Matho Spirston

Today at Blogging with Labradors I’m delighted to be interviewing Captain Matho Spirston. I first met Matho in Abduction of the Scots Queen by author Jen Black, which follows the young Matho on his adventures on the Anglo-Scottish borders in the sixteenth century. Matho has come a long way since his first appearance in Fair Border Bride and is beginning to make a name for himself in the service of the Scottish Queen Dowager.

Jen Black gives the following introduction to her character:

Abduction of the Scots Queen is rather a giveaway to the time and the place, not to mention the storyline! However, the story really begins with what I call the prequel ~ FAIR BORDER BRIDE ~ in 1543. The setting is a hamlet called Aydon not far from the northern bank of the river Tyne about twenty miles west of Newcastle. The Carnaby family are the local landowners and their daughter, Alina, has grown up liking Matho Spirston, the guard captain who keeps the family safe from raids by those rascally Scots.

Matho has rather a soft spot for Alina. When she falls for well-to-do Harry Wharton, and her father throws Harry into the dungeon, she begs Matho to help Harry escape. The friendship begins there and prospers when Harry’s father invites them both to ride into Scotland and bring the infant queen south in order that she should marry King Henry’s son. With heads full of promises of gold, the two young men set out north.

Each book is complete and sees Matho learn how to conduct himself as he climbs the social ladder and deal with lords and ladies of the time.

Without further ado I would like to welcome Matho Spirston to Blogging With Labradors.

Matho, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, I know you’re busy these days, you’re a man on the rise. But it wasn’t always so, was it? Will you tell me a bit about the early days? Who were your parents and where were you raised?

The early days? Thinking about them make me smile. My da was head cowman for the Carnabys, the local gentry who lived in the big house at Aydon. The Scots raided so many times we fortified the farmstead with big high walls and parapets and called it a castle. I grew up with the gang of youngsters who fought and played around the castle farms, cots and cabins in the Aydon Township. Lionel Carnaby was in our gang, until we all grew up and had to take on responsibility. I was fourteen when da took me to work for the family. I got to be guard captain by the time I was twenty, but I never earned more than enough to feed myself.

Some of your early success came through your friendship with Lord Wharton’s son, Harry. It seems an unlikely friendship on the surface. How did it come about?

 Well, I suppose it would be because of Alina Carnaby. Pretty girl, the same age as me. We were friends. Well, maybe I fancied for her a bit, but I wasn’t breaking my heart over her when she fell for Harry. There was a nasty tangle because he used an alias, a family name that her father hated. He threw Harry into the dungeon and was going to execute him, so I helped him escape. Saved his life. Then the reivers galloped off with Alina on her wedding day, and without me, Harry had no idea how to find her. The friendship just grew. We complimented each other. I can see that now. He had all the book learning I didn’t have, but I had been ordering rough men about since I was fifteen, and he was a little naïve in that respect. I mimicked his accent, which is why I talk so well now, kept his wild ideas in check and taught him all I know of the dirty tricks of hand-to-hand fighting.

You were on a mission with Harry Wharton when you first encountered the Earl of Angus’ daughter, Margaret, I understand. I’m told this is a sore point with you, and she’s a controversial woman, I know. What do you think of her and are you still friends?

Ah, you mean the beautiful, calculating, scheming, delightful Meg Douglas. Oh, I was a fool. Because she was a noble lady, I was flattered that she took an interest in me. It went to my head, according to Harry. He knew of her in London, and he warned me, but I thought I knew best. She was young, attractive and I thought she was rich. Compared to me, she was. The money Harry’s father gave me was the first real money I’d ever had. She nearly got me killed, and I wouldn’t call her friend now, not since I scarred her handsome new husband’s face…but with hindsight, she also got me noticed by the Dowager Queen and that has been good for me. 

And now you’re working for the Dowager Queen. Another formidable woman. You’ve known her for a while now, I suppose. Can you tell me how you first came to be working for her?

I’m laughing because she threatened to have me executed at dawn and if I hadn’t escaped from Stirling’s dungeon, I would be dead. She thought I’d stolen her child, the little queen. In fact, I had stolen her but Meg tried to save her own skin by returning the child to its mother. I got away and came back to England. The next time I met Marie de Guise, I didn’t think she’d remember me, but she did and drove a hard bargain, which I honoured. After that, I think she trusted me.

What is she like, Mary of Guise? Do you like her?

She is a brave woman surrounded by a pack of greedy nobles who will serve anyone who pays them. I admire and respect her, for she has a good head on her and manages to outmanoeuvre most of them. I was wary of her for a long time, still am to a point, but if you ask me again in five years’ time, I will probably say I like her.

This may be a difficult question to answer, Matho, but I have to ask. You suffered a loss, back in Edinburgh. Can you tell me about her? What happened?

Briefly, because I don’t wish to dwell on this, Phoebe and I were in Edinburgh when the English invaded. We were going to marry, found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and the English cut her throat. Going to France was a Godsend. It got me away from everything that reminded me of her.

Your first mission for the Dowager Queen took you through France, delivering letters to her family and was a great success, I’m told. What was the most important thing to happen to you on that journey?

I learned a lot about people and dealing with strangers, especially important ones. I learned a language on the hoof, you might say. I made good friends in Jehan and Agnes and the lady who reintroduced me to the pleasures of a shared bed. I suppose the most useful thing was le duc de Guise told the Dowager Queen he approved of me.

There’s a rumour that you recently married, Matho, although it doesn’t seem to be generally known. Can you tell me the truth about that? Who is she?

Agnes de Guise is a distant relative of the Dowager Queen. She’s illegitimate, the daughter of a de Guise brother in the church, but her mother was of lower class, and he did not marry her. The Dowager seems to have taken to Agnes, and she now has a place at the Scottish court. Since we both have an enemy in the Cardinal of St Andrews, we have decided to leave the court and I am taking her to my old home on the banks of the Tyne. Yes, I am returning to Aydon. No doubt there will be changes there, but at least I can say hello to Harry and Alina again.

You’re an Englishman and you work for the Scottish Crown. Some people would call you a traitor for that. How do you see it? Do you ever imagine a time when you’ll find yourself with divided loyalties, with England and Scotland at war?

So far, nothing I have done has damaged England. The Dowager likes me because I am not Scots and have no loyalties to anyone in Scotland. No claims of clan, or family. No Scotsman can say that. She also likes me because I am honest and tell her the truth. I hope the situation you describe will not happen, but if it does, I shall deal with it. In a way, the border folk are used to being at war with each other. You might say it has been an ongoing situation for the last two hundred years.

What happened to your friendship with Harry Wharton? Does he know where you are and what you’re doing? Do you think it would cause a breach between you?

I shall be seeing Harry soon. He probably thinks I’m dead in a ditch somewhere! He won’t think me a traitor for he was always open minded, but he might ask a lot of questions about Scottish policy on the borders. If he does, he’ll find I don’t know a great deal on that topic.

You’ve come a long way from a lowly captain of the guard, Matho. What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself being over the next few years?

I hope my house is not taken over by roaming bands of homeless men. It has been empty a while now. I spent a lot of time building two new rooms onto the cottage for Phoebe, but she never saw it. I imagine my new French wife and Alina will become friends. What will Agnes make of life in Aydon? It’s a very different life to the one she led with the Duc de Guise’s family, and it is nothing like the Scottish court. Jehan may join us from time to time. If things settle down with the Cardinal in Stirling, I may go back, or I may work for Harry’s father again. The Dowager may need me again. Something will turn up.

I’m sure it will for a young man as resourceful as yourself. Matho, thank you so much for joining us today. Good luck with your return to Aydon. Personally, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures, and I sincerely hope to see more of them from Jen Black in the future.

That’s all from Matho Spirston for today and it’s been a pleasure talking to him. For more details of his adventures, I strongly recommend you try the books yourself, available at these links.

Fair Border Bride (The Prequel)

The Abduction of the Scottish Queen (Book 1)

Queen’s Courier (Book 2)

The Queen’s Letters (Book 3)

More information about Jen Black and her books can be found at the following links:

Jen’s Website

Jen on Twitter

Friends of Jen Black Facebook Group

Jen on Facebook

Giveaway

All Jen’s books are available on Amazon. Abduction of the Scottish Queen, the first in the Scottish Queen Trilogy is £1.52 on Kindle and £8.99 in paperback. To celebrate Matho’s appearance in the Blog Hop, Jen has MOBI copies of this book to give away. To win one, please add a comment to the blog and she will DM you for your e-mail address.

About the Author

Jen lives in the lovely Tyne valley between Hexham and Newcastle in north east England, a stone’s throw from the Roman Wall and with a castle that dates from the 1100’s around the corner. Writing and photography are her main interests and rambling the Northumbrian countryside with her Dalmatian Tim twice a day keeps her fit. She has a degree in English Language & Literature and managed academic libraries for a living; now retired, she disappears to France for a long holiday in the summer. (Adventures in France are recorded on her blog!) Her father’s family have been traced back to the 1700’s on the Welsh and English border—a place she has never been, but her maternal grandfather worked in Skye, and a more remote ancestor came from the Aberdeen area, so if ever there’s time, perhaps there’s more to learn on that score.

For more intriguing interviews with favourite characters from a selection of historical novelists along with book news and giveaways, keep an eye on the ongoing Historical Writers Forum “Interview my Character Blog Hop” (June 5 – July 20 2019).

In particular, remember to visit Nancy Jardine’s blog on 26th June where she will be interviewing Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th Light Infantry about his  career since we first met him in An Unconventional Officer.

 

How does it feel to be 57?

Me at 57

How does it feel to be 57?

Yesterday was my birthday and I’ve already been asked that several times. I’m trying to remember if people used to ask that question in my younger days, but I can’t. Perhaps on the big birthdays; becoming a teenager, reaching 16, 18, 21 and then the landmarks of 30, 40 and 50. Today, I’m 57 which is not a particularly special birthday, although it feels different because yesterday was my silver wedding anniversary. But I think that question, at my age, seems to carry an undertone of “are you feeling old yet?”

I think 57 means something different now, to what it meant many years ago. Certainly for my grandparents generation, reaching 60 meant retirement or at least being within touching distance of retirement. Reaching 65 definitely heralded the end of most people’s working life. Reaching 70 meant you were old.

Of my grandparents, my mother lost her father in 1946 when he was around my age and her mother died at the age of 73. My paternal grandfather was 72 when he died and my grandmother was 80. In the next generation, Dad was 77 when he died of cancer, Mum was 82. Both had been retired for more than ten years.

Theirs was a different generation and a lot has changed. Improvements in medical science means that most of us have the possibility of a longer life; lifestyle changes gives us the risk of shortening it again. The retirement age has risen for both men and women, and the expectation of stopping work at 60 or 65 is a thing of the past. We’re living longer, working longer and I rather suspect remaining engaged with the world for longer.

Baby No 1 when I was 36

A lot has been written about post-menopausal women and ‘empty nesters’. These days, if you listen to the media, it is difficult to decide whether or not the empty nest is to be dreaded or longed for, but for all of us with growing children it is bound to happen at some point. In my own case, I’ve a daughter doing A levels, hopefully bound for University either this year or next and a son of 20, living at home and working full time. But unusually for me, it’s made me think a bit about where I am in life at the moment.

Baby No 2 when I was 39

Years ago, when I used to work for Relate, we used to look at Life Stages when considering the difficulties people might be having in their relationship. People react very differently to entering a different life stage and it can bring up all kinds of problems if a couple respond to a particular life stage in different ways.

Approaching the empty nest stage, I’m aware that I am in a very different place to many of my friends and family. My sister, my cousin and several of my friends who have worked full time have either retired, cut down their hours or have their eyes fixed firmly on retirement as a goal. Some of them are lucky enough to have their finances in place; others are less so, angry at the changes in the law which has pushed their dream further away. Some are hesitant about leaving the world of work; others are burned out and for them it can’t come fast enough.

I, on the other hand, have never been more excited about my future career. I have so many books to research and write, I need more hours in the day. Off the back of my writing, I’ve been asked to teach several courses at the local college on creative writing and history and I’m also starting the first year of a further education teaching course later this year. I’ve got a dozen projects both paid and unpaid on the go. In talking to friends, I realise I’ve got more in common with some of the younger women I know, who are heading back into the workplace after a break with children than many of my contemporaries. It’s odd. It’s also very exciting.

In the middle of all this, though, I’m still 57 and that gives me pause. My brain may be racing ahead, but my body is a bit more hesitant. I’ve got arthritis all over the place and I don’t have the physical energy that I used to have. When I sit writing all day and then into the evening, I can barely move when I get up.  It has started to occur to me that if I want to be fit enough and healthy enough to enjoy all these amazing new opportunities, I might need to stop, take a breath and think about the physical for a while.

I have never been that interested in fitness. Lucky enough not to need to diet to keep my weight down, I have always walked regularly, but other than that I’ve really not paid that much attention to my physical health until now, when it is starting to get in the way a bit. And I realise that I’m not willing to sit back and let that happen.

57 is not old and I don’t want to feel that way. I’m thinking more carefully about my diet, and reluctantly cutting back on those extra glasses of wine. I’ve started to look at what exercises I can do to keep the arthritis at bay and strengthen those parts of the body that have been very neglected. I’m going back to the swimming pool, trying yoga and thinking of joining a tap dance class. I’ve been on the rowing machine and tried, very cautiously, some light weight training. And earlier this week, for the first time in very many years, I got back on a bike and tried to remember how to cycle. I’m never going to be keen on health and fitness as a hobby, but if I’m going to still be writing, teaching and researching into my seventies, which I would love to do, I realise I need to do some work on my body as well as my brain. 

So how does it feel to be 57? It feels like a bit of a landmark for me. It’s the year that I decide to take charge, not to let the weeks drift by, because they drift too fast and too far and I don’t want to find myself in a place where I can’t do what I want to do any more, at least not without making a really good effort to improve things. 57 is when I don’t have a child in school any more, I may fairly soon not have any children living at home. 57, I’ve decided, is the year I start to put myself and what I want ahead of the needs of my family sometimes, because they don’t need me all the time the way they used to.

I don’t feel old at 57. In three years time, I’ll be 60 and perhaps I’ll feel different then, but I do hope not. At 57, what I mostly feel is very lucky.

 

Writing about Writing

Writing about writing is something I rarely do. Most of my blog posts are either historical or centre around life with Labradors on the Isle of Man. I’ve read some fantastic posts about the writing process from other authors, but I’d rather come to the conclusion that I’m not particularly introspective when it comes to my own work. I love what I do, but I don’t spend a lot of time analysing it and I dread the interview question “what made you become a writer?”. The best answer I could give to that is “I couldn’t help it.”

Recently, however, something has happened to change my outlook on this. I was asked to teach a creative writing course as an evening class at the University College Isle of Man. This was a new experience for me, although I’ve done training and work in schools, but the idea of designing a course was irresistible. It was a short course, really just to test the water, four weeks on writing fiction, but it has made me think about my writing in a way that I don’t think I have before.

The course ended this week and seems to have been a great success; I really enjoyed it and I think the participants did too. I’ve been astonished at how much I’ve learned from working with them and watching their process as they began their stories, met their characters and studied themes and plot and dialogue. But best of all, it has made me go back and revisit some of my books, thinking again about how and why I do what I do.

The Reluctant DebutanteIn order to teach something, you have to be able to break it down and I’ve found it easier to do this, as I’ve recently been working on revising one of my earliest books. The Reluctant Debutante was a Regency romance which I originally wrote when I was trying the traditional publishing route, and it was designed for the Mills and Boon historical market. I was unsuccessful with it, although it did get some very positive feedback.

When I decided to try self-publishing, I had no idea what I was doing, so I chose to publish my three standalone novels first, using them to test the waters before publishing the Peninsular War Saga. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sales and did no real publicity. The first two books bombed as much as I had expected, but the third, my Regency romance, began to sell. I tried a free promotion and the uptake was huge. A few reviews trickled in and a few Goodreads ratings. Off the back of that, I began to get some sales of the other two books. Surprisingly, although never a bestseller, The Reluctant Debutante was my most popular book for a long time; a tribute to the enduring popularity of the Regency genre.

I’ve explained elsewhere why I was never really happy with that book. Occasionally I would get another review, many of them good and one or two absolutely terrible. Like all authors, I hate bad reviews, but I’ve learned to take them philosophically. My problem with this book, was that I kind of agreed with them.

After the publication of An Untrustworthy Army and before really getting stuck in to writing This Blighted Expedition I finally decided to do something about The Reluctant Debutante. I’d not read it through since I published it, and doing so was something of a shock to my system. It wasn’t that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the plot, it’s just that it really wasn’t very well written. The dialogue, always my strong point, was the best part although I don’t think it represented the characters as it should have. But the point of view was all over the place, the structure was messy and there was no clue as to the theme, even though I knew what it was in my head.

I’ve been revising this book along with teaching my course, and doing so has been incredibly useful, as it enabled me to break down the book and look at it in the way I was encouraging my students to do with their own writing. In the end, I didn’t need to change as much as I thought I would. I let the characters tell their story, but I was far clearer about the story they were telling. I gave them a voice, not just in the words they spoke but also in the thoughts they had, the internal dialogue which is so clear in some of my later books but which I seemed to have missed out entirely in this early effort.

I’m cautiously pleased with the result, and given that Giles is a minor character in the Peninsular War Saga and has a major role to play in my current book, I’m happy now, with the way he’s turned out. Part way through the first draft of This Blighted Expedition, I’m conscious of how much I’m applying some of the lessons I’ve learned to my new story.

You can write a very good book without reading a thing about crafting fiction. But personally, I think the work I’ve done in the classroom with my students, has made me a better writer. Certainly it has made me a more self-aware writer. I’m deeply grateful to them for their questions and contributions and endless curiosity about the writing process, both mine and theirs. I hope they all come back for another course and I really hope they all carry on writing. Every one of them has a different style and a different sphere of interest, but I think they have talent. I’m so grateful to University College Isle of Man for giving me the opportunity to teach this course and I hope to do more in the future.

“When one teaches, two learn.” (Robert Heinlein)

 

The Regency Romance: the story of the Light Division romances

A Regrettable Reputation (Book Two of the Light Division Romances)The Regency Romance; the story of the Light Division romances is my attempt to explain how I came to be writing in apparently very different genres, and even more unlikely, how I came to link the two. On the surface it seems that the military theme of the Peninsular War Saga is very different to the comedies of manners of the Regency novels. A closer look shows that there are very obvious links.

Of all historical novels, Regency romances seem to be one of the most distinctive genres, and although their popularity has waxed and waned they have never completely gone out of style.  Set approximately during the period of the British Regency (1811–1820) they have their own plot and stylistic conventions. Many people think of Jane Austen when Regencies are mentioned and certainly her novels are set in the right period, but of course she was writing as a contemporary not as a historian.

It has always seemed to me that Georgette Heyer was the mother of the current Regency genre.  She wrote more than twenty novels set during the Regency, between 1935 and her death in 1974 and her books were very much like a comedy of manners.  There was little discussion of sex, understandable given the different views of her generation, and a great emphasis on clever, quick witted dialogue between the characters.

These days, Regencies seem to be divided into two sub genres.  There are the traditional Regencies which are similar to Heyer’s originals, and a more modern Regency historical genre.  Many authors do not seem to confine themselves to one of these two types but may move between the two.  Both are currently popular.

Traditional Regencies emphasise the main romantic plot.  They play close attention to historical detail and take care to replicate the voice of the genre.  There is a good deal of research for writers of traditional Regencies.  Heroes and heroines generally remain within the accepted rules and conditions of the period and although their may be some sex it is very likely that the action stops at the bedroom door, probably at the proposal of marriage.

The more modern Regency historical novels break more rules.  They may be set during the time period but not necessarily in high society with an insight into life outside of the world of wealth and privilege inhabited by Georgette Heyer’s characters.  They may also include characters who behave in a more modern way, particularly when it comes to sexual behaviour and moral values.  The style can be very different to the more traditional works.  There is another sub genre, the sensual Regency which has become very popular in recent years.  These novels are far more explicit than the traditional Regency and the sexual relationship between the hero and heroine is key to the book.

There are some elements which are likely to crop up in all genres of Regency novels.  Many are set in, or will refer to the Ton, which means the top layer of English society.  They revolve around social activities such as balls, dinners, assemblies and other common pastimes.  Men are often involved in sporting activities.  There are detailed descriptions of fashion and a consciousness of social class and the rules of behaviour.  The difference between them is that in traditional Regencies the heroine is likely to stick to them; in the modern genre pretty much anything goes.

The shift in the genre seems to have come about because of a slump in the popularity of Regencies in the 1990s.  Some authors began incorporating more sex into their novels and while lovers of traditional Regencies disliked it, publishers and readers seemed to approve and the Regency novel got a new lease of life.

I grew up reading Georgette Heyer and owned every one of her books in paperback – I still have some of them and still read them from time to time.  They are, for me, the ultimate comfort book – the only other series which comes close are P G Wodehouse’s tales of Jeeves and Wooster.  These are the books I’ll turn to if I’m ill or miserable or sometimes just because my brain hurts and I can’t focus on anything else.  They are written to entertain and with their quick dialogue and comedic moments they never let me down.

I wrote my first Regency novel for the Mills and Boon market during the years I was trying to find a traditional publisher.  I’d tried several other novels, including at least two contemporary ones which are never going to see the light of day again, and had joined the Romantic Novelists Association new writers scheme.  After very positive feedback on both A Respectable Woman and A Marcher Lord it was suggested that I try to adapt these to Mills and Boon.  I did try, but it couldn’t be done.  It appeared that I simply could not have a heroine who defended herself very capably against attack; it was the job of the hero to rescue her and Jenny Marchant simply wouldn’t wait.  In fact she was more likely to do the rescuing.  Philippa Maclay was even worse, she didn’t make it through two chapters without doing something so appalling that it put her beyond hope of redemption.  If I rewrote these characters then I would be writing a different book.  I gave it up and decided to start from scratch.

Out of that decision came Cordelia Summers and Giles Fenwick of The Reluctant Debutante.  Once I got into the swing of it I really loved writing this book.  It’s fun and fairly light hearted.  I was already doing a lot of research into the period for my series set during the Peninsular war and that fitted very well with a Regency so it wasn’t that much extra work.  And the fast paced dialogue and witty characters of the Regency genre exist in all my books, no matter which period they’re set in.  I realise that those years of reading Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Dunnett have affected the way all my characters speak.  They may have different accents and different levels of education, but most of them are smart mouths.  

I had a lovely response from Mills and Boon on the Reluctant Debutante.  It was a no, but a very detailed no.  They liked the setting and the characters and even the plot, but once again my characters let me down.  There was not enough internal conflict between them, it seemed; most of their difficulties were external and their way of overcoming them was not dramatic enough.  Could I rewrite it to include more conflict between Cordelia and Giles?

I did try.  I wrote a selection of scenes for them.  The trouble was, trying to fit them into the book made no sense whatsoever.  I’d already created these people and their responses to events grew out of their essential character.  Cordelia might have flatly refused to see Giles after their quarrel and there could have been weeks of agonising and misunderstandings.  But there wasn’t.  Cordelia was as mad as a wet hen but once she saw him again, she didn’t have it in her not to listen to his explanation.  She’s a practical girl with a wealth of common sense.  She simply can’t behave like a drama queen.

So Giles and Cordelia remained as themselves and I published the book pretty much as I’d originally written it, with the removal of one or two completely gratuitous sex scenes which didn’t seem to add anything to the plot. For a while, it was my bestselling book, although the Peninsular War Saga has long overtaken it. This inspired me to write a second Regency, A Regrettable Reputation. It was only while writing this, that it occurred to me, that a link between my main series and my Regencies was not only possible, but made a good deal of sense. The two heroes of the Regencies both turn out to be former Light Division officers, and I have enjoyed incorporating references to their army days and characters from the other books. 

After the publication of A Regrettable Reputation, however, some of the dangers of this became clear. I realise that for readers who do move between the two series, I have introduced a number of spoilers about who survived the war. Thus far it hasn’t caused too many problems, but it is the reason why I’ve not carried on with the series yet. I’d like to do more, but I think I need to finish the Peninsular War Saga first. I’m already jumping backwards and forwards in time between the main series and the Manxman naval spin off. Any more time travel and my head will explode, I’ve no idea how Diana Gabaldon does it…

All the same, I enjoyed writing my Regencies. I’ve recently spent some time re-editing both of them and am working on new covers which should be out very soon. The new editions came about for different reasons. There are some changes to the end chapters of A Regrettable Reputation based on research I did for An Unwilling Alliance. I realised that what I had written as a military court martial should almost certainly have been a civilian criminal trial, and although none of my readers ever complained, once I knew I’d made a mistake, it bothered me. The changes do nothing to alter the plot, but the new version is more historically accurate.

The rewriting of The Reluctant Debutante was more of a difficult choice and I spent a long time thinking about it. When I first wrote this book, it was a standalone novel and it was only later on that I came up with the idea of incorporating it into a spin-off series to the Peninsular War Saga. Giles was written as a Waterloo veteran and a former exploring officer and it wasn’t that much of a stretch to imagine him coming through the 110th prior to that.

Once I had the idea, the temptation was irresistible. I wrote the prequel to this novel last year, A Regrettable Reputation, and the Light Division Romances were born. I made a few minor adjustments to The Reluctant Debutante and left it alone. For a long time, it was my most popular novel, a tribute to the enduring popularity of the Regency genre. But as an author, it was my least favourite book.

During a break between the publication of An Untrustworthy Army and the writing of the second book in the Manxman series, This Blighted Expedition, I decided to revisit my first Regency and try to work out what I disliked about the book. There were one or two obvious things. Having written the book as a completely separate entity to the series, there were some names which were far too similar to those in my other books and several readers had complained of confusion. Those were easy to change.

I also felt, with hindsight, that the end of the book was too rushed. It was as if the happy ending was in sight and I just wanted to get it over with. I’ve rewritten the last few chapters fairly extensively now, not changing anything about the plot, but giving both Giles and Cordelia space to enjoy their ending as well as giving a voice to one or two minor characters who deserved it. I’m much happier with it now.

The biggest change for me, however, is in the opening chapter, when Giles and Cordelia first meet in a wayside inn. At least two reviewers complained about this scene where Giles, appallingly drunk, grabs hold of Cordelia and kisses her against her will, complaining that it was a sexual assault and that it put them off the book entirely. I’ve had a few bad reviews for many of my books, but these two always bugged me. I was not willing to go away and rewrite the book as a knee-jerk reaction to the #MeToo movement, since I am very sure that what was considered sexual assault in 1818 was very different to now. That does not make it right. It does make it real.

At the same time, I knew that scene wasn’t right for me as a writer. The scene is hardly original; I can think, off the top of my head, of at least two occasions where Georgette Heyer used something similar, and it has been the starter for endless other historical romances. Thirty years ago, when Bodice Rippers were popular, it wasn’t unheard of for the ‘hero’ to go a lot further and still manage to hold the sympathy of the reader. But not this reader.

I was also aware that sexual assault of a far more serious nature has featured in several of my other books and nobody has ever complained about it. Reviewers and readers have talked about how distressing it was but have praised my treatment of the subject in fiction. Nobody has ever suggested I have taken the subject lightly and that is probably because I haven’t.

There is also an incident in An Unconventional Officer which could be compared to this one. Finding himself alone with a very pretty girl in a snowstorm, Major van Daan thanks her for tending to his injury and kisses her. It is completely inappropriate given that he is married, but the kiss is very gentle and very light-hearted and there is never a sense that he would have done anything more without a good deal of encouragement. Once again, nobody has ever complained about this scene; it’s actually a pivotal point in Paul’s life.
That, I realise, was the problem with Giles’ drunken assault on Cordelia. It could probably have happened in another book with another writer but it wasn’t right for me. And it definitely wasn’t right for Giles Fenwick, who could not have served under Colonel Paul van Daan and survived it, if he was in the habit of getting drunk and grabbing hold of passing females. The scene was a somewhat lazy plot device which was disrespectful to both my hero and my heroine.

It has taken me time to rewrite that scene, because I didn’t want to leave it out entirely. That first meeting was too important to the future relationship of the hero and heroine. I also wanted the book to be something of a journey of redemption for Giles. After Waterloo he was almost certainly suffering from what we would now call PTSD and meeting Cordelia is the beginning of his journey back into the world. I wanted him to make that journey, but I didn’t want him to behave so badly that his redemption became unbelievable.

I think I’m happy with the result now. The meeting in the inn, although initially somewhat alarming for Cordelia, has lost the sense of menace and fear and feels playful, more flirtatious. The moment Giles steps back and apologises, the reader has a sense of his charm as well as his essential good-nature. He is behaving very badly by the rules of 1818 society, but so is Cordelia, in choosing to take advantage of her moment of unexpected attraction to a stranger she never expects to see again.

When he is sober, Giles is embarrassed. He knows he has behaved badly and it has thrown into sharp focus, the effects of his heavy drinking. He is also uncomfortably conscious of how most of his army friends and his commanding officer from the 110th would view his conduct. Possibly for the first time, Giles realises that he needs to stop and to reassess his behaviour.

I hope new readers enjoy this revised edition of The Reluctant Debutante. The Light Division romances are in many ways, a different genre to the Peninsular War Saga, but they do share common characters and I think, a common theme. My hesitation in rewriting this book was due to my concern about attributing modern sensibilities and attitudes to early nineteenth century characters. Most historical novelists do this to some degree, often by simply leaving things out, but I hope that I have achieved enough of a balance to made Giles and Cordelia both believable and likeable. Certainly I like him a lot more now.

Both books of the Light Division Romances are currently available free on Amazon kindle here.

The Peninsular War Saga

General Robert Craufurd fought the battle of the Coa on this bridge

I began writing the Peninsular War Saga some years ago. At the time, I was attempting to find an agent or a publisher for one of my standalone historical romances, without much success. I had a lot of very positive feedback about my writing, my plots and my characterisation but everybody was saying the same thing; we’re sorry, but there is no market for traditional historical romance any more.

More than one agent urged me to try to write a contemporary romance. I made several attempts and hated all of them. Many people told me that with just a little adjustment, I could write for Mills and Boon historical. Once again, I made the attempt, and the people at Mills and Boon were lovely, gave great feedback, but were just not sure that my characterisation was quite right for them. I was getting nowhere.

To cheer myself up, I decided to scrap all my dreams of writing a marketable historical romance and just write something that I really wanted to do. There was definitely no market for a new series about the Peninsular War, since it had been done to death in the years following the runaway success of the Sharpe books and TV series. Still, it’s what I wanted to write, and since it was clear that nobody was going to read it anyway, I felt very liberated. I decided I could write it just for me, about a collection of people who didn’t always feel heroic or brave or even that patriotic. A lot of them joined because they had no option, or because they needed a job. They fought and they died and a lot of them became heroes. They also got wet, got grumpy when they were hungry, got sore feet and developed a bad head cold from time to time.

I wanted to explore areas of the war that I’d not really seen a lot about. What about the medical services? How did the commissariat work and who was responsible for ordnance and transport and prisoners of war? And what about the women and children who followed the army? What was it like in camp and on the long marches and all the boring hours between battles and skirmishes? What were relationships like between officers and men, away from the parade ground and the tidy regulations which governed army life?

Out of all these questions was born the Peninsular War Saga. Finally tired of trying to persuade an agent or a publisher to read one of the books, I decided to publish independently, without really thinking I’d sell more than a dozen copies, let alone develop an enthusiastic following. With book five doing well and book six in the early planning stages, I consider I’ve been incredibly lucky.

The Peninsular War Saga tells the story of the men and women of the fictional 110th Infantry during the wars against Napoleon; in particular, a young officer called  Paul van Daan who joins the regiment in 1802 as it is about to go to India to fight under General Arthur Wellesley.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

An Unconventional Officer: the Peninsular War Saga Book 1 (1802 – 1810) 

From the battle of Assaye, through Italy, Copenhagen and Portugal, we follow the early career of Lieutenant Paul van Daan, the most unusual officer ever to join the 110th as he attempts to find his place in the regiment.  Along the way he makes both friends and enemies, discovers a talent for leadership and shares his life with two very different women.

An Unconventional Officer is slightly different to the other books, as it covers a longer time period, almost eight years. I wanted it to be a full introduction to Paul’s story and to get him to the point where he was well-established in Wellington’s army. While it introduces many of the main characters, the heart of this novel is the love story between Paul and Anne and its theme is Paul’s gradual development from a young officer willing to break all the rules, to a slightly more mature officer who is beginning to learn to fit in a little better.

An Unwilling Alliance: The Manxman, Book 1 and the Peninsular War Saga Book 1.5 (1806-07)

This book is really a spin-off from the Peninsular War Saga, but it fits very securely within the series as well. It takes place halfway through the action of An Unconventional Officer, during the Copenhagen campaign, which is mentioned, but not explored in book one. I adore this book, partly because the navy theme enabled me to set part of it on the island which is my home and which I love, and partly because it is a real coming-of-age book for Major van Daan as well as a key point in his developing friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley.

It is 1806 and Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife. He pays court to Roseen Crellin, who is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing feelings for the man.

Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills need some work and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.

As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.

An Irregular Regiment

An Irregular Regiment: the Peninsular War Saga Book 2 (September 1810 – April 1811 )

This book covers an area of the war that I knew very little about. The building and manning of the lines of Torres Vedras are absolutely fascinating and worth a lot more time than I was able to give them. It is also the story of a young couple learning to be married, and sets the tone for Paul and Anne’s relationship throughout the series. If you don’t leave your hero and heroine at the church door, you have to work out what their marriage is going to be like, and I loved the challenge of that.

On the heights of Bussaco Ridge, Paul van Daan leads his battalion into action under Lord Wellington in his defeat of the French under Marshal Massena.  The book explores Paul’s developing career, and the happiness of his marriage to the lovely young widow of a fellow officer.  As Wellington prepares to chase Massena out of Portugal, Paul is serving under the worst general in the army and must find a way to keep his regiment safe and protect his reputation.

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroAn Uncommon Campaign: the Peninsular War Saga Book 3 (April – June 1811)  

In addition to the battles and the personal stories of my characters, I wanted to introduce something about army politics during this book. I particularly love finding an interesting, funny or even a very sad story from history and trying to work it into the lives of my characters.

Lord Wellington has led his army to the Spanish border where the French occupy their last stronghold in Portugal at Almeida.  As the two armies face each other in the village of Fuentes de Onoro, Colonel Paul van Daan is becoming accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and managing the resentment of other officers at his promotion over older and longer serving men.  His young wife is carrying their first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities.  And if that was not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during the days of the battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally, with potentially lethal consequences for the 110th and the rest of the third brigade of the light division.

A Redoubtable Citadel: the Peninsular War Saga Book 4 (January – June 1812) 

This was definitely the most emotional book for me to write. I wanted to highlight the plight of women in wartime, and I’m proud of this book, but it was extremely painful for me.

In the freezing January of 1812, Lord Wellington pushes his army on to the fortress town of Ciudad Rodrigo and a bloody siege with tragic consequences.  Colonel Paul van Daan and his wife Anne have a baby son and in the aftermath of the storming, take a brief trip to Lisbon to allow Paul’s family to take little William back to England.  With his career flourishing and his marriage happy, Paul has never felt so secure.  But his world is shattered when his young wife is taken prisoner by a French colonel with a personal grudge against Paul.  As Wellington’s army begins the siege of Badajoz, the other great Spanish border fortress, his scouts and agents conduct a frantic search for the colonel’s wife.  Meanwhile Anne van Daan is in the worst danger of her life and needs to call on all her considerable resources to survive, with no idea if help is on the way. 

An Untrustworthy Army: the Peninsular War Saga book 5 (June – December 1812)

This book covers both triumph and miserable retreat and was a wonderful opportunity both to introduce some new characters and to revisit one of the major storylines from the first book. It turned out to be more emotional than I expected and I loved being able to highlight one of my favourite characters whom I felt I’d neglected a little. The story of the retreat from Burgos was impossible to glamorise and highlighted both the best and the worst of Wellington’s army.

It is June 1812 and back with her husband and his brigade, Anne van Daan is beginning to recover from her ordeal at the hands of Colonel Dupres as Lord Wellington marches his army into Spain and up to Salamanca. In a spectacularly successful action, Wellington drives the French back although not without some damage to the Third Brigade of the Light Division.

Still recovering from their losses at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, the Light Division remains in Madrid while Wellington lays siege to Burgos but some of Paul’s brigade have troubles of their own.

Lieutenant Simon Carlyon is determined not to allow his dead brother’s shameful reputation to blight his career in the army but finds it harder than expected to serve under the man who killed him. Colonel Johnny Wheeler is finding the lie he told to protect others difficult to live with, faced with the unrelenting hostility of a young officer. And Captain Michael O’Reilly’s life becomes complicated through a casual act of kindness.

The end of the campaigning season is not going as well for the Allied army and triumph turns to an undignified and dangerous retreat.  At a time when the discipline of Wellington’s army seems to have broken down, Van Daan’s brigade need to set personal matters aside and concentrate on staying alive long enough to reach safety.

Future Books

That’s as far as I’ve got with the novels. My next book is intended to be the sequel to An Unwilling Alliance, covering the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. I’ve not been able to find a novel covering this campaign before so it feels like uncharted territory. I intend to pick up Hugh Kelly’s story, but as the campaign once again involved both army and navy, I will be joining the men of the 110th second battalion, who, while Major van Daan was leading the first battalion to glory in the Peninsula, were unlucky enough to be sent to Walcheren. The working title is An Inauspicious Expedition.

The other books in the Peninsular War Saga, as planned so far are as follows:

An Unrelenting Enmity: set during winter quarters from December 1812 to April 1813

An Auspicious Action: the story of the battle of Vitoria

An Uncivilised Storming: the Pyrenees and San Sebastian

An Inexorable Invasion: the invasion of France

An Improbable Abdication: Toulouse and the return to England

An Unmerciful Engagement: Waterloo

An Amicable Occupation: the Army of Occupation

Looking at that list, I feel a combination of excitement and sheer terror. At present I seem to be able to manage two books a year, but some of these will take more research than others, so I don’t promise that. There will also be more in the Manxman series, since I hope at some point to be able to reunite Hugh Kelly and Paul van Daan.

Currently, I’m beginning the research for the book about Walcheren, which will be published some time next year; I can’t give a date yet until I have a better idea of how long the research will take. I’m also making notes about book 6 in the main saga, which may be quicker to write, given that it is set outside of the main battles and campaigns, although obviously, given that this is the 110th, there will be some action.

So far, most of the books have been published only as e-books, but I am working at changing that. Early next year I am hoping to have all the books in paperback on Amazon, and then to get them into some bookshops or for sale on my website later in the year.

I’ve come a very long way from believing that nobody wants to read another series about the Peninsular War, and I’m so grateful to all my readers, especially those who follow me on facebook and twitter and visit my website regularly. Some of you have left fabulous reviews as well, and every good review is like a gift, even if it’s only a couple of lines.

It has been a good year in many ways at Writing with Labradors, despite losing our beloved Toby. We’re so grateful we have Oscar to step into his paw prints, and we’re looking forward to an even better 2019. In the meantime, remember to look out for book giveaways on Amazon on Christmas Eve, in honour of the Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood. And for future giveaways and updates, please click on the link to subscribe to the newsletter.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors.

 

The Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood

In the run up to Christmas, and with the latest book up and running, I’ve decided to devote this blog to sharing some of my favourite books with you. Last year, on Christmas Eve, I did a post about the Christmas Book Flood, or Jolabokaflod. The concept was new to me, but I loved it.

In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as  the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi.  Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.

The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary and people love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.  One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.”

There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity.  In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books.  The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.

The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me.  Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient.  Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book.

Last year, to celebrate this fabulous tradition, I offered some of my e-books free on Christmas Eve, and the take-up was phenomenal. I like to think I found a lot of new readers on that day and I intend to do the same thing again this year. But I also wanted to do a Christmas countdown of books that I’ve read and loved; a sort of literary advent calendar which has started late. Some of them are fiction, some are non-fiction, but all of them have a particular place on my shelves, both actual and electronic. I hope that reading about some of them will cause some of you to buy them, either for yourselves or for family and friends, as part of our own Christmas Book Flood.

Merry Christmas from all of us at Blogging with Labradors.

An Untrustworthy Army

An Untrustworthy Army is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga and is published on Kindle today. It covers a period of around seven months in 1812, during which Wellington led his army into Spain, achieved a spectacular victory at Salamanca and entered the Spanish capital of Madrid, which had been in French hands for four years. He then marched on to invest the fortress city of Burgos, but Burgos proved too much for Wellington’s army, and he was obliged to make a difficult retreat, with the French at his heels, back to the border. It was a miserable end to a triumphant year but it did not nullify Wellington’s achievements. He had given the Allied army an ascendency over the French which it had not had before, and the next campaigning season had a new purpose to it.

For anybody new to the books, the Peninsular War Saga follows the fortunes of a fictional regiment of infantry through the long wars of the early nineteenth century and the man who rose to command it.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul van Daan is 21 when we first meet him, the younger son of a wealthy shipping merchant, who purchases a commission in time to join the regiment on its way to India. On paper, he is a fairly typical young officer, but Paul has an unusual past which sets him apart from many of his privileged contemporaries. He finds his home in the army, and discovers a talent for leadership which will bring him early success and which also brings him to the attention of General Arthur Wellesley.

Writing a historical fiction series based around real events is an interesting challenge. On the one hand, there is no need to spend much time thinking up a plot line; I always know where my characters ought to be. On the other hand, it isn’t enough just to put them down on a battlefield and write about nothing else. These people had lives; they ate and drank, went to parties, fell in love, got sick, got wounded. Sometimes, far too often, they died.

I have tried to populate my series with a collection of believable characters who sometimes do unbelievable things. Most of the unbelievable things really happened; I do a lot of research, and if I find a fascinating story or incident, I love to weave it into the fabric of my novel. The trick is to try to make it as seamless as possible. By now, for me, the fictional characters of Paul van Daan and his redoubtable wife, Anne, are so real, it is faintly surprising to look at the order of battle for Fuentes d’Onoro and find the 110th not there.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of WellingtonAlongside the story of the regiment and the love story of Paul and Anne is the story of a friendship. Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, is not known for having good relationships with all of his officers, and is often described as distant and difficult, but he had a few close friends, whom he valued, and Paul van Daan is one of them. The growing friendship between two men who are, in many ways, very different and yet also very similar, is possibly my favourite element of writing the books. Lord Wellington is a fantastic character to write; I’ve spent endless hours reading his letters and they bring him alive for me.

There have been many novels set during the Peninsular War ever since Bernard Cornwell made it so popular with his fabulous Sharpe series. I’ve read a good few of them, before I decided to make my own foray into Portugal and Spain, and each author has a different take. My books are rooted very firmly in the army, and the battles it fought, but they give equal weight to characterisation and relationships and the daily life of the men and women who marched with Wellington.

By the beginning of book 5, the fiery young lieutenant we first meet at the beginning of An Unconventional Officer has begun to settle down. He has risen to command a brigade of the elite light division, is on excellent terms with its commanding officer, Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, and is happy in his second marriage, with his children back in England being cared for by his family. He even has a dog. There is something very enjoyable in depicting Paul trying to deal with a young officer getting himself into trouble; it feels like karma. Paul has come a long way from the impetuous young officer who got himself court-martialled in An Unwilling Alliance, although in some ways he really hasn’t changed that much at all.

History dictates the plots of my books, and in An Untrustworthy Army, history let me down. The famous Light Division, generally at the forefront of any action, got some time off. They were barely engaged at Salamanca and when Wellington marched on to invest Burgos, he left the Light Division in Madrid. If I stuck strictly to history, this would have been a very quiet book. Needless to say, I have cheated a little, allowing one of my new characters to temporarily join another regiment, to give at least a flavour of the battle, and sending my fictitious third brigade of the Light Division off to get themselves into trouble elsewhere.

The end of 1812 was a miserable time for Wellington’s army, and both I and the stalwarts of the 110th infantry are relieved that it’s over, although not without some sadness. Book 6, An Unrelenting Enmity, will be published at the end of next year, and will spend some time in winter quarters, as well as following a group of the 110th on a dangerous mission to locate a missing British diplomat.

The next book, however, will take a different direction. I’m going to be picking up the story of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, the Royal Navy and the Second Battalion of the 110th who have the misfortune to be bound for Walcheren. The working title is An Insalubrious Island, although that may change.

Thanks to everybody who has been reading and enjoying my books. I hope you enjoy this one, and I look forward to taking Christmas off and then getting back to work in the New Year.

Who am I kidding…?

Lieutenant-General Charles Alten

One of my new favourite characters in the Peninsular War Saga, is Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, who took over command of the light division in May 1812, after General Robert Craufurd was killed at the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo.

Carl August von Alten, to give him his German name, was from an old Hanoverian family, the second son of Baron Alten, and was first commissioned in the Hanoverian guards in 1781 at the age of sixteen, having previously served the Elector of Hanover as a page when he was twelve. He rose to the rank of captain and fought in the campaigns in the Low Countries in 1793-95, proving particularly effective as a commander of light infantry.

In 1803 after the French invasion, the Hanoverian army was disbanded at the convention of Lauenburg and Alten was one of many Hanoverians to leave his country and enrol in the force collecting at Lymington, which became part of the British army as the King’s German Legion. Alten was a lieutenant-colonel by now and as such, took command of the light infantry of the KGL.

Alten took part in the Hanoverian expedition of 1805 under Lord Cathcart, and fought under him again in the brief Copenhagen campaign in 1807. This may have been his first meeting with Sir Arthur Wellesley, who commanded the reserves; certainly Alten fought under him at the only significant battle of the campaign, the battle of Koge, which is also known as the battle of the clogs, and which forms an essential part of the plot of An Unwilling Alliance.

Alten next fought under Sir John Moore in Sweden and then Spain, and commanded the second flank brigade during the retreat; the first flank brigade was commanded by Robert Craufurd. Neither fought at Corunna, having taken a different route out of Spain, although both shared in the privations and horrors of the winter retreat.

 Alten’s next campaign was the disastrous Walcheren expedition in the summer of 1809, after which he returned to the Peninsula and commanded an independent KGL brigade at the bloody battle of Albuera. His conduct and career must have impressed his commander-in-chief, who referred to him as ‘the best of the Hanoverians’ and in May 1812 he was given command of the light division. Alten led Wellington’s elite troops during the battles of Salamanca, Vitoria, the Pyrenees, the Nivelle, the Nive, Orthez and Toulouse.

Historian Charles Oman has been harsh in his judgement of Alten’s role in the light division, comparing him unfavourably with Craufurd, as ‘a general of much more pedestrian quality, who might never fail to make an attempt to obey Wellington’s orders to the best of his ability, but could never supplement them by any improvisation of his own, of which he was incapable’. It is probably true that Alten did not share Craufurd’s flashes of sheer brilliance, but neither did he share his reputation for rudeness, belligerence and inability to get on with his officers. Wellington placed his faith firmly in Alten’s ability to command, and the light division retained their reputation as Wellington’s elite troops under his steady leadership. The officers of the light division presented him with a sword of honour as a token of their esteem, something they would probably not have done for Craufurd.

In 1815 Alten led Wellington’s third division during the Hundred Days. Part of the division was heavily engaged at the Battle of Quatre Bras, and at Waterloo, Alten’s men held the front line throughout the day and suffered appalling losses. Alten was badly wounded and his courage and conduct won him the rank of Count von Alten.

The King’s German Legion was disbanded at the end of the war, and Alten took command of the Hanoverian troops in France as part of the Army of Occupation until 1818 when the occupation ended. He returned to Hanover where he became minister of war and foreign affairs and rose to the rank of field marshal. He remained on the British army list as Major-General Sir Charles Alten, GCB. He died in 1840 and is buried in the Neustadter Kirche in Hanover.

Writing Alten as a fictional character is an interesting challenge. He arrives to command the light division after the siege of Badajoz and I have a strong suspicion that Lord Wellington greeted his arrival with a massive sigh of relief. After the ups and downs of life with the irascible genius of Robert Craufurd, I think it is is no coincidence that Wellington chose a man who appears to have been noted for his steadiness, amiability and readiness to obey orders to place in charge of his most useful division. Wellington never denied Craufurd’s talent, but I think he was probably permanently on edge, wondering what Craufurd would do next.

It was tempting to write Alten as Oman portrays him, a pedestrian general and a safe pair of hands, but as I was trying to find out more about Paul van Daan’s new commander as a person, I discovered a couple of lines in the third volume of Rifle Green in the Peninsula, one of my favourite sources for the actual day to day happenings in the light division, which made me rethink.

“The 1st brigade of the light division was ordered by General Erskine, whom they knew all too well from his short time in command of the division when Craufurd was in England, to cover the withdrawal of his cavalry. General Alten was most indignant at having his brigade ordered to such a precarious position. After forming up and halting them in columns ready to form square, he then remonstrated with Erskine in no uncertain terms.”

This little passage gave me a different perspective; mild-mannered Clark Kent was having none of it from General Erskine and wasn’t afraid to say so. It occurred to me that unlike Craufurd, there are not dozens of accounts describing him, but if actions speak louder than words, Alten’s officers liked and respected him enough to present him with a gift and Wellington thought highly enough of him to entrust him with the light division and then to give him a significant command during the Waterloo campaign. The best of the Hanoverians, it seemed to me, might well have been a very good commander and a likeable man.

That is how I have chosen to portray Alten, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better through the rest of the books. I’d love to find out more about him and I wonder if there is a fabulous German source out there that I know nothing about yet. My Alten is courageous, intelligent and well-mannered, with a willingness to listen to advice and to discuss his plans with his officers. He misses his wife, and enjoys sharing a good bottle of wine with Colonel Barnard and playing chess with Colonel van Daan. What he is not, is boring, pedestrian and weak. I hope my readers enjoy him.

An Untrustworthy Army, Book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga, is due out on 30th November and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

The Moddey Dhoo

As it is Hop tu Naa here on the Isle of Man (Halloween to the rest of you) I thought I’d share one of our local legends, the story of the Moddey Dhoo, or black hound, which according to Manx folklore haunts Peel Castle.

Peel is on the west coast of the Isle of Man, a pretty little town, with the ruins of a magnificent castle, originally built by the Vikings, standing on St Patrick’s Isle. The castle was built in the eleventh century, originally of wood, and was added to over the centuries. The cathedral was also located on the island until it was abandoned during the eighteenth century. Peel Castle is now owned by Manx National Heritage.

The original written source of the story of the Moddey Dhoo comes from English topographer and poet George Waldron, who wrote his History and Description of the Isle of Man, first published in 1713. This is his version of the legend:

“They say, that an apparition called, in their language, the Mauthe Doog, in the shape of a large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle; and has been frequently seen in every room, but particularly in the guard-chamber, where, as soon as candles were lighted, it came and lay down before the fire in presence of all the soldiers, who at length, by being so much accustomed to the sight of it, lost great part of the terror they were seized with at its first appearance.”

There was apparently a passage which crossed the church grounds and led to the room occupied by the captain of the guard, where the Moddey Dhoo used to appear as it grew dark, returning the same way at dawn. Waldron reports that one drunken guard ignored the usual procedure of locking the gates of the castle in pairs, and did it alone. After locking up, the guard was supposed to go along the haunted passage to deliver the keys to the captain. Strange sounds were heard that night and when the man returned to the guard room he was white and terrified, unable to stop shaking. He never spoke of that he had seen that night, but three days later, he was dead. This was the last recorded sighting of the Moddey Dhoo; it was decided to seal up the haunted passage and use a different route, and the hound was seen no more.

Waldron’s Moddey Dhoo made a comeback in a different form when Sir Walter Scott wrote Peveril of the Peak, an installment of his Waverly novels, in 1823 and introduced the “Manthe Dog” which was a demon in the shape of a large, shaggy black mastiff. Scott’s fiendish dog was somewhat larger than the Manx spaniel, but he credited Waldron as the source of his creation in his author’s notes.

Local legend claims that the Moddey Dhoo has been sighted beyond the walls of Peel Castle over the years. William Walter Gill has written some of the accounts which have placed the ghostly dog near Ballamodda, Ballagilbert Glen and possibly Hango Hill. He also reports sightings in the 1920s and 1930s at Milntown corner, near Ramsey.

Moving to the island back in 2002, I had never heard of the Moddey Dhoo until my first visit to Peel Castle. When we acquired Toby, our huge black labrador, we were frequently greeted by strangers when we were walking him, comparing him to Peel’s most famous canine. With Toby gone now, we have Oscar, a younger version, to keep the old legend fresh in our minds.

I always really liked the original story of the ghostly dog coming to doze by the garrison fire until morning. He must have been irritated when the antics of a drunken guard caused his route to be blocked up. In my admittedly over-active imagination, he went elsewhere and found a warm spot in the cottage of an old man who thought he was a local stray and welcomed the company. That guard probably died of a pickled liver anyway.

For anybody who wants a historic ghost story, I wrote The Quartermaster to celebrate Hop tu Naa this year and An Exploring Officer last year, both set during the Peninsular War. They’re both free, so read, enjoy and share if you wish.

Happy Hop tu Naa (or Halloween) to everybody, from all of us at Writing with Labradors. Here on the Isle of Man, they say that the veil between the worlds is much thinner on this night, and spirits of the dead can be seen. Like the garrison of Peel Castle all those years ago, I’d be very happy if the spirit of one particular black dog wandered in and curled up by the fire just like he used to…

Sir Harry Smith

Sir Harry Smith is one of my favourite characters from the Peninsular War, up there with Lord Wellington and General Robert Craufurd. A relatively humble doctor’s son from Cambridgeshire, he rose to the heights of his profession on sheer merit and a good deal of personality, retained the friendship and admiration of the Duke of Wellington, defying the accepted belief that Wellington only favoured aristocratic and well-born officers, and married the love of his life in the shadow of the bloody siege of Badajoz. He is one of the most colourful characters of his day, and his autobiography, along with that of Kincaid, his close friend in the 95th are two of the liveliest and most readable accounts of Wellington’s campaigns. Harry Smith has a more personal significance for me, as he was the historical figure who first sparked my enthusiasm for the Peninsular War and is the inspiration, although not the model, for Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th light infantry.

Henry George Wakelyn Smith was born in 1787, the son of a surgeon in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, and was commissioned into the army in 1805 and promoted to lieutenant in the 95th Rifles a few months later. He first saw active service in South America during the British invasions of 1806-07 and distinguished himself at the Battle of Montevideo.

In 1808 the young Harry Smith joined the forces under Sir John Moore invading Spain. The expedition, begun with high hopes, ended in a disastrous retreat over 200 miles of mountain paths in winter. Men, women and children died by the roadside, but Smith made it back to Corunna and the battle which left Moore dead on the field. A brief period of recovery in England restored Smith to health and his next voyage to Portugal was as part of General Robert Craufurd’s light brigade, later to become the celebrated light division. Harry Smith’s Peninsular War had begun in earnest.

Smith served with the 95th throughout the war, from 1808 to end Battle of Toulouse in 1814, and he served with considerable distinction. In 1810 he was appointed to ADC to Colonel Beckwith, with whom he clearly enjoyed an excellent relationship. In February 1812 he was promoted captain and he filled a succession of staff posts within the light division.

In April, Wellington’s army successfully stormed Badajoz and the army sacked the city, turning into a drunken mob whom even their own officers could not control for several days. Looting, murder and rape were committed openly and many citizens, especially women, fled from the town to take refuge at the British lines, hoping that the officers would protect them. One such lady, whose home had been destroyed, brought her younger sister with her, a girl of fourteen newly returned from a convent education. Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon appears to have shaken off the restrictions of her upbringing very quickly. Within a few days she was the wife of Captain Harry Smith and remained by his side for the rest of the war.

Harry Smith volunteered to serve in the United States, fighting at the Battle of Bladensburg and witnessing the burning of the capitol in Washington, an act which appalled Smith and some of the other Peninsula veterans, who compared it unfavourably to “the Duke’s humane warfare in the south of France.” He returned to Europe in time to serve as a brigade major at Waterloo and remained with the army during the occupation of France, acting as Mayor of Cambrai in Picardy. His close relationship with Wellington continued; the two men both ran hunting packs and in his autobiography, Smith describes how Wellington arranged to divide up the countryside between the two packs.

When the occupation was over, Smith returned to being divisional ADC in Glasgow for Major-General Reynell who commanded the Western District of Scotland, and it was Reynell’s recommendation that gained him his first colonial appointment as ADC to the Governor of Nova Scotia, Lieutenant-General Sir James Kempt in 1826.

Smith was promoted Major in the army by the end of 1826, but remained unattached to a regiment, and was still unattached when raised to Lieutenant-colonel in July 1830. In 1828 he was sent to the Cape of Good Hope where he commanded a force in the Sixth Xhosa War of 1834-36 and was later appointed as governor of the Province of Queen Adelaide. He was considered an energetic and talented commander who was able to restore confidence among British and Boer residents and had considerable influence over the tribes.

Smith’s attempts to modernise and introduce improvements and benefits to the Xhosa tribes were supported by the high commissioner, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, another peninsular veteran, but his policies were reversed by the ministry in London and he was removed from his command. Both Xhosa and Boers regretted his loss and some historians have suggested that his departure precipitated the Great Trek.

In 1840 Harry Smith was appointed Adjutant-General in India. He fought in the Gwalior campaign of 1843 and the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1845-6, where he was eventually given an independent command and on 28 January 1846 he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Sikhs at Aliwal on the Sutlej. For this victory he was awarded the thanks of Parliament and was the subject of an unusually long tribute from the Duke of Wellington, whose remarks concluded:

“I have read the account of many a battle, but I never read the account of one in which more ability, energy, and experience have been manifested than in this. I know of no one, in which an officer ever showed himself more capable than this officer has, in commanding troops in the field. He brought every description of troops to bear with all arms, in the position in which they were most capable of rendering service; the nicest manoeuvres were performed under the fire of the enemy with the utmost precision, and at the same time, with an energy and gallantry on the part of the troops never surpassed on any occasion whatever in any part of the world. I must say of this officer, that I never have seen any account which manifests more plainly than his does, that he is an officer capable of rendering the most important services and of ultimately being an honour to this country.”

This is probably the greatest tribute the Duke ever bestowed on an officer. Sir Harry Smith was created a baronet and the words “of Aliwal” were appended to the title by the patent. He was promoted to major-general in November 1846.

In 1847 Smith returned to South Africa as Governor of Cape Colony and high commissioner with the local rank of lieutenant-general. The disaffection of the Boers and the local tribes had gone very much the way Smith had prophesied eleven years earlier. Smith’s first campaign was to deal with the Boers in the Orange River Sovereignty and he defeated them at Boomplaats in August 1848.

In December 1850 war broke out with the Xhosa once more and some of the Khoikhoi joined in. Smith did not have enough troops from England but he experienced some success. He has been criticised by modern historians for his conduct during this period. Smith had a tendency towards the dramatic, and some of his demonstrations towards the tribes appear appalling in a modern context, although interestingly do not seem to have been seen that way by Xhosa themselves at the time. His campaign was warmly approved by the Duke of Wellington and other military authorities but Earl Grey, in a dispatch never submitted to the queen, recalled him in 1852 before the Xhosa and Khoikhoi had been completely subdued. Smith protested strongly against the abandonment of the Orange River Sovereignty to the Boers, which happened two years after his departure, and was a firm supporter of the granting of responsible government to Cape Colony.

In 1853 Sir Harry Smith was made General Officer Commanding the Western District in England and was given brevet promotion to lieutenant-general in 1854. He was appointed to the same role in the Northern District in 1856.

Smith died at his home at Eton Place, London, on 12 October 1860. He was buried at St Mary’s, Whittlesey. His wife, Juana, who had accompanied him throughout his life on his various campaigns, died twelve years later and is buried with him. Smith’s autobiography was first published posthumously in 1901.

I first met Harry Smith, not as the enthusiastic junior officer who features as a recurring character in my peninsular war books, but as the victor over the Sikhs at Aliwal and then as a colonial general and administrator in South Africa. There was always something very appealing about Sir Harry Smith and reading between the dry lines of some of the history texts, I had a sense of a huge personality, a man with courage and ideas and a determination to make progress and to do whatever job he was sent to do, to his utmost.

This didn’t always go well. Smith’s enthusiasm as a young officer clearly recommended him to his seniors during his days with the light division and I suspect that his independent thinking worked well under commanders like Robert Craufurd and Sydney Beckwith while it might not always have gone down as well with ministers such as Lord Glenelg in later life.

The slightly surprising thing, is how well Smith seemed to get on with Lord Wellington, a commander with a reputation for disliking initiative in his officers and a man, moreover, who was reputed to prefer his officers to be young men from aristocratic families. Smith failed on both counts and yet it is very obvious that he held Wellington’s favour from the start.

My interest in the older Harry Smith caused me to read his autobiography. I already knew something of the political history of the Napoleonic Wars but my knowledge of the military aspects was restricted to a couple of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books which came out at round about the same time. I read, initially one or two more contemporary accounts of the conflict and then began to read some of the standard histories of the period, old and new, and more biographies and autobiographies and I was completely hooked.

When I began to attempt writing my own historical novels, these were initially set in very different periods. The idea of a Peninsular War novel came to me several years later and I baulked at it, probably because by that stage Sharpe had arrived on our TV screens and a host of other writers were tackling the Napoleonic wars both from and army and a naval perspective. It seemed to me at the time, that the stories were being told by others and told well.

The story of Harry and Juana Smith kept coming back to me over the years, however, and I continued to read everything I could get my hands on about the period. I wanted to write, not their story exactly, but the story of another couple who took the same journey as them and lived through the same events. Gradually, over a couple of years of scribbling, Paul and Anne van Daan were born.

Paul van Daan shares Harry Smith’s talent and energy and independent spirit. I chose a different background for him. I wanted something a long way from Cornwell’s Sharpe, since it seemed to me that every novel of that period would be directly compared to those. Sharpe was from the bottom of the heap, an enlisted man scrabbling his way up to an officer’s commission. Harry Smith started higher, respectably middle class but with no money. I moved a step or two up the social scale with my hero, giving him a wealthy background but a very mixed pedigree and an early stint below decks in the Royal Navy to make him comfortable with his enlisted men. The point of Sharpe is that he struggles to fit in anywhere; I wanted a hero who could fit in everywhere. Paul’s fight is not against the army establishment it is against his own nature; quick-tempered, hot-headed and impulsive; the early books are about Paul growing up.

Anne’s background has little in common with Juana Smith although like Juana, she takes to life in the army’s tail as if she had been born there. She shares a lot of Juana’s traits; she is attractive, charming and very determined and she has the ability to get on with both officers and enlisted men. Like Juana, she is a favourite of the irascible Lord Wellington. Like Juana, she has a hard-headed practicality which enables her to cope very well with the conditions of an army on the move.

The joy of writing fiction is that it is possible to introduce one’s fictional creations to the characters who inspired them. Colonel Paul van Daan is both older and senior to the young Harry Smith and although they get on well, they also disagree spectacularly on occasion. It has been fun to go back to Smith’s early days and to tell a little of his story alongside my own and it’s good to look back and remember how my own journey through the Peninsular War began with Harry’s autobiography.

Book five of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, is due for publication on kindle at the end of November and in paperback in December. The first four books are available on Amazon here and for a glimpse at an earlier episode in Paul van Daan’s history, try An Unwilling Alliance.