I got the idea of writing a blog post about Major-General Paul van Daan, the leading character in the Peninsular War Saga from the Historical Writers Forum on Facebook. Every week, we do a #FunFursday post, where members are invited to post something related to a particular theme. It can be an excerpt, a picture, a meme or just some random thoughts. Generally, I post an excerpt from one of my books, if I can find something relevant, but on seeing that the theme was Favourite Character, I decided to write about Paul.
I was quite surprised to discover I’ve not written a blog post about Paul before. I mean, he features quite heavily in many other posts, and is obviously the man behind my most popular series, but I don’t appear to ever have written a post about him. My initial reaction when I saw the theme was to wonder if I should maybe choose one of my other characters, but then I decided, no. I have an entire host of favourite characters in all three of my ongoing series, but when I sit down and start to write, the voice that echoes loudest in my brain, the one I know the best, is undoubtedly the overbearing, noisy, over-conscientious commander of the 110th Light Infantry.
Many of you have already met Paul, and some people have read and re-read his adventures so many times that you probably know him almost as well as I do. This post isn’t written with you in mind, but you’ll all read it, because you’re all waiting for the next book, and anything Van Daan related will do at this point.
For those of you new to the series, we first meet Paul in 1802, at the beginning of An Unconventional Officer, when he has just joined the light company of the 110th infantry in barracks at Melton Mowbray along with his boyhood friend, Carl Swanson. Paul is twenty-one and has joined the army later than a lot of young officers, having spent two years at Oxford first. This might have been seen as a disadvantage against young ensigns of sixteen or even younger, but it is clear right at the start that this new officer has the one quality that could pretty much guarantee a quick rise up the ranks in the early nineteenth century. Paul van Daan has money, and a lot of it. He isn’t embarrassed by it or apologetic about it, and he’s very willing to use it to get where he wants to be.
So who is Paul van Daan?
Obviously, Paul is fictional, and when I decided I wanted to write a series set in the Peninsular War, I had a long hard think. A lot of books have been written in this setting, ever since Bernard Cornwell launched Richard Sharpe on the world back in 1981, and while the setting and the campaigns fascinated me, I was looking for a different kind of hero. Many of the books in this genre that I read, including Sharpe, were based around officers struggling against the military purchase system. They had little or no fortune, no influence and fought against injustice, trying to make their way against all the odds. I decided that had been done many times and very well. But what about the man who didn’t have to struggle at all?
In many books of the genre, the wealthy officer, purchasing his way up the ranks as fast as possible, is portrayed as an incompetent, idle amateur, who comes unstuck in the face of the enemy and can’t gain the respect of his men. It seemed to me, that while there may have been some of these, there were also a very large number of good, steady career officers who could afford purchase but still took their jobs very seriously, worked hard, made friends, loved their wives and families and probably got no mention in modern fiction because they just didn’t seem interesting enough.
Enter Paul van Daan.
Paul is the younger son of a very wealthy City businessman, who runs a shipping Empire and has investments all over the world. Franz van Daan was born in Antwerp and spent his youth making a fortune in India, before moving to England and marrying the daughter of a Viscount, which gave him a respectable place in English society. He had two sons, Joshua and Paul and a daughter, Emma. The Van Daan family divided their time between their London house in Curzon Street and the family estate in Leicestershire.
When Paul was ten, his mother and sister both died in a smallpox epidemic, and Paul’s world changed forever. He had been close to his mother, and after her death his relationship with his father deteriorated. Franz sent him to Eton, where he spent two years before being expelled for throwing the Greek master into a fountain. It was clear that the explosive temper which is to get Paul into trouble all his life was already very much in evidence. With no idea how to deal with his difficult fourteen year old son, Franz took the decision to send him to sea aboard one of his merchantmen, in the hope that it would teach him discipline.
The thought of sending a grieving fourteen year old boy to sea is horrific to modern sensibilities, but during this period it would have been quite common, and many midshipmen in the Royal Navy started their careers at an even younger age. Franz probably hoped that the discipline of shipboard life would bring his wayward son under control, and perhaps thought that Paul might choose a career at sea before joining him in the shipping business. Paul enjoyed his time aboard the merchantman, and it’s possible that his father’s plan might have paid off if disaster hadn’t struck. In a storm off the West Indies, the ship went down. Some of the men made it to shore on Antigua in the ship’s boats, but were immediately picked up by a Royal Navy press gang, and Paul found himself below decks on a man o’war with none of the advantages of wealth or privilege. It took two and a half years before he was able to notify his father that he was still alive, during which time he lived through brutal treatment, flogging, battle at sea and achieved promotion to petty officer.
The story of Paul’s time in the navy will be written one day. In terms of the main storyline, it is the period which defined his adult life. He grew from a boy into a man during those years, and by the time he joined the army in 1802, he had battle experience, had fought and killed men, and had learned something of his own capacity for leadership. He had also learned more than most officers ever knew about living alongside men from the lower orders, in filthy, miserable conditions. He had experienced hunger and flogging and brutality, and his knowledge of that informed his style of leadership when he finally commanded men in the 110th infantry. It is immediately obvious to both his fellow officers and his enlisted men, that Lieutenant van Daan, in terms of the army, is a bit odd…
“He’s the strangest officer I’ve ever served under.”
“You could do worse.”
“Believe me, sir, I have. The seventh company is commanded by a complete arsehole that flogs the men just for a laugh.”
“Tut, tut, Sergeant, that’s no way to speak about Captain Longford. We’ve met. Has he flogged you, Sergeant?”
“More than once, when I first joined. Wonder what your laddie would make of him? Could be good entertainment. I don’t think Mr van Daan gives a shit about seniority somehow.” Michael glanced sideways at Carl. “Or about any other rules.”
Carl shook his head. “Mr van Daan knows every rule in this army, Sergeant, he’s read the training manuals which is more than I have. How closely he’ll stick to them is another matter.”
“He’ll get himself into trouble sooner or later, if he doesn’t, sir.”
“I’m confidently expecting it, Sergeant.”
(An Unconventional Officer)
From his earliest days in the regiment, we follow Paul’s steady rise through the ranks. His progress is made easier through an unlikely, but increasingly close friendship, with the difficult, austere General Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, who first meets Paul on a hillside in India. That friendship is a key element in Paul’s story. The two men are very different, with Wellington’s distant, often cold and unsympathetic personality contrasting with Paul’s warmth and exuberance.
Through the six books (so far) of the Peninsular War Saga, plus an appearance in the first book of the Manxman series, we follow Paul’s career from junior lieutenant, to captain, major, lieutenant-colonel, full colonel and then to major-general in command of a brigade of the light division. We also follow his personal life, through several fleeting relationships, a warm and affectionate first marriage, and finally to a union with the lovely and forthright daughter of a Yorkshire textile baron, who brings her own particular brand of eccentricity to the 110th.
Paul van Daan is an immensely popular character with my readers. From the start, he is both engaging and exasperating. With all the advantages of birth and money, he regularly gets himself into trouble because of his quick temper and his determination to do things his own way. He has very little patience with senior officers he sees as incompetent, and absolutely no tolerance at all with junior officers who don’t do their job properly. He is a talented commander, who can think on his feet and manage his men and he often gets on quite well with officers considered difficult by other people. Wellington is an obvious example, but he also has a good relationship with Black Bob Craufurd, the mercurial, brilliant commander of the light division until his death in 1812, even though the two men definitely had their differences…
“Major van Daan. Yesterday, you disobeyed a direct order.”
Paul van Daan saluted. “Yes, sir. My apologies. I was carried away in the heat of battle.”
Craufurd regarded him fiercely, dark eyes glowering under beetling brows. “Bollocks,” he said shortly. “You made a deliberate decision to disobey me, you arrogant young bastard, and you’re going to regret it.”
There was a short silence. The air was heavy with tension. Evan studied Paul van Daan’s expression and realised that he was holding his breath, silently praying that he would not respond. Craufurd looked him up and down as though he was a sloppily dressed recruit about to fail a dress inspection, but Paul remained silent. Finally, Craufurd made a snorting sound and turned his back contemptuously. Evan let out his breath slowly and he suspected he was not the only one. Craufurd took two steps.
“Actually, sir, I find that I don’t regret it at all,” Paul van Daan said, conversationally.
“Oh shit,” Wheeler breathed, and Craufurd turned.
“How dare you?” he said softly, walking back to stand before the major. “How dare you speak to me like that?”
Van Daan’s blue eyes had been looking straight ahead but now they shifted to Craufurd’s face and their expression made Evan flinch. “Just telling the truth, sir. I don’t regret taking my men up onto that knoll to stop the French slaughtering your division on the bridge, and if you were thinking clearly, you’d agree with me. You’re not stupid and you’re a good general, and I sincerely hope that Lord Wellington believes whatever heavily-edited account of this almighty fuck-up you choose to tell him, and gives you another chance. But don’t ask me to play make-believe along with you, I’ve lost two good officers and a dozen men, with another twenty or so wounded, and I’m not in the mood.”
“That’s enough!” Craufurd roared. “By God, sir, you’ll lose your commission for this, and when I speak to Lord Wellington, I’ll make sure he knows just how his favourite officer conducts himself with his betters. I’ve made allowances for you time and again, but you’re nothing but a mountebank, who thinks he can flout orders and disrespect a senior officer with impunity because he has the favour of the commander-in-chief. No, don’t speak. Not another word. Since your battalion has no divisional attachment, I shall report this straight to Lord Wellington, with a strong recommendation that he send you for court martial, and I understand that it wouldn’t be the first time.”
There is another side of Paul, often hidden behind his outbursts of temper, his ruthlessness in battle and his undoubted talent as an officer. Paul is a family man. He adores his wife and children, cares deeply about his friends and has a passionate determination to take care of his men, in an army where that was not always the first concern of an officer. I’ve tried, throughout the books, to balance out the two sides of Paul’s character to make a believable whole.
There have been some complaints in reviews, that in Paul, I’ve created too much of a ‘modern man’. I’m not always sure what this refers to – possibly his attitude to discipline, possibly his readiness to express his emotion or possibly his devotion to his wife. It’s a point open to debate, but I’d actually dispute that there is any one aspect of Paul’s character that isn’t mirrored by somebody I’ve read about in the letters and memoirs of officers during the Peninsular War. Anybody who has read Harry Smith’s open devotion to his young Spanish wife can’t argue that Paul’s feelings for Anne are unrealistic. Anybody who has read of Colonel Mainwaring’s dislike of flogging, or Sir Rowland “Daddy” Hill’s kindness to his soldiers, can’t argue that all officers were indifferent to the hardships of their enlisted men.
Thinking about Paul van Daan, I realise that I’ve written quite an old-fashioned hero. Paul is a good man, often placed in difficult and painful situations, but who generally does the right thing, even though he messes up from time to time. I think I’ve done that deliberately. In an era when cynicism and the anti-hero are popular, I’ve chosen to write about a man I like. He isn’t always right, and sometimes he is incredibly exasperating, but I can trust him, sooner or later, to come down on the right side. He’s a man of his time, but a good man. He’s funny and affectionate and kind. He’s also angry and arrogant and overbearing and at times I want to slap him. Paul kills people for a living. He also saves them. Sometimes that’s an uncomfortable reality, but that’s the reality of a military man of his time. Luckily, Paul doesn’t suffer from that particular angst. I don’t think many army officers in the early nineteenth century did.
As a writer, I’ve sometimes felt the pressure to write a darker character, with greater moral dilemmas, reflecting some of the difficulties of our modern age. I decided against it. I decided that for a change, I’d write about a dashed good fellow, with a very straightforward view of the world, an imperfect but likeable hero that people could get behind and cheer for, even if sometimes they wanted to smack him. I think many other writers do an excellent job of darkness and angst. I wanted to do something revolutionary in these days, and write about courage, and kindness and integrity.
Look out for more Paul van Daan in book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, An Indomitable Brigade, out next year. Also to follow will be book three of the Manxman series, This Bloody Shore.