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

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 ]

The Latest on an Austentastic film…

I was about to grumble, you know.

About to start out, “Bloggetty, bloggetty, blog blog blog…”  (In fact I had written those very words…) Because I’m at a kind of stage of deep research into the events of autumn 1813 and frankly, there’s nothing worth burbling in your shell-likes, I just talk piffle at the minute as my thinking about the events sorts itself out…

But then, the news of this rather superlative project slid into my in-box.  And suddenly I have something I want to share with everyone! Because I subsequently had a long chat (well, actually it turned into quite a heated agreement!) with the director of this film about Jane Austen and I’m frankly in a state of holy wow about it all.

So I wanted to copy you in on the latest newsletter because I just can’t keep it to myself.  *wink*

Pride_and_prej_blog_1

“Dear MM,

“We’d love to share with you the latest news about a wonderful new film on Jane Austen’s life and work, with a special focus on this two hundredth anniversary year,Jane Austen – Overcoming Pride and Prejudice. The film explores Jane Austen’s impact and her struggle for the freedom to express herself in her novels.

“Some fantastic names have already pledged their commitment to the project, including the actor David Bamber and legendary music composer Carl Davis. We’re currently in the exciting early stages of production and have been inspired by Jane Austen’s incredible achievements, and the courage she must have found to publish her novels at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Fuschia Films have an extensive portfolio of theatre and film productions and this film is our latest venture.

“To find out more please go to our website www.fuschiafilms.com or Jane Austen facebook pagewww.facebook.com/JaneAustenOvercomingPrideAndPrejudice

“At Fuschia Films we have a passion for making meaningful films that resonate with people, sharing the stories of pioneers in life who we think have made a difference. For us Jane Austen is one such pioneer. This film is dedicated to exploring how she surmounted the pride and prejudice of what was, for her, a repressive society and what it cost her to find her own inimitable voice.

“The film has a strong and experienced Production team: Director Sue Pomeroy has adapted and directed several of Austen’s novels (Pride & Prejudice, Emma) as part of an extensive career, the film will be cast at the highest level and Nick Hamson of Studio Soho with a slate of films behind him joins the team as Producer, with Phil Taylor of Film Engine as Executive producer and Chris Wood of Fast Films as Finance director.

“During our filming this summer we’ve met Jane Austen lovers from all over the world, and we welcome the widest involvement in the film. To find out more and to support the film please go to http://www.fuschiafilms.com/jane-austen-film-products-and-events/  where you can also pre-order Love and Marriage – Jane Austen style, celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, as a download and on DVD and there are even exciting opportunities to be Regency ‘background artistes’ in the film and be shoulder to shoulder with the stars on the film set. We look forward to welcoming you.

“Please do share this newsletter with everyone who loves Jane and her work. Thank you.”

So there!  Now you can be as excited as I am…

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Castles, Customs, and Kings…

I may have the reputation of being a walking encyclopaedia, but I can assure you, there are shed-loads of things about which I know nothing.

Quantum physics for example.  Well, I can spell it.  But that’s about it.  And alchemy at the court of James VI and I.  I don’t know anything about that — and in the main I don’t wish to find out.  Not a fan of old James, me.  The fellow gives me the creeps.  I mean, think about it, all that drool…Blech.

But I do know about a lot of other stuff — otherwise refered to by my nearest and dearest as ‘little known facts of doubtful value…’

The only thing is…well, allegedly the detritus which litters my tiny grey cells does in fact have a value.  (I know!  Whoever would have thought it?)

But it’s true.  For this condition which has over the years been the source of much amusement, has now apparently made me the ideal choice as an editor for the soon-to-be published compendium, Castles, Customs, and Kings — which is a ‘best of’ collection of the first year’s worth of blogs on the increasingly popular English Historical Fiction Authors blog, a website on which, each day, an historical novelist (Barbara Kyle, Sandra Byrd, Nancy Bilyeau, and Judith Arnopp among them…) writes a bit about some of their research or historical events and people which interest them.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddIt hits the shelves on the 23rd September 2013, this tome does, courtesy of Madison Street Publishing.

And I’ll tell you an interesting thing.  I’ve genuinely enjoyed editing it.  I’ve truly enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with the various periods of English and British history which are not my specialisms and with which I had sort of lost touch.

I’ve loved reading about mediaeval bathing and banqueting.  I’ve loved learning about different unknown to the world places in England and Wales.  I’ve been fascinated by the various individuals who have peopled this English stage over the centuries and I’ve loved how the authors have brought them to life for me.

(And yes, I am a contributing author of several essays as well as editor…)

Anyway.

The sections range from Roman Britain all the way up to World War II…yes, there are gaps, I suppose.

But whether your eye is fixed on the rival queens of Wars of the Roses or Jane Austen’s London or the languid Lady Mary of Downton Abbey — whether you just enjoy history or revel in historical fiction, this book, well…what I would hope is that readers would enjoy dipping in and out of the various periods of history by means of these essays, as much as I have.

Because these many authors have written engaging looks at the periods and places and people which drew them into the web of writing historical fiction in the first place, and they bring to their work a love and an enthusiasm which is just infectious and winning…and it’s all just made me appreciate more than I ever could have imagined this wonderful country in which I live, “this sceptre’d Isle, this England…”

Below is one of the first reviews we’ve received on Goodreads for the Advance Review Copy, and I can’t tell you how chuffed I am that our collective work has been so well received.

“Full disclosure: I received an advance copy and am writing this about 2/3 of the way through (I will update when I finish the book). I am also not a fan of historical fiction. I rarely read anything on the fiction shelf and even less of books that do not relate to royalty and the daily lives of their subjects across all eras and continents.

“I opened the book expecting to find something akin to a conference proceedings without “trained” experts. Instead I found a new appreciation for the meticulous research and knowledge of the genre’s authors.

“The book is divided into diverse subjects or historical periods. Each author has taken a topic and in a few pages given a succinct, well sourced overview. I find myself adding books to my wish list with every chapter. 

“The book itself first appears daunting in length. The short topic ‘chapters’ make it eady for on-the-go readers to read in small portions or even skip topics. The editors did a great job with transitions and order for each topic. Despite the length, there is no encyclopedia feel and each author’s voice is well preserved.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.indd“This book is a scholarly treasure trove with a wide appeal. It covers everything from the first English word to the food (and recipes) served at a Tudor feast. If you are interested in nonfiction works on England, history, and/or royalty you will find a book that you will return to. Fans of historical fiction and England will find the book rich in supplemental information to complement their reading with an introduction to authors of works they might enjoy.”

So, the short and the long — I hope you’ll have a look at the new book, and I hope very much that you’ll enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together for you.

So there you go.  Looking for something to read?  This may just be the book for you.  Castles, Customs, and Kings…

Slainte!

One man’s hero is another man’s…

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the historical PR that dominated the latter half of the twentieth century recently.  In particular, the carefully fostered impression that the US and the UK were centuries’ long allies with a ‘special relationship’ and all that–a mindset that was, of course, born out of the vicissitudes of two World Wars…

It’s a thing I think about a great deal, actually.  Because the research I’ve been doing over the last two to three years has taught me that 200 years ago, the opposite was true.

And this makes things–all kinds of things–a bit tricky, because whilst I write historical fiction and very much appreciate my American readership, I do try to mirror the attitudes and mores of those who lived in the Napoleonic period as closely as I can.  And a great many of those attitudes and mores are simply not what my contemporary readers might expect or even approve of…

Equally, I’m often struck too by sets of circumstances which in one country led to one thing whilst in another these same sorts of events were glossed over or whitewashed.

Permit me to explain.

boston 1770On 5 March 1770, at the corner of King Street in Boston, Massachusetts, there was a bijou fracas-ette in which a mob of locals formed around a British sentry, giving him lip–was he a youngish lad?  Frightened by being surrounded and harassed?  Who knows?  At any rate, this crowd of mouthie Bostonians were just getting warmed up with the verbal abuse and then they started lobbing things.  Stones?  Rotten tomatoes?  Handfuls of muck?

At some point during the escalating row, another eight British troops joined our sentry, eventually firing into the crowd.  Three people were killed outright; several others were wounded.  And two more people later died of their wounds.

And this incident, also known as the Boston Massacre, is one of those seminal events that led directly to the American Revolution, proving as it did how viciously unfit and anti-liberty those nasty-wasty tyrants the British were.  I mean, it was an absolute gift in the propaganda war promulgated by all sorts of fellows including Paul Revere and friends.  And don’t we all cheer.

(It should be mentioned here that one officer, eight soldiers and four civilians were arrested, then charged with murder. Defended by John Adams, the lawyer and future president, six of the soldiers were acquitted, two were convicted of  manslaughter and given the reduced sentence of being branded on their hand.  Strangely, this part of the story is usually omitted by the pro-rebel propagandists…)

blucherAnyway, here’s the thing.  I’ve been reading the biography of Field-Marshal Prince Blucher, the Prussian general who fought alongside Wellington at Waterloo, defeating Napoleon, as written by Blucher’s own Chief of Staff, General Gneisenau–so plenty of eye-witness accounting here.

And when discussing the independent city-state of Hamburg, known before 1810 (when Napoleon decided to annex it) as the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburgh, Gneisenau writes:

“Enormous were the exactions which Napoleon imposed and levied; cruel and relentless the robberies and spoliations that were committed and justified by his Satraps so as utterly to destroy and undermine for a series of years, the opulence and prosperity of this venerable head of the House league…

“On the 24th February 1813, when the French authorities, both civil and military, made evident preparations to evacuate the place, and leave it to its fate, the populace were not backward in expressing their sentiments of freedom and detestation of their tyrants, both vehemently and loudly.  The arms of Napoleon were torn down, and treated with every mark of contempt, the custom-house offices sacked and demolished, and several other acts of popular fury were committed.  

“Six persons were, in consequence, arrested by order of General Carra St. Cyr, and dragged before a military tribunal; their trial was of the most summary kind, no witnesses were confronted, no counsel allowed, and, after a short hour of examination, they were sentenced to be shot as traitors, in having aided an insurrection…they were inhumanly hurried to the place of execution, and into eternity…Never were liberty, justice and the natural rights of mankind more flagrantly violated, than in this instance.

Hamburg 1812“Such are some of the infamous deeds of a few of those flagitious miscreants and followers of Napoleon, who have wantonly stained with innocent blood every city, and every river, from the Scheldt to the Elbe, and from the Rhine to the Danube; evincing in all their actions a marked disdain and mockery of religion, and an avowed opposition to every thing sacred in the laws, customs, and governments of other countries.”

Gneisenau also writes of Hamburgh:  “An official and moderate estimate states the total amount of the losses caused to this city and its environs by d’Avoust [whom Gneisenau calls one of Napoleon’s Satraps] at thirteen millions sterling.  

“The population was reduced from 120,000 to 40,000 souls; more than 1500 houses were either burnt or demolished; and by d’Avoust’s unnatural, stubborn, and vindictive cruelty, more than 1600 families were stripped of their bedding, furniture, and cattle, turned out to live under the canopy of heaven, in the midst of a severe winter, and, in short, became beggars on the high roads.”

I can also tell you that during this period the independent wealth and hard-earned prosperity of Hamburg was leveled to an unending prospect of lack, poverty and wretched unemployment:  At the beginning of the Napoleonic wars Hamburg had over 400 sugar factories.  By 1812, only 3 were left, the rest victims of the pernicious Continental System which prevented the importation of raw materials from outside Europe into any port under French control.

But, besides me and probably a handful of German historians, who knows of the wretched history of this wealthy vibrant city, the loss of their liberty and their lives, by acts such as this?

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauIs it a cause celebre universally recognised as fuelling the fight for German liberation against Napoleonic despotism?  Is there any recognition that atrocities and tyranny were the legacy of Napoleonic occupation across Europe, rather than being an aberration suffered only by the Spanish?

I don’t think so.  Quite the opposite even.  And curiously, at the time that these events were unfolding 200 years ago, those sons of liberty in the fledgling United States (which had just fought with such ferocity against the tyranny of George III, under the banners of “No Taxation without Representation” and “Don’t Tread on Me”) were allies of Napoleonic France–that nation referred to by Gneisenau as “a brotherhood of butchers”.

Nor that one would know any of this if one were to visit Paris–a city I love, don’t get me wrong–for there, one encounters the PR-perfect image of Napoleon the just, Napoleon the liberator, Napoleon the airbrushed uber-hero with all his jolly, merry, urbane marshals and men.  Quite the little imperial Robin Hood’s band, weren’t they?

Which therefore for me is a problem.  Because that’s not what he was, that’s not who he was, and that’s not how his contemporaries saw him.  At all.

And this was brought home to me rather forcefully in this letter, written by Horatio, Lord Nelson, hero of the Nile and Trafalgar, which recently went under the hammer…

HoratioNelsonNelson wrote: “I hate rebels, I hate traitors, I hate tyranny come from where it will. I have seen much of the world, and I have learnt from experience to hate and detest republics.

“There is nothing but tyranny & oppression, I have never known a good act done by a Republican, it is contrary to his character under the mask of Liberty.  He is a tyrant, a many headed monster that devours your happiness and property. Nothing is free from this monster’s grasp.  A republic has no affection for its subjects.

“A King may be ill advised and act wrong, a Republic never acts right, for a knot of villains support each other, and together they do what no single person dare attempt.  

“I pray God this war was over and a monarch placed on the throne of France, not that I like any Frenchman be he royalist or be he republican, but the French republicans have shown themselves such villains.  I form not my opinion, My Dear Lord, from others, no it is from what I have seen.  They are thieves, murderers, oppressors and infidels, therefore what faith can we hold with these people.”

He is considered the consummate Englishman of the period, the hero for all time…

And that, and those views as expressed by him and by his Prussian and Russian contemporaries, those are what they really thought.  No PR, no whitewash, no political correctness…

How will my modern readers cope?