Friday, 26 June 2015

The truth behind Jack Lark

Time to put Waterloo behind us and turn to another battle, later in the 19th century.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Paul Fraser Collard’s novel, ‘The Scarlet Thief’ which tells the story of the Battle of the Alma in the Crimean War (1854). It’s told from the point of view of Jack Lark, a common soldier, who has stolen the identity of an officer and now finds himself leading a company against Russian troops. I looked at some other reviews and saw that many people were uncomfortable with the central idea that a regular soldier could pass himself off in this way. It's an interesting question for two reasons.

Firstly there's the whole issue of how realistic fiction needs to be. I have had criticism of ’The White Rajah’ on the grounds that my narrator, like Paul Collard’s hero, is unrealistic, because an illiterate sailor could not have learned to express himself so well on paper. But both Paul and I are using our character as a sort of "Everyman" to allow more insight into the events they are describing. It's a well-established technique in fiction where, strange to say, not everything the author writes is absolutely true. That, after all, is what fiction is.

Secondly, and rather importantly, it's not always clear that these "unrealistic" characters are all that unrealistic at all. I had that problem in ‘Cawnpore’ where my European protagonist disguises himself as an Indian. It is, as I’ve explained on this blog, not nearly as unlikely as some critics claim. Today, though, I’m handing over to Paul Collard to explain why Jack Lark isn't necessarily as unrealistic as you might think.

The Epaulette Gentry

Jack Lark is an imposter. I make no bones about it. He steals other lives, taking them as his own, and these assumed identities plunge him into adventures that he could never have dreamt of experiencing when he was just an ordinary redcoat serving on garrison duty in a quiet English town.
To some the notion of such an imposter is mere twaddle, the premise so wholly unlikely that Jack’s stories are just not credible. I do not agree with this accusation. For one, it plays to stereotypes, something that I do not like one bit. It assumes that all officers of the period were highly educated gentlemen from a world unrecognisable from that lived in by the men under their command. It also assumes that the men in the ranks, the fabled British redcoats, were uneducated brutes, who had no idea how to pass the port, or how to talk about fox hunting, or any of the other things that a stereotypical upper class officer would clearly have talked about at all times.

The Battle of the Alma

Neither of these two assumptions is necessarily true. I worked hard on Jack’s story, taking the time, and thought, to give him the skills he would need to succeed as an imposter. I am happy to say this part of Jack’s story now forms a central part of the three short stories that are being published alongside the main series, and it was a real treat to be able to show more of where my Scarlet Thief came from.
You see, not every redcoat was an uneducated ruffian, and rudimentary reading and writing skills were more common than some may imagine. Around one in six redcoats were literate, a number shocking by today’s standards, but not perhaps, as scarce as the stereotype requires. These skills were essential for any redcoat looking to progress up the ranks, and many regiments actively encouraged their acquisition. It would be true to say that the education of the men in the ranks was largely dependant on the mindset of the regiment’s colonel, but many regiments had libraries, albeit stocked by the colonel himself and likely to reflect his thoughts on what was suitable for his men. Soldiers deemed worthy were given the chance to use these facilities to acquire the clerking skills they would need to progress to a higher rank, but there would often be an older soldier happy to help in their education that could be as broad as many found in a school of the period. Many redcoats would have become quite as educated as their officers.
We should also consider what manner of man became a British army officer at the time Jack carries off his scandalous imposture. Would they really be cut from such a different cloth from the men they commanded, that a ranker pretending to be an officer would really be as noticeable as a peacock in a henhouse? We must remember that this is the period where no qualification was required to become an officer, and there was no formal military training provided outside of that given by a new officer’s regiment. Quite simply, if you could afford to buy your first commission then that was deemed the only qualification needed.
It is true that a number of officers would hail from the upper classes, especially those who purchased commissions in the fashionable guard and cavalry regiments. But what about those regiments with a little less dash, those humble line regiments that came from the counties of Britain? Many of these regiments were officered by the epaulette gentry; men from respectable enough backgrounds, but for whom their purchased commission was really their only evidence of belonging to some notion of gentry. Such men hailed from a world surprisingly close to that inhabited by some of the men they would command.
I believe that these younger sons of country squires, clergymen or successful tradesmen, would not be so vastly different to a man with a keen mind and the brains to use his time in the regimental library to acquire some degree of learning. In such company Jack would hardly have stood out, his time as an officer’s orderly giving him an insight into the officers’ world and the opportunity to learn, and then ape, their ways.
He is given time to practice his imposture, the long journey to the Crimea offering him the opportunity to play his assumed role in the company of his fellow travellers, but not in the familiar setting of an officer’s mess where perhaps his deception would be revealed all too quickly. Once in the Crimea, there is little time for any to doubt him, the start of the campaign against the Russian Empire consuming every officer’s energy, and surely enough of a distraction to let them put aside any concerns about a fellow officers manners or accent. In battle, social distinction means nothing, and Jack’s true talent as an officer comes to the fore. It is there that he demonstrates the courage and leadership that his men need so desperately in the maelstrom of battle.
So perhaps he does stand out after all. He is a fighter and a leader of men, traits rare in any period of history. His education may be lacking in parts, but he has the vital ingredients that any officer requires.
For me, and for my story, that is enough.

Paul Collard

Paul's love of military history started at an early age. A childhood spent watching films like Waterloo and Zulu whilst reading Sharpe, Flashman and the occasional Commando comic, gave him a desire to know more of the men who fought in the great wars of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. At school, Paul was determined to become an officer in the British army and he succeeded in winning an Army Scholarship. However, Paul chose to give up his boyhood ambition and instead went into the finance industry. Paul stills works in the City, and lives with his wife and three children in Kent.

1 comment:

  1. As a fellow historical novelist (1860 period), I do slightly despair at the 'it's not realistic' crew. No, it's fiction! And as long as the background research is impeccable, whatever is imagined, holds. Reading Wilkie Collins, or Dickens, the improbabilities of characters hiding some aspect of their identities never seemed to bother their authors. And, to change genres, the likelihood of a young impressionable woman succumbing to the sado-masochistic charms of an older man doesn't seem to perplex many readers of the ubiquitous 50 shades. Nor the sudden appearance of Platform 8 3/4 ..or wherever it was that Harry Potter set off for Hogwarts.