We are in conversation (part II) with biographer Charlotte Frost, about her new book Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician:
[NB: read part 1]
Q: Did you hope to find a certain story in Knighton’s life? Did what you uncover answer that initial thought, or were you constantly uncovering new and different twists?
Charlotte Frost: More a matter of what I hoped not to find. Had I discovered that Knighton had done something truly shameful I would have had to include it. That’s why I hesitated about contacting Knighton’s descendants. I didn’t want to be welcomed into their homes or be given copies of private family documents, only to publish a damning account of their forebear. And finding a dark, sinister side to Knighton would have wrecked my wonderful Word master plan for a sympathetic biography!
Q: In researching the career of Knighton, was there a particular question or historical conundrum you hoped to answer? Did the answer appear?
CF: I failed to identify why Knighton was sceptical about some of the medical education he received in London. New medical ideas were evolving in France, but I don’t know whether he was exposed to them.
Q: Was there any surprise in what you found out about Knighton, his career, his biography, his family?
CF: I was taken aback by discrepancies between the Memoir’s account of Knighton’s early years and the account suggested in primary sources. The explanation perhaps died with those who knew it, or it may survive in oblique references yet to be discovered.
Q: What about the period interested you the most?
CF: It was a gentler era than those that preceded it. When Knighton was accused of corruption he was satirised in a cartoon, not put on the rack. The cruellest forms of execution became unacceptable, and were abolished. Injustices still thrived, but they began to be seen for what they were.
Q: Where there other characters — those people whom Knighton knew or encountered — whom you wished to spend more time on?
CF: Knighton’s dealings with the poets and radicals in the 1810s needs more attention. Timely journal article seeks author!
Q: You list many books in your bibliography; was there any one or two books that you particularly would recommend to students of the period?
CF: For all its difficulties, I recommend the Memoir. The universal financial insecurity of the age is reflected in pleas for Knighton’s intervention from educated men too ill or old to continue their professions. His Seymour in-laws experienced the same difficulties as every naval family. Knighton was not the only man of his era to examine his soul in the light of Evangelical preaching. And his contempt for and alarm at popular protest is that of a generation that grew up in fear of revolution.
Q: The nature of primary research means that we find what still exists; is there any item(s) you wanted to find, or had hoped still existed?
CF: An unfinished portrait of Knighton’s wife, Dorothea, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. And miniatures of Knighton, Dorothea and their daughter that Knighton commissioned before he went to Spain.
Q: Have you any stories to pass along about doing primary research? (Gaining access to archives? transcriptions? old and fragile items? etc)
CF: I have some wonderful memories of research, but I’m haunted by the time, money and energy I’ve wasted. Reading a London street directory on microfilm, I mistook Knighton’s first London address for No 23 Argyll Street. Only after several years in search of corroborative evidence did I discover from a printed directory that he lived at No 28, which I was immediately able to confirm. I made numerous visits to The National Archives for information that was held at the Royal College of Surgeons, and I pestered the British Library for a copy of a print held at the British Museum.
Q: How did your family handle “living with the Knightons”?
CF: My significant other refers to Knighton as ‘the other man’, and is relieved to see him in print.
Q: Please describe for our readers former projects; future projects.
A: I have been a late learner, not taking my first degree until I was thirty, and not rediscovering a childhood love of history until I was in my forties. Until now my historical output has been researching and reporting in response to community history requests, giving occasional talks and submitting work for academic assessment. If I had to put a label on myself, I’d say ‘independent researcher’ but not ‘independent scholar’. My biography of Knighton marks my transition to author — someone who has found her voice. I don’t rule out further academically assessed study, but at present I feel ‘essayed out’. I want to do my own work, not what other people think I should do. But to stay fresh and sharp I need to keep in touch with academic life. I can’t bask in a post-publication comfort bubble.
I’ve started investigating loans that the Prince of Wales and his brothers incurred in a few short years in the late 1780s-early 1790s. Not biography, but the story behind each loan – who were the lenders, did they get their money back and, if not, how did they cope? I don’t yet know whether I’m revealing a gripping tale of suicide, assassination and missing diamonds, or wasting my time with two-hundred-year-old allegations that can be neither proved or disproved.
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