Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Regency Novel Like No Other: “Of Honest Fame,” by M.M. Bennetts

By Nancy Bilyeau

How do you solve a problem like Napoleon?

For many modern novelists and many more readers, perhaps, the French emperor is not a problem requiring a solution. Which is, among other things, the point.

Of Honest Fame, by M.M. Bennetts

           Strictly speaking, the Regency Period lasted from 1811 to 1820, the timespan when the mental breakdown of King George III called for the greater involvement of his oldest son, George, the Prince of Wales, variably described as a spendthrift, drunkard, lecher and patron of the arts. Some scholars liberally extend both boundaries so that the Regency began in 1795 and ended in 1837, the year that Queen Victoria succeeded her dissolute uncles George IV and William IV to the throne. In which case, it was a period of truly astonishing literary output: Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his second wife, Mary Shelley, William Blake, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and John Keats.

             Overlapping the time that some of these novels and poems were proudly published, England was at war, and not just any war. From 1803 to 1815, England allied with Prussia, Russia, and Austria to fight the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican officer turned general turned emperor. Roughly 5 million people died during the Napoleonic Wars, an estimate that includes civilians. 

               This was a war of "extreme violence," of atrocities committed against the civilian population. Philip G. Dwyer writes, "The sacking of towns, during which soldiers committed murder and rape in what is often called an 'uncontrolled frenzy,' was part and parcel of 18th century warfare." Yet historians agree that the French armies, greatly hardened in the Revolution, took the frenzy to its most pitiless level.

           England was not invaded during these wars, but families were robbed of their young men fighting Napoleon, and the population feared and hated the French emperor and was, to varying degrees, aware of the atrocities committed in Europe, particularly in Spain. England was also riven by poverty, with as much as one-third living close to starvation. Food riots raged. In London, alongside the luxury-driven, gambling-addicted aristocracy, existed squalor and crime.

             This is the time and this is the place of M.M. Bennetts' remarkable novel, Of Honest Fame, a companion book to May 1812. Although the story swings wide, to France, Prussia and Scotland, the focus is on England in that same tense, pivotal year of 1812. According to rumor, Napoleon is turning toward Russia. It's only the British Foreign Office's skilled spy network that can learn the truth of France's plans, yet a sadistic French assassin is picking off the spies on their home soil. In the struggle to outwit the assassin—and discover who in London has betrayed them—a group of men are tested as never before. The layers of intrigue reveal themselves slowly, worthy of a John le Carré plot, but it's in the rich details of the characters' daily lives that the novel soars. They are soldiers, statesmen and spies, driven by their hatred of the enemy.

            No one can blame Jane Austen for not depicting the harshness of war. That was never her brief. Yet to the careful reader, the realities of the Napoleonic Wars do play a key role in Austen fiction. Men who lack the wealth and position of a Mr. Darcy or a Mr. Knightly seek a career in military service, some willingly, others less so. In Pride and Prejudice, the local officers—members of a militia of sorts—are a fatal attraction for the younger Bennett daughters. The deceptive Mr. Wickham is thus introduced: “But the attention of every young lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with an officer on the other side of the way." In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is desperate for a ship after Anne Elliot rejects him due to his lack of social status.

            Napoleon was defeated, exiled, disgraced. England moved forward, to carve its Empire. Yet Bonaparte is an object of eternal fascination in fiction. He appears in two of the  most memorable novels of the modern age. Tolstoy triumphs in his ability to depict a Russian society under strain and then under siege in War and Peace. And in a very different sort of book, it is a letter from an exiled Napoleon that sets the entire plot of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo into motion.

A painting of Napoleon's retreat from Russia

          In the novels written in the late 20th and 21st centuries the presence of Napoleon takes interesting shape. Patrick O'Brian and Bernard Cornwell have each produced masterful novels of men fighting the French. But the wars take a background role in most other Regency-era books, that surge of historical fiction and romances that is to some degree inspired by Austen. What complicates it further is that Bonaparte himself stars in a number of historical novels, focusing on his marriages to the calculating Créole Josephine and the stolid Austrian princess Marie-Louise. Even his Bonaparte siblings get a piece of the action.

            Of Honest Fame refuses to flinch from the ugliness of war and its devaluing of human life, the obliterating horror of torture and rape. There are no battles in the book; it is not a "war novel." But each character in the book is molded—if not scarred—by England's grueling conflict with France while retaining his or her innate humanity and need for companionship and love. M.M. Bennetts' book could never be described as romance fiction. And yet it contains a relationship between two outsiders—a rejected and terrified wife and a debauched yet determined spy—that is tremendously moving and quite erotic.

            Still, the novel's power is most keenly felt in its descriptive passages. In two sections in particular, a man finds himself in a new place, and the details of what he sees and hears and feels drive home the needs of each character.

            Boy, the youngest and most psychologically damaged of the English spies, tracks Napoleon's army into Prussia with the utmost care:

Running, zigzagging across the abandoned countryside, past the smoke-blackened houses and empty, eerie Gothic churches which sat deserted and silent, discarded like the playthings of some long-dead giant. Dodging the few travelers and fewer carriages by diving into ditches or behind the low walls and hedges to wait, still and alert, for minutes or longer. To wait until the roads were quiet once more. And only then to emerge, and wary, to begin again.

           Another of the spies, Captain George Shuster, seen as the "cream of the officers' mess" but wearier and lonelier than even he may realize, arrives in Scotland:

He caught sight of the chestnut crest and black mask of a wax-wing. 'Struth, it had been an age since he last walked through a wood like this. Walked, unafraid and unharried, through strands of yew and holly and oak with sunlight dappling the ground and the tree trunks, and underfoot a carpet of wild thyme, garlic and most decaying leaves, their scents crushed together by his boot. Without having to run--crouched over and silent in his breathlessness--wondering when some Frenchie's bullet was going to find its way into the gut or his head. Without fear of stumbling across the corpse of a soldier or a child, half-eaten and decayed. Without listening for the sounds of pursuit or the murmuring of vagabonds or the unnatural silence of waiting bandits. For here there was nought but the incessant callings of the birds--wood pigeons and woodpeckers, robins and thrushes--and the rustling, grunting enthusiasm of Comfit at his heel.

          In moments such as these, Of Honest Fame finds a poetry in the human struggle that no conqueror could ever silence.


To learn more about Of Honest Fame and M.M. Bennetts, go here.




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