Writer Charlotte Frost, whose biography of Sir William Knighton, bart will be of interest to those desiring a good read about Regency-era England, is our guest. She’s talking about her book, her research experiences, and her interest in Knighton and his family. Join us!
Q: Is there a tale behind your interest in Sir William Knighton?
Charlotte Frost: Yes, but I’m afraid it’s not especially worthy or uplifting. I had never heard of Knighton until the then owners of his Blendworth home commissioned a new garden, and I was asked to help with research. We discovered that it was Knighton’s son who laid out the grounds but, in the process, I realised that much of what had been written about his father (‘my’ Knighton) was flawed. With just average care and attention I could do better. And, although Knighton had almost fallen out of history, in late Georgian England he was a man to be reckoned with. He was overdue for a new biography, and I wasn’t going to let him slip through my fingers.
Q: Have you a favorite “find” — something unusual, or satisfying — that you uncovered; something you wish you had uncovered?
CF: It was especially pleasing to find documents created before Knighton became famous, when no one had a motive to distort the information. As for information I wished I’d uncovered, we need to know more about Knighton’s wife, Dorothea. How did Knighton meet her? Did her family have reservations about him? Did she secretly yearn to be recognised as an artist? Do any more of her paintings survive?
Q: Readers tend to think books just happen; how long did your research take? how long the writing phase? the publishing phase?
CF: It was one thing to accumulate research but quite another to impose order on it, so I took an MA to acquire some academic backbone. After that I knew exactly what I wanted. I set out the whole book in note form in a Word table and just worked through it. As the manuscript neared completion I started submitting proposals and sample chapters, but after a few months I realised that if I wanted the book published, I would have to self publish. At first I was disappointed not to be accepted by a mainstream publisher, but now I’m delighted that things worked out as they did. My publishers, Authors OnLine, have treated me like royalty. Nothing has been too much trouble for them.
Q: Did you find the Knighton Memoir a help, a hindrance, a bit of both?
CF: The Memoir‘s chronology is misleading because the author — Dorothea, by then Knighton’s widow — was more interested in the contents of the letters she selected for publication than the dates on which they were written. And the Memoir is easy to criticise because it contains what Dorothea wanted us to know, not what we’d like to know. But once I realised that each letter was there for a reason, the Memoir became my invaluable friend.
Q: As a biographer, did you make a conscious choice to present Knighton’s story without resorting to a great deal of letter quotes (ie, from the Memoir)?
CF: Yes. This is a good read, not an academic text where I need to present evidence as though my life depended on it. On a very few occasions I have used Knighton’s own words because I could add nothing useful to them, but otherwise my job was to analyse the letters, not repeat them.
Q: As fellow writers, we both know you sometimes sacrifice sections for the good of the narrative; was there any story, observation, account that you wish you could have kept?
CF: I applied a ‘two strikes and you’re in’ rule. This meant that I omitted several deaths among Knighton’s extended family that had no bearing on the narrative, but included trivial items that had later consequences. Knighton and his family would rightly have considered my omissions a distortion, and been upset by them. I also omitted the Blendworth earthquake of 1834 which came at an especially bad time for Knighton and his family and troubled everyone in the vicinity, but which was irrelevant to the narrative. On a lighter note, I was sad to lose the tea kettle that Knighton received from his former tutor, the surgeon Astley Cooper.
Q: Were illustrations easy to track down?
CF: The illustrations in the book are mostly ones that I came across by chance, and which struck me as more succinct than any written descriptions I could come up with. I’m not good at working with images. I get sidetracked by notes on the back, and miss vital information in the image itself.
Q: What was it like to do research at the Royal Archives?
CF: A privilege, and unlike any other archive. Researchers have to be accompanied at all times — yes, even to the loo — which I envisaged would feel regimented, but in practice it meant that we joined the archivists for lunch and were included in their routine. We were all made welcome. I wonder who’s sitting at my little table now, and what they’re researching?
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We’ll leave Ms. Frost in the Royal Archives for now…
Part II will appear shortly. In the meantime, I invite you to read about her book, Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician. Also, search this blog for more on the book, Sir William, and how he relates to the Smiths & Goslings.
We invite reader participation! Feel free to post your own questions or comments for Charlotte Frost here.
NB: this was part 1; click here for part 2