Thursday, December 22, 2011

English Secret Agents and Sprawling Continental Espionage--Not 007, but 1812: An interview with historical fiction author M.M. Bennetts

Today, I'm talking with historical fiction author M.M. Bennetts about her latest novel of espionage during the Napoleonic Wars, Of Honest Fame.

1) Tell us about your book.

The novel is titled, Of Honest Fame, and it opens on a summer night in 1812 as a boy sets fire to a house in Paris before escaping over the rooftops. Carrying vital intelligence about Napoleon’s Russian campaign, he heads for England.  But landing in Kent, he is beaten nearly to death.

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, is desperate for the boy’s information.  But he is even more desperate to track down the boy’s assailant – a sadistic French agent who knows far too much about British intelligence network.

Captain George Shuster is a veteran of the Peninsula, an aide-de-camp to Wellington, now recalled from the continent and struggling to adjust to civilian life.  Thomas Jesuadon is a dissolute, living on the fringes of society, but with an unrivalled knowledge of the seamy underside of the capital.  Setting out to trace the boy’s attacker, they journey from the slums of London to the Scottish coast, following a trail of havoc, betrayal, official incompetence and murder.  It takes an unlikely encounter with a frightened young woman to give them the breakthrough that will turn the hunter into the hunted.

Meanwhile, the boy travels the breadth of Europe in the wake of the Grande Armée, witnessing at first hand the ruination they leave behind and the awful price of Napoleon’s ambition.

2) If there's one constant throughout the history of mankind, it's warfare. What attracted you to the Napoleonic Wars versus other periods of struggle?

Well, until about 1917 or so, the Napoleonic wars were universally referred to as The Great War.  It was the first World War and it was total war, unlike the conflicts of the seventeeth and eighteenth century. It stunted or eliminated the industrial revolution across the Continent, but as a by-product turned Great Britain into the premier industrial and naval power of the 19th century.  It swept away national borders and traditional governmental structures (many of which had been around since the Middle Ages) across the Continent and brought Russia as a power-player into western politics for the first time.  And it took the lives of over probably six million people--that's more than half the population of Britain at the time.  It took Europe 100 years to recover the population levels it had had in 1789.  It was a man-made catastrophe such as the world had before never seen.

But it wasn't the warfare that first captured my imagination.  It was the architecture. 

I'd been specialising as a mediaevalist, with a particular focus on Quattrocento Italy which is also a period of great upheaval--religious, intellectual, artistic, political...and I was living on a large estate where the big house was one of Robert Adam's first designs, before he came south to England.  And I was popping down to Edinburgh, which is a gorgeous Georgian city, about once a fortnight...

And so there I was, sitting in front of the coal fire, preparing for my orals with everything ever written about Quattrocento Roman churches by Palladio open in front of me and there, hidden amongst the books, I had John Summerson's Georgian London.  I already had, if you will, a mental 'in' with the period.  I had intended to be a concert pianist until not too long before that, and I had lots of Beethoven in my repertoire, so you might say, in that sense, I already understood how they thought.  Music is the great open door for getting inside the heads of those who've gone before us. 

At the same time, I'd been reading Dorothy Dunnett's sequence of novels set in 16th century Europe and I was agog.  She combined all the disciplines and all the countries--art, music, poetry, politics, diplomacy, economics, the war against Suleiman the Great's empire--and put them together to present life as a whole.  And I thought, that's it.  I want to do that.  I want to write books like that!  (I must have some terrier blood in my ancestry somewhere, because I just started reading and researching absolutely everything I could find on the period and not letting go of the trail.)

3) What inspired you to focus on the typically lesser-known espionage battles rather than the grand field campaigns or the desperate guerrilla struggles of the Napoleonic Wars?

Well, this is a very funny thing.  Until just recently--like about five minutes ago--all British histories or historical fiction ever looked at was either the Peninsular campaign as led by Wellington, or the Royal Navy as led by Nelson.  Which isn't surprising.  These are tales of great heroism and derring-do.  And who wants to read about disasters like the Walcheran campaign, anyway?  That would suck.  Then too, for the most part, we didn't have troops involved in Europe (though we did often have advisors there) so "British history" just ignores all the rest.  It's that simple. 

It was like this at the time, too, though.  The British press of 1812-14 was completely transfixed by the raunchy marital discords of the Prince Regent and Princess Caroline, and the marital prospects of their only daughter, Princess Charlotte. 

Then too, the Victorians didn't approve of the Regency.  And it wasn't just a matter of the perceived immorality of the age.  It was that the Regency didn't suit their vision of what Britain should be, in any way.  And for a lot of the Victorian statesmen, the Regency and the Napoleonic Wars had been what they did in their youth--a bit like being Flower children, one suspects.  So there was just this blanket whitewash.  They kept the national heroes, Wellington (who was Prime Minister) and Nelson, and jettisoned the rest. 

Add to that another 'funny thing' which is that until recently historians and the British establishment denied that Britain ever 'spied' on anyone.  The line has always been, "Oh no, that's what those nasty Froggies do.  We don't engage in that kind of thing.  We are, after all, gentlemen..."  So there was nothing to be found on it.  Just this blank wall of denial. 

Anyway, over the past decade I would say, there's been a lot of opening up of these previously denied or ignored cans of worms.  There have been several well-received histories of the Napoleonic Wars that have been about the whole war, rather than just our little bit of it.  There's been a determination to look again and to ferret out 'what really happened' rather than relying on the so-called historical truths passed down through two centuries' of Whig historians.  There's been some fine work done on the intelligence war--Elizabeth Sparrow is the leader in this field.  

But there's been more available about Sir Sydney Smith--who definitely did his bit in the intelligence war.  And Cochrane's exploits have been published.  So it's only recently been possible to gain access to the kind of information that would support a novel on the intelligence war.

And let's face it, the struggles of the guerrillas in Spain have been done to death.  I mean, it would be utterly stupid to set oneself up against the might of Bernard Cornwell and the Sharpe novels.  What's curious there too, though, is that similar local struggles against the Napoleonic state--like in Naples and in Germany--those have been completely ignored.  (Though I've just got my hands on some stuff about Italy, so I'm really chuffed about that...)

4) The geographical scope of this novel is on a par with any modern espionage adventure. Is this reflective of the struggles of this period or was this somewhat enhanced to interest modern readers?

The former.

I initially thought the novel was going to switch back and forth between London and Paris.  And I thought it was going to have a strong smuggling element too--to which end I did a lot of research about smugglers in the New Forest and in Rye.  (Which hardly got used at all.) 

But then, I read Adam Zamoyski's stellar 1812:  Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow, and it blew my socks away.  The atrocities, the wanton destruction of Poland and Prussia and of all those men--I couldn't get it out of my head.  Those thousands upon thousands of refugees!  What happened to them?

Also I knew that regardless of what Napoleon's propaganda machine said, the French army committed atrocities across Europe (Spain as detailed by Goya was not a one-off) and I had to write about it.  It just wouldn't leave me alone.  And by that point, I'll be honest, it was becoming a different novel from anything I'd planned--the synopsis had gone onto the floor to be trampled and chewed up by the dog, and I just wrote--researching the segments that take place in Poland and Bohemia as I went. 

5) The very nature of espionage often means that those involved leave less of a historical footprint than then soldiers and generals on the battlefield. Did you find this a difficult subject to research and did you need to fill in a lot of the blanks?

Well, yes and no. 

Yes, in that there were probably dozens of spies we don't know anything about. 

But Elizabeth Sparrow has found so much documentary evidence about the British end of the business, it gets a bit silly.  They spent millions of pounds on intelligence--we're talking sums that I cannot even begin to comprehend.  And there was no audit.  Not ever.  The government ministers would just hand the dosh out as they saw fit and they were all united in their belief that Parliament shouldn't be told and shouldn't know anything about it, though they did keep records of a sort.  So there are these money trails.  And names and itineraries. 

And that's only the English side of things. 

There's been quite a lot of work done in France on Fouche--the famed and feared French minister of police--but he, it turns out, was probably in British pay.  Which is why the French 'caught' so few British spies.  The Russian court was so full of spies, you wonder who wasn't a spy.  The Tsar had his official spies and then he had his private spies, because he didn't trust the court spies.  Metternich and the Austrian secret service had spies everywhere and wrote down and annotated everything, so it's all there for one to see...

6) The late Georgian Period is often glamorized by many authors despite the tumult of both the Napoleonic Wars and social unrest in England. What drew you to these more gritty aspects of the period?

I think this goes back to our fondness for putting history in boxes.  Here we have the heroic military history with Nelson and Wellington.  Huzzah and thrice huzzah!  Here we have the Industrial Revolution and the Luddite backlash against that--but that's up North, so we don't need to think about that, do we? 

Here we have Napoleon.  But his wife wore pretty dresses, so he must be 'all right', mustn't he?  Here we have Beethoven writing all this very non-Mozart-like music--what did he have to do with the world, he was deaf.   And here we have the Romantic poets--they were just looking at lice and mountains and things, so they're too artsy fartsy to count.  And the Tsar?  Well, he was Russian--he didn't even speak what could he have to do with Jane Austen?  (Except that he visited Britain in the summer of 1814 and the whole country turned out to see him--he was the hero of the age!  He had defeated the anti-Christ, Napoleon.) 

It's like a TV dinner with all the tasty bits separated into the little trays and nothing touches.  But history's not like that.  Life's not like that.  It's one great big pot of beef stew, all bubbling and roiling away, with tomatoes and carrots and garlic and onions, mushrooms and herbs and dumplings and half a bottle of good wine chucked in... 
Then too, history or the perception of history has undergone quite a transformation in the last decade.  There are all the Horrible Histories for children by Terry Deary.  We have Dan Cruikshank looking into old buildings--so much of the London we love was built on the earnings of prostitution.  Dan Snow did a series on the telly all about how different cities smelled 200 years ago.  (At which point we were all grateful our tellies didn't come with scratch and sniff screens.) 

We've got forensic scientists analysing the bones found in the Napoleonic mass graves from Smolensk and what they're telling us about how these men died and what diseases they were carrying is a lot different from Napoleon's official version.  There's Amanda Vickery reading all the letters and journals of late Georgian women and showing how what we think they lived like isn't what it was like, at all.  There are biographers writing about people like Beau Brummell and refusing to be coy about the syphilis that killed him.  There's this united determination to get at the truth, whatever that may be  (even if it doesn't ultimately sit well with our pre-conceived notion of what a BBC costume drama should look like) and a determination to understand

Then too, I do live in a combined 17th century and Georgian house, so you might say I'm on intimate terms with the Georgians' foibles...with their draughty windows which aren't set straight in the walls, with their wonky ceilings, their interesting ideas about how many fireplaces one room requires, with their cobbled together doors that don't match each other, with the doorframes upon which anyone over 5'10" will bean themselves, with cleaning the ashes from the grate...

7) Your debut novel also focused on the espionage aspects of the Napoleonic Wars. How are your two novels similar and how are they different?

The first novel is Bennetts writing a love/war story and examining the domestic crises of May 1812--chiefly the assassination of the Prime Minister on 11 May 1812.  

So in the first, there's a focus on the 'wholeness' of life of those who lived at the time and worked in government circles.  Their lives weren't neatly compartmentalised.  Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary and Wellington's closest ally and friend, was the husband of a patroness of Almack's and regularly turned up there to see her.  He had a vastly active social life at the same time as he was sitting up in the House of Commons till all hours as Leader of the House.  And he went on to be one of the greatest Foreign Secretaries the world has ever seen. 

And I really wanted to do something with that lovely Russian literary form, the slice of life.  But I left out the gulags and the borscht, and instead did a month in the life of a chap who worked in the Foreign Office.  So it's, if you will, the Home Front--because, don't get me wrong--Britain was entirely unique at the time.  It was the one country which hadn't suffered the devastation of French invasion--it was a haven of a green, untrampled landscape!  And they loved it for that.

The second book has been described as 'Bennetts without the nice'.  The world of espionage--which was a key element of the war against Napoleon, particularly as Britain was subsidising the Austrian, Prussian and Russian efforts against France to the tune of millions of pounds--provided this fantastic window through which to look at all sorts of aspects of the Napoleonic wars that normally get swept aside:  the police state that was France, the refugee crisis, the aching loss of it all, and the contrast between Britain which had suffered none of the depredations of war and Europe which was rent by war.  And who doesn't want to write a cracking historical thriller?


M.M. out for a bit of a canter.

Thanks for stopping by, M.M.

If you'd like to read more from M.M., please check out her website at

Of Honest Fame can be found at the following retailers:

The Book Depository


Debra Brown said...

Thank you, JA, for hosting someone who would write such fascinating material, and with a background that lent itself to material of this depth. I think I will start with the first book, as I need some "nice".

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Debra.

Sophia Rose said...

I am so glad to see someone tackle the 'ungentlemanly' world of British espionage and care about authenticity in their writing.

Enjoyed the interview and look forward to reading the 'not so nice' Bennetts book I have in my TBR pile. (-;

Thanks for the posting Mr. Beard!

M.M. Bennetts said...

I realised just now that of course it was books about the architecture of Bramante and Alberti--not Palladio who is a Cinquocento architect--that I was meant to be studying all those years ago. Probably this tells most effectively just how far my attention had strayed by this point...

J.A. Beard said...

Well, still a good interview. :)