Robert Clive has left a large historical footprint. As I discovered while researching and writing Fortune’s Soldier, in which he is a key character, the task of bringing such a man to life is challenging. So many images of him have descended through the nearly two and a half centuries since his death, some positive, but many negative.
We have the daring young military leader, hailed by the eighteenth century British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder as “the heaven-born general”. Yet we also have the East India Company grandee whose unscrupulous determination to enrich himself caused contemporaries both in India and in Britain to damn him.
I looked for clues to Robert Clive’s personality in his early life in England to discover he had a troubled, even lawless, boyhood, causing his uncle to complain that he was “out of measure addicted to fighting”. I also read as many of Clive’s own writings as I could. His letters reveal that, like such other notable and controversial figures as Winston Churchill, he sometimes suffered from acute depression.
After barely a year in India, he wrote home to a cousin that he was a “solitary wretch” who had “not enjoyed one happy day since I left my native country”. Letters of the same period also show the extent of Clive’s ambition and venality – in one he assured his father that “I shall let no opportunity slip of improving myself in everything where I can have the least view of profit.”
Yet I also discovered a man with great capacity to value friendship. Clive wrote that, “If there is any such thing which may properly be called happiness, I am persuaded it is in the union of two friends who love each other without the least guile or deceit.” These words decided me that a good way truly to bring Clive “alive” to my readers was to portray him through the eyes of another – in this case fictional – character in the book, Nicholas Ballantyne whom Clive first meets on the ship carrying them to India where both are being sent by their families to make their way as “writers” – junior employees – in the East India Company.
Those familiar with my “Empire of the Moghul” series will recognise Nicholas Ballantyne as the young man who arrived in India as page to the first English ambassador to the Moghul court in the time of the Emperor Jahangir, fell in love with Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara and later fought for Dara Shukoh in the civil war between Shah Jahan’s sons. The Nicholas Ballantyne who befriends Clive in Fortune’s Soldier is his direct descendant.
As Fortune’s Soldier unfolds and Clive’s star begins to rise, I use Nicholas, who cares about Clive, to challenge him and – unlike sycophants clustering round him – “to speak truth unto power.” Nicholas’s readiness to question his friend’s morality and Clive’s response to his criticisms enabled me to show the nuances in Clive’s character – not only the obvious flaws, but also the redeeming features that all we human beings have.
It seemed to me that Clive’s life resembled a Greek tragedy – the seeds of his downfall found in his own hubris. If so, Nicholas is the chorus, commenting on the main action and serving as a conduit to help the reader understand the mercurial and conflicted Clive.
If Fortune’s Soldier is about the nature of friendship, it is also about the momentous events that shook India in the mid-eighteenth century in which Clive was such a key figure. Universal themes run through the story – love and loyalty, duty and despair, venality and vainglory, temptation and treachery, pride and patriotism – all as real to us today as they were in the eighteenth century. To make Clive “real” as he moves through this drama, I’ve avoided the sometimes mannered style of talking of his day and striven to keep dialogue fresh and accessible.
The book took several years to complete. During that time, Clive with all his many faults and frailties - and his virtues – became real to me. I came to understand his restless ambition and his anxiety that he would never achieve what he wanted that were his defining characteristics. I hope readers of Fortune’s Soldier will feel the same
Alex Rutherford is the author of Fortune’s Soldier, the story of Robert Clive and the dawn of the British Empire in India, and of the bestselling “Empire of the Moghul” series.
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