Sample Chapter: 1812 Proposal Scene
M.M.Bennetts sent me an autographed copy of MAY1812 to give-away. The winner will be randomly selected and announced on March 1st, 2010. To enter:
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I first discovered M.M. BENNETTS’ May 1812 on Authonomy, a site run by HarperCollins. I began reading this book, curious to know why it had got the coveted gold star that hundreds of aspiring novelists were striving to receive. After reading the first few chapters, I was in love with this book, and thus left a review expressing my desire for May 1812 to be published. Well, months later, I discovered that Dragon International Independent Arts LLP (diiarts) had picked up Bennetts’ work. After May 1812 was published, I got the autographed copy, and began reading it right away—and ended up sleeping at 8 in the morning. I just could not put it down! So, naturally, I asked Bennetts if I could do an interview. My request, dear readers, was accepted! Now, without further ado, here is my interview with a most talented writer and knowledgeable historian, M.M. Bennetts:
- What inspired you to write this book in the first place?
When I was at the University of St. Andrews, I lived in a cottage on an estate rather than in halls of residence. And life on the estate was pretty much as it had been for the past two hundred years–there was the Big House, the owners were called the Laird and Madam, there was the home farm. And living there allowed me, forced me even, to look beyond the stereotypes we’ve had for decades about the land-owning gentry. The Laird was in his eighties. Madam was in her late sixties. He had been a tall lad and big for his age, so when he was fourteen he had convinced his parents to let him enlist to fight in World War I, where he was wounded; and all his life he’d suffered terrible back problems because of what had happened to him in the Trenches. They had married late, but the great tragedy of their life was that they’d not been able to have children–and they were every bit as saddened by that as any couple today having failed to conceive after ten years of IVF. But they had this large estate, with outlying farms, so like every farmer I’ve come to know since, they worked from six in the morning until nearly midnight. There was always a fence down, rabbits destroying some field, a leaking roof in one of the cottages…and there was no retirement for them. And it was their sense of duty to family, to country and king, so far above and beyond the call of duty–as well as the big house which was a jewel of late 18th century architecture which they treasured and loved and preserved–which led me to gradually turn my attention to the late Georgians and the Regency. I’d been a mediaevalist up to that point, specialising in the 15th century art and politics. But living there showed me something beyond the stereotypes created by literary taste or 20th century political theory; and in their place I got to know the individuals and see their humanity. So I think it was that, living there, living amongst the kind of people whose family members had served their king and country so tirelessly through the centuries, often in pretty thankless jobs in times of turmoil, that made me want to write about the real early 19th century.
- Could you tell us a bit about May 1812?
It’s basically the story of what happens when you take every element in this young man’s life and throw it up in the air to see how it falls and how he copes with that. Does he cope well? Or does he make a bear’s breakfast of it? The actual month of May 1812 provided more than its share of political and military challenges to everyone connected with the government and the war effort. And I was always so struck by how indomitable were these men who served their King and country in whatever way they could–they worked ridiculous hours; they often weren’t paid–and essentially, Myddelton is an everyman character. He keeps getting taken down at the knees, either personally or politically or emotionally, and every time, (as they all did) he gets up again, staggering sometimes certainly, but he goes forward.
Also, I wanted to bring out the importance of the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval to this period of history, although it’s been dismissed by subsequent generations. Which is initially why I turned to the Russian literary form of ‘slice of life’. This in turn allowed me to give a broader and truer sense of these characters within their historical context and not just focus on one aspect of their lives, but rather to show the continuum of their days and weeks, love life, work life, political life–it’s all one life.
- What were some of the difficulties you came across in the process?
Ha ha ha. When I first started researching, there was almost nothing on the assassination. Which struck me as odd. But histories of the period would often just say that the Government fell and they got a new Prime Minister and that’s it. And so I had to go back to the newspapers and magazines from the period–which means a great deal of time spent in rare books collections at various places–to read the actual eye-witness accounts of the event, the opinion pieces speculating about a French conspiracy, things like that.
- How long did it take you to complete May 1812?
Probably the best part of a decade–though it wasn’t as if I was working on it every day or anything like that. But there was all the research. And every time I’d think I’d have it pretty good, I’d find out something about some French forgery or the Continental Blockade or the war effort which meant I’d got my facts wrong. And there’s been so much fine historical work done on the Napoleonic wars over the past twenty years, and every time I’d read another book, that would change some perception or other. So I’d go back and rewrite. And I never liked the opening. I must have rewritten that over an hundred times. Then too, I prefer to read books which are beautifully written–well-crafted, and with at least one sentence or one phrase per page so that you stop and want to read it again, just for the poetry of the thing. So I kept rewriting and reworking so that it would be, insofar as I could make it, the most beautiful book. I wanted it to be both great history and great writing. And that takes time.
- What motivated you to keep researching and writing for all these years?
Sheer bloody mindedness. Ha ha. No, really, it’s been people like Professor Paul Kennedy of Yale whom I had the privilege of hearing when he lectured at one of the conferences commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar. And when he spoke about how superb were the men who fought for twenty years against Napoleon and the despotism of his Empire–which was in many ways equivalent to Hitler’s tyranny over Europe–how they were none of them experts in anything, how they sacrificed everything–family life, their health, often their lives–to bring an end to his rampaging and how we must never allow the memory of their greatness to fade, well, I just thought, “Okay…guess that’s me answered.”
- Could you describe Myddelton’s character in one sentence?
Myddelton is an articulate, possibly brilliant, well-educated, but emotionally illiterate, idiot (in other words, he’s human) and I like him very much.
- While I was reading May 1812, I found myself crushing on Myddelton. And then I realized…this character used to be a real, breathing human being! How did you figure out Myddelton’s personality? Because as a historian I’m sure you wanted to portray him as accurately as possible?
Excellent! He’s a success then.
Myddelton and his friends are all fictional characters which I introduced into the history in order to provide a sympathetic window through which the reader might look at the period and the events and people. And all of them are composites of things I’ve observed others do, of qualities I’ve liked or not liked, of patterns of speech, their approaches to life, both contemporary and historic, because I read a lot of diaries and speeches and letters from the period.
And Myddelton is also, as I’ve said, an everyman character in some ways. He’s representative of the countless men of that period who had this indomitable sense of duty and patriotism and were immensely hard-working, but quite sexy. They’re also quite passionate–this is the age of Byron, Shelley and Keats and reading poetry is normal and even expected. Yet they’re great atheletes, they ride hell for leather, there’s the bare-knuckle boxing, they’re regularly sparring with their fencing master. And more than a few of them are serious adrenaline junkies, they’re very physical and sometimes quite violent. Take Lord Nelson for example. His letters to Emma are the most passionate and devoted; yet he was firm in his conviction–and he lived it–that the only possible outcome of a battle at sea had to be the extermination of the enemy.
But I don’t think of myself as figuring out his personality. I think characters are. And my job is to listen. To become quiet enough so that their voices speak, so that who they are comes through without my preconceptions. The trouble always begins when I think I know what should come next or how I should have a scene go. And then they’re all assembled and essentially they look at me and say, “No, I’m not doing that. I would never say that.” And how they are and who they are unfolds along with the book.
But you know, you’ve got to have an attractive protagonist. In some way, if you want the reader to keep reading, you have to make him or her appealing in some way or other–otherwise they’re just reading out of morbid curiosity: how bad can this get? Nor do you want to write a goody two shoes, a Lester Goodpants, because they’re actually quite boring and have all the appeal of a tub of wallpaper paste.
- What were some of the craziest things you’ve done for the sake of research?
Where do I start? Learned to shoot and clean a 14-bore which was used at Waterloo; ridden miles in torrential rain and gale force winds; learned to take snuff one-handed; learned to tie a cravat and nearly strangled myself; spent hours in costume museums studying their clothes and indeed their undergarments; studied their gardens to get a sense of what was available to them in terms of planting; eaten the foods of the period including several things which had mercifully passed out of the cookbooks; gone over every gory detail of the assassination and indeed every other wounding in my books with a pathologist and a neuro-surgeon so that I understood CSI-style what it all meant. I haven’t yet learned to drive Four in Hand–but I’ve got that planned.
- Where have you travelled for research?
France; Spain; all over Britain…
- Was the love/hate relationship between Myddelton and Janey based on factual evidences? Or did you have to make educational gusses to fill in the gaps of their love story?
Literary taste has hijacked the idea of the arranged marriage so that it’s this thing belonging to genre fiction for the most part. But marriage in the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, at least among the moneyed classes, was still very much about financial prudence and family. When Bingley proposes to Jane Bennet, her first thought is how happy it will make her family and how it redeems them after her younger sister’s behaviour. It’s not about her.
Here in the UK, hundreds of young women, often from Asian communities, run away from arranged marriages every year. That’s a statistical fact. And if they’re not that keen on it now, you can bet that young women weren’t that keen on it 200 years ago either–because human nature doesn’t change. Also, marriage at that time was still a pretty risky business. If you go to an exhibition of Gainsborough or Romney, there will be all these double husband and wife portraits, painted on the occasion of their marriage–but then you read in the catalogue that she died in childbirth within a year of the wedding. It’s terribly sad. And I just looked at all that evidence and thought, hang on a tick, what must it have been for the bloke? What did he think? I like to take historical questions and look at them from every angle, turn them upside down and sideways, and consider all the possibilities.
Myddelton is immensely intelligent, he’s hard-working, he’s got a wry sense of humour…but he’s also got a naggy temper, he’s pretty arrogant and not a little smug, all of which makes him, er, well, human. Janey was more difficult, but she had the immense privilege of having been loved and nurtured from childhood and therefore she has an inner self-knowledge which is pretty powerful. So you just put all that into the pot together and watch it happen. The characters are themselves, they think for themselves, they speak for themselves. And generally, they surprise the hell out of me.
- A reader told me she had to fan herself while reading about the romantic chemistry between Myddelton and his wife. Any comments?
Beyond scratching my head? Er, hmn, well, I’ve heard that a lot. And it kind of embarrasses me…I hope it’s proof that John Donne taught me well and that I was paying attention. Because the love he wrote about, the love I hope I’ve adequately conveyed in May 1812 is worth everything.
- Could you tell us about the next book you’re working on?
The next book is actually the second or the first–I don’t know–in a quartet of books which are inter-related but not sequential. All of them will deal with some aspect of the Napoleonic wars. May 1812 focused on the political and domestic aspects in Britain–the home front if you will. Of Honest Fame is about the spies and intelligence network Britain relied upon. And it also takes the reader into the war zones of central Europe.
- What was your best and worst experience in your journey to publication?
Best? That’s easy. Holding the proof copy in my hands. That just knocked me for six. After that, it all became slightly surreal. It still is.
Worst? There are so many worsts. Some fifty rejections. The agent who said, “Yes, we’ll take you if you’ll cut out all the history.” The agent who insisted I cut 80,000 words from May 1812 and was determined that I make a character in Of Honest Fame into a James Bond character with a different woman in every book. A publisher’s commissioning editor with whom I talked at a writers’ conference who said she wanted all four books of the quartet, reiterated it in writing and then two months later denied having ever said it.
- What are the three books that influenced you the most?
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy; and The First Total War by David A. Bell. (Though in terms of writing I’d have to insist upon adding the works of Shakespeare, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins and H.D.)
- Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Learn from the masters. Read Dickens–for plot and interconnectedness he’s the best. Shakespeare–he’s great for teaching how to delineate a character through their speech alone. Dorothy L. Sayers is tremendous for atmosphere–The Nine Tailors, for example. Milton will teach you how to convey movement through the assonance of your language. There is no one who can beat P.G. Wodehouse for smoothness of prose, for style, and for comic timing. Georgette Heyer always wrote with her tongue in her cheek and is brilliantly ironic about aunts, sisters and mothers. Take their work apart, be inspired by them, be angry with them, be determined to write as well as them. And don’t be fooled by fashion. Whatever the agents and publishers are saying is the rule now, it won’t be the rule in two years’ time. Dare to be brilliant.
Thank you so much for this wonderful interview! If anyone has questions, feel free to ask, as the author will be dropping by to answer.