Novelist and historian Richard Hopton reviews Alex Rutherford’s latest novel, Fortune’s Soldier, for Historia.
Fortune’s Soldier is Alex Rutherford’s latest Indian historical epic, a successor to the Empire of the Moghul sextet. Set in the years between 1744 and 1757, it takes on a controversial period in Indian history. For old-fashioned British imperialists it represents the beginning of the British hegemony in India. The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) saw the extinction of French power in India and the conquest of Bengal, a process which led to the eventual establishment of the Indian Empire. For those less sympathetic to the British cause and to imperialism generally, it marks the beginning of what William Dalrymple has called the East India Company’s “regime of unregulated plunder”.
The novel’s hero is a young Scotsman, Nicholas Ballantyne, whose family has a long history of service in India. Having graduated in Classics from St. Andrew’s University, he is dispatched to India – referred to throughout the novel as ‘Hindustan’ – to make his fortune. On the voyage from London to Calcutta he meets Robert Clive, who has likewise been sent to India by his family. The two become firm friends and their relationship forms a central plank of the story.
Although Ballantyne is employed by the East India Company as a clerk – or ‘writer’, as they were known – in Calcutta, he is soon seconded to Madras on account of his supposed Jacobite sympathies, a source of enduring mistrust in 1745. Here he is able to spread his wings.
He and Clive escape from captivity after the fall of Madras before distinguishing themselves in the defence of Cuddalore against the French. Ballantyne takes part – with Clive – in the capture of Arcot, before being seconded to the East India Company’s Political Department. In this capacity he is entrusted with conducting relations with Indian rulers.
Alex Rutherford is the nom de plume of Diana and Michael Preston, a husband-and-wife writing team. (In 2019, Diana Preston published Eight Days at Yalta, a study of the Allied Conference of February 1945.) Fortune’s Soldier is predicated on the well-worn, Flashmanesque conceit that a cache of papers relating to the history of the Ballantyne family’s service in India recently came to light at an obscure auction house in India.
The novel’s strength lies in the way in which the fictional characters are insinuated into the historical record. Historical characters, both British and Indian – for example, Clive himself, other East India Company bigwigs and several prominent Indians – rub shoulders with the fictional cast. Likewise, fictional events are woven seamlessly into the historical events, the military operations and political manoeuvrings.
The novel brings 18th-century India to life, with vivid descriptions of the countryside and the cities – especially Calcutta – and of the magnificence of the princely courts. It conjures up the squalor and the beauty of India, the smell and the heat, the violence, cruelty and uncertainty of contemporary life as well as people’s enduring capacity for kindness and sacrifice.
The weakness of the novel lies in its main character. Nicholas Ballantyne, who dominates the story – indeed, it is his story – is too good to be true. A bookish, violin-playing classical scholar of refined sensibilities he soon reveals an unsuspected aptitude for matters military and a talent for violence of an increasingly extreme nature. He is liberal, principled, honourable, kind, humane, thoughtful and ever alert to the racist, exploitative instincts of his British contemporaries, a democrat whose sympathies lie with the underdog.
It is as if Ballantyne’s character is an 18th-century proxy for 21st-century concepts of behaviour in general and ideas about imperialism in particular. He is also preternaturally lucky in that he spends 12 years in India without once falling ill and survives countless skirmishes and several larger battles without suffering anything worse than a scratch.
Overall, though, Fortune’s Soldier is an enjoyable story which moves along at a decent clip, providing the reader with a well-informed sketch of an important period of Indian history along the way. If occasionally the author lapses into cliché – very early in the book, Ballantyne contemplates the ‘rolling, purple-heathered moors’ of his native land – it can perhaps be forgiven as being an essential part of the historical epic writer’s argot. It’s what the readers expect.
There’s more about the background to this book in the Historia feature Finding empathy – the complexities of writing Robert Clive by Diana Preston, one of the two authors who write together as Alex Rutherford.
Richard Hopton is an author and journalist. His most recent book, and his first novel, is The Straits of Treachery, which was published in 2020 and came out as a paperback on 21 January, 2021. It won the 2019–20 SAHR Prize for Military Fiction.
A tale of war, treachery and divided loyalties, it is set in Messina in Sicily in 1810 during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars. He is now working on its sequel.
Richard’s three previous books, all non-fiction, are:
A Reluctant Hero: The Life of Captain Robert Ryder, V.C. (Pen & Sword Books, 2011)
Pistols at Dawn: A History of Duelling (Piatkus, 2007)
The Battle of Maida, 1806 (Pen & Sword Books, 2002)
He has written a feature about the history of duelling, which will appear in Historia in the near future.
Surrender of The City of Madras by Jacques Francois Joseph Swebac: via Wikimedia