Sunday, 16 May 2010

Peake, Obama and Thomas Paine

Peake, Obama and Thomas Paine
By Seth Hunter

If you have turned to this site you will probably have read one of the Nathan Peake novels and possibly the Nathan Peake website so you will know that Nathan Peake is an Anglo-American naval officer engaged in the epic wars with the French between 1793 and 1815.

Peake is the latest in an illustrious line of fictional naval heroes that include Forester's Hornblower and of course Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey - and several of the reviews have made flattering comparisons. Naturally I'm very pleased about this - and relieved, for they are as hard an act to follow as you can possibly imagine - but I wanted to make Nathan Peake different from his two most famous predecessors. And the main difference I wanted to emphasise was political.

The War of Ideas

In 2009, President Obama concluded his inauguration speech with these words:

‘In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.

‘At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it”.’

Those words - chosen by General Washington to inspire the troops in 1776, and by President Obama in 2009 - were written by an Englishman who had recently arrived in the American colonies and had enthusiastically joined in the rebellion against King George. His name was Thomas Paine and you can read more about him below - but the new President chose to quote him in his inauguration speech because he summed up the spirit that carried Washington to victory in the War of Independence and Obama himself to victory in the recent election - the spirit of Hope.

Thomas Paine became famous - or infamous if you like - as the author of THE RIGHTS OF MAN but a few years later he was languishing in the Luxembourg Prison in Paris, a victim of the Terror that succeeded the French Revolution. The reason he was there -and what happened to him next inspired me to write a novel.

It featured a group of English and American expatriates in Paris at the time of the Terror in 1793 – among them Paine, the English pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and the American adventurer, writer and - probably - spy, Gilbert Imlay, who became Mary’s lover and the father of her child. And I introduced a fictitious character called Nathan Peake - a confidential agent sent by the US Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to rescue Paine from the guillotine.

Martin Fletcher, my commissioning editor at Hodder Headline, persuaded me to change Nathan into a British naval officer – albeit born in New York, of an American mother. And so he was born again as the hero of THE TIME OF TERROR and the entire series of historical and naval adventures which have beenc commissioned in its wake. But I think it's fair to say that he retains many of the characteristics of the original Nathan - who is at heart a rebel and something of a reprobate.

This is what differentiates him from Hornblower and Aubrey - and other fictitious naval heroes in this genre. Most of them are dyed-in-the-wool Tories and monarchists, totally opposed to the ideas of the American and French Revolutions. And yet the reality is that many of the real-life naval officers at the time were Whigs - the faction within Parliament which later became the Liberal Party. Their leader, Charles James Fox, was a supporter of the rebel cause in America and like many Englishmen an early supporter of the French Revolution.

As the Revolution turned more violent and saw the rise of men like Robespierre, the liberals in England turned against it. But they retained many of their liberal instincts and values. They were opposed to absolute monarchy and to slavery, to the draconian land laws which condemned a man to death for stealing a sheep, and they campaigned for the reform of parliament. They always wanted an end to the practice of throwing small farmers off the land so it could be turned into one vast sheep enclosure - a practice which Goldsmith execrated in his poem The Deserted Village.

This liberal element was well represented among the naval officers of the time. But the war against the French forced them to repress many of their political convictions in order to defeat the common enemy. I wanted Nathan to reflect these views and to be torn by conflicting political ideals and emotions. He is, in many ways, a liberal conservative. And maybe his time has come!

Nathan Peake, RN

The Nathan you will read about in 'The Time of Terror' and the subsequent books in the series – was born in New York in August 1768, when it was still a colony of the British Empire under King George III.

Nathan’s father was a British naval officer based in New York and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy merchant family who were descended from French Huguenots – Protestant followers of Jean Calvin who were forced to flee persecution in Catholic France.

I based them on a real family, the Du Bois – descendants of Chretien Dubois - a minor aristocrat from the village of Wicres, near Lille, with interests in the linen trade. But as Huguenots, Chretien and his family suffered from the persecution of the Catholic Church and the French Monarchy, and in 1660 Chretien's son Louis emigrated to America with his wife Catherine. They travelled ninety miles up the Hudson River and founded a democratic, self-governing community which was still flourishing at the time of the Revolution.

Famous branches of the family tree are said to include General George Patton, artist Mary Cassatt, actor Marlon Brando and actress Joan Crawford.

But to return to Nathan’s fictitious family heritage - on the eve of the American Revolution in 1776, Nathan’s father was posted back to England and his wife and young Nathan went with him. For a while they lived on the family estate in Sussex but as relations between American colonists and mother country deteriorated, so too did the marriage. Eventually, Lady Catherine Peake set up her own establishment in London which became a focus for dissidents and opposition politicians who supported the American rebels against King George.

And Nathan, by his own account, ran wild with a bunch of local hooligans in Sussex and developed an early affinity for poachers and smugglers. Perhaps to remove him from this pernicious influence, at the age of 13 he was encouraged by his father to join the Navy. The American War was then coming to an end and Nathan spent most of his formative years at sea aboard a hydrographic vessel, the Hermes, charting unknown waters in the South Seas.

These are some of my early notes about his character:

He is Renaissance man… a sailor, a scholar, a mathematician, an amateur astronomer and musician (a less than accomplished player of the flute).

He is an outsider. The descendant of one of the Salem witches. A rebel. One of those free spirits so beloved of Studs Terkel: ‘outcasts, scholars, libertarians, dreamers, troublemakers, waifs and eccentrics’.

He is a composite of characters who represent the dissident element of New England Puritan society. Men like Dick Dudgeon in Shaw's play, the Devil’s Disciple, Nathaniel Hawthorne - and John Willard, the Salem constable who was hanged for refusing to arrest the accused ‘witches’ on the grounds that the charges were baseless and stupid and so was hanged with them.

Like many characters in fiction he had a number of false starts. Here are some of them from earlier drafts of The Time of Terror:

‘The prisoner stood at the end of the jetty, between two soldiers, with his hands tied behind his back. He was unshaven and dishevelled, his clothes filthy and his lank hair hanging down to his shoulders, but he looked about him with an air of indifference, even arrogance, like a Philadelphia dandy, the colonel thought, waiting for the carriage to take him to his club.'

'He was taller, more upright than the other but he had a rope round his neck and they were pulling him along like a wild beast. A young man, personable but with a weathered complexion and long, dark hair untied and hanging loosely around his face –he could have been a gypsy, she thought, or a seafarer...'

‘Then he put the whistle to his lips and did a jig, and there was something so wild, so mad, so infectious about it, he had them all joining in, dancing and singing along with him in a crude approximation of the words. A sorcerer, she thought, a magician.’

A prisoner or a Philadelphia dandy, a gypsy, a seafarer, a pied piper, a sorcerer and a magician... These descriptions were written at different times and in different places but they all went into the character of Nathan Peake.

The first description was written beside the Saint Croix river, which forms the eastern-most border between Canada and the USA, I was staying at a place on the river – an Inn, they called it in Downeast Maine, but they served no drinks stronger than orange juice and anyone else would have called it a Guest House, or Bed and Breakfast. It was November, I was alone and I was lonely. I would look out from my room across the Saint Croix to the distant shores of New Brunswick, which were not inspiring and did not make me think of home. In the middle of the river there was an island where French settlers had landed in 1604, bringing citrus trees and grape vines, for they expected it to be bit like Provence. In which assumption they were sorely misled. The first snows came in October and the snow stayed until April. Most of the Frenchmen died, of cold and scurvy. The handful of survivors were taken off by the explorer Samuel de Champlain in the spring. The bodies of the dead are still there, on the island, and from time to time the tide brings up a skull or a piece of bone.

There was snow when I was there – and in the garden of the inn there was a Halloween figure, like a straw man or a scarecrow, with a pumpkin for a head. Very Stephen King. I had come to Maine to write a novel called 'The Prayer of the Bone', a line I took from the T.S. Eliot poem, 'The Dry Salvages'

'Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach... '

You can judge from this what kind of a mood I was in. I had a copy of the poem with me. It was named after a small group of rocks off Cape Ann in Massachusetts, which the French called Les Trois Sauvages, and which the English had translated, typically, as the Dry Salvages. They were marked by a whistling buoy, which the people of those parts called a Groaner. I’d like to think this image was in my mind when I wrote those first few words about Nathan Peake.

I often do this. I’m in the middle of one novel and I suddenly get an idea for the next. I think it’s a kind of defensiveness, having something else up my sleeve in case of failure. In this case, I persisted with 'The Prayer of the Bone' and it was published a year or so later – by Bloomsbury in the UK and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US – and under different titles in several others countries. The Germans called it 'Winter Des Bären', Winter of the Bears, which is a title I prefer.

Anyway, the image of that scruffy, lonely prisoner at the end of the jetty stayed with me, and so did the idea of the novel. And finally, about three years later, I began to write it – also in November, but in Paris, now. Paris, France. Which is where I wrote the second description.

I had taken an apartment in Barbes, a rough old area just below the Butte Montmartre. I used to run up the hundreds of steps of the hill for exercise, have an enormous lunch and stagger back down again to write. I wrote the first 30-40,000words in Paris and then put it aside for a while to work on a film. Then, almost a year later, I booked into an hotel - the Raheem Residency in Kerala, south India - where I finished it. I know it sounds odd but there are parts of Kerala – in Alleppey and Fort Cochin - which are probably more like Paris at the time of the French Revolution than Paris is now. And this was where I wrote the third description.

So Nathan Peake was born on the Saint Croix River in Downeast Maine, in Paris, France, and in Kerala, India. But the place that really formed him, I think, was my own favourite place in the world, a place called France Hill, above Cuckmere Haven on the south coast of England. This is where Nathan Peake was raised and the place he still thinks of as home. And this will form the subject of a subsequent blog.

Thomas Paine

Described as ‘a drunken and dishevelled English journalist’ – Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, and started his working life as an apprentice corset-maker before running away to sea and joining the crew of a privateer - a form of licensed piracy. He later became a Customs officer and a journeyman writer before penury and a lack of prospects forced him to emigrate to the American colonies with a recommendation from Benjamin Franklin.

Almost forgotten by Americans today, he played a significant part in the birth pangs of the United States of America and has been described as ‘the unsung Founding Father’.

Paine inspired the rebel troops with his political tracts and essays. Every soldier in the American army was issued with a copy of his book on the reasons for the rebellion. He was a close friend of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who credited him with many of the ideas used in the Declaration of Independence. He served for a time in the rebel army and he became a member of the rebel Congress in Philadelphia where he had special responsibility for foreign policy.

But, in the wake of Independence, Paine left the infant United States of America and returned to England where he wrote the work for which he is most remembered - THE RIGHTS OF MAN. It was a huge literary and political success, the first edition selling more copies than the Bible - but it was not well received by the King, or his government. A warrant was issued for Paine's arrest - for seditious libel - and he fled to France - which was then in the throes of its own Revolution.

Paine was welcomed by the revolutionaries in France and promptly elected to the new National Assembly. But the Revolution was entering a particularly violent period known as The Terror when, under the puritanical regime of Maximilien Robespierre, many of those categorised as 'enemies of virtue' were arrested, exposed to the sham of a trial and executed, usually by the guillotine. Paine's opposition to the Terror - and to the execution of the French King and Queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - led to his arrest and imprisonment in the notorious Luxembourg Prison, where he awaited his own trial and execution.

Paine was saved by the fall of Robespierre in July 1793, but his health was broken by almost a year of imprisonment and there was no place for him in either the post-Revolutionary France - or his home country of England under George III. When Jefferson became President he sent one of his new frigates to France to bring Paine back to his real home in the United States where Congress granted him a farm and a regular income. But he was a hopeless farmer and he died in poverty and obscurity, his reputation clouded by his publication of the Age of Reason which was widely regarded as atheistical - though Paine always regarded himself as a Deist.

For anyone interested in reading more about Paine I strongly recommend Christopher Hitchens's brief biography 'Thomas Paine - The Rights of Man'.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


First blog by seth hunter