Delving Back by Jan Needle

The more I write about history, the more I love it. Considering my school tried everything they knew to make me hate the subject, I consider myself extremely lucky that I got there in the end. Kings and queens meant nothing to me until a history lecturer at University – the great and sainted Ian Kershaw – told me that William the Conqueror fell off his horse and burst. Now that for me, is a proper kingly way to die.

The real beauty, and frustration, of history is that an extraordinary amount of it is guesswork. That's why I've always been wary of biography. Somebody spends many years examining everything recorded about a certain personage, and is confident at the end of all that they have drawn a perfect picture. Sadly, that is balderdash. I don't even know myself why I do most things that I do, and looking back on them, the problem just gets murkier.

Take Nelson. One of Britain's most authentic heroes, still revered, still cited in any naval argument. Then take his background, and his early life, and his family. What a mess. What dog's breakfast. Trying to build a character out of that morass is the path to madness.

Here’s a heavily edited extract from my latest novella about the great man. He’s just returned from the West Indies where he has earned little money (Naval officers made fortunes only by taking prizes) but been plagued as always by tropical diseases. Never a strong man, he is now a wreck.

On his return to London from his time in Bath, Nelson had been hanging round the Admiralty like a ghost (but less well nourished, as he joked.) He loitered round the offices, he dogged the paths and gutterways of Tooley Street, and became notorious for bearding his seniors at unwanted moments.

Worst affected (for Nelson was not the sort to aim too low) was the highest man himself, Lord Sandwich. For a First Lord of the Admiralty he was remarkably approachable, and if he ever tired of this pale shadow, he showed it very gently.

‘If you are to get a ship, my friend,’ he said, ‘you will need to put more flesh onto your bones. You’re like a wraith, a bag of scraps, a limping walking skeleton. At sea the merest puff of wind, a capful, would whisk you overboard like a dandelion seed.’

Nelson – not famous for his humour – would answer gravely that his record was of the very best, and would stand up to any scrutiny. He had sailed the Indies east and west, the Atlantic was a bagatelle, he had fought a polar bear, he could—

‘Yes yes,’ his lordship would agree, ‘I know it, sir, I know it. Your record stands, but in a breeze, would you? Come back when you have shaken off the ague. A good meal, perhaps. A good woman. Two of each! You are drastic, sir, you limp. You must address yourself to it.’

Back at home in Norfolk, Nelson tried to follow this advice. Not with the women, to be sure – there was little chance of that in Burnham Thorpe, even the household wenches were more like poor relations than bed companions – and to be honest, not much with the food.

The Reverend Edmund liked good fare, but Nelson was on half pay, and although he often tramped the fields in search of game to supplement the pot, his prowess with a fowling piece was a point of rueful humour for the locals. Dinner was served at four o’clock, one could die of starving while the prayers went on, and bedtime was at nine. It was no wonder Nan had stayed on in Bath, and even Susannah lived in Wells-by-the-Sea, happy as the wife of Mr Bolton.

Sister Kate was another matter – Nelson was exceeding fond of her, although he feared she might marry early just to get away from this grim home, or ‘throw herself away just like her sisters’ as he put it. Sarah, on reading that, snorted like a horse.

‘Sometimes, my dear,’ she said, ‘Your friend sounds like a prig entirely. Insufferable!’

It's hard to escape the feeling that Nelson was a prig, but part of my point is that we can never really know it. Some people loved him – although military men in those days played a very large part in writing their own reputations – and those who hated him either could not, or did not, do very much about it in the prints. His great love, however, Emma Hamilton was the eternal target of writers and cartoonists who make modern internet trolls look like saints.

Sister Kate was another matter, but his sister Ann is the real mystery. How I would love to know the truth about her. (Perhaps that truth should be in single quotes.) Nelson called her Nan, and she almost certainly gave birth to an illegitimate baby, fathered by a married man who then abandoned her.

She went back to her widowed father at Burnham Thorpe, but the baby was not with her, if it had indeed survived. Later on, still in her twenties, Nan went to live in Brighton, where Nelson visited her. A year afterwards, while he was in France 'learning the language,' she died.

The story? She had come back from a dance late at night not well enough wrapped up, and caught a chill. Who am I to say it isn't true? Who is anyone to say it is?

Even Emma Hamilton’s death in Calais, alcoholic and abandoned, may or may not be the truth (whatever that is, as Charles once put it!) So writing history about Horatio is difficult, and causes lots of soul-searching.

Writers are nothing if not arrogant, however. I've come to believe I know Nelson extremely well, and I know damn well I'm kidding myself. Ain’t history wonderful!


Dennis has said all I need to say about Pam, our editor of long ago at Andre Deutsch. She was wonderful, and is sadly missed. She merely laughed when Kaye Webb said My Mate Shofiq was entirely unsuitable to be a children's paperback, and whipped it across to Rosemary Sandberg at Lions. She didn't mind that I changed genres as often as most men change their socks (although she predicted accurately that it would keep me poor), and she even agreed to publish Wagstaffe the Wind-Up Boy, much against her better judgment. She did cut out the introductory poem claiming Ronald Dahl didn't even know how to spell his own name, though. She said he didn't have that sort of sense of humour...


Wendy H. Jones said…
Loved this. You brought history to life. I thought I knew quite a lot about Nelson, but now...
Bill Kirton said…
I share your mistrust of people's 'truths' (or, indeed, any sort of exclusive 'truth'). I'm sure, for example, that a particular choice made by a character in my recently completed WIP will be decried by 'purists' as being anachronistic but I have hard physical evidence that it was a legitimate stance long before the 1841 in which my story's set. It's the old 'Hell is other people' refrain that I use so often, and when we're writing of long-dead people, there's bugger-all they can do about it. Your Nelson maybe corrects the traditional lionising of him. I do like your Lord Sandwich, though.
Umberto Tosi said…
Fascinating account: It does feel like we journey back and become involved with these historic characters, far more deeply even than often can be expressed in our prose, though we try.
Dennis Hamley said…
Ah, Rosemary Sandberg. Very much a kindred spirit. Bob Leeson told me that the confrontation between her and the MD her her Murdoch-inspired (I have heard it alleged)sacking after he'd bought Collins was a truly epic occasion. I last heard of her as an agent. Do you know where she is now?
Dennis Hamley said…
I meant, of course, 'at her ....sacking.'
glitter noir said…
Great post, Jan!The greatest historical figures are all the more mysterious and compelling because they lived before the internet, Twitter, Facebook....and the while biographical craze that came in the wake of Lord Byron--no dummy at making his mysteries work and playing the press to perfection. Celebrities now are documented to insane degrees--but, as you've made clear, we're no closer to understanding any of our icons than we are to 'nailing' Nelson or Julius Caesar.

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