By Seth Hunter
‘The prisoner stood at the end of the jetty, between two redcoat 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.’
The Birth of Nathan Peake
A prisoner or a Philadelphia dandy, a wild beast, a gypsy, a seafarer, a pied piper, a sorcerer and a magician...
A character in fiction often has many different personas and beginnings – false starts, you might call them. Still births. And so it was with Nathan Peake.
His first birth was as an American agent in Europe, one of a select group of secret agents answering directly to General Washington and known, on that account, at 'Washington's Boys' but for various reasons and after several adventures of my own in and under the streets of Paris and on the backwaters of Kerala in southern India, he became the present Nathan Peake, an Anglo-American officer in the British Navy at the time of the wars with Revolutionary France. But those initial images of him - the prisoner, the gypsy, the pied piper and the magician - remained a part of his character, even dressed in the splendid uniform of a post captain in His Britannic Majesty's Navy.
|The first Nathan Peake adventure The Time of Terror is set partly on the high seas, in the English Channel, and partly on, and under the streets of Paris in the notorious catacombs, haunt of fugitives, smugglers and dissidents from the time of the Romans to the present day.
THE PRISON OF THE CALMES, Nov 2004
Site of one of the most infamous massacres in the time of the Terror
HOW IT BEGAN
I was interested in writing a novel about three historical figures who found themselves in Paris in 1793 - 4 years after the storming of the Bastille when the ideals of the Revolution had become lost in the violence of the Terror. The three people were:
Thomas Paine - the English-born author of the Rights of Man who emigrated to the American colonies and played a seminal role in the American War of Independence, becoming an influential friend of many leaders of the Revolution, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
After the war ended, like a modern-day Che Guevara, he took the ideas he had developed in America back to England where he wrote the Rights of Man, much of it in the Angel Pub in Islington, and then moved to France to lend his support to the Revolutionaries in Paris where he was known as Citizen Paine and became a member of the National Assembly. But he voted against the execution of the French King and fell foul of the ruling faction led by Citizen Robespierre and when France and Britain went to war in 1793 he was arrested as a foreign spy and imprisoned - facing execution.
Mary Wollstenecraft - pioneer British feminist and writer, sent to Paris to write a series of articles for a British journal on the progress of the French Revolution. She became a friend of Paine and other British and American expats but faced the same fate as Paine when war broke out. A fate she avoided through her friendship with the third party in this triangle -
Gilbert Imlay - an American author and spy. He was probably one of the select group of secret agents known as 'Washington's Boys' but he was also a double agent - working at one stage for the British, the Spanish and the French. In 1793 he was in Paris ostensibly as a businessman. When war broke out with Britain he became a blockade runner, bringing goods into the country from America past the naval blockade imposed by the British - he specialised in soap. Then he met Mary W. You could say they fell in love - who knows with Inlay. At any rate, he proposed marriage - he said, later, to make her an American citizen and save her from prison and she never denied this. At any rate, they were married - in the US Embassy by the American ambasssador Gouverner Morris. She later had his child.
However - Imlay did a lot of ducking and diving. Even though France and Britain were at war, he moved freely between Paris and London. How? We don't know. It would have had to involve ships, or at least boats, and smugglers. What we do know is that while he was in London he had an affair with an actress who lived in Charlotte Street. When Mary finally came to London and found out about it - she tried to kill herself. Twice.
I was fascinated by the process that led to this courageous, admirable, complicated woman, this pioneer feminist, become emotionally involved by a man who was certainly a spy, and probably a scoundrel.
Into this historical melage a trois I added a character of my own invention - the British naval officer and secret agent - Nathan Peake.
And my fifth character - was Paris. Paris at the time of the Terror.
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 a good lunch and stagger back down again to write. Or sleep. Whatever came first.
But my priority was to explore the catacombs. These are the miles of ancient tunnels that literally undermine the city. They were originally used by the Romans to quarry the limestone that built most of the city in the first place. Since then they have been used for many other purposes. They sheltered the early Christians from Roman persecution. They played a significant role in the world of the Cours des Miracles - the society of beggars and criminals and outlaws that flourished during the Middle Ages. Since then they have been used by smugglers and outlaws and dissidents, by renegades at the time of the French Revolution and by resistance fighters during WW2. They were also used to bury people. Millions of people. For more than 50 years from the late 18th century to well into the 19th they were used to re-bury an estimated 6 millioin corpses from the overcrowded medieval cemeteries of central Paris. Almost every night for half a century a ghoulish procession of death carts, led by hooded monks with flares, would roll through the streets of Paris to lay the bodies - or bones - in their new resting place in the catacombs. And during the time of the Terror they were also used to bury the victims of the guillotine. King Louis is here - and his Queen Marie Antoinette - and the man who killed him, Maximilian Robespierre. But you will never find them. They are just three of the anonymous skulls in the Empire of the Dead.
You can enter the Empire of the Dead legally through a strange portal at the Porte d'Enfer - the Gateway of Hell - on the Paris Peripherique. You can walk through 6 kilometres of tunnels lined with those 6 million skulls - and speculate on who they were - and what brought them here, to the Empire of the Dead. Apart from the death carts, of course.
But the Empire of the Dead is only a small part of the catacombs. The rest is out of bounds. You can only enter them illegally. Usually by meeting up with one of the illicit 'tour operators' in some bar somewhere and joining his group. But it is not without dangers. The catacombs link with the sewers and with the Paris Metro and they are patrolled by a special police task force known collequially as the cataflics who will arrest anyone caught trespassing and impose a hefty fine.
So I spent over a month in Paris exploring the catacombs - legally of course - and various other parts of the city that played their part in the Revolution. I wrote the first 30-40,000 words here 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.
The Luxembourg Palace
where Thomas Paine was held prisoner during the Time of the Terror
THOMAS PAINE AND PRESIDENT OBAMA
In 2009, President Obama wound up 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 Thomas Paine.
Described as ‘a drunken and dishevelled English journalist’ – Paine was also, in his time, a buccaneer and a maker of women’s corsets, a Revenue officer and a revolutionary. 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’.
Paris in the Time of the Terror
These are some of my earlier notes about the character of Nathan Peake.
Nathan Peake isthe son of a retired British admiral and an American pioneer feminist and revolutionary.
The father - Sir Michael Peake - is a large landowner in Sussex, England and a Tory. The mother - Lady Catherine Peake, known to her intimates as Kitty - has her own establishment in London where she entertains revolutionaries and dissidents and is a thorn in the side of the Establishment.
Kitty is the descendant of French Huguenots (Calvinists) who settled in New York and whose family became politically divided during the American War of Independence.
Nathan is the only child of this misalliance. He tries to maintain a studied neutrality, but the political and emotional divisions between them are reflected in his own personality.
At the time of the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, the French Revolutionaries had many supporters in Britain and the United States. The violence of the Revolution later alienated them.
But they were almost as horrified by the violent reaction in Britain and other parts of Europe.
Nathan reflects this internal struggle. He fights for 'King and Country' but is by no means a reactionary. He has grave doubts about the course taken by the British Prime Minister William Pitt in suppressing all political dissent in his own country. In this, you might say, the American side of his character comes to the fore, even while he is fighting Britain's wars on the high seas.
On the one side: 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, the anti-hero of Shaw's The Devil’s Disciple, and John Willard, the Salem constable who was hanged on Aug 19, 1692, for refusing to arrest the accused ‘witches’ on the grounds that the charges were 'baseless and stupid'.
His more modern literary role models are Richard Sharpe and Stephen Maturin – both outsiders who fought for the British during the Napoleonic Wars.
But the other side of his character - the father's side - craves Order and Security. His father is the classic Tory who believes in an ordered society where everyone knows his, and her place.
These divisions reflect the divisions that occured in British, American and French society at the time of the American War of Independence (1776-1783) and the French Revolution of 1789. To a great extent they are still with us - and they are a big part of the story of Nathan Peake.
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 – the Bouchers – who were descended from French Huguenots – Calvinists, forced to flee persecution in Catholic France.
I based the Bouchers partly on a real family, the Du Bois – descendants of Chretien Dubois, b. 1597, a minor aristocrat and devout Protestant from the village of Wicres, near Lille, with interests in the linen trade. But Chretien and his descendants were devout Huguenots - followers of the Protestant Jean Calvin - and were violently persecuted by the French monarchy. So in 1660 they emigrated to America and founded a democratic, self-governing community on the Hudson River in the then colony of New York.
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 son 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.
And so Nathan Peake is introduced in Chapter One of 'The Time of Terror' as the Anglo-American master and commander of the brig sloop Nereus, off the coast of Sussex, supporting the Revenue service in the war against the smugglers. The year is 1793 and a very different war is about to start, a war with Revolutionary France that will last, with one short break, for the next twenty-three years.
A black night and cold, even for the first month of the year with a chill wind whipping across the Channel from France. A night to be indoors by a good fire with a mug of hot punch, not gadding about off the Sussex Downs in support of the Revenue service fighting a futile war against the smugglers. Nathaniel Peake, master and commander of the brig sloop, Nereus, bent his bum against the nearest of her sixteen guns with his coat collar turned up and his chin thrust deep into his muffler and cast an anxious eye at the familiar hump of Seaford Head off the larboard bow.
The brig sloop Nereus - based on the Earl of Pembroke - off the southern coast of England in the summer of 2008