Arnold Jansen op de Haar interviewed Michael Dean about writing True Freedom on Saturday 29 June in Waterstones Colchester. The resulting discussion was riveting so we want to share it with you.
True Freedom is a fascinating novel about an event, the Boston Uprising, that was an important factor in the run up to the American War of Independence. It features several of the key characters who played their part in this conflict. Actually, you could argue that the main character of the book is the Boston Uprising. It is written with real passion. What was it that made you want to write True Freedom?
I don’t know. The idea just came into my head. But as soon as I started checking it out, I was excited by the potential for a novel. America and England were both boiling. In the middle of the eighteenth century, America was near a revolution but so was England.
Here is an extract from the novel: There were rumours the state was running out of money. Building work had stopped on the new Adelphi. London was swept by rumours that George III had withdrawn his money from his bank in the Strand and put it under his bed. Prices were up for meat and crucially, bread. The price of coal was prohibitive. When a mob at the docks found out it was being exported to Bordeaux for less than it cost in London there was a tumultuous and bloody riot. (page 193)
George III did actually abdicate, briefly but he was talked out of it by Lord North. Parliament was besieged by the mob and nearly captured. The main reason the revolution did not succeed in England, in my opinion, was that the populist leader, John Wilkes, pulled back from the brink and became Lord Mayor of London instead.
However, the populist leader in Boston, Samuel Adams, was more focused, more ruthless and ultimately more successful. He created the American revolution. Here is arguably the most successful populist leader ever in action: An extract from the novel:
To Samuel Adams’ quiet satisfaction, the old days of furtive small-group meetings at the Green Dragon or the Long Room had given way to mass gatherings involving most of Boston. Adams organised the public protest against the Customs Commissioners to start at the Liberty Tree. Despite the rain turning the snow to slush, a crowd of over a thousand gathered there, to be docilely marched to Faneuil Hall, at the other end of Main Street.
No sooner were they settled in Faneuil Hall than Adams decided there was not enough room there. So he got them all up again and marched his obedient army through the drizzle to the Old South Church, which was massive.
It was all Young could do not to burst into applause. The route from the Liberty Tree to Faneuil Hall to the Old South Church took the Bostonians – actually it took them twice – past the Province House, in which cowered the Governor, Francis Bernard, but crucially it also took them past the Town House, where the Assembly sat.
The Assembly was closed when they passed by, thanks to Young and the Liberty Boys disrupting its business at Adams’ bidding. So Samuel Adams had just made a vivid propaganda point without a word – using sight and movement only. As the huge crowd surged past the defunct Assembly under Samuel Adams’ orders to hear him speak, Samuel Adams ruled Boston. (page 131)
Adams instigated the Boston Uprising soon afterwards. This is shown on the cover of the novel
It obviously required an enormous amount of research. Can you tell us a bit about how you approached this task?
I read about a hundred books and roughly forty academic articles, which hopefully doesn’t show when you read the novel. I also went to Lincoln for a couple of days, which is where two of the main protagonists of the novel are from.
I read different material in different ways and at different speeds. A lot of the reading is scanning, looking for one telling detail. For example, after months, maybe years of reading I came across one reference in one article by an American historian which told me that the British populist John Wilkes was related by marriage George Hayley, who was the assistant of one of the American rebels, John Hancock. This gave me a vital and real dramatic link between the rebels in America and the rebels in England. It confirmed to me that you cannot tell this story from one side only, as American academics in particular, tend to.
But all the time I was reading I was really writing, too, in my head. I did an article about this for Publishers Weekly a while back, it’s online. I said then there are only two stages in writing a novel, the subconscious or unconscious or creative stage which includes the reading as well as the writing and the conscious or analytical stage which kicks in when you start editing, when you respond to other people’s editing and when you talk about what you have written. I’m still writing now, standing here talking to you.
In my opinion the main focus of this book is on the relationship between the two English brothers Thomas Pownall, Governor of Massachusetts and later a MP, and John Pownall, an undersecretary of the American Department in London. The two brothers have quite a different opinion about the situation in the American colonies. Can you tell us a bit more about this difference of opinion?
Yes. They were brothers, from Lincoln, on different sides of the argument between England and America. Thomas Pownall was Governor of Massachusetts before the uprising. He was passionately committed to Boston, defending the American cause in the British Parliament. When he was recalled to Britain he tried everything to get back to the Boston he loved with a passion. His younger brother, John Pownall, was the Head of the American Department in London. He was an Under Secretary and single-handedly produced the most draconian piece of anti-Colonial legislation ever promulgated: The Boston Port Act. Brother against brother.
In this extract from the novel, Governor Thomas Pownall has been recalled to London and one of the leading Boston rebels, John Hancock, is paying tribute to him at a packed farewell party at the British Coffee House, State Street, Boston:
Hancock addressed the packed room, ‘I wonder when Governor Pownall was on his way to us from Lincolnshire that he knew he would have to deal with an invasion of giant bears.’ Everybody bellowed with laughter, Pownall included. Hancock did not elaborate on the bears. He did not have to. A gang of giant brown bears had terrified Boston for weeks. They were starving but the Bostonians were too hungry themselves to have enough money over to feed bears. In the end the bears had been beaten by the well-honed organisation the colonists had bred into themselves since the first settlers had fought off the first Indians. Captain John Parker and his militia, armed with muskets, had ambushed enough of them for the others to take the hint.’ Then John Hancock spoke to Pownall directly. ‘Thomas, you have earned our gratitude and respect by your kindest care toward us. You have protected us from the army embargoing our ships and shielded us from the wickedness of naval impress.’ They fell silent at that. Many in the room had had loved ones seized by the British navy and never seen them again. Some entire crews of fishing smacks had been overpowered by British men o’ war and taken nobody knew where.’ (page 24, 25)
When former governor Thomas Pownall is back in London, he meets up with his younger brother, John. Here is their meeting, which shows the relationship between them:
John had chosen as their meeting place The Cock, situated just behind the Royal Exchange. Thomas got lost looking for it. When he did find it, it turned out to be one of the largest eating establishments he had ever set eyes on. Calculating that John would probably pay, he ordered a bottle of burgundy. John arrived, bustling in, cloak flapping, £20 suit, wig well powdered, no sword. Thomas stood to greet him, like the supplicant he was. John Pownall did not resemble his older brother in the slightest. John was a man of straight lines; Thomas was a man of curves. John was two heads taller than his older brother; he was even leaner now, which emphasised Thomas’s plumpness. His aquiline features, by common consent, were more handsome than Thomas’s homely phiz. As ever with John, he was on time to the minute, consulting an automatic fob watch as he came in the door. A glance at the open bottle. ‘That is the third most expensive burgundy they have in this place. I see you have not changed.’ ‘We can split the cost.’ ‘Damn right. I was nearly late for you today. I’ve been dealing with your bloody Boston militia. They are more trouble than the rest of his majesty’s colonies put together. Mutinous pack of dogs. You know we nearly lost Crown Point to the French because the Boston officers, led by your Captain Parker refused to serve under certain British officers they considered amateurs. Thomas bit his lip, biting back a strong retort. ‘They were right,’ he muttered finally. (page 68, page 70)
And here is John Pownall putting the British side of the case to the only friend he has, his colleague at the American Department, the Irishman William Knox:
‘Pownall sighed. ‘Oh yes!’ He searched through his notes again. ‘There is to be a tax on various products, some of them bizarre like painters colours, but most importantly tea.’
‘Tea? Under the Revenue Act?’
‘Yup. It has been calculated that if …IF .. tea duties can get round the bloody American smuggling, they could bring in a small fortune.’
Knox nodded. ‘It’s inevitable, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it is crucial, William. We cannot manage without it. Some of the money will go to pay the Royal Officials.’
Knox smiled. ‘The Sons of Liberty will howl, of course. Only their Assembly may control payments, remember? Freedom under the Charter. John Locke has moved to America. Our money is our property, our property is inviolable. No thingummybob without thingummy.’
John Pownall clenched his fists, white in the face. ‘It’s intolerable! Isn’t it, William? May we not pay our own officials and soldiery ourselves?’
‘Apparently not,’ Knox said. And then, quietly. ‘John, you know as well I do, they fear their Assembly will be dissolved if it has no purpose.’
‘That is our decision, not theirs. No, I’ve had enough, William. Ridding America of the French has near bankrupted us.’
Knox shook his head in mock sorrow. ‘We are in dire need of assistance, if not divine intervention.’
‘All we ask the American colonies to pay is about a third of the cost of administering their own land. At the moment, of course. Townshend wants to increase it gradually until America is finally paying for itself. All taxes collected in America stay in America. For God’s sake, what else do they want?’
‘Freedom?’ (page 114)
Nowadays, no one will dispute the American wish for independence, yet I warmed more towards the English than the American side of the revolt. Maybe this is due to the fact that the leaders of the Boston Uprising, Thomas Young and Samuel Adams, made use of mob violence, propaganda, and crooks and criminals such as Ebenezer Mackintosh and William Molineux. It made me root for both the brothers Pownall and even Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his daughter. I increasingly wanted to know their fate. I didn’t feel that strongly about Thomas Young and Samuel Adams. It surprised me. Did you write it intentionally this way or is it just the way I read it?
I was both surprised and pleased by your reaction. Yes, I think it is just the way you read it or rather the way it struck you. And I’m pleased because a novel should be capable of different interpretations, arguably the more possible interpretations the better the novel. A relationship with a novel is in that respect not that different to relationships between people, you react differently to differently people you react differently to the same person at different times.
As to the characters, Samuel Adams on the American side is a difficult man to love because he is so damaged. But the novel explains why he is so damaged. This is what happened to him:
‘The creation of Samuel Adams started back in his father’s time. The father, known to everybody in Boston as Deacon Adams, loomed large in young Samuel’s life. At a time of hardship, a near permanent condition in Boston, the Deacon hit on the idea of a Land Bank. The Land Bank’s assets, so-called, were pie in the sky dreams of sales of land in the west. When the land bank folded, Deacon Adams was ruined. The young, impressionable boy, Samuel Adams, came upon the Deacon, a broken man, sobbing on the bosom of his wife like a baby. It was an image he never forgot, etched in acid forever in his heart. Worse was to follow, the nightmare became a way of life. The Deacon had assumed, on no evidence, that he could be held liable only for his initial investment in the Land Bank. This turned out to be wrong. Bank directors could be held responsible for all debts incurred by their banks, without limit. So for the next twenty years the Deacon and his family lived with the threat of their home on Purchase Street being seized and the house and every single item of their possessions sold to pay off the debt. Public notices would appear in the Boston newspapers announcing that the Land Bank Commissioners intended to sell the Adams house from under them. With the Deacon now a husk of a man it fell to the boy Samuel to try and save the family from destitution.’
With the other American revolutionary you mention, Thomas Young, there is, I think, much to admire. He was an intellectually brilliant autodidact, a self-taught doctor who also taught himself Latin, Greek and French and taught himself the violin and fife. He was one of nature’s awkward squad, always out of step, hounded out of his home in Albany, New York for having the wrong religious views, he went to Boston to join the revolution led by Sam Adams, who at first at least, he admired and from afar John Wilkes who he venerated, as all the Boston rebels did. Here is Thomas Young addressing a group known as the Liberty Boys who were the youth wing of the revolution:
Young controlled the Liberty Boys, Boston schoolboys who included his two sons Rosmond and John. The Liberty Boys liked going to the Young house for many reasons. Mary Young made them bowls of porridge and smiled at them which made them feel warm. Dr Young made them laugh and taught them interesting things they had not known before.
‘Now,’ said Young to the assembled Liberty Boys, ‘John Locke teaches us that there are various types of rule of society. There is rule by constitutional right, rule by custom, rule by force and so on in the body politic. How do you distinguish, say, rule by right from rule by force? What do you look for, as I look for the symptoms of fever in patients?’
‘The consent of the people,’ Rosmond Young said.
‘Yes, good. You look for the will and consent of the people. And if it is not there you have rule by force, colonial rule, which is a poison because it is alien to the body politic , the body politic did not produce it naturally from within itself.’
There were some cries of ‘Yes, sir!’
‘The British have no right to rule us. They never did. We never consented to it. The Massachusetts Bay Charter was given as a financial arrangement, it was never intended as the constitution for a colony. What was it never intended for?’
They chanted it back, loving it. The trick never failed ‘The constitution for a colony.’
‘Excellent! What good boys you are. So gentlemen, let us get to our feet and kick every British backside out of Boston.’
The cheers were even louder than usual. They all knew which of three crews they were in. They collected the leather buckets from outside the house. They were borrowed from the Fire Companies and contained Hillsborough Mixture, a mixture of urine and faeces, enthusiastically supplied by the boys.
By now they all knew where the Customs Commissioners and Customs Agents lived, but they obediently awaited orders from the crew leaders or from Dr Young himself.
Nobody broke discipline. (pages 125, 129, 130)
You don’t have to convince me that good literary novels such as True Freedom, contribute to our understanding of the world and human nature. But can you tells us more about what fictionalising history adds to a crucial event such as the Boston Uprising?
Yes. As you know, Arnold, I call what I do fictionalised history rather than historical fiction because I write novels about real people and real historical events with no imaginary characters in them. The aim is always to make the reader feel at the moment of reading, the same emotion the writer felt at the moment of writing. It’s a novel, so it’s all about emotion. Novelists see things differently to historians. History follows the paper, the historical record in all its glorious incompleteness inaccuracy and error. Novelists are free from that. Historians will always try to read history from left to right, as they say, meaning starting from life as it was lived then, not starting from the present and looking back. But novelists do this automatically and instinctively.
Take Lord North for example, the real Lord North, the human being living when he did. What mattered to him? Well, the main thing that mattered to him, that dominated his life, was that he was chronically short of money. What little he had came from his wife’s estates in Somerset. Without the armed guards paid for by his step brother William Legge, Lord Dartmouth the mob would have taken and wrecked his house. As it was he was beaten when his coach was robbed by highwaymen and his postilion shot in the thigh to prevent pursuit. What else mattered to him? Well, the landed Whig gentry who owned Britain looked down on him with his funny parvenu Irish title, something ignored by American commentators who tend to assume all Lords are equal and equally aristocratic. What else? He was severely myopic, half blind. What else? He was George III’s half brother, they had the same father. You can see the strong resemblance in portraits of them. He was brought up with George, they had the same tutor and he loved George dearly. Does this matter to history? Oh yes! In the early days of the revolution the American loyalists kept appealing to George over the head, as they saw it, of Parliament. This was never going to work because George, an enlightened Hanoverian, not a despotic Stuart, ruled through Parliament which his half brother, Frederick Lord North, dominated for him through a group of MPs known as the King’s Men. So was North the worst Prime Minister we have ever had? Well, if you read history from left to right you see just how unimportant America was then. There was an eighteenth century saying ‘A robbery on Hounslow Heath would make more conversation than all the disturbances in America.’ America, then, did not matter and Samuel Adams would have had his revolution no matter who was Prime Minister.
When Thomas Pownall came back to Britain from Boston, he tried to become an MP with North’s help. Here is a snippet from a scene between them.
A full month after the original contact, Lord North appeared an hour late for a fourth appointment. Thomas Pownall was powerfully struck by North’s appearance. He thought him the ugliest man he had ever beheld. His eyes rolled about, apparently out of control ; his thick lips twitched; his cheeks looked as if too much air had been forcibly blown into them with a bellows. He had the air of a blind trumpeter. The artist in Thomas found this virtual disfigurement fascinating.
North was warm and affable enough though. Although the affability stopped short of offering any form of refreshment or hospitality.
‘Now, then … ‘ North began as Thomas settled into his chair opposite North’s desk. ‘Your name is Pownall. Charles Pownall …’ This was followed by a flutter of blinks from both eyes. Thomas realised North could hardly see him.
No, my name is Thomas, my lord. Thomas Pownall.’
‘Splendid. Splendid. And you are seeking, what, a place in the Houses of Parliament? In the Commons?
‘That is so my lord.’
‘Why would you not, indeed? It is the most august of assemblies.’ Lord North chuckled , his flabby cheeks shaking. There was a twinkle in his eye. One could discern his last three meals, at least, by the food stains on his bulging waistcoat and his satin breeches.
Thomas liked him. And he appeared to have taken to Thomas, as most people did.
‘To tell the truth, Mr Pownall, the Commons is a very agreeable coffee house, no more no less. Our gentlemen deign to drop in there, if they are in London at all , and not away in the country, only when they have no pressing social engagements, nobody to lay a wager with or play billiards with and the theatre does not charm.’ (pages 72, 73)
North goes on to outline how he can help Thomas buy the votes of the people in Tregony, a constituency in Cornwall, although there are a few more of them than the eighteen in North’s own constituency in Banbury.
Samuel Adams, meanwhile was following what was to become the classic recipe for creating a revolution: Start two distinct movements, one a legal party seeking votes in an Assembly, the other an extra-parliamentary movement using coercion and force. Today the force would be trolling and electronic threats. Then it was having Hillsborough mixture smeared on your windows by Young’s Liberty Boys or tarring and feathering or the total destruction of your house. The second movement is often deniable by the first one.
And once America had been brought to the point of revolution, Samuel Adams instigated this: (On the cover of the novel) the Boston Massacre, which led to the Boston Uprising as he knew it would.
The American Revolution saw dedicated, well-trained, well-organised and sometimes ruthless professionals take on disinterested, half-hearted amateurs handicapped, it must be said, by a creditable obedience of the limitations of their own laws. The professionals won. And they have done rather better ever since. And why not?
Get your copy of True Freedom.
Related articles by Michael Dean
How to Write a Historical Novel, Publishers Weekly, Jan 11 2013
Taking Liberties: At the Boundaries of Fictionalised History, Historical Novels Review, May 2009
History as Fiction, May 2009