Over the past several generations we’ve boxed the early nineteenth century into two categories. On the one hand, we’ve got the military swashbucklers—the Richard Sharpes, the Horatio Hornblowers and the Captain Jack Aubreys. And on the other, we’ve got the domestic version, which grew out of Jane Austen and through Georgette Heyer became Regency Romance. But where’s the stuff in the middle? The Napoleonic wars were as disastrous to Europe as WWII. They affected everybody. No one was immune. The whole of Europe had been turned into a military state and its allies by Napoleon. And I wanted to sweep away the stereotypes and explore what that really meant to the one nation which resisted that, the British people fighting it, but in different ways—political, social, international relations, spying…
The espionage is at the heart of Of Honest Fame. But because this is something that we in a modern society live with, we may not always consider what it means to live a life where everything true about you must be hidden, must be concealed. We don’t think about the pressure. We don’t consider what it must mean to be able to trust no one. We certainly don’t consider the emotional isolation and the stress of that. So I wanted to consider some of those questions.
Then too, since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, we have had access to the historical records there, which had been off-bounds since the Russian Revolution. These records, as well as the access to Napoleonic battlefields and mass graves—now tested and interpreted using the latest techniques in historical forensics, often by historians who speak Russian and Lithuanian and Polish—have yielded up an entirely different history of the Napoleonic wars than the official French version of the time.
We now know that the French army had an 80% infection rate of syphilis, which they were spreading. In 1812, syphilis was every bit as great a killer as AIDS was in the 1980s. The consequences of its unlimited spread through the French army’s atrocities was catastrophic. It had a devastating effect on these countries’ development for generations to come. But all those women who would have died either then or subsequently, they’ve never even been counted among the five million casualties of those wars.
We have war memorials to our fallen men. But no one has, as far as I know, even bothered to go through the parish records across these countries and count how many lives were cut short by the sexual diseases spread by the Grande Armée, nor count how many suicides there were in the wake of the occupation, those who were denied even the rites of burial in those days—which is another heinous consequence of the kind of treatment the French were regularly dishing out to the local populations. We know that from the Russian occupation of Berlin in 1945, or Serbia or Rwanda.
And upon putting together all these pieces of the puzzle, I knew I had to, in some way, honor these fallen and acknowledge their sacrifice. So the fate of the civilians whose misfortune it was to live in the path of Napoleon’s army as they crossed Europe to invade Russia in 1812 is another underlying theme.
Finally I wanted to return to historical fiction some of the literary strength of works like A Tale of Two Cities, of arresting imagery and description, of beautiful language and poetry, and wrap all of it up in one great novel–not worthy, but gripping and full of excitement.
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Educated at Boston University and St Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider, as well as an accomplished pianist, regularly performing music of the era as both a soloist and accompanist. Bennetts is a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor.
The author is married and lives in England.
Bennetts’ latest book is Of Honest Fame.
You can visit the author’s website at www.mmbennetts.com.