My father had no sons. What he did have were four daughters – and just across the road, eight hundred and fifty boys. He was Headmaster of Christ’s Hospital, the first and oldest Bluecoat School in the UK.
That’s where it all began for me. I grew up round boys who weren’t my brothers, and was able to get an unusual view of what men are like when women aren’t around. I learned about their insecurities, their courage, their constant need to prove themselves. I saw their easy physicality with each other, the fights and embraces, the competitive friendships that were curiously like love.
I probably understood none of it, but the old fascination bubbled quickly to the fore when I became a writer. My novels are all set in the traditionally male world of war, but although they’re full of action it’s always been the characters and relationships that interest me most. It was the characters that led me into the Crimea, and the ‘Valley of Death’ where the Light Brigade charged.
It started when I watched a repeat of the 1968 film, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. David Hemmings made Captain Nolan every bit as gorgeous as I remembered him, but the film itself never engaged me. It was witty and satirical, it made all the right political points about the nationalistic stupidity of the war – but for me it had no heart. I didn’t even cry at the end. I wanted to scream at the screen ‘What about the people? Shouldn’t we care?’
So of course I had to write it – or rather my own story set in that situation. My hero had been brooding in my mind for some years already (and boy, can that man brood!) but with the Crimea I knew I’d finally found his setting. He’s young and bitter, a junior officer compelled by his father’s disgrace and suicide to serve as a humble ranker, and what better place to put him than in a war famous for the incompetence of its commanders and the heroism of its soldiers? Harry Ryder landed in the Crimea as if he was born to be there – which in a way, of course, he was.
The others were already there, and each in their way grew out of the setting. Ryder was always going to attract women, and history had placed them on the spot in the person of the soldier’s wives who accompanied their men to the Crimea. There was nothing fragile about the women who survived those hardships, and I knew from the start that Sally would prove at least as brave as my men. I found her in a Roger Fenton photograph taken at one of the camps in 1855, and it was the same source that gave me my other principals. The smart Grenadier Guards, destined to be reduced to desperate and ragged brigands, gave me the character of Dennis Woodall, pompous, self-obsessed, and unutterably lonely. The savage Highlanders gave me Niall Mackenzie, the gentle stalker from Strathcarron who turns out to have the fighting spirit of a berserker Viking. The young cavalrymen who charged without question to what looked like certain death gave me Charlie ‘Polly’ Oliver, the idealistic schoolboy desperate to ‘do his bit’. I knew ‘Polly’ better than any of them, because his roots were in my past. The school he went to was Christ’s Hospital.
I still needed a plot, but that landed on my desk on the very first day. I’d ordered a first batch of books and expected to face many months of trawling before I got the seed of an idea, but while I was waiting I had a quick skim through Wikipedia to remind myself of the overview. I started with the Battle of the Alma, and there it was, staring me in the face: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Alma . This is a basic account, of doubtful accuracy in some details, but there’s something on that page that would get the antennae of any writer twitching. I’m not saying what it is, but I’d bet that any other writer reading this will spot it immediately. Something there is very odd indeed…
And it turned out to be true. The more I researched, the more I found that mysteriously repeated incident at the Alma was only the tip of a very large iceberg. There was a story there all right – and one that had never been told. So I told it, Penguin liked it, and ‘Into the Valley of Death’ came out on 10th of May.
But the trouble with inspiration is that it just doesn’t know where to stop. I’m in the middle of my next novel right now – and that too is set in the Crimea, with a young and brooding hero called Harry Ryder…
To buy ‘Into the Valley of Death’ on Amazon:Louise's website: http://www.louiseberridge.com