Launch: Gareth Williams’ Rescuing Richard

INTERVIEW BY KATHERINE MEZZACAPPA

Gareth Williams is a Cambridge-trained historian who retired from teaching to write novels on the Isle of Skye. Since then, he has written five books spanning two thousand years of history. He is currently working on a fictionalised biography of a late eighteenth-century adventurer who once declared war on Spain! Katherine Mezzacappa interviews him about his latest novel.

How would you describe the themes of Rescuing Richard in a couple of sentences – an elevator pitch?

It’s the third book of the Richard Davey Chronicles. Its British protagonist, adrift after the Battle of Waterloo, goes into exile with Napoleon to Saint Helena, and helps him escape to Africa where they enter the service of Shaka, ruler of the Zulu Kingdom, in what is now South Africa. Richard has time-travelled from being a history teacher in early twentieth-century England. In this third book, he has come to terms with having to live the rest of his life in exile, not just from England, but from the time into which he was born.

You chose to write alternate history with this book and its two predecessors, yet your research regarding historical detail is more thorough than in many conventional historical novels I have read. Why did you make that choice?

Around the turn of the millennium, there was a serious historical movement that argued for ‘what if’ or counterfactual history, based on the solid academic argument that historians cannot understand what happened in the past unless they also think about what didn’t happen. For many years I was a history teacher and I always enjoyed that ‘what if?’ question. I’d say I write adventure yarns rather than high literature, as I enjoy the imaginative freedom that gives me to consider how things might have panned out. Napoleon didn’t escape Saint Helena, that tiny speck on a globe, but Africa is the closest landmass, so logically that’s where he would have gone had he done so. In my novels he does go there, so as a writer I am under an obligation to get the detail right about what could have been a realistic possibility. It was whilst Napoleon was on Saint Helena that Shaka Zulu began to build his tiny clan into an empire whose influence reached  a quarter of the African continent – so the parallels with Napoleon’s ambitions and achievement are evident, and to me as a novelist irresistible.

What was the inspiration for you to set your book in this location and time?

As a small boy, I lived in South Africa, returning to the United Kingdom aged six, so my earliest memories are of that beautiful country. At Cambridge I studied as much African history as I could. Later, teaching the fall of apartheid to my history class was a great professional and personal satisfaction. I care deeply about that part of the world, so much so that the area appears almost as a character in this book. My father’s library contained many biographies of major Black leaders, including Shaka Zulu. His story, and that of the tribal leaders who opposed him, gripped my imagination from the age of twelve.

We have a hero who is in effect a time traveller, who can observe his surroundings through two viewpoints: that of the early nineteenth century and two centuries later. Is this because there is something of you in Richard – the person who wishes he could time-travel but isn’t unaware of the disadvantages of living in that time?

Twenty-first-century Richard is a depressed history teacher and an orphan without dependents of his own. I was very happy as a history teacher, and I have all the close family ties he is denied, but there is something of me in Richard. I have always felt an empathy for this period, whilst knowing that going there would mean giving up on access to modern medicine, for one. In a sense, for Richard I channelled all the things that can sabotage a teaching career and drive someone to take refuge in the past. You could argue that Richard is my own alternate history, a bit of me living a fantasy life.

I got a feeling that in this book you wanted to in some way redress the balance. The colonial alibi is that the invaders bring ‘civilisation’, whatever that is, and modernity. Yet Richard’s toothache is very effectively dealt with by local medicine – and his Zulu wife, despite their regular Christian marriage, would be regarded as unpresentable back in London. Could you say more about that?  

Colonial history has always been an interest of mine, I am ambivalent about the apologist movement for colonial history, but reluctant to rewrite it; instead we have to acknowledge what happened, for instance in the thoughtless carving up of Africa with no regard to natural boundaries or entities. Read a 1960s history of South Africa and you’d think only white people were found there. But even now, mention Napoleon and everyone has heard of him. Mention Shaka Zulu and you’ll often be met with blank looks. He was monstrous at the end, killing thousands of his people for not crying enough when his mother died, yet the Zulu Nation endures as a major part of South Africa because of his influence.

Richard feels an admiration for Napoleon, even if he might feel he shouldn’t. Who, other than your main characters, have you warmed to in the process of getting them down on the page?

I am quite fond of Emile, captain of the Napoleonic guard who ends up serving in Shaka’s army. I want to come back to him in the fourth book. The clergyman who performs Richard’s marriage ceremony in this book was disgraceful in the second volume of the trilogy, epitomising everything that was wrong with colonial power but in Rescuing Richard he experiences an epiphany and is redeemed.

Rescuing Richard is the third in the Richard Davey chronicles. Will there be more?

Yes. My intention is to take Richard to America and have him engage with some of Napoleon’s relatives in exile – one of whose descendants became United States Attorney General.

A final question: what is the last great book you read – author and book title?

Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call my Name.

 


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