How I came to The Straits of Treachery – guest post by Richard Hopton
As we enter the summer months, most of us will have to be content with armchair travelling. With that in mind, Richard Hopton’s The Straits of Treachery, set on the beautiful island of Sicily, is just one of our recent releases that can take you away to sunnier, and more thrilling, climes. We’re delighted to have Richard join us on the blog to introduce his book (glass of Marsala while reading optional!).
My first novel, The Straits of Treachery, is set in and around Messina, on Sicily’s north coast just across the choppy waters of the straits from mainland Italy. Its action takes place in September 1810 during the British occupation of the island. It was a critical point in European history: the first cracks in Napoleon’s domination of Continental Europe were beginning to appear as the British army started to make inroads against the French in Spain and Portugal. For the first time, the Emperor’s power was under threat. Apart from the Iberian peninsular, the only place in Europe where the British and the French faced each other directly was across the two or so miles of the Straits of Messina. This beautiful and mythologized corner of the Mediterranean was a front line in a global war. It seemed obvious to me that this geographical and strategic coincidence made Messina and the straits an ideal setting for a novel. It seemed obvious to me that this geographical and strategic coincidence made Messina and the straits an ideal setting for a novel. It seemed obvious to me that this geographical and strategic coincidence made Messina and the straits an ideal setting for a novel.
My interest in the Napoleonic Wars goes back many years. It was first nourished by reading C.S. Forester as a boy; Hornblower was a hero and I loved the stories, reading them many times. Indeed, I still have the 1970s paperback editions of Hornblower on my shelves now, tanned and disintegrating. My father, too, was a fund of knowledge on the subject and delighted in telling me the stories. To my young self, the Napoleonic Wars seemed perfect history, heroic, colourful and glorious, qualities which Hornblower himself personified.
Many years – and a history degree – later I came across some letters written by an ancestor who had served in the British garrison in Sicily during the occupation. His letters home brimmed with local colour, military gossip and everyday news. They inspired me to write my first book, The Battle of Maida (2002), an account of the British victory of July 1806 at which British troops from Sicily defeated a larger French force near the village of Maida on the Calabrian coast.
In the course of researching Maida I read a good deal about the British occupation of Sicily between 1806 and 1815. It was, to my mind, an unusual episode. Here was the British Crown in effect occupying a friendly country; it seemed to go further than a mere alliance – the British garrison numbered around 15,000 troops at one point – but stop short of colonisation. The British improved Sicily’s defences, built roads and controlled (after a fashion) its armed forces ; indeed, at one point they tried to impose a liberal, democratic constitution on the island’s archaic, semi-feudal political system. But throughout Sicily remained, notionally and in fact, an independent state.
I have also visited Sicily on a number of occasions and have become thoroughly bewitched by its beauty, its archaeological and architectural riches, its long, complex and fascinating history, its people and culture, as well as its wonderful food and wine, not to mention the climate.
For a decade and more after the publication of Maida the idea of writing a historical novel set in Sicily during this interesting and little-known period of our history fermented in the back of my mind. Eventually, I put pen to paper: The Straits of Treachery is the result.