More women should write about war, believes historical novelist AL Berridge. She is better known to screen audiences as Louise Berridge, who was a script writer and story editor on EastEnders from 1993-1995 and executive producer from 2002-2004. While writing for the show, Louise lived close to the studios in Borehamwood but she moved out to Park Street in 2002.
Since leaving Albert Square she has written two previous novels about 17th Century France, top ten best-seller Honour and the Sword and In the Name of the King. Her new book, Into the Valley of Death, goes straight to the heart of the heroism of soldiers facing the horror of the Crimea in 1854.
“What I try to do is get in amongst the men and understand things women are not supposed to go near. I went to a regimental museum and they were extremely helpful in every detail, showing me all the uniforms but when I asked to see the Minié rifle the guide was surprised and said ‘Oh, I thought you’d be writing a romance because that’s what women do’.
“One reason why I wish more women wrote military action adventure is I think women have something they can actively bring to that particular genre – as well as making sure they write about the correct rifle and the right bullet, they can bring the emotional side of it. It’s fascinating to me how a human being can survive in the most appalling conditions and what kept them alive was the bond and the concept of holding the line – men standing and holding together – which gave birth to such incredible courage.”
To research her book, Louise read the diaries and letters of the soldiers as well as contemporary newspaper articles from war journalists such as William Howard Russell. She visited the Crimea and walked the battlefield.
“You cannot realistically describe a battle unless you’ve been there. I waded through the Alma River and lay down in a field to feel what it was liked to be exposed out there and I saw Inkerman in the fog as it was on the day of the battle.”
Although her characters are fictional, Louise chose them carefully, especially the most pivotal two – maverick hero Harry Ryder, a man disillusioned by war, and the idealistic new recruit Charlie Polly Oliver, whose moral code is sorely tested during the course of the campaign.
“Most of the soldiers in the Crimea had never heard a shot fired in anger,” Louise points out. “World War One is seen as the epitome of youth and innocents going to the slaughter but there were boys as young as 16 in the Crimea who went out so excited thinking they’d take Sevastopol in a week and go home.”
Louise gives us the nightmarish world of close hand fighting with fixed bayonets and the carnage of the Light Brigade charging the big guns. Although she does not condone the loss of life, she commends the courage shown by the men.
“I wanted to look at what was behind the military blunder. It wasn’t until I started researching that I became aware of the massive scale of the stupidity at the Alma where men were ordered to lie down under fire. I went in looking at the tragedy element and came away knowing more about the sheer heroism of the men who faced it.
“We should be celebrating those men. War is a terrible thing but it is not fair to blame the soldiers for the stupidity of war. The more stupid the orders were, the more heroic the soldiers became.”
Researching this stupidity gave Louise a vital plot line about a shady officer giving conflicting orders that lead men to their doom.
“On the very first day I found a clue to the battle of the Alma and it was about this mysterious figure doing extraordinary things. The more I got into the story of this unknown officer, I felt the hairs on back of my neck go up.”
Incredibly detailed and informative, the book is also a thrilling read with characters you’d gladly lay down your life for. Louise is already busy on the sequel.
But how does the methodical world of writing historical novels compare to the cut and thrust of TV?
“On EastEnders one of the biggest problems was how real life would interfere – your leading character might get pregnant but characters in books don’t get drunk or do appalling things in dressing rooms on web cams and yet they can still grow and become their own people. As a novelist, you’re a writer, producer, designer, casting director and an actor – you absolutely control it.”
Into the Valley of Death by AL Berridge is published by Penguin, hardback edition £12.99. Details: www.louiseberridge.com