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Choosing a Novel’s Timeframe. Why 1792 to 1801?

British naval hero Vice Admiral Lord Nelson’s dramatic death sealing his heroic legacy occurred at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. I am often asked why my story ends in 1801?

Image: Vintage card based on painting of a Georgian Couple – sadly not Horatio and Fanny.

Setting the Focus

Like a good photographer, the historical fiction writer needs to choose his time frame carefully. The obvious dates for a story about a relationship is when “they met and when they parted”. Horatio and Fanny met in 1785. Instead I chose the key turning points in Horatio and Fanny’s life together. In their true story, the years from 1792 to 1801 saw their relationship as it went from peace to war to parting of the ways.

Nelson Establishes His Reputation

Before 1792, Horatio had been “on the beach” – in semi- retirement, for five long years – his punishment for offending the “powers that be” in earlier assignments in the West Indies. In 1793, however, the French Revolutionary war began and as a Captain with a reputation for fierce fighting, Horatio was recalled and given command of a battleship. For the next ten years, Horatio returned to England only once – for about five months. These were the years when he made a reputation for taking the war to the enemy and in which he tested his new theories of battle.

Nelson Strives for a Heroic Destiny

By 1797 Horatio had been promoted to Commodore, but he was frustrated by the dead weight of the admirals he served. Then fortuitously he played a starring role in the Battle of Cape St Vincent, the only fleet action in the Mediterranean up to this point. He was knighted for his contribution and promoted to rear Admiral. Although his pickings were thin compared to his boss the redoubtable John Jervis his name was now established as an up and coming star.

Image: Nelson Wounded at Tenerife

by Richard Westall

Fanny Nurses Nelson Back to Health

Shortly after his success at Cape St Vincent, however, he suffered an important reversal in Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1797) in the Canary Islands. Over a hundred men were lost and he returned home to Fanny seriously wounded with his career under a cloud. He recovered his health with Fanny’s help and, with the help of his friends and Fanny, made a good impression on those who would determine his future, including the prime minister, William Pitt. As a result he returned to the Mediterranean in early 1798 leading a squadron to track a huge French fleet, assembling in Toulon to carry the enemy’s army to an unknown destination.

Near Alexandria in Egypt Horatio had what was arguably his greatest victory, if we consider the odds against him and his dramatic battle plan. The Battle of the Nile destroyed the enemy fleet in Abukir Bay. Napoleon’s plans to drive the British from India were thwarted and he and his army were marooned. Horatio’s triumph was completely his own and his praises were sung far and wide throughout Europe. The battle cemented his reputation.

Naples’ Impact on Nelson

Horatio returned to Naples to rebuild his battered fleet and then occurs the strange saga of Horatio and the Naples court. Its characters included the King and Queen and the enigmatic Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador and Emma, an engaging woman with a “reputation”. A disastrous campaign against the French resulted in the loss of Naples. Another “short” campaign to dislodge the French from Malta became a prolonged and costly matter. Not least, news of a scandal involving Horatio and the Hamilton’s leaked and became known in London.

Horatio, Emma and William returned home to a rapturous welcome by the British public. But all was not well. The King and his ministers were appalled by Horatio’s scandalous behaviour in conducting a public affair with the wife of a British diplomat. Meanwhile, Horatio expected Fanny, his loyal wife, to cooperate with him in this scandal.

The Nation Needs its Tarnished Hero

England, still threatened with invasion, still needed Horatio the fighter and soon after his return to England he was back to sea again. The Battle of Copenhagen restored him to favour with the Admiralty but he never fully regained his personal reputation among England’s elite. His death of unfailing heroism at the Battle of Trafalgar at last coated the seamier aspects of his personal life with legendary glory. The scene was set for the myth which lasts to this day.

Choosing the Date for the Closing Chapters

For reasons explored in my novel, Fanny became a wealthy titled lady, much admired by the royal family and Society. But in the years afterwards, Horatio’s “legend” ensured Fanny was painted out of the picture. Nobility, after all, cannot live side by side with faithless cruelty. Part of my reason for writing a fictionalised account of Fanny and Horatio’s relationship was to flesh out this side of the story for modern readers so by ending with the events in England in 1801 means the reader is not overly distracted by Horatio’s undeniable genius and tragic end. Rather the reader is left asking a question: could this have ended differently? And if not, then why not?

Image: The Death of Nelson by the American artist Benjamin West. 1806. Nelson himself had a role in the creation of this work. Benjamin West met Horatio in 1801 and asked the artist why he had not produced more paintings like his famous The Death of General Wolfe. When West replied that he found no subject of comparable notability, Horatio expressed a desire to become a subject of such a painting. In 1805, Horatio’s legendary end provided the artist with his setting. Within six months of Horatio’s death, West had created this idealised painting.

Nelson’s Folly by Oliver Greeves is available in hard copy or on kindle at and other online book stores or at The Constant Reader Bookshop in Mosman and Crows Nest.

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