History, poetry, music and horses probably sums it up. M.M. Bennetts, although expecting to study piano and music, studied mediaeval history at Boston University and at the University of St. Andrews.
For some twenty years, she was a book critic for the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, specialising in history and fiction…She is one of the editors of Castles, Customs and Kings ~ True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, as well as the author of two novels set amidst the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars: May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. And a third novel, Or Fear of Peace, also set in the period, is in the works…
She lives in southern England, where it rains a great deal, and she is most astonishingly fond of cakey. Honestly.
Stephanie: Hello, M.M.! Thank you for visiting me today on Layered Pages. I am delighted to be chatting with you about your book, Of Honest Fame. I’m currently reading your book and it is not often I read a story that takes place in the time 19th Century. However, I am really enjoying the story and find myself wanting to spend all day reading. Please tell your audience a little about your story.
M.M.: First off, Steph, may I please thank you for having me here today. It’s such a pleasure to be able to talk to you about my novel, Of Honest Fame.
Naturally, I should like to able to say something really winning or impressive here, but that would be complete weasel fur.
I got the images and ideas for the opening scenes years ago, when I was in Paris, having a meal in the large dining room-kitchen of this ground floor restaurant in the Isle de St Louis—which was far from the Paris of cafes.
(Yes, I’m a foodie.)
Then, days later I was in Rye, East Sussex, marveling at the pebbled surface of Mermaid Street, and immersed as ever in the Napoleonic era—which is my specialism. And the opening montage of action and imagery and characters were just there. And I saw it all so vividly. So I wrote it down on the back of several used envelopes and left it to grow.
And grow it did.
There wasn’t a plan. Or a plot—well I did write them and no sooner did I write them and think myself very clever with all my neat tied up ends, than some character or other which I’d not imagined would appear and wouldn’t shut up…so I’d rip up the plan, throw it over my shoulder onto the floor and the dog would, er, eradicate it.
And then I found the title, or the title found me in that verse of Byron’s: “The drying up a single tear has more of honest fame than in shedding seas of gore.” And I thought, whoa! Must have that. And it such an amazing question—what is honest fame? Particularly in an age which glorified the military machine?
Stephanie: What was your inspiration for this book and what fascinates you most about this time period?
M.M.: Well, I’ve kind of given you a bit of the inspiration already…but to follow on from that: Again without wanting to sound completely up myself, I’ve always loved those novels where you don’t really know who the good guys are, you have to work that out—Dickens was so great at that in A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend. And I just love that ambiguity. So I wanted to write that evolution of character, but for several characters…
But this is where it gets a bit funny. When I was researching the previous book, May 1812, I had come across this blank denial that there even had been British espionage at this time. And I was always shaking my head and thinking, “Funny! That doesn’t seem possible.” Because I knew that the French secret police were second to none. So I was really expected to believe that we were here, saying, “Oh no worries. We’re English gentlemen, we don’t behave like that.” Hello? I don’t think so.
And other people seemed to have reached a similar conclusion. Hence books and research started appearing which proved we were up to it all the way to the back teeth. Honestly, the research unfolded more than I could ever have made up in my wildest dreams. And as it did, well, the book kept reflecting all of that. It couldn’t help it.
But what has become so inspiring and fantastic to me over time is the quality of the men who joined forces to defeat one of the most powerful and effective military states—Napoleon and Napoleonic France. He was a military genius—and his adversaries were most of them pretty mediocre fellows. They were indifferent kings and emperors, he scared the buttons off their breeches! They weren’t financial wizards, their governments despaired over them, they had rubbishy weapons, and they didn’t have a clue. But they pulled their boots on, you know, and they did the hard thing, and they defeated him. I admire that!
Stephanie: What first sparked your interest in studying Napoleonic Europe?
M.M.: I was a mediaevalist and I strayed—though I had previously studied the French Revolution, but kind of in general. I lived on an ancient estate near St. Andrews. And the big house was one of the first by the brothers Adam and I was entranced by the architecture. And then the art and the music sucked me further in…and it happened.
I just kept getting drawn down these research aisles and I have absolutely no control over following unanswered historical question. I just can’t help myself; I have to know the answer. I have to understand.
Stephanie: How does Lord Castlereagh chose his agents to spy for him and what is the background they come from?
M.M.: Without meaning to sound glib or cagey, it just seems to have happened based upon whom one knew and whom one trusted. So there’s lots of nepotism–Lord Castlereagh relied heavily on his younger brother, Charles Vane Stewart, who was an aide to Wellington for a long time in the Peninsula–and it was Charles who would write to his brother telling him exactly what Wellington thought and what problems he was honestly dealing with, rather than what the ‘official’ version was. Later he sent his brother, Charles, to the Allied command in 1813 in Prussia for the same reason.
There was also a thing called the Irish Office, which had initially been set up to deal with the French-supported insurgencies in Ireland which Castlereagh had been instrumental in crushing back at the end of the 18th century. And this was being run by one Sir Charles Flint.
However, long after the French threat seems to have been quelled in Ireland, it was the Irish Office who were running the surveillance of French agents in Britain. And Flint was occasionallly sent abroad with huge amounts of dosh for bribery and all that–but this really offended many of the Tory high command, because how could a chap without a title be trusted? I’m not kidding.
So whilst there are those extra-ordinary spymasters like Sir Joseph Banks, it was very much a pick your own, pay your own, have massive funds to bribe your own, do-it-yourself amongst those you trusted.
The Royal Navy were up to their ears in it, as was the Foreign Office, and also the Post Office in Lombard Street, at the time, was opening any post that had any hint of a foreign author…and copying the letter and scrutinising it–so they were aware of anyone in the emigre circles countrywide who might have Napoleonic sympathies.
But it also frequently went hideously wrong. I should just mention that, here
Stephanie: Could you give me a little background about the, “boys,” life and how he became a spy?
M.M.: Well, I shouldn’t. That’s part of the mystery-thriller, isn’t it? And if I told you, it wouldn’t be a mystery…though I trust it’s slightly clearer than pea soup by the end of Of Honest Fame.
The one thing I will say is that our ideas about childhood had all been swept away by this war of wars. They sent boys to sea as young as ten–and that wasn’t considered abuse, that was considered he had a bed to sleep in, a trade and was fed daily.
The boys were sent into the army as drummers and fife-players and they were often targeted deliberately by the French marksmen, because they kept the troops marching forward or carried the colours. And being an orphan and fending for oneself was sadly normal in these lands where war was wiping out the adult population–and that’s very true of London during the period too. We think of all those street urchins in Dickens. They were a perennial feature of London–street Arabs is what they were called through the ages.
Stephanie: Somehow I knew you would say that! One must try! The boy is such a wonderful and complex character. What are the key elements of history you like to include in your stories?
M.M.: Total immersion. We like, as historians, to put our subjects in little boxes. We have music history, we have art history, we have political history, we have economic history, we have royal history, we have military history, we have literature, we have popular culture… But have you ever noticed, we don’t live like that? Real life is a mushed up mess. It’s all of that put in a blender and turned into a life smoothie and it all slops together, sometimes well, and other times, yikes!
And that’s what happens as I’m writing. It all of it comes pouring out. It’s not neat, it’s not necessarily tidy. It’s all of it.
So when I found that Prussia had been ravaged by the French troops in the months before the Russian campaign of 1812 that had to go in. I was astonished by what I read and learned from the eye-witness accounts. It’s life–all of it–rambunctious, honourable, messy, good, colourful, aching, terrible, raw and beautiful.
Stephanie: I agree with you 100%! History is so fascinating and when you write about it, there is so much to explore and talk about. I have admiration for your knowledge and love for history. What was some of the research involved for this book?
M.M.: Oh my giddy aunt, there was so much! I am such a pestilential terrier.
If I’d had any idea what I was getting into when I started, I would have headed for the hills, I swear. Everything led to something else. And I cannot help myself. So even though I’d probably read upwards of 50-150 books before I got started, done site visits, studied the historic maps, even as I was working on it, I kept coming up against walls. And I have to know and understand everything!
Like what were peasant’s houses like in Bohemia in 1812? Well, I needed to know to write about it, you see? And turned out to be unbelievably tricksy! Because most of those ancient homes had been destroyed by Communist occupation—and you’ll never believe what happened! I was stuck in Bath, with my train canceled and canceled for three hours, and got talking with a woman—the way one does—and she turned out to be an architect from Slovakia. I told her my difficulty eventually—as we were squashed like lemmings up against the wall of the train that eventually did leave—and she found me pictures of traditional buildings, told me about the components of the unusual whitewash they used, everything! It was amazing and wonderful!
And I was so chuffed, because no matter what–I must get everything right for you, if I can. That’s my job! To write it so clearly, so immediately, that it’s not that you’re reading—no, you’re in the room! You can taste it, smell it, live it.
Stephanie: Was there a particular scene in your story that was a challenge to write?
M.M.: There were masses. I was completely gobsmacked and daunted.
On the research journey I had discovered so much sadness, so much devastation—we don’t automatically associate historic wars and heroic Napoleonic uniforms with a massive refugee problem for example—but with war, you have refugees. And with a whole Continent at war, that’s one big refugee crisis—they hid in the forests and woods and mountains, in bands, whole villages of people together…
I mean, every town or village that had a battle in it, that whole village or town, all of those people would be refugees. But 200 years ago, they didn’t count them. And I wanted you to see, but to see with your heart. So that was often emotionally tough. But equally, you know, I wanted to write love amongst this ruination, love, transformation, the drying of those tears.
Stephanie: Is there one thing you learned while writing your book? (About yourself or your writing.)
M.M.: Ha ha ha! That however I may delude myself, I am not in charge of the process! In order to write these things, I have to get so quiet, and just listen. I must get myself and my snark out of the way, and let these characters and these ideas and the poetry of language unfold themselves to me. And I write. I listen, I listen, and I write and rewrite and rewrite until I’ve got it perfect.
And there are few lengths to which I will not go to get it right. And if that means, as it did, that a scene I had set in Vienna–I had done ALL the research. I even knew the actual pattern and colour of the curtains in the room. All of which had to be chucked because the fellow wasn’t in Vienna at the time–he was in Linz about which I knew absolutely nothing not even where it was—and Vienna hit the floor to be Jack Russelled.
Stephanie: How long have you been a writer and when was your first published work?
M.M.: I started publishing poetry when I was a teen, I think. Some literary magazine stuff. And then I started writing for the Christian Science Monitor in the late 80s, primarily as a book critic.
Stephanie: I noticed in your bio that you are a dressage rider and accomplished pianist. I firmly believe that other than reading, exercise and the arts strengthen the mind as well. Do you feel these activates have helped you with your writing?
M.M.: They both do. The music—well, I’ve played since I was five, so I can’t truly imagine life without it. And I was hooked on Beethoven by time I was eight. So really, I’ve always had my head halfway stuck in his world, so it wasn’t really a switch more of an expansion.
The cross country riding is freedom. I ‘m happiest outdoors (except in the torrential rain).
And to be honest, too, the riding has been quite literally translated onto the page. Anytime you read in a book of mine about a horse, that’s real horse, and a real happening which will have happened to me. But it’s also given me a sense of how slowly life happens in a horse-dependent society, how physically strong these men were who spent 10-20 hours in the saddle; what it’s like to ride through chucking it down rain in a force 8 gale… (Mad! And a little bit grand.)
Stephanie: Are you working on a book project now?
M.M.: I’ve done the research. And have started the next book—which is follow on to Of Honest Fame titled Or Fear of Peace. (I didn’t mean to. In my tiny furry mind, I had other plans…)
But it’s only fair to say I am the world’s worst starter. I write the beginning. It’s not bad. I rewrite the beginning. I think about it. I think it’s stoopid. And I realise that’s not the beginning. The beginning is earlier. I start again. I write a new beginning. This is much, much better. I hate this one too. And it’s not the beginning. The beginning starts much earlier. So eventually I have a lot of almost the middle, and I’m still working on the beginning. But—here’s the good news: I do know the ending! Ish.
Stephanie: What advice could you give to an aspiring writer?
M.M.: Learn. Never stop learning. Never stop turning to the greats to learn what they can teach you about plot, structure, style, language, and character, all of it which makes that organic whole of the novel. And learn the rules—the grammar, the punctuation, the hammer and nails of your trade. You can’t build a house if you don’t know how to use the hammer, nails, saw, spirit level and so on. Never stop learning.
Oh, and every novel is different. The question is never how did I do the last one, the question is how do I write this one?
Stephanie: Is there a message you would like to give to your readers?
M.M.: Let me take you there. To 1812. To 1813. To this world I know probably better than our own. Let me take you there.
Stephanie: Where can people buy your books?
M.M.: Everything is available on Amazon, either in the US or the UK. And thank you all so very much. I do hope, more than anything you know, that should you buy the books and read them, that you enjoy them. Because that to me is the world. That is the reason why.
Stephanie: Thank you, M.M. and now that we have had a lovely chat it is time for tea and cake.
M.M.: Yes, please. Now what shall we start with, scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam or straight to the cake? Because that is a fine Victoria Sponge on the table…and the St. Clements cake is looking rather more-ish as well.
And thank you very much for inviting me, because I’ve had a smashing time talking with you…