Getting it wrong…

Funnily enough, I was just reading a blog by multi-novel historical fiction author, Allan Massie, about strong opinions and how too often they’re based on knowing or understanding less than we might before we blast our mouths off.

Ehem.

So anyway…recently I’ve been dipping into the research on the build-up to the War of 1812 again–reading the speeches given by those early presidential icons, Jefferson and Madison, for example, reading histories of the period written both by American and British historians, as well as various eye-witness accounts, plus the American press coverage of events and comparing those to the British reports…

…and spending quality time with the percentages of British sailors employed aboard American merchant ships at the time…and analysing other data, such as tax receipts…

(I know, I know…the wild and crazy world of an historian!  Where do I get the energy?)

And in the midst of all this, I have been forced to conclude that I have got something (many things) completely and utterly wrong.

And when I say wrong, I mean wrong.

assassination3You see, I had always, always, always believed and been wholly convinced in my mind that had the Americans in Congress known at the time of Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination on 11 May 1812 (which of course they didn’t due to the length of time it took for news to travel), they would never, ever, ever have launched into war so precipitately in June.

They would have respected our loss, respected the gravity of the situation, appreciated that we were in the midst of an existential struggle against the most powerful military dictator the world had ever known, and stepped back from the brink, or at least out of deference to the grieving nation, postponed their decision…and maybe sent flowers to the grieving widow.

Or something.

Well, I’m here to say today, I got that wrong.

And not just a little nibbling about the edges wrong.  We’re talking very wrong.

Because you see, I–like probably most people–had completely and utterly swallowed all the Anglo-American political PR that grew up during the 20th century, during two world wars, in which we were the firmest of friends, the most devoted of allies, that we had a special relationship…

Yet I have to tell you–what I have found is precisely the opposite.  And it has shocked the socks off me.

There were a great many reasons why I got it so wrong.

One, of course, was that I failed to realise the depth of Jefferson’s hatred of the British. And the same goes for Madison.

I failed to comprehend Jefferson’s absolute conviction that British commerce was corrupting the morals of the New England merchants and that he saw the moral purpose of the US to be in building an agrarian republican superstate, wholly independent of the sordid aspects of commerce and trade, ruled by those who agreed with him.  (No, I am not making this up.  If only…)

Equally, initially, I failed to read far back enough, and to note that the War Hawks in the Republican party had been making a vehement case for war against the British at least as early as autumn session of Congress which commenced in November 1811.

freetradequiltI also failed to understand just what a nonsense the whole “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” slogan was.

I thought–in my quaint little Japanese fashion, said Yum Yum–that the concept of stopping ships for deserters was some nasty-wasty thing the Brits had devised to annoy the Americans and that the Yankees were rightfully protesting.

Ehem.

And those stats I was telling you about?  Yes, well, it transpires, according to those stats, that some 50% of the seafaring workforce on American ships in the early years of the 19th century were in fact British.  And the American shippers were fully aware that they couldn’t function properly without British manpower.

hmsleopardMoreover, the law allowing the vessels of the Royal Navy to stop foreign ships in time of war and search for British sailors who by rights (I’m sure we’d all agree, if we think of it in terms of WW2, say) should be serving their country…that law dates back to the Seven Years’ War in the 1750’s.

It wasn’t something the British government hastily cooked up to vex their colonial cousins.

Furthermore, the American shippers and captains knew very well that Britain was at war with the French Empire and that it was a near run thing.  They may have lived on the other side of the world, but they weren’t stupid.

There’s another tricksy bit to this and that’s the matter of nationality.  Until the fledgling US introduced the idea, nationality and citizenship rested entirely on where one was born.  Full stop.  It was a non-topic.  If you were born in France, you were French.  If you were born in Britain, you were British.

However, the Americans introduced the idea of taking citizenship and made it possible for those coming from other parts of the world to take up American citizenship.  Fine, okay…

But this, unsurprisingly, gave rise to a nifty little scam in forged documents, which were cheap and easy to come by for sailors who’d prefer to work for better wages on American merchant ships, rather than be subject to the discipline, etc. of life in the Royal Navy. And come by them they did.  In droves.

So, when the Royal Navy stopped and searched ships looking for deserters (it was a time of war, no doubt about that), and these (often known to the Navy by name and description) tars then protested that they were Americans and here were the dodgy papers to prove it…well, I think you can see, it wasn’t really something one would go to war over.  Was it?  And everybody knew it.

Also, the number of genuine Americans (if I may designate them as such), taken from American ships in this way–well numbers indicate that not more than 10% of those taken were actually the people they said they were…

nap meissonierWhat I also failed to realise was just how chummy the American statesmen were with France and Napoleon.

I kept assuming–wrongly as I now know–that they were being naive, that Bonaparte was hoodwinking them as he had everyone else.  That they didn’t realise that Bonaparte would say one thing and do another and that he didn’t give a bean about anyone but himself.  Yup, got that wrong too.

Jefferson was a confirmed Francophile.  But so was Joel Barlow, who was sent as Ambassador to Paris in 1811.

And the fellow that the French sent over to be Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Serurier, well he was as honey-tongued a manipulator as ever there was and he smooth-talked anyone who would listen–a carefully regulated steady dripfeed of anti-British venom, plus suppression or denial of what the French were really up to, all wrapped up in a cherry-flavoured sugar coating of French endearments and protestations of eternal love and admiration.

Bonaparte pulled the strings and they all danced.

From 1808, he was telling the Americans that they must ‘defend their flag’ as he urged them to make war on the British.

He and his minions were constantly ragging the Americans–Jefferson, Monroe and Madison–to take on the British for their many anti-free market activities, whilst at the very same time he was ordering American ships and their cargoes seized, held, and confiscated, even as Barlow pressed for indemnity payments and Napoleon’s ministers hemmed and hawed.

shannonAnd every time Barlow was convinced he was reaching some sort of agreement for compensation payments and hammering out a trade agreement that would open up the European market to American trade, the French apparatchiks would dither, and Bonaparte would order stricter adherence to the Continental System particularly as regards the Americans.

Even the emollient language of American historian, P.P. Hill, cannot disguise the fact that the American policy was to turn a blind eye, no matter how egregious the French behaviour.  Even when in February 1812, French privateers burnt at sea the American ships laden with wheat and bound for Spain to feed Wellington’s troops there…

Here’s the recap written by Captain Philip Broke, who got his info from the American newspapers at the time:  “The war party are certainly a wicked and perverse set of men and acting in downright enmity to the welfare of all free nations as well as their natural allies–the mass of the party are sordid, grovelling men who would involve their country in a war for a shilling percent more profit on their particular trade and are perfectly indifferent whether they league themselves with honor or oppression–provided they get their mammon.  Some of their leaders wish for a war only to get places and commands…”

John Randolph wrote:  “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war…a war of rapine, privateering, a scuffle and scramble for plunder.”

And even in April 1812, when the French produced what the Americans knew was a fraud–the so-called St Cloud Decree–in which Napoleon claimed to have ended the trade embargoes against America a year earlier.  (He cunningly had it backdated, by hand…but one gathers the ink was barely dry on the page…)

Even then, when they knew they were being had, when Napoleon’s contempt for American compensation claims and their anger against extortionate French tariffs were at an all-time high, even then, they did not turn from their course.  Indeed, the Republican politicians suppressed all talk of the fraud and various other French cons.

napo-creepBecause, you see, the outcome had already been decided.  The Americans knew that Bonaparte planned to invade Russia; they expected him to triumph there, and then, they anticipated that he would turn the full might of his military Empire upon Britain.

And they wanted to be on the winning side, the side that would give them Canada, no questions asked, the side that would overlook their land-grab in Spanish Florida…And that side, they believed, was with Napoleon and his Empire.

Added to which, they firmly believed that with the troops tied up in Spain, Britain would lack the troops to send to defend the Canadian border, and they meant to enjoy that freedom by strolling up there and taking the place over.  (Just like they’d done in the Spanish territories of Florida…)

The British government, for their part, couldn’t believe it when Congress declared war. They were convinced–despite the tide of vitriolic abuse which had been pouring out of American newspapers for the past two-three years–that the American people did not want war, they wanted fair trade.

They also believed–knowing as they did just how costly a war actually was–that no one in their right mind would go to war over a principle such as “Free trade and Sailors’ Rights”.

So…I got it wrong.  The American Congress of 1812 wouldn’t have halted their determined march to war had they learned of Prime Minister Perceval’s death.  Indeed, it saddens me greatly to say, I think they may have held a party…

Three cheers for Spencer Perceval…

One of the things which really winds me up is how the Victorians routinely minimised the achievements of the early 19th century–those 37 years before Victoria ascended the throne when they were not in charge.  And what gets me even hotter under the collar is how this diminishing rewriting of history has been carried forth by 20th century historians. 
 
I’m not suggesting that the Victorians were unique in their historican revisionist efforts–I fancy there’s little to compete with James I’s efforts to stamp out the long shadow of Elizabeth I’s successes and popularity.  I mean, he had her dug up, and her remains dumped in a little side chapel of Westminster Abbey on top of those of her sister, Mary, with a snidey little comment about them having only one salvation (since they both died childless). 
 
And then he had the remains of his mum–that would be the mum who abandoned him when he was nine months old, the mum who’d been beheaded for treason against the English throne which he now occupied, the mum he’d been raised to call “the whore of Babylon”–that mum–reinterred in pride of place…with a nauseating little verse about her being in the line of greatness or some such weasel-fur. 
 
That, you’ll have to admit, is both disturbed and disturbing.
 
But anyway…I bring all this up because the bicentenary of the Assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 is nearly upon us…
 
For despite what the Victorians with their luxuriant sidewhiskers thought, he was a very sound thinker, a good man, and an excellent Prime Minister.  And not only that, he was PM at a time when England was facing some of the gravest crises in her long history.  And he steered the government and the country through these shoals, bless him…
 
Spencer Perceval was born on 1 November 1762, the seventh son of the high-living Earl of Egmont.  But he was also the second son of the the Earl’s second wife, which meant that when he came into his inheritance (a mere £200 a year), well, there wasn’t going to be much to it and he’d need to make his own way in the world. 
 
His father died when he was eight.  He was educated at Harrow; did well at Trinity College, Cambridge, and from there went to study at Lincoln’s Inn.  He was called to the bar in 1786. 
 
He was profoundly religious young man too and it was this which would inform both his private and professional conduct throughout his career.   A devout evangelical Anglican, he was almost the antithesis of what we think of when we think of aristocratic youth in the late 18th century.  For instance, he was fierce in his hatred of slavery and was most certainly a driving force behind the subsequent abolition of the slave trade. 
 
He fell in love with a manufacturer’s daughter, Jane Wilson, when she was 18, but her father refused consent and told them to wait till she was of age–he doubted the Perceval’s ability to provide for her.  Admittedly, his prospects were limited.  Still, the couple duly waited, and the young Perceval asked again for her hand, three years later, when she was 21. 
 
But again, Mr. Wilson refused.  Upon which, Miss Wilson climbed out of the Drawing Room window in her father’s house and the couple eloped, marrying by special license in East Grinstead. 
 
Their first home together was over a shop in Bedford Row–and they remained devoted throughout their married life, producing 12 children to prove it. 
 
The hardworking Perceval’s career prospered too.  By 1795, he had come to the attention of William Pitt, the Prime Minister, who admired his debating very much, and by 1796, he was King’s Counsel, with an income of £1000. 
 
That same year in May, Perceval was elected to Parliament as a member for Northampton–a radical borough where every male not in receipt of the poor law had the vote.  Even so, within a short time, he had to defend his seat in a hotly contested general election. 
 
He succeeded in that and held the same seat for the next 16 years until his death, while at the same time, he continued with his legal career–because in those days, MPs were unpaid.
 
In March 1807, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons in a new ministery formed under the Duke of Portland–a ministry which was subsequently to be riven by George Canning’s underhanded attempts to get rid of Viscount Castlereagh at the War Office. 
 
Amidst all the plotting, Perceval remained untainted by Canning’s machinations–quite frankly he didn’t like him and he distrusted him.  (Not without reason.) 
 
(The whole incident deserves a novel of its own–it’s that Machiavellian…) 
 
But to continue…
 
Along the way, he was adviser to Princess Caroline during the investigation into whether she’d had an illegitimate child (she hadn’t), producing a 156 page letter to George III, known as ‘the Book’. 
 
And it was George III, referring to him as “the most straightforward man I have ever known,” who on 4 October 1809–three years after Pitt’s death–asked Perceval to form a Government, which saw him, with his wife and children moving into 10 Downing Street. 
 
As Prime Minister and Chancellor, Perceval strengthened the Orders in Council–which were Britain’s economic fight-back against Napoleon’s Continental Blockade.  And he held the Government together over the increasingly demoralising issue of the King’s mental illness and the need for the Prince to be made Regent.
 
He was also well-known and well-respected for the droll wit with which he dispelled tension during debates in the Commons–as when in response to a particularly vituperative attack upon the Government, he stood up at the Dispatch Box, saying affably, “I have nothing to say to the nothing which has been said.”  (Cue laughter from the whole House…)
 
Curiously, although when he was made Regent in February 1811, everyone assumed that the Prince of Wales would dismiss Perceval and find a government within the ranks of his longtime friends and drinking companions, the Whigs–  that is exactly what the Prince Regent didn’t do.  (Perhaps Prinny wasn’t quite so thick as we’d like to believe either…) 
 
He kept Perceval on, and Perceval, for his part strengthened the government by enlisting the equally hardworking and devout Viscount Castlereagh as Foreign Secretary. 
 
Writing of Perceval’s premiership, Bruce Anderson pointed out recently in The Telegraph:  “Britain faced interlocking crises: economic, social and political.  The war was bad for trade, just at a time when the agricultural and industrial revolutions were causing widespread and disruptive changes.  Technological advances create jobs and reduce prices.”

Yet, “Perceval’s performance justified his master’s [Pitt] praise.  An outstanding debater, and a man of obvious moral depth, he was popular with everyone who knew him.  This enabled him to hold everything together.  While PM, he also acted as Chancellor and made sure that there was enough money to fight the war without crippling the economy.  With no military background, he proved himself a sound judge of military merit, especially when it came to Wellington.  Back in London, the “croakers” were carping about the cost of his campaigns and the shortage of victories.  Perceval stood firm, thus enabling the Great Duke to win battles, and immortal fame.  Perceval’s contribution should not be forgotten, just because he was struck down in the darkest hour before the dawn.”

Perceval’s achievements were enormous and his contribution to the betterment of mankind lasting.  And these should never be underestimated.  Like Castlereagh and Liverpool after him, he was a specialist in nothing germane to the terrors of a 20-year war against the most powerful military state the world has ever known–an empire which Napoleon sought to stretch from the coast of Portugal to the steppes of Russia.  And for much of that time, Britain stood alone against the might of militarised France and all her acolyte states. 

Yet during that time too, Perceval was one of that determined band of  reformers who sought to improve the lot of their fellow man, working wholeheartedly to abolish slavery and the slave trade at a time when the rest of the world still thought these a fine idea.  He was part of the movement which pushed for improvements to the prison system and the treatment of transported convicts.  It was during his watch too that the law was reformed to offer greater protection to apprenticed children–for the first time since the days of Elizabeth I.

Above all, through it all, Spencer Perceval remained a true Regency gentleman.   

 

What matters?

It’s a curious thing. 

I realised last week that despite the fact that I’m blogging and posting all this historical stuff, pretty much weekly–which may or may not be useful to someone–I rarely write about what truly interests me. 

Possibly I’m secretive.  Or paranoid.  Or both. 

Certainly I might rightly be considered a private individual…so this actually is a long shot for me.  And unfamiliar territory for one who is as guarded as I tend to be. 

Still.

Yes, I know I rant about the upstart Mushroom Corsican (to give him his early 19 century soubriquet).  Probably ad nauseum. 

But the fact is, that’s a bit of a feint.  Because Napoleon is not at all why I research or write the novels I do. 

He’s maybe the stone; I’m interested in the ripples. 

And it’s those ripples, those historical events or situations his actions caused across Europe, those people who rose to new heights of courage and strength through resisting him or even merely enduring all that his war machine unleashed, that have truly captured and held my imagination. 

What interests me therefore is the people.  They were caught up in these events so catastrophic or world-changing or wonderful, through no fault or invention of their own.  Trapped by an accident of birth or a will to survive or because they weren’t somewhere else at the time.  Or because the French army happened to be marching through their country. 

And it’s the lives of these voiceless millions which keep me captive. 

When I was doing the groundwork for Of Honest Fame, working with a calendar and the maps to see who was where in Europe at any given time and hence who would require spying upon (it’s a bit of an historical spy novel, that book), I came upon all the recently unearthed information about the six months before Napoleon’s Russian Invasion in late June 1812.  And it shocked the heck out of me–on a very basic level. 

I doubt any of us can imagine what it must have been like to have an army of 500,000 men (plus untold civilians) camped out across the entire landscape of our country–eating all our food, what little there is of it, slaughtering all our livestock, destroying our crops in their rage that the corn is not yet ripe, stealing the thatch from our roofs to feed their starving horses, their officers quartered in any house that was bigger than a cottage, putting their boots on all the furniture to shew their contempt for us, abusing our wives and daughters, taking whatever trinkets appealed to them, wrecking whatever they couldn’t carry off. 

And there was no redress.  Not any. 

Think of it.  Half a million men doing that. 

Silesia and Poland took more than a generation to recover from those depradations. 

Subsequently, my research led me to forensic studies of the mass graves of French soldiers outside Vilna and Smolensk.  And these studies all confirmed that advanced syphilis was found in 80% of the skulls they examined.  Which is a terrifying figure.  Especially considering that syphilis in 1812 was like Aids in the ’80s–a sure killer with some three to five years between initial infection and painful death.

All those women across Silesia and Poland who suffered the manhandling the French forces handed out–as if gang rape wasn’t bad enough–were probably left with syphilis. 

There’s a crying need too to take apart society and the casualty lists, the statistics and all the numbers and to find the individuals.  And to see their world through their eyes. 

And one Armistice Day as I watched the Queen laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, I thought, “Hang on a tick!  The men, the soldiers, they all get their war memorials and their Arc de Triomphes, but what about the women?  What do they get for having died of starvation or abuse by passing soldiers?  What do they get for having been left widows and orphans by these two decades of war?  Isn’t it time someone honoured their most grievous loss?”

And what about the refugees?  What about all those who were displaced by these vast armies taking over their country, or by two armies thinking that their town would make a great battleground?  Where did they all go?  Often they fled to the nearest woods before a battle–that much we do know. 

And over the decade, the woods had become home to increasingly large bands of refugees, bandits (deserters or conscription dodgers now making an illegal living)…but what about after the battle?  When you return home to find your town destroyed, workshop and house and garden flattened by artillery, dead soldiers still littering the streets?  How do you survive?  How did they survive? 

All this then, these events and these women, became a sub-theme or perhaps not a sub-theme at all of Of Honest Fame.  I had to tell this story–or rather weave it through the narrative.  Because it’s important.  Because it is what a spy of 1812-13 would have seen and known.  It was the ruinous reality of that war.  And that holds me rapt.

I realise it’s kind of a thing at the moment to write about queens. 

They seems to be quite popular with the literary agents and publishers…but the fact is the queens of the Napoleonic period seem to inhabit a carefully constructed unreality which had no contact with the world in which they lived and which supported them.  This is particularly true of Napoleon’s two wives, Josephine and Maria Theresa. 

But also of his sisters with whom he decorated various of the European thrones.  Nor are their, er, exploits clean enough for the kinds of novel I wish to put my name on. 

Because above all, I believe passionately in good writing.  And not just good writing.  Beautiful writing, replete with imagery.  Lyrical, transcendent with cadences that sing like music in the heart and head, with all the rhythm and poignancy of the truest poetry, so that even those  scenes of war and devastation will ache with a terrible beauty in the ear and the mind…

And it is this alchemic mixture of plot, research, humanity and literary style that interests me most. 

(Oh, and Beethoven.  I mean, think of it, all these disasters were happening in his world, yet out of this suffering he composed symphonies of sesquisuperlative wonder.  My admiration for him is unbounded.  To write novels like he wrote music, now that would be something.)

I say all this because, in early commemoration of the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 and the invasion of Russia for which the forces were gathering throughout the spring of 1812, my publisher Diiarts is offering both my novels free on Kindle through Amazon–for two days, from 8 a.m. BST Saturday 31st March to 8 a.m. Monday 2nd April. 

And I hope that many of you will take advantage of this offer and/or spread the word to those who might have an interest in these books which embody what I believe matters most.  Slainte.

What exactly is the Regency, anyway?

I don’t know why it is, but I seem to be writing a lot about things about which I had vowed never to mention. 

Like recently I broke my promise to myself that I would never ever write about the Prince Regent.  But there I was a few months ago typey-tapping out a post on what a wild sexy young thing he’d been when in his late teens and early twenties. 

(I know!  What came over me?) 

And now this…this term, the Regency. 

You see, the thing is, I loathe the inexact, twee use of this word.  It makes me want to thrash my laptop with a riding crop.  Or beat my head against the desk.  Or both.  Together or separately, I don’t much mind which.  And there is so much misleading, misguided misinformation out there about it that…well, we’re back to the laptop or my head taking a pasting…

So, I shall clear up the whole weebley conundrum for once and for all.  Now.  Today. 

The Regency…Well, to begin with, there are actually two Regencies in English history. Continue reading

And behold, the focus is shifting…

When I began this writing odyssey, one of the main things that boggled my brains–and of which I’ve spoken at length–was how we’d got to the point of segregating our views of early 19th century British history almost by genre. 

On the one hand, we had the scenarios of domestic and romantic life which began with Jane Austen’s work and over centuries transmogrified into Regency romances.  And on the other hand, we had the world of the military derring-do–the naval and army glory of the Napoleonic wars–which has been celebrated in the works of such as Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian, among others. 

Beyond that, nothing.   Continue reading

198 Years ago…

As I’ve watched the resolution of the current political situation over the past few days, it has been impossible for me not to consider the events of nearly 200 years ago. 

Sir Spencer Perceval

And I wonder, as I watch the current political juggling and horse-trading, if I am the only one musing on the fact that 198 years ago Britain was plunged into constitutional crisis by the assassination of the serving Prime Minister as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Spencer Perceval?   Continue reading

Writing May 1812

elder sparsholtWhen I look at the journey on which writing May 1812 has taken me, I know it’s a blessing that no one told me where it would take me, nor how long it would take me to get there.

It started life as a desire to show the men of the period as they were–all-rounders in a way.  They were none of them military strategists, they had no financial advisors, and there wasn’t a civil service.  If they had a secretary, they paid his salary.  And they did their business not just in their offices; but as most of them were society figures, they did it in their clubs and tucked away in the corners of the social events of the year–yes, even at, probably at, Almack’s.  The Foreign Secretary’s wife, Lady Castlereagh, was after all, one of the patronesses of the place.  And because their work was all-consuming, it affected every aspect of their lives.  No part was free of the political dilemma in which they found themselves.

Then, shockingly– Continue reading