Time to say goodbye…

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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.

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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.

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Old selfie with Lord C

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.

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“Good morning, John!”

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.”

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Watch this space

The book’s due in five months, so, in a bid to finish actually writing it, I am going to take a hiatus till it’s done.

I may still post if I find something amazing (anyone that knows me will be aware I simply cannot stop talking about Lord Chatham) but if I’m not about quite as much as usual, please don’t abandon me.

Until then, this is what I am probably doing:

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They’re real people, you know…

I write about real people. I know, I know, every author writes about “real people”, in that fictional characters come alive on the page of the book they inhabit, but I write about real people. The main characters of The Long Shadow, William Pitt the Younger and his elder brother John, Earl of Chatham, really existed. And for some reason, whenever I find proof that they did so, I am amazed, and I still have no idea why.

Two hundred years or so ago my characters lived and breathed on the earth. They spoke the words that were recorded by journalists and diarists; they wrote the letters I have read in the archives; they lived in the houses I have visited. They went to sleep at night, got up in the mornings (…. or more probably early afternoon, in the case of my boy Chatham), ate huge meals, wore sumptuous clothes, walked the streets of London, relieved themselves, caught the common cold, laughed, and cried, and, well … lived.

I already know this, because I’ve read about it, and yet there is still a sort of dislocation in my head that makes me unable fully to grasp the fact my characters were both real and human.

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^^^ Real people ^^^

A few months ago I made a discovery, quite by accident.* I found this record on the finds.org.uk site, dedicated to recording archaeological finds of historical significance in the UK. I’ve blogged about it before, but I’ll talk about it again.

Why did this find stagger me so much? Because this, dear reader, is John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s personal seal. The one he affixed to private correspondence. And it dropped from his watch fob, probably sometime between 1783 and 1790, while he was visiting his mother at her Somerset house of Burton Pynsent, where it was found in 2006 — not, alas, by me, although every time I’ve been back there I’ve kept my eyes peeled in case, you know, he did it twice.

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Think about it. I knew Burton Pynsent belonged to the Pitt family; I knew the 2nd Lord Chatham would have gone there many times. But here is concrete evidence that he was there, in person: that he was capable of losing things, just like anybody else. I imagine he was pretty annoyed when he found out he had lost it, too. It’s like a glimpse into a timewarp, just a blink of a moment in which the walls of time and space come crashing down.

I’ve had the same feeling so many times while researching John Chatham in particular. I think it’s because he’s virtually invisible in the history books, so to find any evidence of his physical existence is doubly disorientating. Remember my visit to Abington Hall, near Cambridge, which he rented from 1816 to 1821 (possibly longer)? It’s now the headquarters of The Welding Institute (TWI) and the estate changed beyond recognition, covered with prefab offices, storerooms and laboratories, but walking through it was like being haunted by the past.

Perhaps it was because John’s time there was hardly happy, but visiting a house where he actually lived affected me a great deal. There’s not much of “his” house left, but with assistance I was able to piece John’s Abington together. TWI’s records officer showed me the remains of a bridge over Chatham’s stream, the last remnant of his walled garden, the location of his stables, and the double line of lime trees leading to the London road that would have been his drive.

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Chatham, moreover, left his mark. The house’s ground floor still has a flavour of John’s grand early-19th century reception rooms, and the outside still bears the peeling whitewash “inflicted on it by your boy” (as the records officer informed me, accusingly). The welders may have moved in, but I felt almost as though I could reach out through the centuries and brush Chatham’s sleeve with my fingers.

Sometimes, of course, the frisson I get from such a connection comes with a sense of embarrassment. I have often been reminded, while consulting the archives, that I am, essentially, reading someone’s private correspondence. I’m sure Pitt the Elder would have been horrified to know I would read the following line, written to his wife, Lady Hester, shortly after she had given birth to their third child: “How I long, now that you are out of the straw, to have you in the fragrant grass?” (National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/5 f 205) The historian always, of course, has something of the voyeur in him or her, but I still won’t be getting that image out of my head any time soon.

So yes: real. Not real in my head, but real in the flesh, two hundred years ago. I’ve stood over the Pitt family vault in Westminster Abbey and tried to come to terms with the fact that the people I have read so much about were there only a short distance beneath my feet. I can’t do it. I’ve touched things that belonged to them — I’ve seen John’s own miniature of his wife, held his cutlery, walked his estates, and I even have a letter he wrote hanging on my wall downstairs — but for some reason I can’t get over this barrier. I can’t comprehend that, even though they are my characters, they will never completely belong to me.

Surely I’m not the only one?

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* Most of my best discoveries have been made by accident: one day I will write a post about my own personal Historical Research Fairy, who tugs me by the skirts, hisses “Pssssst!” in my ear, and places the right document in my hands, or turns my eyes to just the right place on a gallery wall.

Should be writing, so obviously I’m setting up a blog

As the title says, really.

I have precisely one day a week entirely set aside for writing—Thursday—and here I am setting up a Tumblr blog. Oh well.

Actually I am trying to clear my mind a bit for a novel reboot, so I might as well try and sort out my thoughts here.

The Long Shadow, for the uninitiated, is (will be?) a historical novel dealing with the relationship between William Pitt the Younger and his older brother John, Second Earl of Chatham. It should probably be the other way round, actually, as the story is told from John’s perspective. I do not pretend that I am not on first-name terms with my exalted subjects, but then reading their private correspondence makes me feel almost like we are friends. (That, or I am a stalker, but I prefer the first version.)

History remembers Pitt the Younger as Britain’s youngest prime minister (aged 24!); he is also the second longest serving (17 continuous years, 19 in all) and reputed to be one of the best. His short but incredibly busy life (1759-1806) was almost entirely encompassed by the reign of one monarch, George III. He took office in 1783, just after the end of the war with America, and masterminded the first half of the wars against revolutionary France. He is the subject of a number of biographies, with John Ehrman’s three volume opus at the academic end of the scale and William Hague’s entertaining work at the popular end. He has appeared in movies, novels, plays, TV series…. oh, you name it. He even has a Facebook page. Perhaps more than one.

And the Second Earl of Chatham? “What, you mean there was more than one?” Exactly…

I won’t go into the reasons why I find John so interesting now, although when I do I hope my enthusiasm will be catchy. I do feel incredibly sorry for him, as I think history has dealt him a rather unfortunate hand. He had an incredibly famous father and an incredibly famous brother; if that wasn’t bad enough, his own personal talents have been completely overshadowed by the disastrous expedition to Walcheren in 1809 (which he generalled) and by a not entirely undeserved reputation for sloth. Yet he was a long-serving cabinet minister, in office from 1788 until the Walcheren disaster, and when he chose to apply himself did so diligently enough.

As Sir Tresham Lever wrote in The House of Pitt (London, 1947, pp. 360-1): “The son of one genius and the elder brother of another, life must have brought him many disappointments; the heir to honours won by another and to an estate impaired and altogether inadequate to support the high rank his father had bequeathed him, his life must have been one long burden”. As sympathetic as this estimate seems, Lever goes on to describe him as “vain, pompous, stupid”, “the most stupid and useless of the Pitts”.

Poor John! Poor, poor John! I can only hope that I can help rectify that impression somewhat. 

And on that note, I should return to what I should be doing….