It’s a good question: where do characters come from? There was a real John Eagle, a man I stumbled on when researching for my PhD. He was a Bradford attorney, practising at Horton, and he lived from 1723 till 1787. I was the first historian to have access to his working papers – his ledgers, his day-books, his account-books, letter-books and miscellaneous correspondence. He gave me a name to work with and all the daily paraphernalia of an eighteenth-century attorney’s life (they were mostly attorneys back then, as opposed to solicitors, although confusingly both names were in use).
So, I can say that the real John Eagle gave me a start, an outline, in that I looked at his world and got an in-depth insight as to how it worked: the types of cases he handled, the sorts of clients on his books, the kinds of extra jobs he did on the side. He didn’t work as a Justice’s clerk for a local JP as my John Eagle did, but he acted as agent or steward for local gentry and was on dining terms with other ‘middling’ people such as doctors, clergymen and merchants. He was engaged in both civil and criminal law, advising and acting locally, and regularly mailing his London agents who handled his business in the central courts of King’s Bench, Chancery and Common Pleas. Some of his cases came to the Assizes at York, on which occasions he would do all the preliminary work himself before retaining a barrister to plead for his clients at the bar.
My John Eagle is a younger, sexed-up version who is very much a creature of my brain. I’ve moved him to Leeds (Horsforth under its old name Horseford to be exact) and given him new dates: born 1766, aged just 26 when the first novel opens in 1793. His character is just how it flowed from my pen and I have tried to make him well drawn. He is young and handsome but already scarred by life; scarred physically too courtesy of a face-scarring shard from an exploded brandy bottle he threw on the fire in a drunken, self-loathing rage. He’s very much of his time, but also of our time and possibly every time to come. His duality is what makes him compelling. He can be cruel but also kind. He has loves and he has hates, often directed at the same thing. He hates the poor and he loves them; he hates the rich and yet he serves them because he must. He’s simultaneously left wing and right (thanks to the French Revolution the terms were just coming into being). He is fairly brave but he wants and tries to be braver. He thinks too often of death and torture, and tortures himself by attending executions, which help to steel him to face life. Life frightens him, but death frightens him more, and he’s generally afraid of deep water and especially the ‘evil’ river that flows through Leeds (the Aire). He’s a heavy drinker – ‘a good bottleman’ – as befits the times and he’s got an eye for the ladies, particularly the pretty ones. His closest friend is a homosexual, and against the grain of the times he tries to be tolerant; tolerant too of his black clerk, who faces a torrent of prejudice and abuse.
All in all, readers will take him as they find him, hero and anti-hero melded as one. I think they will like him – I know I do.
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