Wednesday 13 December 2017

Jacqueline Riding's 'Jacobites: A New History of the '45 Rebellion' at the Dr Johnson Book Club

Two days (and a couple of hundred years) after the Jacobite army of 1745 reached Derby, the Dr Johnson Book Group reached the 2nd floor of Gough Square. We were there to discuss ‘Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion’, a dense 600-odd pages about 18 months that failed to change the world. Even better, we were joined by the author, Jacqueline Riding.

The best thing about having a book group with the author, is the ability to sound out the author on their aim for the book and how they did it. This is especially good as there is an astonishingly large amount of material marshalled and organised within ‘Jacobites’.

The aim was to write ‘to the moment’ (as Richardson’s phrase has it). Riding spent hours going through the Stuart papers, including those included in Cumberland’s records. These papers include many letters, each bringing little parts of the fragmented story, my particular favourites being the letters from Old to Young Pretenders which are full of love and hope. We also learnt that rooting through these papers in Windsor Castle, Jacqueline Riding was mistaken for the Queen by various groups of people who cheered whenever she passed the library window.

Another aim of the book was to let the characters ‘hang themselves by their own words’. Orders from the Jacobite army to give no quarter, letters from poor Highlanders having their lives threatened and homes burned by either Jacobite or British armies and spies passing on information, misinformation and other such stuff. The people get to talk for themselves and they are all more real, conflicted and nuanced than our usual myths. 

Another point was to emphasise that Cumberland’s troops were British army and not Government army. Indeed, the Jacobites seem to be have been regarded as an invasion by most of the towns that received them. Even supposedly Jacobite towns like Manchester seem to have accepted the army out of surprise and lack of planning then any real loyalty to the cause.

Finally, there is the shock of realising that pretty much everyone involved in the ’45 rebellion were 25 years old. Riding described herself was delighted when she found the portrait that graces the cover of the book. Instead of the baby-faced, bonnet-clad, bonnie laddy, the cover shows an actual man. of great surprise was that Charles Stuart was actually older than Cumberland, who had his 25th birthday during the campaign.

Other things we talked about were how the British Army was used to marching around flat Flanders and had a great deal of difficulty with the damp of hills of Britain - and parading straight into the unknown, alien world of Scotland. We also discussed the importance of shoes. An army may march on its stomach but it still needs shoes and the Jacobite army frequently abandoned whatever they were doing to load up on decent footwear.  

Then there was the dressing up. In an age when the King of France went to a party dressed as a yew tree, dressing up was a way of life. Charles wore many disguises; from a priest, to a maidservant as well as his frequent adopting of Highland and Lowland guises. At the end of his ‘adventures’, with his hair growing long and ginger, wrapped in some genuine plaid - it was almost as if he was no longer pretending.

For many, whose idea of the ’45 begins and ends with the Skye Boat Song (incidentally written by an Englishman) this book is a good exploder of fanciful myths, dealt as even-handedly as such a topic could be. For those who wanted to retain a bit of the romance, we ended the session with a glass of Drambuie and a toast to the King over the sea.

The book was full, complex and fascinating and so was the discussion. Jacqueline Riding is working on another complicated issue, the massacre of Peterloo, if that is as nuanced as this one, it should be another great read.

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