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Violence In Historical Novels, by Julian Stockwin

The question of violence comes down to your philosophy of writing and how true you are determined to be to the historical record. Personally, I find writing scenes of violence not particularly easy but they are part of the Georgian era, a time much more colourful in many respects than the world we live in today.

I will never have gratuitous violence in my books but I don’t shirk from it if I feel it’s necessary to the story. In my very first book I have graphic details of my hero being flogged with the cat of nine tails.

The thing I believe important to get right is historical balance, while still telling a good tale. It was quite true that there were cases of sadistic cruelty which sometimes drove the men over the edge into bloody mutiny. I think of HMS Hermione under Capt Pigot; his torments resulted in the rising of his crew, his own savage death at the point of a cutlass and the insane hunting down of his officers one by one. The ship was carried over to the Spanish and her later daring recapture by boats does nothing to lessen the original horror. There was the Danae which was carried over to the French by the mutineers, and of course everyone has heard of the mutiny on the Bounty.

But for every bloody mutiny there was a case of the opposite; there are several instances of a ship’s company contributing their hardwon coin for a presentation of silver plate to a popular captain. Most were in the middle; the officers realised in manmanagement terms that it was more productive to treat reasonably the men that were going to fight the ship for them.

Battle scenes are by necessity pretty gory. During the period I write about there were great fleet actions that have gone down in history – the Battle of the Nile, the Glorious First of June, Trafalgar – and others. Truly horrific wounds were sustained from cannon fire, musket shot, sword, pike and cutlass. And for those who did not die immediately there was the hell of the orlop, where surgeons amputated limbs without any form of anaesthetic.

Sometimes ships exploded in violent conflagrations, as did the French flagship “L’Orient” at the Battle of the Nile. Horrendous burns and mutilations resulted; first-hand accounts tell of hundreds of charred mangled corpses floating on the water.

But again, it is a question of balance. A surprising proportion of sailors during the French wars never experienced the horrors of battle. They remained on blockade duty, or patrolled the sea lanes, keeping the French from invading England. In fact many more seamen died of disease and shipboard injuries than at the hand of the enemy.

It was a tough life by our modern standards but for the common man life at sea was in general far better than conditions on the land gave rise to.  A sailor got three meals a day, as well as a rum ration. He travelled the world and saw sights denied the stay-at-home and if good luck came his way he could earn enough in prize money to set himself up in perhaps a small business.


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Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I was interested you find violence difficult as so do I. Maybe because I have little personal experience and make a conscious effort to avoid glorification, but I think partly because writing from an individual participant’s POV my gut feeling is he could not afford to consider his actions in gory detail – that might be too affecting.

    Nice post 🙂

    February 14, 2013

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