How can an author find empathy in a historical figure who is necessary to their story, but whose ‘dark character’ we look back on with distaste? Diana Preston tells Historia how she found a way to write about Robert Clive ‘of India’ in all his complexity.
The decision to write a novel centring on Robert Clive and his time in India with Britain’s East India Company up to and including the Battle of Plassey in 1757 wasn’t obvious to us. Under our pseudonym Alex Rutherford, my partner and I had already completed a sextet of historical novels about the early Moghul emperors of India. The series – currently being filmed by HotStar/Disney+ – begins in the 15th century with Babur, the opportunistic descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, and ends in the early 18th century with the austere, religious Aurangzeb.
The first six Moghul emperors are a novelist’s gift – a well-documented, thoroughly dysfunctional dynasty. The Moghuls’s mantra – carried with them like their tandor ovens to India from the Asian steppes – was ‘throne or coffin’. In each generation fathers, brothers, uncles, nephews and cousins contended for power. Moghul women also exercised great political influence sometimes, like the Empress Nur Jahan, emerging from behind the veil to do so.
However, by the early 18th century the Moghul dynasty was in Rome-like decline, its warrior vigour dissipated. Finding stories sufficiently compelling to carry our series forward was, we found, tricky. We also realised we were more interested in the unscrupulous Europeans – primarily British and French, but also Dutch and Portuguese, seeking to exploit the Moghuls’s weakness to their own advantage in the subcontinent – than in the emperors themselves.
We therefore decided to write a trilogy of novels about the rise in India of a new type of empire, commercial not Moghul. The first, Fortune’s Soldier, opens in the 1740s, a period when war between Britain and France in Europe ignited conflict between them in India where they were commercial rivals, sparking events that shook the subcontinent and brought great opportunity to the privileged and ambitious but misery to others.
Robert Clive was one of those who recognised and exploited his chances. In so doing he became many things – a daring young military leader hailed by Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder as “the heaven-born general”, but also the British East India Company grandee whose unscrupulous and unashamed determination to enrich himself caused contemporaries in India and in Britain to damn him for corruption and much else. His own letters reveal the extent of his venality. To his father he wrote: “I shall let no opportunity slip of improving myself in everything where I can have the least view of profit.”
Our concern was not whether Clive was interesting enough to write about but whether in his dark character we would find facets that readers today could empathise with. The ruthlessly ambitious, egotistical Clive indeed used India as a golden goose. Though tasked with cleansing the Company of corruption, he almost certainly indulged in what we today would call ‘insider stock trading’.
His personal fortune when he finally returned to Britain was estimated at a magnificent £400,000. Cross-examined during a Parliamentary inquiry about whether he had presided over a corrupt administration, his famously airy response was: “I stand astonished at my own moderation”. Somewhat surprisingly, a vote to censure him failed.
Our solution was to portray Clive through the eyes of another – in this case fictional – character, Nicholas Ballantyne, whom he befriends on the ship carrying both to India to work for the East India Company. In Nicholas we created a young Scot of Clive’s own age, an exile despatched to India by his uncle in advance of the 1745 Jacobite Rising – the actions of the Hanoverians in the Scottish Highlands throw up interesting parallels to events in India.
We were helped by discovering that Clive valued friendship. He wrote that: “If there is any such thing which may properly be called happiness, I am persuaded it is in the union of two friends who love each other without the least guile or deceit.”
As well as using Nicholas to show Clive’s capacity for friendship, as Clive’s star begins to rise, we also use him to challenge him. Nicholas doesn’t scruple to ‘speak truth unto power’. In the process he reveals some sympathetic nuances in Clive’s mercurial, aggressive but often conflicted and depressive personality.
Nicholas, who has studied Classics at the University of St Andrews, foresees that in many ways Clive’s life resembles a Greek tragedy: the seeds of his downfall found in his own hubris. Watching Clive’s grandiose victory parade after Plassey, Nicholas reflects that someone should whisper to him, as a slave did in the ear of Roman emperors making their triumphal entry into Rome, “Remember you are mortal.” In fact, aged only 49, the deeply-troubled Clive cut his own throat with a paperknife in his house in Berkeley Square in London in 1774.
If Fortune’s Soldier is about the nature of friendship, it is also about the interaction between different cultures. Through Clive and Nicholas we explore relationships between Europeans in India and its peoples from powerful rulers like Siraj-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Bengal, and Anwaruddin Khan, Nawab of the Carnatic and his usurper Chanda Sahib, to a dancer, Meena, mother of Nicholas’s elder son, and Tuhin Singh, a young man exiled from a small mountain kingdom in the Himalayas who becomes Nicholas’s lifelong friend.
Nicholas, Tuhin Singh and several other characters in Fortune’s Soldier also feature the second book in the trilogy, Fortune’s Heir, about the highly profitable career in India of Warren Hastings – a very different, though almost as controversial, figure as Clive – impeached on his return to Britain from his position as the East India Company’s Governor-General.
The Ballantyne family themselves, some with Indian blood and all of them closely bound to India, are also central to the final book, Fortune’s Favourite, about the activities in India of Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington.
Alex Rutherford is the pseudonym of writing duo Diana and Michael Preston.
Shah Alam conveying the grant of the Diwani to Lord Clive by Benjamin West, 1818: via Wikimedia
Battle of Fontenoy by Pierre Lenfant: via Wikimedia
Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive of Plassey ‘Clive of India’ by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, c1770: via Wikimedia
Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757 by Francis Hayman, c1760: via Wikimedia