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2013-01-14
Writing Historical novels
Well, 2013 starting slowly and am well behind in terms of updating this site. However, I wanted to post a message about this new blog run by The Australian Literature Review and designed to give advice about writing historical novels. They have about thirty authors and editors contributing a blog entry each month. Here is the link to my first one Starting to write historical novels and it is easy from this to navigate the rest of the site. I have read the entries so far and reckon they are very useful, so would recommend them to anyone contemplating writing or simply interested in how authors go about things.
 
2012-11-19
The Waterloo Archive Volume IV

Back in June I posted an entry about the third volume of Gareth Glover's The Waterloo Archive and just recently I have had a chance to read the fourth volume. Once again it provides an incredible amount of new information for Quatre Bras and Waterloo, as well as the wider campaign and the occupation of Paris. As always, there are lots of snippets adding new details to our understanding of the battle, emphasising how much of the often repeated orthodox view of Waterloo itself is grossly distorted. It has always struck me that personal accounts do not neatly fit the phases imposed on the battle. These sources add to that impression, but also challenge many other aspects of the traditional narrative.


Well, one day I hope to take the 106th to Waterloo and I suspect that many of these details will influence how I write about the battle. For the moment, my interest is particularly drawn to all the little details adding flavour to the life of officers and soldiers in that era. Included in this volume is a previously unpublished account by Simmons, whose journal was edited by Verner at the end of the nineteenth century and has become one of the classic accounts of the era. This 'new' narrative is just as lively and full of anecdote as his earlier, briefer account.


Also very welcome are the accounts by two of Lord Hill's staff, and especially the diary of Captain Digby Mackworth of the 7th Fusiliers, for a reminder of the general's role in this campaign, which sometimes gets forgotten given the way Wellington broke up the corps. Interestingly he speaks of a tearful Duchess of Richmond 'placing herself at the entrance of the hall room ... ' and vainly begging her guests on the 15th June to ' ... "wait one little hour more" and "not spoil her ball". He also gives us a view of fashionable society and it is hard not to smile at comments such as 'There must have been something essentially bad in the education of the Wellesley family: on the score of gallantry not one of its members, male or female, is sans reproche' or 'The 54th are commanded by Lord Waldegrave, who has greatly distressed his family by a very imprudent marriage. Many people think the marriage has not actually taken place, though he introduces her everywhere as Lady Waldegrave.' The editor notes that in fact the couple did not marry until October 1815. This sort of detail, about such private matters as well as technical military matters raise these books to true works of scholarship and provoke nothing but admiration for Gareth Glover's knowledge and the immense amount of time devoted to producing this series and his other books.


Some of the contents are very poignant even after two centuries - such as a surgeon's comments on men wounded in the battle. For instance a Private William Wanstell of the 10th Hussars whose memory was affected by a head wound, so that he could not remember recent events, but only earlier service in the 17th LD. Wanstell died a few days later. There are also some lively last letters home from Ensign the Hon. S. Barrington of the 2nd/1st Guards who was subsequently killed at Quatre Bras. This is followed by several letters to his family written after the campaign, providing them with more information about his final hours and emphasising that his death was 'instantaneous owing to a musket shot in the head'. Given that that is just what friends would be likely to say in the circumstances, it is tempting to wonder whether they wrote what they thought would be most comforting to his family. On the other, hand one of the correspondents contrasts this swift end with some of his other friends lingering on with dreadful wounds, so perhaps suspicion is unjustified. Interestingly two of the letters also speak of Barrington and another officer going aside to pray before the action - something not always associated with Regency gentlemen.


There is so much material in this and the earlier volumes that I could go on and on. All in all, this is a marvellous addition to our understanding of the campaign, the army and the era in general.


 
2012-10-03
Wellington's Wars. The making of a military genius

Huw Davies, Wellington's Wars. The making of a military genius (Yale University Press, 2012) is certainly well worth a look for anyone with an interest in the subject. I enjoyed reading it and found it thought-provoking, although at the same time it is rather frustrating, and could have benefitted from being much longer and broadening the discussion. So when reading about the lessons the young Wellesley learned in India, it would have been nice to compare these campaigns to earlier wars fought by the East India Company's armies. Given that the author argues for similarities between his methods in India and in the Peninsula this would be all the more interesting to see whether his operations in the former conformed to normal practice there. The treatment of the Peninsular War is interesting and offers fresh insights, although the focus is sometimes a little narrow. His tactical ability is largely taken as already well established and so dealt with very briefly indeed. The early campaigns, especially those of 1809 also receive little attention, an appear more as a prelude to the clearly defensive strategy of the next few years. Given how far into Spain Talavera was fought, this seems an over simplification.


It's unfair to criticise a good book for not being even better, but it is a mark of the author's interesting ideas that you are left wanting to consider them in a wider framework, and find that at the moment the discussion stops before it is fully convincing. The preface offers a good example of rather cavalier pronouncements. It tells the story of Wellington sitting for a portrait by Lawrence, and being dismayed to see that the artist depicted him holding a pocket watch in his hand - the idea was to suggest him waiting for the arrival of Blucher's Prussians. Wellington was horrified, and the chastened artist instead changed the watch to a telescope for the finished portrait. This the author says:


' ... speaks volumes not only about the Waterloo Campaign, but also about Wellington's character. ... "That will never do!" the Duke is alleged to have exclaimed. "I was not 'waiting' for the Prussians at Waterloo." ... Clearly Wellington came to believe that the arrival of the Prussians played little part in his victory over Napoleon.'


Yet we are talking about a picture honouring the subject, where a degree of egoism is surely natural. Who would want to be depicted at the moment of a great achievement as entirely dependent on someone else? The story does not in itself tell us much at all about Wellington's view on the overall importance of his own or of Blucher's role in the hundred Days, merely that he understandably wanted a portrait of himself to focus on his own achievement. The Duke's views on Waterloo are another matter altogether, and not adequately explored, especially to justify such sweeping statements. So we come back to the start of this post. Davies' book is well worth reading. It will make you think afresh about some big issues and that is a rare thing in such a well-trodden subject. At times it can also be more than a little frustrating.


 
2012-09-23
Augustus' birthday
I have made it a custom to celebrate Caesar's birthday with a trip to a nice restaurant, and this years decided to add his heir's birthday to the calendar. This time we did lunch, braving the rather miserable weather here in South Wales. The 23rd September was the date chosen for the official celebration of the emperor's birthday during and after his lifetime - and also as an additional commemoration of the Battle of Actium. Some of the sources hint that he may actually have been born on the 24th September 63 BC - the difference perhaps due to the changes made by the introduction of the Julian claendar. As ever with Augustus, nothing is simple.
 
2012-09-16
Highly recommended introduction to Augustus

I have just read Karl Galinsky's Augustus. An introduction to the life of an emperor, released by Cambridge University Press earlier this year. The subject is a vast one - something of which I am constantly reminded as I work on my own biography of Rome's first emperor. Augustus lived so long and did so much that any biographer has to deal with a great many different subjects. For many the evidence is poor, and on top of that the man himself remains a mystery. It always seems appropriate that he chose the enigmatic sphinx as one of his seals - only one though, because Augustus was never easy to pin down in any aspect of life. After all this is a man born in September, who nevertheless chose the Capricorn as his symbol. This is one of many curiosities explored in a text box, Like so many other aspects of Augustus' life, it defies an easy answer. Galinsky reviews the evidence with skill and perception, and most importantly admits that there are many gaps in our sources which makes certainty impossible on many issues, both great and small.


This is a slim volume. I have four or five times the space for my own biography of the first emperor and know that I will have to leave out a huge amount of material. This makes it all the more impressive just how much Galinsky crams into less than two hundred pages. There are plenty of illustrations and maps. Students starting a course on the wider period or Augustus in particular will find this invaluable. Anyone else with an interest in the theme, or who simply wants to gain a glimpse of such a remarkable and important historical figure, can do no better than to start with this short book.


 

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