waif almost–and he is the thread who connects them all. Much of his time is spent out on the run in Europe, gathering information anywhere from Paris to Berlin to Vienna. He is the Foreign Secretary’s eyes and ears on the Continent—and he acts too as a window for the reader, so they can see what the people of 1812 knew.
Then there’s Thos Jesuadon, a dissolute and a gambler who runs his own network of watchers and spies in London. Jesuadon has worked almost entirely in Britain, so he has a certain expertise there.
Captain George Shuster, who was introduced briefly in May 1812, is now on secondment to the Foreign Office from the Peninsula. Shuster has seen a lot of action both as part of Wellington’s army, but also in France as a spy, so he brings expertise, but also a great deal of baggage in the form of post-war trauma.
Then there’s Jesuadon’s muscle in the form of an ex-farrier called Barnet; the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh; and a Scotsman called Dunphail–also a carry-over from May 1812–who doesn’t want anything to do with any of them, but unfortunately was witness to a rather important event.
Taken all together these men epitomize the fact that in this period there were no rules. There was no such thing as a proper intelligence agency. They were all amateurs, they came to work as and when they chose, they risked their lives daily without recognition, and their existence has, until recently, been wholly denied by generations of politicians and historians.
Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
The fictional characters are often composites–historical figures perhaps, plus bits from people I’ve known or observed, thrown together with a bit of imagination t synthesise the whole together. And I very often will have listened to the speech patterns of people around the country so that I can write ‘character’, if you will.
However, in the case of actual historical figures, like the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, I base them upon a great deal of research. I read biographies, I read their letters, journals and speeches—so I build up not just an understanding of what made them tick, but how they spoke, who their friends were, what were their habits. Just as important too are the comments made by their contemporaries–those often provide the key to understanding the man.
Which has always seemed odd to me because Byron when he was alive–yes, he did write absolutely splendid poetry, no doubt about that–was universally despised for his rampant sexual behaviour. Even by today’s standards, he’d probably be doing time not just for his sexual predilictions but also for his habit of beating up members of the public as a form of sport–he called it boxing the watch; we’d call it GBH.
So I do wonder why is it we’re willing to take his word on someone who was a pillar of society, who served the nation ceaselessly and about whom one of Castlereagh’s political foes, Lord Greville wrote: “The great feature was a cool and determined courage, which gave the appearance of resolution and confidence in all his actions, and inspired his friends with admiration and excessive devotion to him, and caused him to be respected by his most violent opponents.
“He never spoke ill; his speeches were continually replete with good sense and strong argument and though they seldom offered much to admire, they generally contained a great deal to be answered.
“He was one of the best managers of the House of Commons who ever sat in it.”
So in his case, I’ve tried to bring him alive as he may have been, not as he’s been caricatured, and it’s been these qualities that I’ve sought to capture as I’ve written his character in the book.
Who or what is the inspiration behind your fictional characters?
I’ve always been fascinated by the sacrifices made by spies. We dress it up in a dinner jacket and call it James Bond, but the reality is rather less glamorous.
There’s a loneliness, an isolation, a friendlessness and an inability to trust that these individuals live with, which makes for such a sacrifice in so many ways. And I wanted to touch on some of that, explore what it must have been like to be a witness to what was really happening in France and elsewhere, even as Napoleon was pumping out the greatest spin the world has ever encountered. I’m always inspired by men who lay down their lives for their country. And the spies of this period did.
However, at the heart of the work was a desire to pay tribute and to honour to all those civilians who had fallen to the French armies, but who hadn’t even ever been counted, the women and children who starved to death or whose lives were taken by disease or war atrocities.
Do you find that you put a little of yourself into your characters, or do you create them to be completely different from you?
I rather think it’s a combination of things. Some characters do have elements of me in there, or would appear to, but that may only be because they share emotions or reactions which I understand and hence can write about. Others, not at all.
Jesuadon is nothing like me—and I must say, he practically wrote himself, he was absolutely clear-cut as a character from the outset. I could see him, hear him, feel the force and drive of his character—and that had nothing to do with me.
Since I’m a musician, that always seems to find its way into at least one character—so there I would be writing from experience, what it’s like to play a certain instrument or a certain piece of music.
I suppose in general I write from experience, either my own or observed or what I imagine one would feel in a set of given circumstances, and then all thrown together in a kind of fictional stewpot, but then, as I say, there’s always at least one who arrived, like Pallas Athene, full-blown and fully realized, out of the head of the god, and often, I find, they have a habit of taking over, and there goes your synopsis.
What do you feel sets your books and their characters apart from others in the same genre?
I think it’s a very peculiar thing that we have the historical fiction about the early 19th century placed into little neatly-labeled boxes. On the one side, we have the swashbuckling military fiction—usually in series and full of derring-do. There’s the Sharpe series about the Peninsular War; there’s Hornblower and the work of Patrick O’Brian and now Julian Stockwin, all about the British navy of the period.
Then, on the other side of the divide, there’s the idealized domestic fiction which grew out of the work of Jane Austen to be genre-ised by Georgette Heyer, and on into the stylized Regency Romance. And never the two worlds shall meet.
There’s nothing about the politics, the social upheaval of the industrial revolution nor the devastation caused by twenty years of a continuous Europe-wide war. It’s as if there were no real people for this thirty year period.
I write about people, people caught in the web of history.
Of Honest Fame is a spy thriller set against this war of wars. It’s about the spies who operated against Napoleon and his ferocious secret police, both at home and travelling about Europe, gathering information, risking their lives, doing their best to remain invisible, even when being tracked by an assassin. So, yes, there’s lots of derring-do (I trust), but it also explores the lives of the people who lived then or perished, with all the grit, and also the glory.
Have you ever had a character take over a story and move it in a different direction than you had originally intended? How did you handle it?
I have to laugh over this, because really, the question should be, ‘So, Bennetts, did you ever manage to stay on track at all?’ Er, sort of.
The good news is that I’m bound by what actually happened. So Sir Spencer Perceval was assassinated on 11 May 1812. That was immovable fact. The Government fell in a vote of no-confidence on 21 May. Again fact. Napoleon crossed the River Nieman on 28 June 1812 to invade Russia. He returned to Paris, he and his private secretary, on 18 December 1812, just a little before midnight. Again, fact.
I do create a calendar with all the pertinent historical events marked down on it and work things out from there. But beyond that, I have to say, the characters take me for a ride, and it’s a bit like herding frogs.
I’ll introduce a character whom I believe is just for one chapter—a minor, minor character, and he’ll turn out to be a major secondary character. A woman—I had planned to have no female characters in Of Honest Fame—will turn up in chapter ten and seem determined to stay.
So I’ve learned to let the whole grow organically—to write what I believe is the synopsis and then somewhere around chapter twelve, throw it on the floor with all the other rubbish I write. Because that way the story works, it isn’t contrived, the emotional punch, such as it is, is genuine, and the characters remain believable and true to themselves.