Wednesday, 30 November 2011



I've suggested in the course of this series of SNIPPETS OF THE PAST how such material can be used in the creation of scenes and character in historical novels.I'm taking the liberty here of showing how I've tried to build up a scene in my e-novel WINTER HUNT set in the early years of the 19th century and  written uder my pen-name Allen Makepeace.

As well as being a banker, Mr Prout is a magistrate, a sometimes irksome responsibilty. Here he is called upon to visit the prison to interview a criminal. I've tried to indicate the role of the magistrate, the dreadful conditions in the prison and what may called a typically unsympathetic prisoner as well as the magistarte's immediate sense that the man is 'hanging material'. Everything in this extract is suggested in a variety of original documents.

Text begins:

And then Mr Barrowby arrives quite unexpectedly with the request that he go at once to the prison.

‘It’s magisterial business, sir,’ Mr Prout is told. ‘Robbery with violence apparently. Somebody was shot as I hear.’

‘Magisterial.’ The word echoes in his head. ‘Magisterial.’ One day, he will give it up, being a magistrate. He has suggested it before. He had been a magistrate for twenty-seven years and it is all so time-consuming. It takes up time from his own bank work. But they insisted that he stay on last time he put it to them, the possibility of his resignation, just as they had done on the two previous occasions.. ‘No, no, Mr Prout,’ they had said to him. ‘Can’t think of it. Too valuable. Your experience.’ And so it will go on in the future. His Lordship will not hear of it; Hartley Wills, the second biggest landowner in this part of the county, will slap him on the back and smile and shake his head when Mr Prout even hints that he wishes to give up; and the three or four substantial farmers and the retired tea-merchant and the fierce Colonel Priddy and the rest of them, who really enjoy a day out at the court, will insist that Mr Prout remain a magistrate.

And so on this miserable morning, at no later than eight-fifteen, Mr Prout finds himself knocking at the huge gate of Mainton prison.

‘Mr Prout, sir,’ says the man who opens the door to him. ‘Good to see you, sir.’

Such a greeting does nothing to assuage the banker’s irritation. Mr Prout has never cared for Turnkey Royle with his leery eye and his unshaven chin.

‘Up here?’ he asks pointing at the stone stairway on the outside of the main building.

‘Up there, sir,’ he is told. ‘In the old pantry. As usual, Mr Prout, eh?’

Oh yes, the old pantry. As usual. Mr Prout knows that room well enough. He has interviewed hundreds of men and women in there in one or other of his capacities, either as magistrate or as banker. It has not been a pantry in all of Mr Prout’s time coming to the prison. It has probably not served that function for the past hundred years but the name has stuck.

Royle leads him up the slope to the main door. As soon as it is opened Mr Prout is assailed by the stench to which after all these years of regular visiting he has never quite become accustomed. A sour, pungent, all-searching stink of people, of drains, of the ‘offices,’ which seem to him to somehow soak into his flesh, his hair, his very bones. And for hours after leaving, the reek of the place will linger on him and his clothes. He will never become used to it.

Nor will he ever accustom himself to the shouts, the curses, the screams in that great echoing place. At whatever time, the earliest hour of the day or the latest of the night, he has been called to the prison he has to steel himself against the unceasing clamour.

‘Here we are then, sir,’ the turnkey says, ushering him into the old pantry with its sweating walls, stained and encrusted with years of grime. And here behind an ancient table sits a man, his wrists manacled, his ankles shackled. His arm has been bandaged. ‘He had a graze last night but the doctor says it’s nothing,’ Royle explains.

‘And he is…?’ Mr Prout asks of another turnkey, Hull, standing in the shadowy corner on the other side of the room.

Hull produces a sheet of paper, stares at it, clears his throat and begins.

‘This is Dennis Aylott, age forty-two, taken in charge earlier this morning with breaking and entering a house in this town while furnished with a pistol.’ He clears his throat again. ‘As Mr Royle says, he was grazed by a shot in the arm last night but it ain’t nothing serious.’

Mr Prout studies Aylott briefly. Long, greasy hair; threadbare, greasy jacket cuffs; fingers dirty, greasy. Hanging material, he tells himself. Guilty as charged. This will not take long, he tells himself.

‘So, Aylott,’ says Mr Prout settling himself on a creaky chair opposite the prisoner. ‘Now, you understand, don’t you, that this is your chance to make a clean breast of things so that the court may consider any mitigating circumstances?’ As if there are likely to be such mitigating circumstances in this case. Some hope. The banker looks sternly over his spectacles. ‘So have you anything to say? Perhaps you can tell me what exactly happened last night?’

No comments:

Post a Comment