Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Deborah Hale: Paging Colin Firth...

Oh it possible one of your lady ancestresses was intimately acquainted with this gentleman? The moment I saw Sir James Kempt's portrait, I was struck by the resemblance to you as Mr. Darcy.

Sir James became the inspiration for Sir Robert Kerr, the hero of my novel The Bride Ship (Mills & Boon Historical, Jan 07). A Scot from the Edinburgh port of Leith, he served four years as quartermaster general in British North America before joining the Duke of Wellington to fight in the Peninsular War. A quiet and unassuming man, Kempt proved an excellent and popular officer. Severely wounded in the assault on Bajadoz, he recovered and was sent back to Canada with troops to reinforce British regiments that had suffered casualties in the War of 1812.

Recalled to Europe after Napoleon’s flight from Elba, he commanded the 8th Brigade, under General Picton at the battle of Waterloo. When Picton was killed in battle, command fell to Kempt, who galloped along the line encouraging his men to hold their position. Kempt was wounded but once again recovered. For his contribution to the British victory, he was awarded many honors. After the war, Kempt succeeded Lord Dalhousie as lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, where he was universally liked and respected. Even the irascible Joseph Howe seemed to approve his “passion for road making and pretty women.” The governor's aide-de-camp later recalled that “society, by the force of his example, was the most agreeable thing imaginable.”

In1828, Kempt was appointed to head an inquiry into the building of the Rideau Canal, which was running far over budget (some things never change!). Kempt was reluctant to undertake a mission he saw as pointless. Lameness from an old wound had confined him to Government House for most of the previous winter, causing him to protest, “my legs are by no means in Campaigning Order.” But the commission was obliged to inspect the canal site. Travelling over rough terrain between Bytown (Ottawa) and Kingston in sweltering temperatures, Kempt endured more misery and fatigue than during his soldiering days. “Thank God,” he wrote upon reaching Kingston, “I am at last again in a Christian Country and out of the land of Swamps and Mosquitoes!”

Kempt expected to return to Nova Scotia to serve out the rest of his term as governor in peace. Instead he was made governor-in-chief of British North America, a plum post he most emphatically did not want. Since 1825 he had repeatedly told his superiors he was comfortable in Halifax and had no desire at all to be moved to the Canadas. “I am grieved,” he wrote Lord Dalhousie, “to hear you hint at the possibility of my soon filling your shoes in Canada. . . . I do assure you most solemnly that a removal to Canada is the last wish of my heart.” The Colonial Office had other ideas.

Though he was “anxious to get a couple of years to myself to take a ramble on the Continent” and fulfill a long-standing ambition to visit Switzerland and Italy, Kempt reluctantly accepted the appointment out of a sense of duty to his old commander, Wellington, now Prime Minister. But he warned that nothing would induce him to stay more than two years. When he arrived at Quebec he found the colony in a state bordering on rebellion. “My Legislative Bodies are composed of such inflammable materials,” he declared, “that I feel myself seated on a Barrel of Gunpowder not knowing from one moment to another how soon an explosion may take place.”

He tried to act as a mediator and somehow succeeded in preserving a degree of harmony in Lower Canada during his term. When he reminded the colonial secretary of his desire to return to England in the autumn of 1830 he was urged to stay. But Kempt replied, “I have arrived at a time of life, when I am quite capable of judging what is best for my personal interests.” No man, he wrote, “ever relinquished an Office of £8,000 a year with greater satisfaction than I shall do.”

Upon returning to England, Kempt was appointed master general of the Board of Ordnance, which he accepted on condition that he would not be required to enter the House of Commons or have anything to do with party politics. He resigned the post after four years and he began a belated retirement, during which he corresponded and socialized with old army friends, among them the Duke of Wellington and Lord Seaton. Kempt’s death, in London on December 20th 1854 was followed that winter by several other Napoleonic War officers. Veteran John Charles Beckwith lamented their passing. “These men I regard as the patriarchs of all that is solid in England.”

A dozen years after Kempt’s death, the British North American colonies he had governed so ably united to form the Dominion of Canada. A village in Nova Scotia is named Kemptville, in his honor, as well as a town in Ontario where Sir James was said to have camped on his dismal journey from Ottawa to Kingston. Sadly, this man who had a passion for pretty women never married. I hope he would have been amused, and perhaps secretly flattered, to be the inspiration for a romance novel!

Readers interested in learning more about Colonial Nova Scotia (where Queen Victoria's father lived with his mistress Julie St. Laurent) can visit my Colonial Halifax webpage.


Tess said...

Ooooh - Deb, thanks for the fascinating post!!! Off to see your Halifax webpage. The Bride Ship was one of my fave 06 reads :-)

Deborah Hale said...

Hi Tess,

So glad to hear you enjoyed The Bride Ship! I really loved the wry humor that came across in Sir James Kempt's letters. Now whenever I drive down Kempt Road in Halifax, I think of him. ;-)