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.



An award of sorts…

Greetings earthlings.

I appear to have won an award of sorts.  Or have been nominated for one.  Or something.

(Yes, yes, as usual, interaction with the rest of the human race is leaving me bemused and slightly dysfunctional…)

Anyway, the deal is this.  I display this logo-ey-thing and tell you some rivetingly interesting stuff about self.  (No, there will be no pictures, not of me anyway…) And then do some other bits and bobs.

very-inspiring-awardSo.  Here we go.  Award logo:

And now the list of things I must do:

1. Display the logo on your blog.  Check.

2. Link back to the person who nominated you.  That kind (and possibly delusional) soul is Anna Belfrage.  (I should add that she’s offered me cake, Red Velvet cake, so I’m kind of partial to her…I’m sure you can see that…)

3. State 7 things about yourself.

4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award.

5. Notify your nominees.

So here’s the stating seven things about self.  (Are these meant to be intimate details, I ask myself?  Or things like, “I like broccoli”?  Hmn, tough decision.)

One–The greatest thing I’ve achieved is living and learning to walk again.  Two years ago, I was in hospital with a cornucopia of dread diseases and had no hope of survival.  By late March, I was back home and determined to live and walk again.  And I remember reading on FB people crowing about they’d written 200-million billion words that day, and I’d think, “Yes, but I took ten steps today.  By myself.”

Two–I subsequently learned to ride again.  Which was as hard or harder than the walking bit.  But I have the dearest most wonderful friends, who insisted that I could do this.  One got me on a dear and beloved horse I’ve known for years, and he walked me round and round the paddock.  I didn’t tell him–perhaps I didn’t need to–that my greatest fear was that I couldn’t dismount, having lost all the muscles in my back and shoulders.  It didn’t matter though, he lifted me off as though I weighed nothing and insisted I come again soon.  I owe him and that horse my life.  Without horses, I am nothing.

Other–so wonderful–friends insisted that I could and would hack out again.  So once I’d mastered the rising trot again (took a few months) and the dismounting issue, they took me out on the Downs.  And then there’s Tomtom, (he’s a horse, in case you hadn’t guessed.)  He has, throughout this fight back to life, been my brother, my friend, my greatest supporter, the one who’s said when my body says no, “It’s okay, I’ll carry you…we’ll get there.  Lean on me.”

Three–I don’t read German as well as I wish I did.

Four–I played the Pathetique Sonata by Beethoven when I was 13.

Five–I’m currently playing a lot of music by Einaudi.  It was his Una Mattina (on my iPod) that kept me dreaming, hoping, praying, breathing, and plotting during the months of being in hospital…it kept me praying that I would write another novel with Boy Tirrell in it; every time I hear it, he is conjured up.  So in so many ways, I owe Maestro Einaudi for, if not my life, then the return of my imagination and my literary ambitions.

Six–I really do like broccoli.  And carrots.  (Tomtom likes them more…)  And peas.  And cauliflower.  Love ’em. But I hate, hate, hate broad beans.  And hate more than anything asparagus!

Seven–Coming back to life is a very lonely place.  You lose lots of friends.  And the world you wake up to, the world you’ve fought like stink to be a part of again is rarely as you imagined it was.  But I have had the great gift, the great pleasure, the great kindness of those who have loved my books encouraging me, supporting me (though they didn’t know it) and cherishing me.  Thank you all so very, very much.  Bless you.

Item 4.  I don’t know 15 other bloggers.  Honestly.  But I’ll have a go listing those four I do know and admire–great friends and interesting authors.

Jonathan Hopkins.

Jenni James.

Terry Kroenung.

Piotr Mierzejewski.

5…I’ll just go do that now, shall I?



The depth is in the detail…

What with one thing and another, I come across a fair few number of young historians and writers in my daily rounds…and novelists and aspiring novelists and historical authors and all that…and I read a fair number of historical blogs too, some of which are utterly superb. 

(I’m always so grateful when someone has written about something I need to know!  It’s very much a case of my cup runneth over kind of thing for me…)

But one thing I’m noticing a lot is an emphasis or reliance on facts and nothing but the facts approach.  And that, in my estimation, has the effect of de-humanising history and reducing the lives of those who lived before us to something about as deep as onion-skin or parchment. 

This can be most acute with timelines, for example–not that I’m suggesting that one shouldn’t learn the facts, the names and dates and all that.  It’s essential.  Obviously, I think that.  I mean without it, you’ve got no framework upon which to hang the understanding of the events and people! 

But the thing is…the thing is…

How can I put this?

Well, the other day, I was talking with a student of history–focusing on the Tudors at the minute–and she was ranting about how much she can’t stand the blighters.  All well and good, but one of the reasons she gave was that Henry VIII stank so badly.  According to her one could get a whiff of his Majesty from a mile away. 

(Which seems hyperbolic to me, even on a windy day…but I digress.)

So I felt forced to say, “Hang a tick,” (not because I like the Tudors, because I don’t), “but I think you’re leaving out an important element here–you’re forgetting that they were human”.  I’m not saying that the Tudors don’t deserve a degree of mockery–as I said, I don’t much care for them.

“And whatever you do”, I continued, “Never let anyone make you forget that however different they were to us, they were human.   And allow them the dignity of being human–not just a name and a series of dates.” 

Probably, my comment went in one ear and out the other–but I tried.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

But it is a thing, you know…there are so many histories and works of historical fiction or romance where the authors seem to have no clue as to the humanity of those about whom they’re writing.

They’re not human, they’re not people–these figures who people the pages–they’re names or titles with a set of posh clothes.  Which makes them a named clothes’ horse–not a person.   These characters or historical figures are nothing more than cardboard cutouts–you can’t imagine them having a lie-in of a Sunday morning, or preferring sausage to streaky rashers with their cooked breakfast. 

But without some sense of character, of likes and dislikes, of what makes them smile or laugh, well, without that…I don’t know…history is reduced to this dry as late autumn leaves affair, with the life crushed out of it.  (Hence, it’s no wonder that today’s students perhaps think history is boring.) 

You see, we’ve got to go beyond the recitation of names and dates to the details that define the individuals.  And not just because it makes for more informative and more interesting reading, but because otherwise we are in danger of missing out on the great wonder and endless variety and sesquisuperlativeness of the human race.

Take the Viscount Castlereagh, for example. 

I mean, yes, he did all sorts of politically amazing things and he was Foreign Secretary from 1812 until his death and led the fight against Napoleon and was a chief mover and shaker at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and probably one of the greatest Foreign Secretary’s ever…all of which is important, but…

…he also had a thing about renovating kitchens.  No, really, he did.  And every time he bought a new house for himself and Lady Castlereagh, the first thing he did was have the kitchen expanded and remodelled. 

I mean, how is that for quirky?  (Frankly, it sounds just like some friends of ours…) 

I don’t know whether he did it because he was a devoted foodie and an early Hugh Fearnley Whittingsall.  I don’t know if he had the kitchens expanded because he was concerned for the health and safety of his cook and thought cooking in a crabby little badly-vented kitchen was bad for her health.  I don’t know if he did it because he was keen as mustard on the new kitchen ranges that were being manufactured at the time and he couldn’t wait to install the newest version…maybe all of the above. 

But every time he bought a house–both Number 18 St. James’s Square and the farmhouse at North Cray in Kent, he redesigned the kitchen and had the walls pushed out until it was all modern and convenient (in the early 1800’s–how funny is that?) and they didn’t move in until the builders had done their work. 

Beethoven’s another one.  Did you know he had deep dimples in his cheeks, and when he smiled broadly, his cheeks had these great whorls in them?  And that he had a wildly flowered dressing gown which he used to wear in the mornings, and the Viennese used to see him through the open window of his flat in Vienna and laugh at him in it–that’s how garish it was.  And he loved it. 

Or Charles Vane Stewart, Castlereagh’s younger half-brother.  The brothers in that family, in general, seemed to be prone to bouts of depression.  (If they’re sounding quite modern–that’s because I think they are–or maybe they’re just human?)  Anyway, the same month that saw their younger brother killed in action in the Peninsula, also saw Stewart’s wife die after an operation to remove a brain tumour…

Stewart sank into a bout of deep depression–he really did love her…

And it was at that point that their son came to live with Castlereagh and Lady Castlereagh, because young Charles simply couldn’t pull himself together after her loss.  He never returned to the Peninsula, but was attached to the Allies from August 1813 as they pushed Napoleon back and back and back, all the way to the gates of Paris. 

Afterwards, he was a diplomatic envoy in Vienna, for the Congress there, and is notorious for drinking heavily (was he self-medicating?), having an affaire with the Princess Bagratian, spending heaps of money, and wearing yellow boots.  And having large parties and rowing with people.  Sounds remarkably like a lot of folk one could mention…

Or Lady Castlereagh…yes, she was a Patroness of Almack’s.  So?  One of the great loves of her life was wild animals–I mean, she was mad for them in the way people today have a thing about elephants or tigers… 

(I know, you didn’t see that one coming…)

And at their farm at North Cray, she had built a vast aviary and a menagerie, in which she kept ostriches, kangaroos, llamas, a zebra and even a lion.   She was also a seriously switched-on exotic gardener–O’Brian’s Dr. Maturin would have been her kind of guy–so she had this great exotic hothouse constructed so that she could grown the tropical plants which were sent to her from all over the world…And she really knew her botany…I mean, how cool is that?  How real?  How genuine? 

Another one–a person I don’t much talk about–is Lady Caroline Lamb.  Yes, there are all the famous stories about her chasing after Byron and all sorts.  But, she also lost two children.  I don’t know if it was a case of miscarriage or still-birth, but I do know that she suffered terribly with depression after the loss of those babies.  Her husband, William, was equally cast down, bless him. 

And all those stories about her slitting her wrists or swallowing shattered glass–do those not hint at a girl who–however rich and titled–just couldn’t cope and who was self-harming? 

(It sort of changes the way you look at her, doesn’t it?  It brings her closer…and makes her more understandable…even one of us.)

Beau Brummell loved dogs.  Really loved them.  It was one of the things that drew him to Chatsworth, where he was friends with the Duchess of Devonshire–she had lots and lots of dogs.  And, dogs loved him…Which tells you a lot more about his character than that he wore a high cravat–if you see what I mean…

So there you go…look for the detail, the individuality…it will bring history to life in all its glorious Technicolor delight. 

Because, I don’t know about you, but I am definitely more than my date of birth and where I went to school…and it seems to me that since I’d like to be known for more than that, the least I can do for those friends who’ve gone before, is to get to know them as I would wish to be known…

Knowing what one’s readers don’t know…

I’ve been following the virtual book tour of the very knowledgeable on-all-things-Stuart Gillian Bagwell recently, because well, she is knowledgeable on the most arcane and intriguing bits of trivia this side of Antonin Careme’s sugar palaces.  And I simply can’t resist. 

(She did a fascinating piece on pillion saddles in one.  With pictures!)

But on the blog where she had posted her latest musings–this time on the subject of miniature paintings–the blog-mistress complimented her because she’d included several miniatures and remarked that it was wonderful to see what a miniature looked like at last…

Which kind of stopped me in my tracks. 

Because I can’t imagine not having seen a miniature.

You see, I live here. 

That is to say, I live in Great Britain–here where so many historical novels are set–in a small out of the way place in the south of the country, but I am, inevitably, surrounded by all this…well, we refer to it as junk.  Or stuff. 

Like miniatures and ancient buildings and swords and old bits of horse tack…It’s all just there.  It’s inescapable. 

I’d been reading another blogpost too–this one about the Tower of London.  A place which I don’t think about very much.  By the time of my period of speciality it was used as a menagerie for all the wild animals that had been given as gifts to the Crown.  So people went there to see the lions and tigers and suchlike. 

But there again was a comment about there’s nothing like the Tower of London in the US.  Which is obviously true.  The place is roughly 1000 years old.  But here’s the thing–so is the Abbey in the town where I live and where we go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. 

And it’s not so much that we take these buildings or artefacts for granted, it’s just that they are familiar to us from childhood.  They are part and parcel of the fabric of our beings. 

Which then can make it tricky to write historical fiction–particularly if one is thinking/hoping there might be an international-ish market for one’s work. 

How do I know what the reader doesn’t know? 

This was all brought home to me years ago when I was up in a rather rich suburb of London–driving through, as you do, on the way to someone’s house or something.  

Anyway, there we are, driving along this fiendish road, and I’m looking out the window and laughing at the names people give to their houses.  This one’s Little Croft.  The next one’s Middle Croft… And the thing is, these houses are stonking great neo-Tudor mansions.  There’s no ‘croft’ about it! 

A croft, for those who don’t know, is a small, sometimes with only one room, stone cottage, often whitewashed, often with a thatch roof, (absolutely bloody freezing in winter and none too warm in summer), up in the Highlands of Scotland.  The smaller of the crofts were inhabited by crofters–maybe today we’d call them subsistence tenant farmers–who farmed the land a bit, kept the sheep, and lived impoverished and isolated lives. 

So you can see, I think, the anomaly in calling one of these massive modern mansions–some of them with their own gyms–any kind of croft.  One would be surprised if the owners had ever even met a croft, frankly. 

All of which got me thinking–how do I convey, for the reader say in Tucson who has never been outside the US, how grimy London was in 1813?  How thick was the fog. 

Do they know that the women (and men too) used wax to keep their curls in place–not unlike today?  Have they any idea how to take snuff one-handed?  And how that gesture would set a man apart in an age when others were doing it two-handed? 

Do they know what a miniature looks like?  (I’d never even thought of that before this morning!)

And Paris?  Which was radically altered during the Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.  How do I explain that there wasn’t an Arc de Triomphe?  That it was only a quarter built and then abandoned when Napoleon abdicated in 1814?  Or that all the streets had a kind of glaucous black muck, inches and inches deep, the combination of the horse droppings and the household rubbish that houses put out on the corner, but which never got taken away, and so it was all trampled down into this permanent sludge…

Or what if they don’t know that English dinners weren’t served in several or many courses?  But that there were two courses, during both of which sweets and savouries were placed side by side on the table…

Or that orchestras didn’t practise together before performance?  The players just turned up, got handed their music, and got on with it, so the performances–even of great works like the premiere of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony–weren’t rehearsed.  They were messy…at best.

How do I know what to say and when to just shut the heck up?  Even though I do believe in historical accuracy and all that–and I want my readers to be able to envision a thing as much as possible as it was, hear what they heard, know what it smelled like (okay, maybe not so much)…

But should I tell them that blowing the yard of tin or the post-horn was a mighty tricky business?  That you had to have lungs like an ox and it takes a good bit of skill, even for a horn-player, and that they often played a bit of a tune when coming into town?  Or that many post-horns are jointed in the middle, so they can be taken apart into two pieces…

How do we know what our readers do and don’t know?  And where to draw the line between writing ‘setting’ and just being a walking encyclopaedia of our period? 

I wish I knew…

Playing the language…

I thought I’d talk about music for a moment…

It’s something I know a bit about since for most of my young years that’s where I was headed.  Actually, that’s where I was headed for longer than that.  Music.

But first I’m going to say something which most musicians know but which many others don’t really like as a concept.  It’s this:  genius is very rare.  Very, very rare.  So is virtuosity.

And even if you are one of those very rare few–a Daniel Barenboim or a Lang Lang, a Joshua Bell or a Yo Yo Ma…well, there is always what Maestro Barenboim will tell you, virtuoso performance comes down to about 10% talent and 90% hard work.

And that’s the way it is.  That’s the reality musicians accept. Continue reading

The sound of 1813…

Among the more difficult yet more necessary phases of research for a historical novel is the act of subtraction.  Imagining what life would be like without ______________.

I’m all right subtracting the sounds of modernity–the cars, the aeroplanes, the trains, the spin cycle of the washing machine, radio, telly and computer games–and replacing them with the noise of the country–horses, carriages, cows, sheep…and birds–lots more birds than we know today. 

And a city would have had its share of tradesmen shouting, and knife grinders who set up shop outside one’s house…

But what about music?  In this case…well…the works of certain composers.

Because, you see, I love opera.  Am a complete and utter fool for it. 

The works of Puccini?  I love them.  All of them! 

Which brings me to the crunch. 

Because here I am, working through the sounds of 1813 as I construct the atmosphere and plotlines of the next novel–and I’ve just been forced to ask myself the question:  What would life be like without Puccini?  What would life be like without the aria, Nessun Dorma? Continue reading

Music in the novel, May 1812

Decades ago, there was a riotously funny movie called How to Murder Your Wife, in which Jack Lemmon played a cartoonist who never had his cartoon alter-ego do anything which he had not done himself.  Which led to the abovementioned difficulty implicit in the film’s title.

And while I must assure you there are many things in my novels which I have not done and will never do–I leave you to guess what these are–as far as the music goes, I make every effort to write as it were from the inside of knowledge. 

Thus, the music and songs, from the first introduction to it when one character is playing two plaints by Purcell, through the Haydn sonatas mentioned, to the lieder as German songs are generally known–all of it  in May 1812 belongs to my repertoire.  (I’m a pianist and accompanist.)

Two of the lieder, in particular, would have to feature in any list I might compile of favourites:  Ich liebe dich by Beethoven, and Trennungslied by Mozart.  The music to both was available in England at the time, but what I love about them both is they both confound expectations. 

To those who believe that Mozart wrote little but froth and was incapable of writing music which expressed the darker emotions of rage, despair and emotional loss, Trennungslied proves them wrong.  Likewise, Ich liebe dich is one of the tenderest love songs ever written and shows a side of Beethoven we rarely encounter.

As for the instruments mentioned–I’ve played on fortepianos many times.  The sound is softer, and doesn’t carry as does a modern pianoforte.  The action is also softer, at least on those I’ve played. 

Virginals, by contrast, have a pluckier action, quite literally–or a harder, slower action, but to play Purcell on virginals, is quite simply a delight.

And when the characters are talking about practising, or discussing how they worked toward performance of a song, that’s, er, me talking actually…