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Historical Author Emily Brand: "I feel a sort of security in writing about real people who lived, loved and died, generations ago"

20 April 20 interview: Kate Hewett

Emily Brand is a local historian who’s been researching the Byron family tree and all its drama-sprouting branches. With a close look at life in the eighteenth century, her fourth book The Fall of the House of Byron is released this month. We sat down for a digital chat with the author to find out more...

For your fourth book, why did you choose to write about the life of Byron rather than the other Romantic writers?  
The Fall of the House of Byron is my first major work of history, and there are a number of strands of research that brought me to what became a fairly epic family saga, tracing the story of the poet’s ancestry through the eighteenth century. 

Much of my previous research has focused on the history of love and romance during that era, where the poet and serial seducer Lord Byron looms very large. Having grown up in Nottinghamshire myself, I was keen on the opportunity to research a local figure – his ancestral home and family being based at Newstead Abbey.

But my book focuses more on the lives of his relatives – his father’s and grandfather’s generations. As well as an existing interest in the poet himself, I was initially drawn in by a beautiful portrait of his great aunt Isabella, and a remarkable survival story published by his grandfather John. At every turn a new and exciting life story presented itself, so I wanted to pull them all together and shed new light on the experience of living through the eighteenth century.

How do you start your research when writing a book like this?
I used a framework of existing studies, like financial and archaeological records of Newstead Abbey. I wanted to insert the voices of the characters themselves back into the picture, so I needed their personal papers. I was extremely fortunate to find lots of material at the Nottinghamshire Archive, the University of Nottingham, the National Archives, Castle Howard, and too many others to name. The research took around three years – I won’t say to “complete”, as I’m sure there is much more hidden out there – and takes in wills, military records, court cases, household inventories, diaries and swathes of correspondence with spouses, children, employers, and friends. 

How has the process differed between your different books?
The Fall of the House of Byron has certainly been a new challenge for me. This book represents me taking the plunge into an accessible and colourful, but serious, study of eighteenth century life. Compared to my previous work, Mr Darcy’s Guide to Courtship, while largely based on the genuine seduction guides and romantic advice of the Georgian era, was a tongue-in-cheek homage to some of Jane Austen’s most beloved characters. In adopting the voice of Mr Darcy – a fictional character with whom I feel I have grown up – I was allowed more creative license, and I barely felt I needed to research him to capture his voice. 

What is your favorite part of being a historian, and what’s the most challenging thing? 
First and foremost, I love working with the archival material. It’s such a privilege to be able to handle historical documents and objects, and to have the chance to revive interest in figures who are long dead or who have been entirely forgotten. I found this particularly in unearthing the story of Isabella Byron, many of whose papers appear to have sat undisturbed by researchers for decades. Being able to piece her story back together, and to share it with the public, does not only seem like a valuable exercise but is also great fun.

The most challenging thing is perhaps the isolation – many long hours of reading and writing in silent libraries or late at night doesn’t always line up brilliantly with an active social life. I have often been told off for spending too much time with dead people and not enough with the living.

I feel a sort of security in writing about real people who lived, loved and died, generations ago – I’m full of admiration for fiction writers, who have to devise their own plots, twists, and outcome

The publishing industry is notorious for being difficult to penetrate. What’s been your experience of the industry and how has it changed as you’ve published more books? 
I worked for a number of years as an editor of academic and popular history, so I suppose I’ve seen both sides of the coin. Certainly, it’s a challenging industry to break into both as a publisher and as an author. 

What would you like readers to take away from your latest book? 
I really wanted to bring the women’s voices to the fore – his female relatives were interesting too, but have been almost entirely neglected. The numerous surviving letters of the poet’s grandmother Sophia and great aunt Isabella give such lively, comic and tragic accounts of living in wartime, of riots, of female friendship, of literature, of handsome young kings and so much more – their voices add real, vivid texture to the story. I hope readers will connect as much with the adventures of the Byron women as with those of their brothers and husbands.

Where did your interest in writing historical books begin? 
I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember – I grew up surrounded by enthusiasm for family history, for Jane Austen, and for Horatio Hornblower!

I feel a sort of security in writing about real people who lived, loved and died, generations ago – I’m full of admiration for fiction writers, who have to devise their own plots, twists, and outcome. Being bound by the surviving traces of real lives, a historian already has their framework, and it’s a case of doing justice to your characters and the time in which they lived. With some figures in this particular family, truth really did end up being more sensational than fiction.

What role does Nottingham play in the book?
The book begins and ends at Newstead Abbey, with the birth of a boy in 1722, following him and his siblings through life until his death in 1798. This is when his heir – the future poet – inherits the family titles and estates. At the heart of the book, providing a mirror for the family’s gradual financial – and in some ways moral – decline, the Abbey itself suffers until eventually becoming a sort of mournful, gothic ruin. Though their travels take them across Europe and – in one case – even circumnavigating the globe, we also find them at cockfights in Newark, at Nottingham races, standing for the local council, having illegitimate children with the city’s women and skipping between the neighbouring stately homes of the county. It’s so important that ‘British history’ doesn’t just mean ‘London history’, so I hope I have captured something of the local Nottinghamshire flavour that should rightly permeate their story.

Emily Brand’s The Fall of the House of Byron is published by John Murray on Tuesday 16 April
Emily Brand's Twitter

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