I’d like to welcome M.J. Logue to Layered Pages to talk about self-image of her main character in The Serpent’s Root. M.J., writer, mad cake lady, re-enactor, historian has been slightly potty about the clankier side of Ironside for around 20 years, and lists amongst her heroes in this unworthy world Sir Thomas Fairfax, Elizabeth Cromwell and John Webster (for his sense of humour.)
When not purveying historically-accurate cake to various re-enactment groups across the country, M.J. Logue can usually be discovered practising in her garden with a cavalry backsword.
M.J., how is self-image important to your characters?
I’d like to introduce you to my marred, mad Puritan lieutenant, Thankful Russell.
He’s not my main protagonist – well, no one’s going to describe Hollie Babbitt as a hero, apart from possibly his wife, and she’s biased – and he was really never meant to be in the books at all…a minor character, the walk-on secretary to the Earl of Essex in the second book, and that was all. Until someone asked me if Essex’s marred secretary was the same badly-hurt casualty of Edgehill that sets Luce Pettitt (who’s the closest I have got to a hero) on the path to his eventual post-war medical career.
He wasn’t, of course, but it set me to thinking.
One of my favourite characters, actually, and possibly the least likeable on the surface: Russell (not unreasonably, he hates his ostentatiously godly given name – and Thankful is only the half of it!) starts off in the novella “A Cloak of Zeal” as a young man living a double life: devout and respectable by day, roistering by night. He’s a stunningly beautiful young man: tall and slight and fair, with a lot of thick barley-blonde hair and dark, slaty-grey eyes, perfect cheekbones, a slightly sulky pout…. right up until the butt-end of a shattered pike ruins his beauty forever at the battle of Edgehill in 1642, in the first full-length book of the Uncivil Wars series, “Red Horse”.
And in one sense, that’s the making of Russell, because it destroys the boy he was, utterly. Not only good-looking but utterly arrogant, utterly devoid of sympathy, wholly assured of his place in God’s grace – and then all of a sudden he’s not only physically disfigured, but invalided out of his position in the Army, abandoned to the kindness of strangers, bereft of both his hope and his future. An object of pity and horror, and the worst of it is that he knows it, and he’s terrified.
What’s fascinating to me about writing Russell is that he has two self-images: he is, very much, bipolar, in the modern sense. One is the judgmental, arrogant Puritan; prim and self-righteous and very, very unforgiving. He’s been brought up – cruelly and loveless, but how can he know that? – to believe that he’s one of the Lord’s Elect and everyone else is a miserable backslider, and so he’s conditioned to seeing himself as set apart, as better. (Which also makes him a phenomenally efficient officer – he can’t be bought or bribed, and he knows exactly what his duty is and he will hold to it no matter what – but that’s sort of by the by.) But then he has this permanent internal dialogue: if God loves me so much, why did He mean me to be so horribly scarred? And because it’s Russell’s nature to question, to want to know, he doesn’t always like the sort of answers that he gets. That maybe there isn’t a purpose, maybe the world is random. Maybe he isn’t meant as some kind of latter-day martyr. Maybe there isn’t a God – or if there is, that maybe Russell deserved to be disfigured, because he isn’t one of the Elect after all. And so the other self-image he has, on his dark days, is that he really is a horrible, bad person, who’s being punished for his arrogance and vanity by this scarring that means that his outward seeming is as unlovable as his soul must be.
The irony is, of course, that when he joins the Army of Parliament before Edgehill Thankful Russell is not quite eighteen, and as full of unrealistic ideals as a hedgehog is of fleas. And like most teenagers he wants to change the world, he believes most passionately in fairness and equality and he has a ludicrously inflated sense of his own self-importance. But, then again, he doesn’t know that he’s like every other young man ever, because he’s never been allowed to mix with the sort of rowdy young gentlemen who might have knocked some sense into him. (Not until – well, about book three, when he comes up against someone who has a similar upbringing and no patience with overwrought teenagers – to wit, Colonel Hollie Babbitt.) And even when he does know it – when he’s forced to look in a mirror, literally and figuratively, and acknowledge that he’s no different from any other man, neither better nor worse – he’s not reassured by that knowledge, good Lord, no. He’s outraged.
The more I write Russell, the more I love him. He’s horribly mixed up – damaged, self-destructive, ferociously intense – and yet at the same time he’s very simple. He wants to be loved, and he’s convinced he doesn’t deserve to be. Most of the time he’s hurt, frightened, and very lonely – and determined that the world shouldn’t know it. We do – the reader sees him close to breaking many times, as he starts to outgrow the rigid shell of the identity his upbringing has imposed on him – but oh, he must be hard work to live with!
Writing the way, he changes and grows over the Uncivil Wars series, from the judgmental neurotic of “The Smoke Of Her Burning” to a relatively unremarkable, if slightly shy in company, husband and father by the time his own series is set twenty years later, I’m struck by how easy it would be to have made him a fixer-upper – waiting for the woman with the magic wand to heal his poor yearning heart.
As it is, he’s going to spend the rest of the series learning to fix himself.
Well, and then he gets a series of his own. But that’s twenty years in the future, and there’s a King to execute and another king to restore to the throne before Thankful Russell gets his happy-ever-after.
Back blurb for The Serpent’s Root:
After Marston Moor. After Naseby. War returns to the West Country.
Book 5 in the bestselling Uncivil Wars series, featuring the adventures of Hollie Babbitt and his rebel rabble of Parliamentarian cavalry.
Thomas Fairfax and the Army of Parliament are on the verge of victory, bringing the King’s Army to bay in Cornwall.
But Hollie, far from his wife and the future he’s fought so hard to build, is bound by honour to stay with his company in the West Country, though it may cost him everything he holds dear at home in Essex.
And a bitter choice lies before the Cornish captain Kenelm Toogood – freedom of his conscience, or freedom for his homeland?
“…. reminiscent of Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe.” Historical Novel Society review of Red Horse
Amazon links: Author.to/MJLogue