We have a special guest today! M.M. Bennetts is here with us to talk about the new historical fiction novel, Of Honest Fame (Diiarts). Enjoy!
Educated at Boston University and St Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider, as well as an accomplished pianist, regularly performing music of the era as both a soloist and accompanist. Bennetts is a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor.
The author is married and lives in England.
Bennetts’ latest book is Of Honest Fame.
You can visit the author’s website at www.mmbennetts.com.
It’s a war of espionage, set in Britain and Continental Europe against a backdrop of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
There are three main characters: Thomas Jesuadon, a disgraced gentleman and a gambler who runs his own network of watchers and spies in London, Georgie Shuster who is on secondment to the Foreign Office from the Peninsula, and a boy named Boy Tirrell, who spends much of his time out gathering information, anywhere from Paris to Berlin to Vienna.
Jesuadon’s muscle is in the form of an ex-farrier called Barnet. There’s also the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, and a Scotsman called Dunphail who doesn’t want anything to do with any of them, but unfortunately was a witness to a rather important event.
Together they epitomize the fact that in this period, there was no such thing as a proper intelligence agency. They were all amateurs, they came to work as and when they chose, they risked their lives daily without recognition, and their existence has, until recently, been wholly denied by generations of politicians and historians.
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
Well, in the case of actual historical figures, I base those characters upon a great deal of research—I read biographies, I read their letters, journals, speeches and memoranda—so I build up not just an understanding of what made them tick, but how they spoke, who their friends were, what were their habits.
However, for the fictional characters whom I’ve introduced into the narrative, they’re usually composites of historical figures, plus bits from people I’ve known or observed, plus a bit of imagination synthesizing the whole together. I very often will have listened to the speech patterns of people around the country so that I can write ‘character’, if you will.
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
I start with an idea of a plot, if by that you mean, a general idea of what I want to write about and where I trust the story will go, but after about the first four or five chapters, I’m afraid I step back and let the thing grow organically, building on itself. Fortunately, I have the history there to keep me from running too far afield. So certain people have to die at certain points in the narrative, or be somewhere specific, and that does dictate a certain structure.
Q: Your book is set in London. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?
The book is set mainly in London, because that’s the capital and seat of Government of Britain, so there wasn’t much of a choice. But the marvelous thing for me was discovering how very different was the London of 1812 from even Victorian London, and it provided me with such a background of ancient districts and slums—perfect for a spy thriller—places with names like the Devil’s Acre or the Rookery. I don’t have to say anything more—these names are just so evocative.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Well, because the action of the novel is shared between London, Paris and Eastern Europe—places like northern Germany, Silesia, Poland, the Sudeten, and Czechoslovakia—where Napoleon’s forces had been gathering prior to the invasion, having a character there, on the ground as it were, made for some pretty stark comparisons between peaceful, unoccupied Britain and the devastation that the French army left in their wake.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
We’re in a chamber in the barracks at Edinburgh Castle, where Georgie Shuster is attempting to learn from the commanding officer what happened to an escaped prisoner-of-war, who is, the more he hears, sounding like the man who attempted to kill Boy Tirrell. And this, together with the commanding officer’s obvious incompetence, is causing Shuster to be more than a little nervous.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
“Lady Wilmot had not been outside the walls of Sparrowhawk’s rambling Inn in over a month. Indeed, she had not once been outside of the locked garret chamber in all that time. Not since that first night when Sparrowhawk had escorted her, exhausted and trembling, up the narrow staircase and through the maze of passages and hidden doors to the room under the eaves. And during the past of those lost days and nights, what she had seen of the sky and its changeable, London fog-bound moods had been framed always within the borders of the upper casement window, near which she was not permitted to stand. Not even to look out upon the moon and the never silent city. Not to feel the sun warm and strong upon her cheek.
“But standing now just without the kitchen’s threshold, she paused and looked up to regard the great expanse of London sky, blue and spectacularly cloudless. And caught her breath. And holding that intake of breath within her as a secret, she gazed upon the sky with a kind of wonder, looking up and glorying in this bright moment of freedom, upon the rooks wheeling overhead, and the street sparrows perched upon the gutters’ edges, gazed with unparalleled pleasure and an awe which made her heart quail. And she would have stood thus the whole morning, emptied of thought or expectation, just watching in open wonder and private contentment the threading drifts of cloud and paling blue and the unfettered birds which flew as winnowed meal. But then, a touch on her shoulder reminded her that she could not linger, that she was not safe…”
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, MM. We wish you much success!
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.