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Martyn Downer talks about his book Nelson

Admiral Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton...

READERSVOICE.COM: I liked the details of life, buildings, streets, in London in the early 1770s when Alexander Davison worked at Hunter and Baileys’ trading company, and of places like Quebec in 1773. What sources do you go to when researching the appearance of towns from hundreds of years ago, and bringing them to life?
MARTYN DOWNER: The best sources are obviously contemporary diaries, journals and letters supported by later secondary sources.
I loved the idea of re-building the vanished world of the eighteenth century and, using these documentary tools, I make no excuse for exercising my imagination to complete the picture.
RV: Nelson’s Purse encompasses many historic trends and events. Also, characters like Nelson are real and believable rather than just gods of history. Do you think history is best taught as the background to personal lives?
MD: Yes, history is the story of countless individual lives – Nelson’s Purse is simply an account of a handful of them.
The figure of Nelson inevitably dominates the book although I have tried to present him through the eyes of those people closest to him each of whom, in their own way, loved him.
Unlike many previous biographers of Nelson, I didn’t approach him with starry-eyed respect nor from a naval history background.
This freedom, I think, has helped me to see him simply as a human being living through extraordinary times.
One, moreover, who demonstrated many familiar human failings including those of pride, deceit and greed alongside his supernatural bravery and magnetic charisma.

Nevertheless a full appreciation of history does require an understanding of social and political themes (and significent dates!) within which to weave a convincing personal narrative.

RV: Why is it that Sir William Hamilton and Nelson seemed to be on such good terms given the relationship between Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton?
MD: Sir William Hamilton was thirty years older than his wife (who was originally the discarded mistress of his nephew) and, I believe, viewed her great beauty in much the same way as he did any work of art in his extensive collection of paintings and antiquities.
He may have viewed Nelson’s love for Emma as the ultimate accolade for an object in his possession.
His morals had also been relaxed by his years as Ambassador in the loose-living court of the king of Naples.
In any event he could either put up with the affair by turning a blind eye to it – as he did – or challenge it and risk losing Emma altogether which, to a man of advanced age demanding affection and care, was an unattractive prospect.
Regardless of his status as a cuckold, Sir William held Nelson in genuine affection viewing him perhaps as the son he never had and taking great pleasure in his achievements.
It would be wrong for us to judge this complicated and cultured man in the light of our own experience.
RV: The world of the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century seemed to be very much like the modern world, with global trade and many nations connected, and parliamentary committees investigating corruption. Do you think there was much difference from the modern world other than speed of transport and communications?

MD: One of the most rewarding, and unexpected, aspects of tracing Davison’s life was having to submerge myself in the colourful world of the eighteenth century merchant.
I was astonished at how cosmopolitan and well-travelled Davison and his fellow merchants were.

For a time in the 1780’s, Davison essentially commuted between his offices in the City of London and Quebec, enduring the hazardous two- month transatlantic voyage two or three times a year.
Trade made Davison the man he was: ambitious, efficient, occasionally ruthless and very, very rich; and yet, at first, I had feared that writing about this important part of his life might be boring – not least for the reader.
However, I quickly became caught up in his precarious world where fortunes were quickly made and, as quickly, lost and found it absolutely intriguing, not least because of the many parallels to our own world.
A modern reader overwhelmed by technology will still recognise much of the commercial and political skullduggery of the eighteenth century.
Davison is often compared to a latter day fraudster and crook although in the book I take a far more sympathetic view of him, indeed I must admit that I find him more attractive as an individual than his celebrated friend.
RV: What plans for other projects do you have? Is a film version a possibility?
MD: I am just embarking on an account of the personal life of Queen Victoria seen, as with Nelson in Nelson’s Purse, through the eyes of one of her previously disregarded confidants.
All being well this next book should appear in late 2006/7. There are no plans (yet) to adapt Nelson’s Purse for the screen (though it would be great!) – any takers?
-by Simon Sandall