It wasn’t easy to see historian David Crane at the Edinburgh Book Festival this week. The Garden Theater was filled to capacity with fans eager to hear the Samuel Johnson Prize shortlisted author speak on the 200-year-old Battle of Waterloo. “Who knew this birthday party would be so crowded?” I joked to the woman next to me; she smiled but shifted just a little.
The author, however, made it worthwhile. With infectious energy, Crane jumps from point to point, quoting the era’s artists, politicians, historians, soldiers, schoolboys, convicts and poets—drawing information from every class—all to find the time’s most revelatory tales.
Seemingly electrified by this history, Crane speaks almost without pauses, gesticulating passionately, always circling and engaging his greater themes. The audience listened as if the battle were being fought today, rather than two centuries past. “Whoa, I feel like one of the students in Dead Poets Society!” I told my neighbor. She turned away a little more but that was fine. I had to prepare for the Q&A anyway.
David Crane: It’s a portrait of the Britain that fought Waterloo, and the Britain that emerged from Waterloo. What I’ve tried to do is, by switching from the battlefield to the home front, as it were, from Belgium to Britain, to bring in single focus all the lives that were involved in Waterloo and the consequences of the battle, and the victory for the country that had fought it.
BH: You said earlier that there’s “no battle quite like it.”
DC: I don’t think so!
BH: Just because of the savagery? Its effect on history?
DC: There’s no battle quite like it in one important sense, and that is both before and, I suspect, since: There has never been such concentration of men in so small a space. During the Napoleonic wars there were far bigger battles than Waterloo, such as Leipzig, the Battle of the Nations, in 1813. But the extraordinary thing about Waterloo is that it was fought over so small a geographical area of ground…. If you imagine the crowd debouching from a football stadium on one side of the valley and another crowd the same size on the other side, the Prussians arriving. So there are something like 250,000 men in a space probably two and a half miles by one.
BH: With what? Like, 50,000…bodies?
DC: At the end of it?
DC: It’s impossible to actually compute the casualties accurately because there are no returns for the French dead. The allies were probably...compared with, say, the first World War, the actual deaths were negligible. As a percentage of soldiers who fought, the incidents of death or wounding were very high, but probably you could round it to forty, fifty thousand by the end of the day. Because the French probably lost something like 30,000 men. And for them, the battle continued through the night as the Prussians followed them in what was known as sort of the moonlight hunt.
BH: I loved something you said about how everyday life and its concerns keep going on during wartime—schoolboys worry over sports, etc.—but I don’t feel like most historians concentrate on that.
DC: Well, big history, in a sense, is much more seductive than small history for historians. There are two ways of looking at it. When I found myself dealing with the material I had brought together—what to do with it? What I was looking for, as I said, were events that seem to have some kind of significance. So if I was looking, say, at the west coast of Scotland on that day, you’d be looking for some incidence, some event, that would suggest the way the Scottish highlands would be going. If you’re looking at, say, Newgate prison—who was in the death cells? There were 21 people in the death cells! You’re looking for the case that actually would spark off significant changes in the way we approach justice.
BH: “Stories that carry a seed of the future”? [A line from the his speech earlier.]
DC: Yes, yes, exactly. [laughs]
BH: You seem to reference so many disparate sources. Letters, diaries, and documents—even Abba, Victor Hugo, and the Daily Mail! What makes something stand out? That sense of representing both the past and the future of that liminal period?
DC: In a sense, one is a victim of one’s research in that, you know, for every story one has, there are a thousand one doesn’t even know one doesn’t even know. And the moment you take one story, you in a sense close down other avenues. For instance, there were two girls on the island of Harris, off the west coast of Scotland, who were both about to be tried for the crime of infanticide. One suggests passive misery, which captures the popular imagination, the highland clearances. A story of such sadness! The other is a story of anger and rage, and you can’t have both stories. You can’t have two infanticides. And in the act of choosing, you’re not falsifying history, but you are, in a sense, weighing it, and, um…
DC: Yes, yes, I hadn’t thought of that as a word, but, yeah, you’re shaping it in a way that I’m not always easy about. I look at some of the things I’ve written and think, "Well, that is true, but you could say a very different line and that would be true as well." But you’re dealing with a country of 13 million! You can’t expect that line to be either single or clear.
BH: I liked the nuanced way you spoke about how the battle had these unifying effects—people finally thought of the army as “our army” and the submerging, though not blurring, of the class distinctions—but at the same time, you note this wasn’t a win for the common man’s rights. So it’s a mixed bag, right?
DC: It’s certainly a mixed bag. I mean, even in terms of Britain itself, and this is something I didn’t get around to talking about, I think it was anything but a mixed bag! I think it heralded in a mini-ice age of political repression and conservatism that took decades to erode. Because one of the ingredients of the kind of national pride that the country felt in victory was—it was also a kind of anesthetic, I think, for that great swath of the population who didn’t actually share in the spoils of victory, i.e., a huge proportion of it, the sense of Britishness offered a kind of balm. A compensation for the lack of political rights that persisted right through for the next 50 years, with the Duke of Wellington doing all he could probably to oppose them.
BH: Maybe I’m being a dumb Yank, but I’m not sure most Brits have that shades-of-grey point of view about the battle.
DC: Well, I think if they don’t, they should! Possibly, you know, with the 200th anniversary this is a time for national self-glorification rather than breast-beating.
One of the strange things about doing the research, particularly with women in prison, women waiting for sentences of death, waiting for execution, is just a sense of anger. A sense of the appalling injustice that was being meted out to their own people. You know, Benjamin Hayden, the painter, said, "These people have fought for 20 years! Why doesn’t the government trust them? Why does it now turn on their own people?" And it’s a point that cannot be ignored.
BH: Last question: You said Jane Austen somewhat downplayed the effects the wars had on people at the time. Didn’t she have a couple brothers who were officers? What was her problem?
DC: I don’t think the problem was Jane Austen. I think it was Jane Austen’s readers. That actually, Jane Austen’s books are filled…there’s not a little two-piece of Ivory that she speaks of that doesn’t carry a scratch. Both from the French Revolution onwards, her life, her family was cognizant of everything going on and touched by it. It’s just that…
BH: The genre didn’t…?
DC: The genre—it boils down to Wickham wearing his uniform. And the Bennet sisters, you know, falling for chaps in uniform. But you know, it’s wrong to blame Jane Austen!
BH: Well, she had to make choices too.
DC: She did! She did! And she made the right ones!