Writing historical novels is a long cherished dream. I love history, and if the Romans have always had a special place in my heart, I find plenty of other periods almost as fascinating. For all that widespread interest, the Napoleonic and Regency has long been a particular obsession.
It probably began as a boy, watching the film Waterloo on television, and then when Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Eagle - the first of the series - was released. I devoured this and all its successors, along with C.S. Forester and his many imitators, as well as Patrick O'Brian who gave such a unique take on the genre. The fiction quickly led me to the real history of those times, and especially the wealth of letters and memoirs left by the men and women of those years of Regency in England and Revolution and Empire in France. So many of the real events and characters were stranger and more dramatic than anything a novelist would dare to invent, and there is so much human detail of everyday life during peacetime and on campaign. It was such a remarkable age, gaudy and inspiring, filled with larger the life characters and epic moments.
There is a lot of naval fiction out there, and new series seem to begin almost every year. Oddly, in spite - or perhaps because of - the success of Sharpe in books and on TV, there are very few adventure stories about Wellington's men. Allan Mallinson's series about the Light Dragoon Matthew Hervey begins in 1814, and apart from a few flashbacks, deals mainly with the world after Waterloo. Cornwell has on the whole moved on to other periods.
I wanted to go back to the world of the redcoats, and True Soldier Gentlemen is the result. The big events and the major figures are all real. My main characters are invented, but I wanted them to act and speak in ways in keeping with the period, so that they could have existed. For most people, Regency England is inseparably linked with Austen's novels and their frequent dramatisation on the large and small screens. The aim was to capture something of their feel. (Reading them at school had anyway always made me wonder what her various military and naval characters got up to as the war with France raged off-stage. Austen can seem desperately slow-paced to a boy, and I did not really take a delight in her work until I returned to the books as an adult).
|Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy|
Army officers were in many ways the male counterparts of Austen's heroines. The majority of army officers were not rich or well connected, and their claim to genteel status resting on precarious grounds. Few could afford to purchase promotion, and they had little control over postings. A man’s career might stagnate in Britain, or be ended abruptly by disease if the battalion was sent to the West Indies, which consumed units at quite staggering rates. War service brought more opportunities for advancement at the risk of death and dreadful injury – and indeed increased chance of succumbing to disease. All the time a man’s conduct was regulated by strict rules. No gentleman could strike another, unless in a formal duel. (Richard Sharpe is a wonderful creation, but no one could have got away with behaving like that. Knowing that has never made me take any less delight in the stories, and I wish I could write half as well as Cornwell).
Like wider Regency Society, most army officers drank heavily and many gambled freely. There were plenty of opportunities to disgrace themselves and be forced to resign. There were also constant frustrations as better connected or wealthier men advanced their careers far faster than was possible for most. Officers who chose to marry, or who had to assist their parents and siblings struggled even harder to cope, but many somehow managed to do this.
I could not resist including Wickham in the story. At the end of Pride and Prejudice Austen has Darcy buy him a commission in the regular army and help his future career, and this gave me the opportunity. Using the excuse that she is vague about the date, I decided to accept the view that 'the Peace' she mentions was the short-lived Peace of Amiens. Wickham is not really interesting enough to be the centre of the stories in the style of George MacDonald Fraser's marvellous Flashman novels. Instead he is there, charming and untrustworthy, doing his best to seduce pretty women and avoid paying his debts, while other characters do most of the work. Yet his connection to Darcy will allow him to rise, as long as his misbehaviour does not become too blatant. He also helps to add to the humour of the story. Over-serious adventure stories tend to be tiresome. Apart from that, all the soldiers I have known or read about always laugh a lot, and the aim was to capture something of that spirit.
The real heroes of the stories will be a group of young men without influence. One of them, Williams, serves in my fictional 106th Regiment as a Gentleman Volunteer. This was a peculiar status, where a man lived with the officers, but served in the ranks, wearing the uniform and doing the duty of an ordinary soldier. They hoped to be commissioned when disease or battle created vacancies. At the height of the Peninsula War, about one in twenty of Wellington's officers were commissioned in this way. This is the sort of strange status that is fun to explore, and not really that well known about these days.
True Soldier Gentlemen has always been intended as the start of a series, and I hope readers will have patience with a book that takes a while to introduce a large cast of characters. The idea is to take them through the years up to Waterloo. Although I have plenty of ideas, and a fair notion of where they will go, I am not yet sure what will happen to them all. I have also tried to give something of the sedate feel of Austen's world, so that the peace and formality of England contrasts all the more with the extreme savagery of the Peninsula War.
It is an adventure, hopefully an enjoyable yarn, and has no pretensions whatsoever to being literature. Ultimately, it is the sort of novel I enjoy reading.
Today is the official release date for True Soldier Gentlemen in the UK and at present there no US edition planned. You can order here through Amazon UK. The sequel, Beat the Drums Slowly, is due out in August of this year.
You can visit the author's website here.
Labels: Battle of Waterloo, On The Shelf