The Man Who Lived Twice is a panoramic novel about nineteenth century America. Its central character is Colonel George St Leger Grenfell, a courageous but deeply flawed Cornish mercenary who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. A hero to General Robert E Lee and a legend to the gullible hillbillies under his command, ‘Ole St Lege’ had charged with the Light Brigade at Balaclava, hacked his way through the Opium War and defended bullet-strewn barricades in the Indian Mutiny. Yet the charismatic figure who tells these tales of derring-do is a wanted criminal, a fraudster who bankrupted his tin smelting family and was disowned by his father. He is also a cynic with a death wish, an almost suicidal urge to risk his skin for a cause he privately believes to be doomed. As massive armies collide and one hair-raising cavalry charge follows another, this complex man comes to recognise that he can no longer run away from his past and must try to fashion a new life for himself in America.
In this spiritual odyssey, Grenfell travels the length and breadth of the continent, soaring precariously above enemy lines in a balloon and riding the rails to the Wild West, meeting the men and women who made, marred and mythologized American history: the business tycoons, feminists and social reformers as well as the Lincoln conspirators, big-city bosses and murderous gunslingers. Although apparently indestructible – in one Civil War skirmish he is shot eleven times without serious injury – Grenfell doesn’t have much luck. He is sentenced to death for a crime he never committed, spends long years in prison, and loses the woman he loves. Then his fortune changes, quite literally. Digging in his prison compound, he discovers a chest containing thousands of military guineas and politically sensitive correspondence that British soldiers had looted from the White House in 1814. What Grenfell does with his new-found wealth takes up the rest of the narrative. The Man Who Lived Twice is the story of a personal search for redemption set against the emergence of the United States as a world power.
I first heard of the real-life George St Leger Grenfell when I visited Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas and was shown the cell he shared with the notorious Dr Samuel Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after he’d assassinated Lincoln. Grenfell’s death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment on what was then a shark-infested island off the coast of Florida. Here he is brutalised by sadistic army guards whom, ironically, he and Dr Mudd nurse back to health during a yellow fever epidemic. Eventually, tiring of his captivity, Grenfell escapes in a small boat but is thought to have drowned at sea. Officially declared dead in 1869, he is frequently sighted in Cuba.
I have imagined Grenfell’s second life as a sugar planter, gunfighter and coffee tycoon-cum-philanthropist who survives to see in the twentieth century. In the book’s final chapter his widow takes the stolen presidential papers back to the White House and Theodore Roosevelt is overjoyed to discover that his famous predecessors, Jefferson and Madison, shared his imperial vision for America.
This is the first instalment in a family saga that will see Grenfell’s Harvard-educated son return to his mining roots in Cornwall before getting caught up in the First World War. I am writing that sequel now.