Why I Love (and Write) Historical Fiction

Why I Love (and Write) Historical Fiction

By M.M. Bennetts

Truth to tell, I always wanted to write a novel about spies.  Spy thrillers have such drive, such pace.  They pack such a wallop.

But when I first conceived of Of Honest Fame, I think I must have been envisioning the spy-version of Sharpe.  Or Hornblower.  And I wrote a bit of an opening.

At the time, however, I was wholly immersed in the research for my other novel, May 1812, and was reading everything to do with the domestic trials and tribulations that occurred within British politics as they were fighting the French–the assassination of the Prime Minister, the bills for the abolition of the pillory for women and the reformation of the Apprenticeship Acts, plus the Luddite rebellion, as well as the ongoing war effort.  So that the whole spy business was put to one side.

But then, that work done, and the first novel finished, I widened my scope and turned my attention to what else was happening in Europe in 1812.

And this coincided with the publication of Adam Zamoyski’s landmark study of the French Invasion of Russia which he titled simply 1812.

Because of Zamoyski’s own background, plus the opening up of the archives which had been closed to the West, roughly since the Russian Revolution, an entirely new picture of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia emerged.  One which set aside the Napoleonic PR machine’s carefully constructed fabrication of everything being hunky-dunky until that nasty winter set in early.

Zamoyski blew the whole field open, proving once and for all that Napoleon exposed his troops to every avoidable misery and disaster.  And this not just on the way out of Russia, but on the way in as well.  According to Zamoyski, at least half of the invasion force was dead before they ever crossed into Russia.

Another forgotten or overlooked casualty of the Napoleonic Invasion was Poland, stripped bare, beggared and abused, not by the Russians–who generally get the blame for most Polish ills of the period–but by their allies, the French.

Not only did Napoleon empty their already depleted treasury, he beggared, quite literally, their entire government; his troops stole everything they could lay their hands on, abused the populace, starved them, and the Polish Lancers who were pledged to help him were turned against their own countrymen when sent out to ‘requisition’ for the army.

This book changed forever the nature of Of Honest Fame.

It was this book which forced me to leave my espionage comfort zone of Britain and France and the Peninsula (which is where I had envisioned some of the novel taking place) to refocus my attention on the war in Europe, on these lands and these peoples whose lives and countries were ravaged by the Grande Armee.

Because frankly, I couldn’t get the pictures out of my head.

Then came David A. Bell’s riveting The First Total War.  Another book which knocked my socks off, detailing as it does the atrocities which the French committed throughout the Napoleonic wars, using the Terror tactics they developed during the Revolution to subdue every opposing European power.

The atrocities committed against the Spanish population were exposed by Goya in the etchings, which I had seen.  But no one previously had ever revealed that Spain wasn’t the only place these were committed.  Italy and Germany had also suffered so.

All of which coincided with the publication of histories of British spies and intelligence work during the war which showed that, at the very least, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary for War were well aware of the war as it was progressing in Central Europe.

They were not, as we have come to be in the last hundred years, only aware of their own efforts against Napoleon in the Peninsula.  On the contrary, they were actively supporting the Russian effort as well as exchanging information with their ally.

So it was through the work of all these splendid historians that Of Honest Fame took shape and became the book it is today.

I owe them an immense debt of gratitude for their painstaking work to dismantle the hoary monolith of Napoleonic propaganda.  And I hope that my work can help to disseminate the truth of their findings still farther–and still deliver a ripping good read.

London, Paris, Prussia, Poland, Bohemia…these are the settings against which the gambler, gaoler, soldier, sailor, etc. conduct their business as intelligence men.

It’s not quite what I envisioned all those years ago.  I think it may just be better.

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.


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