Monday, 16 February 2015

The characters of Cawnpore: John Williamson

My editor has signed off my efforts on Cawnpore and now there is only the proofing of the final copy to go before the new edition is published in a few weeks. One of the joys of electronic publishing is that the months of delay between submitting your manuscript and seeing your book printed can be reduced to weeks. That's a definite plus, as far as I'm concerned.

With the book about to go on sale again, I'd like to the chance to tell everyone about it. It was only the second book I wrote, but it remains the one I'm most proud of. It's not a cheerful read and I'm not surprised that it didn't initially find much of an audience, but I am disappointed. I hope that, with a publisher like Accent behind it, it will gather more readers this time around.

I'm going to blog a little about the main characters, so that you know something about the people that you will meet when you read the book. I'm starting with the narrator, John Williamson. He was the narrator of The White Rajah, making Cawnpore technically a sequel, though it's a self-contained story with John himself the only character carried over from the previous book.

At the start of the story, Williamson leaves Borneo to begin a new life in India. He had arrived in Borneo an illiterate seaman, but with the help of his lover, James Brooke, he had become a successful administrator. Unwilling to return to his old life in Britain, and unhappy to stay in Borneo following the massacres of the natives there, he decides to look for a post in India where his administrative skills will allow him to earn a living. Rather to his surprise, he learns that Brooke’s achievements in Borneo have become well-known to Britain's colonial administrators and he is rapidly pointed to a senior position at Cawnpore.

Most of the characters in Cawnpore are real people, although their personalities have often been invented. Williamson, however, is totally fictional. His name was borrowed from that of James Brooke's real-life interpreter, but everything else about him is pure invention. His importance to the story comes from the fact that he is so completely an outsider to both Indian and British colonial society. He's a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was illegal in England. Buggery was still punishable by hanging. Probably of more concern to the men who ran British India, Williamson has working-class origins. He does not know the right people and he is uneasy in the rigid class society of his time.

Uncomfortable with the British, Williamson finds himself attracted to the court life of the local Indian prince, Nana Sahib. Yet, he is, of course, no more truly at home in the Indian court than he is in the British club. As an outsider, Williamson can see what is going on from both the point of view of the colonisers and of those whose rule the English had displaced.

I like Williamson. He is a fundamentally honest and decent man who is always trying to act for the best in impossible circumstances. Writing as John Williamson (it's a first person novel) came naturally in Cawnpore, perhaps because I spent so long trying to get inside his head while I was writing The White Rajah. He has a back story which was originally the start of The White Rajah, but which was cut out before it reached the final draft. For anyone who's interested, here it is:

 The man I am today is the man that James Brooke made me. 

My family were farm labourers who had never known anywhere but their own small village in Devon. Five generations, I know, had lived and worked on Mr Slattery’s farm, for each generation was recorded in the family Bible that was the only book I ever saw as a child. That book was honoured in our home and kept as a great treasure, though none of those who had scratched their mark in it could read what was written there.

My name was entered in May of 1819. I was the third child my mother bore but the only one to survive infancy and, after me, there were no others. Perhaps it was this that made me a solitary child. I suppose, when I was younger, I must have played with the village children. I have some vague memories of rolling in the mud with the other boys and of our parents scolding us for our dirty clothes. But from my earliest youth, I spent most of my time alone with the animals of the farm, growing up alongside the horses and the poultry and the pigs. As soon as I was old enough, I would make myself useful to my mother, feeding the pigs and collecting the eggs. By the time I was twelve, I was working in the stables. I was good with the horses and Mr Slattery seemed to like me. It seemed I was settled and would be there forever.

Then, in 1831, sickness came to our village. Some said it was a visitation from the Lord but I preferred to believe those who said it was some contagion of the wells. Whatever the cause, all of us on the farm were stricken down and I remember lying in a fever, between life and death.

By the time I recovered, both of my parents were dead. I was not even able to attend their funeral. Mr Slattery organised it and I am sure that he did all that was needful and proper.

I remember that when I was strong enough to leave my bed, I made my way to the churchyard and knelt for some time praying beside my parents’ grave. It was a warm day in early spring, quiet, save for the calling of the birds. I listened for a human voice but I heard none, for everyone was busy in the fields or the housewives about their work in the cottages.

I had no special friends among the boys and no sweetheart among the girls. I would pray together with my neighbours in the church that would now watch over my parents’ bones but I would never find true fellowship there. I saw my life stretching before me and ending where I stood beside this grave.

And so a restlessness seized me and, as I regained my strength, the restlessness grew until, one day in June, I made my farewells to the farm. I left the Bible – mine now, for there was no other family – with Mr Slattery for safekeeping. I packed my few other belongings into a stout canvas bag and set out to see what the world had to offer.

I moved first from village to village, seeking work as a farm-hand or ostler but, though I found employment enough to give me a roof for the night and food in my belly, nowhere I saw on my travels round the county offered me more than the life I was escaping. It seemed that Providence guided my footsteps ever closer to Plymouth and the sea. And then, as if by chance, I took up life as a sailor.

I will say nothing of my first experiences of a shipboard life. I voyaged mainly in coalers, plying the coastal waters on the East coast of England. The work was hard and, as a landlubber from the West Country I found myself alone on vessels crewed mainly by men who had grown up with the water of the North Sea running in their veins. After two years of moving from ship to ship, I was still an outsider and, when I was discharged in London, I had nothing better to do than find some dingy tavern by the Pool and set out to drink my pay away. I was in low spirits and wondering if I might not be wise to make my way back to Devon and reconcile myself to a life on the farm.

It was a quiet evening and the place matched my sombre mood but at about ten, the door opened and a group of young men stood for a moment caught in the tavern light against the darkness of the night outside. It was twenty years ago, yet I still remember that first glimpse I had of James Brooke.


  1. Tom, your book sounds really intriguing. I was born in India and love the country. Good luck with Cawnpore.

  2. Thanks, Jenny.

    I haven't visited India, so I was terrified that it wouldn't 'feel' right, but an Indian friend said she really liked it and I should get it published over there (!!!) so I'm hoping that the reading about the background to the period has paid off.