It’s a funny thing, writing a book. You spend months doing the research, you write it, revise it, polish it – and submit it to the publishers. But by the time it comes out – perhaps a whole year later – you have moved on and can hardly remember a thing about it!
So it is with my latest title, Trailblazing Georgians – The Unsung Men Who Helped Shape the Modern World. It is due out this month, from Pen & Sword. I had originally planned it some years ago, but held back from writing it because it was exclusively about men, and I knew I would get stick at the implication that there were no female trail-blazers! The answer? Write one first, exclusively about women. But whereas Trailblazing Women of the Georgian era – subtitled The Eighteenth Century struggle for female success in a man’s world – dealt with the inequalities and injustices faced by women 250 years ago, my new book looks instead at the men who have had a raw deal.
I have always been fascinated by our pre-occupation with fame – and the way fame wraps its tentacles around the most un-deserving of victims. Think of all those Reality TV shows and the Z-list celebrities which they have spawned. Think of the footballers wives who have done absolutely nothing to deserve endless column inches in the Press. But equally think back to the eighteenth century, and the way that fame has shone a spotlight on one individual – and left the guy next in line in total darkness. I have in mind especially William Wilberforce, rightly recognized as the mouthpiece of the abolition movement. Yet he owed his success to others – and to the fact that the movement needed an MP – and WW just happened to have bought a seat in Parliament, corruptly, some years before. This most indecisive and hesitant of characters had to be cajoled and pushed into speaking out in the House of Commons by a variety of supporters, and one of them was Thomas Clarkson. He spent his entire life touring the country, campaigning, and getting the public to sign petitions against slavery. Yet when the family of WW wrote up his story they barely mentioned Clarkson, attributing much of the hard work behind the success to Wilberforce alone. WW became a hero, buried in great pomp in Westminster Abbey when he died, whereas Clarkson was buried in a decidedly low-key ceremony in his local parish church, attended by a few dozen supporters. In my mind, Clarkson was the architect of abolition, not Wilberforce.
There are a host of other unsung heroes – men like Thomas Highs, who saw his ideas for a spinning frame poached by Richard Arkwright. Arkwright grabbed the fame, accepted the knighthood and pocketed the fortune – even though the patents taken out in his name were eventually set aside – and when he died he left a fortune of half a million pounds. Highs died a pauper, having survived off handouts from the parish. There are dozens of other similar cases of fame being allocated capriciously, and my job was to whittle the list down to around thirty ‘unsung heroes’ who I feel should get a spell under the spotlight. They come from all walks of life – engineers, industrialists, artists, religious leaders, thinkers and entertainers. I wanted to show that the Georgian era was more than just about James Watt, or Josiah Wedgwood. That the guy who came up with the idea of silver-plating copper to produce Sheffield plate had just as much a dramatic effect on meeting middle class aspirations as anyone else. That credit should be given to the man who invented the lawnmower, thereby enabling millions of us to have expanses of green grass alongside our houses. And that the art world should be regarded as being more than just about Reynolds and Gainsborough.
So, I will enjoy reminding myself of the Trailblazing Georgians when it comes out in the next few days – I have yet to see my author’s copy. I hope it interests others – it is meant to be rather more than a second eleven of Georgian Greats. Maudslay, Smeaton, Astley and Baskerville are all worthy of inclusion, along with Dr Gill and Erasmus Darwin. The invention of the washing machine – and the sextant – are just as significant as any number of better-known discoveries. And where would we be without costume jewellery (courtesy of Mr Pinchbeck) or willow-pattern dinner services (Josiah Spode) or prison reformers (John Howard)? These men all influenced the modern world with their ideas and inventions.
Others may have their own choices, and I am sorry if I missed off people’s favourites. But isn’t that the great thing about being a writer – you get to make your own choices!
Post script: Another book from me is due out later this year from Pen & Sword books – Sex and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (part of a series – the one on the Victorian era is just about to come out – give it a read). And I’m about to start on a book about whores, harlots and mistresses – the fashionistas of the eighteenth century. After that? Well, I might just stop – and concentrate on this blog which I have sadly neglected over the last few months. Sorry about that – I’ve spent several months in South America having a whale of a time and I’m still catching my breath!