For the past two years I have been researching and writing about a career soldier who died on foreign soil. Every day I marvel at his dedication to his King and country, and the sacrifices that he made through his service. And almost every day, I cry a little bit to think that he never returned home to his beloved England and Ireland and never again saw the friends and family he left behind. He was a wealthy man who could have chosen a different path. He did not have a wife to mourn for him. By the time his countrymen at home learned of his death, he had been cold in the ground for six months. I hope someone shed tears for him then. I pray for him now. Our fallen warriors are precious. We are indebted to them. May we be worthy of their sacrifice.
One year ago today, on February 27, 2020, I was on a plane bound for London. There were a few more documents I wanted to review at the National Archives and one book I particularly had to see at the British Library. Two weeks after I got home, travel was restricted. As much as I would have liked to return to England, I was very grateful and relieved that I had gone when I did.
In January of 2019, I had been in London doing research for a new historical novel about the world of opera. It was exciting to stay in Covent Garden and attend a performance of the Royal Opera. On my last day in town, I indulged a whim to go see a portrait of a British Army officer that I had come across when I was writing my novel, A Moon Garden. When I saw the painting, I was captivated. The artist had masterfully captured the essence of a young, confident, strong, and beautiful young man.
It was difficult to find out anything about this soldier, and I realized that the novel was going to have to wait. It had become my mission to uncover this man’s story and tell it. After researching for a year, I began writing. My pursuit of information was ongoing throughout the year that it took to complete the written chronology of the life of this inspiring man. When I was nearly finished, I became sad. As I wrote the last lines, I cried.
A friend recognized my symptoms. She laughed at me and said, “You did this last time too.”
“When I wrote A Moon Garden?”
“You got very emotional.”
I did. Writing the novel was a psychological journey. The main character was constantly faced with challenges and crises in matters of war, love, family, and community. As I wrote his story, I felt his worries, his joys, his internal conflicts. I would listen to arias while working at my desk and suddenly find myself weeping. But that was separate from what I experienced when I finished writing the book. A different kind of sadness enveloped me.
While I felt the thrill of accomplishment, I also had a sense of loss. After spending over a year researching and writing about my fictional characters, I had a strong attachment to them. Although I was glad at last to be able to share the story with my readers, it was an adjustment to let go and change my priorities. That is how I feel now about this soldier. For two years, I was singularly absorbed in connecting with him, discovering who he was, what he did, where he went, how he thought, why he made his choices. It is a relief to know that his story is closer to being known.
For a few minutes, I indulged in some crying time. The mood has passed. I still have work to do.
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Buying books is one of the pleasures of doing research. Of course I use digital resources, and visit libraries and archives, but sometimes there is a book that I want to hold in my hands and refer to over and over again. As I delved into the history of colonial America and Georgian England for background to my novel A Moon Garden, my personal library expanded a bit. The social, industrial, and geo-political transformations of the late 18th century intrigue me, and I am currently writing the biography of a British general who lived and died during this time. My quest for books about this period continues.
Recently I acquired The Story of the London Parks by Jacob Larwood. It was published in London and has no copyright date. There is, however, a hand-written inscription inside the front endpaper, indicating it was a New Year’s gift to Mrs. Goodings in 1888.
It’s a beautiful book, which includes several illustrations, including some in color. It is in remarkably good shape, thanks to the fact that it has never been read. This is apparent, because the pages must have been printed two-up or four-up, and they were not trimmed. Many of the pages would have to be cut apart in order flip through them. I prefer to leave the book the way it has been for over 130 years.
My knowledge of book printing and binding techniques of the 19th century is very limited. If anyone reading this can provide an explanation, please feel free to leave your comments.
I wonder if Mrs. Goodings’ admirer ever asked her opinion of the book. What would she have said?
A Moon Garden – Amazon UK