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Diana Preston: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Diana Preston is the author of books on the Boxer Rebellion, the Taj Mahal, the sinking of the Lusitania and other topics. She and her husband Michael are the co-authors of A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. Diana's latest book is The Dark Defile: Britain's Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-1842, published in February by Walker & Company.

For those who haven't yet had a chance to read the book, give us a thumbnail synopsis of the First Anglo-Afghan War: how did the conflict come about, how long did it last, and what was the result?

The First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838-42 is one of Britain's most notorious military catastrophes. The genesis of the war was British suspicion that imperialist and expansionist Russia was planning to advance through Afghanistan to invade India, Britain's richest and most prized colonial possession. The Afghans resented the British presence, and the invasion was politically controversial at home. Barely two years after the British had occupied Kabul thousands of British and Indian troops, officials and their dependents suddenly found themselves besieged. A disastrous retreat to India under constant attack by the Afghan hill tribes left only one Briton and several Indian soldiers alive. When the news of the disaster reached Britain, it was greeted with anger and the British sent an army of retribution to punish the Afghans. Soon afterwards, the British withdrew from Afghanistan with their puppet king already murdered, allowing Dost Mohammed, who had surrendered to the British and been exiled by them, to return. The entire enterprise was a disaster that soured British-Afghan relations for many years.

How did you come to be interested in the conflict, and how long was the research process for The Dark Defile?

I've been interested in the conflict for a long time and in particular in some of the characters but the more I began delving into the sources the more I realized it is something of a cautionary tale. The Duke of Wellington (the conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo and a former Prime Minister) predicted at the time—accurately as it turned out—that "The consequence of crossing the Indus once, to settle a government in Afghanistan, will be a perennial march into that country." (British forces entered Afghanistan twice more over the subsequent 80 years, before doing so again as part of the current NATO-led force.) I became increasingly intrigued not only by what actually happened and the many vivid personal stories but also by the wider political and strategic issues surrounding the campaign.

Subsequent research in the UK and northern India took about two years.

I was struck by Lady Florentia Sale, whose diary of the war you draw on frequently in the book. Tell us how Lady Sale ended up in the middle of the conflict, and about her diary which recounts so vividly the events she witnessed.

Plain-speaking, fifty-year-old Florentia Sale arrived in Kabul to join her husband, a senior British officer nicknamed "Fighting Bob". She devoted her early months to planting a flower garden but when the Afghans rose up she found herself trapped in Kabul without her husband who had left with his regiment for India. She commented acidly on subsequent British military incompetence and diplomatic vacillation, writing, "it appears a very strange circumstance that troops were not immediately sent into the city to quell the [rising] ... but we seem to sit quietly with our hands folded and look on ... General Elphinstone vacillates on every point. His own judgment appears to be good but he is swayed by the last speaker ..."

She survived the early days of the British retreat, caring with her pregnant daughter for her dying son-in-law, a wounded British officer. She was then taken hostage by the Afghans. Her clear-eyed, unsentimental, occasionally humorous diary provides a detailed account of events, both previously in Kabul and then in her captivity and—unlike some of the other eyewitness accounts written with an eye to publication—rings true to the core. She describes how, as she and the other prisoners were bundled away by their Afghan captors, they passed naked starving people left behind by the retreating British column who were surviving "by feeding on their dead comrades." She also wrote that she and the other prisoners quickly became verminous—"very few of us ... are not covered with crawlers"—and learned to distinguish between lice which they called "infantry" and fleas which were "light cavalry". She lived to be eventually reunited with her husband.

NB: You can read Lady Sale's A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan (London, 1843) here.

One of the most intriguing moments in the conflict comes when Dost Mohammed, the Afghan leader who the British were seeking to depose, surrenders himself soon after the initial invasion. Based on your reading of the sources and your research into the conflict, why do you think Mohammed took that step?

Just as—to my mind at least—Lady Sale emerges from this story with credit, so does Dost Mohammed. The full range of documents now available reveal that, whatever British politicians claimed in the edited papers they published at the time, Dost Mohammed would have been a far better ally than the puppet Shah Soojah. (Among the most doctored papers were despatches from a British envoy sent to Kabul before the decision to go to war was taken urging Dost Mohammed's claims and abilities to his superiors.)

Dost Mohammed's surrender to the British is certainly puzzling. Though forced to flee Kabul, he was still holding out and managing to raise troops. Even more surprising is that he chose to surrender just after inflicting a significant defeat on the British. Perhaps having won that encounter he decided that honor was satisfied and there was little point, at least for the present, in continuing to resist a more powerful enemy. Perhaps he was simply weary or had fallen into the despondency to which those who well knew his character, (British, Indians, Afghans, as well as his own American adviser, Pennsylvania-born Josiah Harlan), claimed he was prone. Later Afghan historians of course criticized Dost Mohammed for giving up at a time when the British were vulnerable. My own view is that he was a clever, subtle and pragmatic politician who understood the situation very much better than the British. He knew it was only a matter of time before the Afghan tribes—often at each others' throats—united against the foreign invader. He also knew, on the precedent of the treatment of others, that he was probably in no danger from the British who would send him into honorable exile from which he could one day return to take command again—which is exactly what happened. Also, though Dost Mohammed himself surrendered, his favorite son did not and so was left to continue to organize resistance to the British on his father's behalf.

What did you learn during the research process for this book that surprised you the most?

The diversity of the original sources I came across for The Dark Defile surprised me: from frank, revealing, often harrowing letters and diaries and messages smuggled out of Kabul to accounts published soon afterwards by officers and others which tried to make sense of what had gone wrong or to exculpate themselves. Other writings like those of Mohan Lal, a highly educated Hindu Kashmiri employed by the British as a secret agent who survived imprisonment and torture, and those of British and Indian private soldiers and non-commissioned officers provided a wider perspective. I found a number of documents by eye-witnesses which have never been used and which offer some thought-provoking insights.

I was also struck while researching this book not only by the scale of the mistakes made by the British but also by the seeming prescience of some of those involved. The British entered Afghanistan without clear enough objectives or a defined exit strategy or timetable, not understanding the diverse tribal nature of the country nor its culture. A wise British diplomat observed, "we shall never settle Afghanistan at the point of the bayonet". Another official on the spot wrote of the attempt to impose western systems of government in Afghanistan: "There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against in our endeavor to re-establish the Afghan monarchy than the overweening confidence with which Europeans are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of their own institutions and the anxiety they display to introduce them in new and untried soils."

You've now written books on a wide variety of topics: Marie Curie, the Boxer Rebellion, Cleopatra and Antony, the Battle of Culloden Moor, and the Lusitania disaster. What sorts of things do you look for in a subject as you consider it as a book project?

I enjoy telling "big stories" like the Anglo-Afghan War or the Boxer Rebellion or the sinking of the Lusitania and understanding their political background and relevance to today. I'm also attracted to less familiar topics such as bringing back to prominence the seventeenth century buccaneer, explorer and naturalist William Dampier, the first westerner to reach Australia, who inspired Jonathan Swift's Gulliver’s Travels, brought many words into the English language from "avocado" and "barbecue" to "cashew" and identified the concept of "sub-species" over a century before Charles Darwin. It's a big decision to spend two or three years on a project so above all I look for something that rouses my curiosity and where I feel there's something new to be said.

Tell us about your writing process. When and where do you do most of your writing? Do you write longhand, or on a computer?

I work mostly at home in London in a small, untidy room overlooking the garden unless I need to be in libraries like the Bodleian Library at my old university of Oxford or the British Library.

I.T. has been a great liberator. I always write on screen because of the freedom it gives me to put down my thoughts without inhibitions in a first draft and then to amend both the content and expression later, following further reflection.

What types of books do you like to read? What's your own home library like?

My library is full of history books of course from modern writers such as Simon Schama, slightly earlier ones such as Barbara Tuchman's—my favorite narrative historian—to the "greats" such as Gibbon and Macaulay and going even further back, particularly for my interest in the classical world, Tacitus, Cicero and Arrian—the biographer of the first western invader of Afghanistan, Alexander the Great, whose accounts the nineteenth century British invaders of Afghanistan used for geographical and other advice for want of anything more recent. However, I also enjoy reading fiction. I'm a terrible dipper in and out of books, especially old favorites such as Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy – a thoroughly "modern" novel even though written over 250 years ago—Jane Austen, Donna Tartt or Bridget Jones's Diary.

Which books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I'm planning a trip along part of the old silk route from Beijing to Central Asia and have just been reading Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road. I’ve also recently read Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Do you have a sense yet of what your next project will be?

It's probably going to be about the First World War and how technology influenced both the conduct and morality of warfare.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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