A month or two ago I managed to get a letter published in The Times. The bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo is coming up next year and the paper had been addressing itself towards various celebrations and events commemorating the victory over Napoleon and the essential role of the Prussians.
My letter modestly pointed out that about seventy percent of the soldiers fighting Napoleon that day were German or from what became Germany. Only a third of Wellington’s army was British; a quarter were Dutch-Belgian and the rest, some forty percent, were Germans of various sorts – Hanoverians, King’s German Legion, Nassauers and Brunswickers. The separate Prussian army under Blucher was pretty well all German, except for some inevitable Poles and others. Not that Napoleon was short of Germans, either; he had Saxon, Bavarian and Westphalian contingents as well as Poles drafted in from vanquished Princedoms, Palatines and other Teutonic sources to supplement his wasteful way with Frenchmen. All in all, there were a lot of Germans about that day. But Wellington was generously credited with the victor’s role and the stout resistance of the British contingent, which was itself a third Irish, hailed as crucial to success. Wellington brought the country into the Big Time.
Writing about historical events, even when they are just background, can arrest the attention with facts and figures of this sort. The more that history is examined, the less clear-cut it becomes until, like Harry Flashman sensing oncoming hostilities, the writer hears a subconscious voice shouting Get On With The Plot or Cut To The Chase and the factual field is abandoned to allow creation to resume its progress. In writing A Damned Serious Business (a quote from Wellington’s description the morning after the battle) the subconscious voice spoke frequently, not just with requests to ignore the quantity of Germans present that day or the details of the fighting but also about the treasure at the end of the chase. It became clear that the most valuable bicentenary things promoted by the antiques trade next year would be connected with Napoleon, not Wellington. The Continental and American market rates Napoleonic relics monetarily far higher than those of the Iron Duke. Even the British are susceptible: Napoleon’s captured carriage made a fortune for the man who bought it and exhibited in London before it went to Tussaud’s and was destroyed in a fire. So the chase brought in French loot, which in turn trailed facts about Imperial craftsmen and State furnishings. To narrate how these generated a drama of crime and deception in the present required the relegation of more facts to the stage backdrop, otherwise their story would become overwhelming. All writers using history have this problem. It requires tight discipline to push fascinating facts back into their box and hold down the lid. A college acquaintance who became a member of the Sunday Times Insight team, David Leitch, wrote a book called The Discriminating Thief, about the Chateau Gang who plundered French country houses and churches in the 1960s. Like me, he found enormous riches in the reference books of Gerald Reitlinger, with their detail of the pricing of works of art over long periods. David resisted all that detail with great skill whilst conveying its messages as he told the story; I would like to think that in creating a fictional Chateau Gang, hot for Napoleonic riches, I have managed to do the same.
A Damned Serious Business by John Malcolm has just been launched as an e-book on Kindle.
Read more about John over on his CRA profile