Where was Nelson? Robert Wilton on the relationship between fact and fiction in an historical thriller
August 1805: Tom Roscarrock, apparently working for British Government’s Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey but with his loyalties increasingly suspect, was operating in northern France. Napoleon’s Army of the Ocean Coasts was poised at the Channel, ready to invade and destroy Britain as soon as the conditions were right. The fate of the British Empire was increasingly bound up in the question of Roscarrock’s motives and his affiliations, and how they overlapped and interacted with the movements of the French fleet of Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, sailing northward to escort the invasion fleet. This is the history being re-told in The Emperor’s Gold, out now from Corvus Books. It’s an amazing story of intrigue and deception – but for the researcher/author it presents a challenge. For The Emperor’s Gold is based on the archives of the Comptrollerate-General, discovered in the basement of the Ministry of Defence in London, and I can’t change history simply because it would make my writing easier.
Some of the challenge is just inert factual accuracy: when did Napoleon’s Army of the Ocean Coasts become the Grande Armee? When did the word ‘saboteur’ enter the language? Some of the challenge is what you might call historical logistics: I need Tom Roscarrock and Richard Jessel of the Comptrollerate-General to fit in three meetings with agents between the 23rd and the 25th of July; plenty of time, but how far can a man travel in a day’s riding from London, without over-tiring his horse? That means one of the meetings is going to have to happen somewhere like Aylesbury, but was Aylesbury big enough to have an inn in 1805, and if so what was the inn called? Oh, and the nice bit of evening atmosphere I’ve just written is going to have to become a bit of dawn atmosphere instead.
Some of the challenge, though, is about trying to weave a plot around historical chronology, and this gets a little trickier. Admiral Horatio Nelson’s chase of Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve across the Atlantic in the summer of 1805 is fixed: its dates are known, and if I try to move one of them but a convenient day, The Emperor’s Gold is not just fiction but fantasy. Whether or not the story is actually true, it must be possibly true, and that means that I’m not allowed to teleport even the few ships of Admiral Zacharie Allemand fifty miles across the sea. Every real historical incident that I build the plot around is a demonstration of the possible truth of The Emperor’s Gold, but it also pins my story down to a fixed timetable and fixed set of locations. Admiral Villeneuve really did get crucial information from a Danish ship that his fleet met by chance, and the appearance of that incident in this book is another reflection of its plausibility; but the meeting took place on August 14th and at no other time, and that’s just tied my timetable even more tightly.
Meanwhile, the movements of Tom Roscarrock and the other key actors in this Comptrollerate-General operation have their own unavoidable logic of time and place. The realities of time and place affect where he meets agents, and where a house gets burned, and where a man is killed. Roscarrock also needs time to discover, to learn, and to understand. The Admiralty Board very naturally meets to discuss Admiral Calder’s engagement in the Battle of Finisterre (given time for the news to have reached them, of course), but it’s unlikely that they’d bother to meet again the very next day for routine business like the approval of funds for the American inventor Fulton. Without Eurostar (there certainly wasn’t a Waterloo station back then), the journeys of Lady Virginia Strong into and out of Napoleon’s France are a much more troublesome chunk of time within the plot, and that affects when she needs rescuing from a vengeful mob in Bury St Edmunds and when she can appear, sultry and abandoned, at a radical soiree.
I’m also trying to interweave these strands in a balanced way: a character and a narrative needs to recur regularly in the pages and the reader’s mind, not feature in three hurried scenes and then disappear for half the book. These conflicting demands led to the occasional outburst of creative swearing, and to a complicated calendar with points that were irritatingly fixed and points that irritatingly kept having to move. Then I worked out that the Sunday which set such an effective atmosphere for Tom Roscarrock’s first arrival in London was in fact a Tuesday.
Now The Emperor’s Gold is coming onto Kindles and bookshelves, and readers are making their own analysis of the operations of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey in that desperate summer of 1805, when chance and weather and the deeds of a few extraordinary individuals were swinging the fate of Europe – and meanwhile I’m back in the archives. I’m exploring the operations and evolution of the Comptrollerate-General in the strange years after the English Civil War; they’re fascinating indeed, and will make a fascinating book. But Charles I was executed on the 30th of January 1649 and, however inconvenient for the Comptrollerate-General’s activities, it turns out that I can’t change that.
Robert Wilton has held a variety of posts in the British Ministry of Defence, cabinet Office and Foreign Office. He was Private Secretary to three Secretaries of State for Defence, and advisor to the Prime Minister of Kosovo in the lead-up to the country’s independence, and has now returned to Kosovo as a senior international official. He translates a little poetry, very occasionally rows a gig, and is a co-founder of the Ideas Partnership, which stimulates and supports projects in education, culture, and the environment. He now divides his time between Kosovo and Cornwall. He has degrees from Oxford and the School of Slavonic Studies, and writes on the history and culture of south-eastern Europe and the role of the international community there. The Emperor’s Gold, the first in the series of historical espionage thrillers based on the archives of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, as is available now