I first wrote this post a year ago, when I had just sent off the final MS of The Late Lord to Pen & Sword. I still had months ahead of me of editing and proofs, although I didn’t know that yet. It was all too raw to post, so I didn’t put it up.
Now the book is published and I am genuinely knuckling down to The Next Project, I feel I have a little more distance, even if I still feel very much the same. (I’ve updated the post slightly to reflect the fact I am now post-publication, but it has changed very little.)
So here it is — the moment I realised I had to break up with my book boyfriend.
When I was fifteen years old, I went to see The Madness of King George at the cinema. I loved it. I got sucked into reading more about the politics behind the film, and fate led me to Pitt the Younger. As I struggled through Robin Reilly’s biography of Pitt, something in my head went zing. I had found “the Spark”, that mysterious attraction that grabs me by the lapels and doesn’t let me go.
Twenty years, three history degrees, and countless essays and aborted novels later, I have just published a biography of Pitt’s brother Lord Chatham. If you’d told me even five years ago that I’d be writing Chatham’s biography, I’d have laughed in your face. But the Spark ambushed me again, and this time I’ve got it bad.
I’ve probably been researching Chatham exclusively for half a decade now. Intensively for the past three years, certainly. It’s got to the point where I thrill at the sight of his handwriting, where the mere mention of his name in a book makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I’ve followed him to Gibraltar and Holland. I’ve been inside his houses; I’ve held things that have belonged to him; heck, I’ve even eaten with his cutlery.
He is alive to me. I’d even say he has become a part of me. That, I suppose, is inevitable, given the degree of immersion it takes to write a biography.
I’ve spent years building his life-story from the tiniest flakes, watching it slowly gather into snowballs. I’ve discovered things about him nobody knew before (possibly not even his own mother). I’ve experienced the full range of emotions: amusement (many LOLs in the archive); frustration (the perils of researching a man who, essentially, failed); shock and grief (yes, I have shed tears). My children grew up thinking he lived in the house. They would greet his portrait when they sat down to breakfast in the mornings.
Now I have to say goodbye.
How can I possibly move on? I’m Chatham’s biographer, so he belongs to me in a way. I’m giving him a voice. But now I’ve given him that voice, he will fade and leave me for good, because I can only write his biography once. I have to let him go, and I don’t want to. But I must.
Goodbye, John. I hope others will read my words and be inspired in their turn to explore more about the period, the family, the man. I hope readers approve of what I have written. Above all, I hope you are happy with everything I have done for you.
It’s been fun. Thank you, and, in the words of the 4th Duke of Rutland, “God bless you and love you as much as I do.”