Discover the romance of the world’s most famous hymn writer
Fresh off the heals of her multi award winning novel, Luther and Katharina, Jody Hedlund opens up the life of John Newton and his deep and enduring romance with Polly Catlett in Newton and Polly. Hedlund’s reputation for a keen eye to detail and research makes historical figures come alive while filling in some of the lesser known details of their history.
Now remembered as the author of the world’s most famous hymn, in the mid-eighteenth century as England and France stand on the brink of war, John Newton is a young sailor wandering aimlessly through life. His only duty is to report to his ship and avoid disgracing his father—until the night he hears Polly Catlett’s enchanting voice, caroling. He’s immediately smitten and determined to win her affection.
An intense connection quickly forms between the two, but John’s reckless spirit and disregard for the Christian life are concerns for the responsible, devout Polly. When an ill-fated stop at a tavern leaves John imprisoned and bound, Polly must choose to either stand by his side or walk out of his life forever. Will she forfeit her future for the man she loves?
Step back through the pages of history, to uncover the true love story behind a song that continues to stir the hearts and ignite the faith of millions around the globe.
Q&A with novelist Jody Hedlund
Like most people, I’m familiar with the song Amazing Grace and knew it was written by John Newton who’d once been an atheist slave trader. I’d even heard a little bit about John Newton’s saving grace moment when he was aboard a ship during a life-threatening storm and cried out to God.
However, I’d never heard anything about the love of his life, Polly Catlett, until I began to dig a little deeper into his life. It didn’t take me long to realize that Newton had a passionate love for her, and his love for her affected just about every decision he made for good and bad. Theirs is a beautiful love story, one that God used in a powerful way. I decided it was a story the world needed to hear.
Polly Catlett is one of those forgotten women of history. Since most people have never heard of her, she can’t be all that important, can she? What role did she really play in Newton’s life?
Newton readily admits in his autobiography that he fell in love with Polly Catlett at first sight. He says this: “At the first sight of this girl, I felt an affection for her that never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart.”
He was completely taken with Polly so much so that every time he visited her, he overextended his stay. Such irresponsibility cost him at least two different jobs and in the end was one of the major reasons he was captured and impressed into the king’s navy.
When Newton’s naval ship sailed away from England, he was so depressed that he contemplated suicide. He said: “Nothing I either felt or feared distressed me so much as being thus forcibly torn away from the object of my affections.”
During his time away as he was involved in the slave trade, Newton’s love for Polly never diminished. If not for his passion for her, he probably wouldn’t have boarded the ship that took him away from Africa. He wouldn’t have experienced the life-threatening storm on the way home. And he might not have written Amazing Grace.
So, yes indeed Polly Catlett was incredibly important. If not for her, the world may never have known the most amazing hymn ever written.
You always do an enormous amount of research for each of your historicals. What was your research process like for Newton and Polly and what was the hardest part about it?
The first part of my research process for Newton and Polly involved reading as many biographies about John Newton that I could find. The one I found to be the most accurate and helpful was called, John Newton From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken.
Another book I found especially helpful was John Newton’s autobiography, Out of the Depths. His accounts are both insightful and inspiring.
After learning as much as I could about both Newton and Polly including their backgrounds and personalities, I then researched the historical context of the story—the political and social climate, the war with France, the slavery issues, pirating, smuggling, impressment, and all the other issues common to the mid-1700’s.
Once I’d gained an understanding of the bigger picture, I familiarized myself with the smaller details such as clothing, food, homes, and everything else that I could learn about Georgian England. This micro-level research is usually the hardest for me. I want to be as accurate as possible in every detail from what hairstyles the women had to the clothing the sailors wore. But it’s not always easy to locate all the information I need.
Whenever fiction is based on true people or events, authors have the added challenge of maintaining integrity to the truth. How do you balance fact with fiction?
I always make it my goal to stay as true to the known facts as possible. I want to represent the people and events that I write about as accurately as possible. So for example, Newton and Polly really did meet at a young age. Newton really did claim to have fallen in love with her at first sight. He overspent his time at the Catletts on numerous occasions and lost his jobs in the process. Because of his lack of character, the Catlett’s forbade further contact with Polly. He was impressed into the Royal Navy but later deserted, was whipped, and demoted. He was later transferred to a merchant vessel and from there spent time dealing in the slave trade in Africa.
Yes, it’s important to remain true to the facts. However, if that’s all a fiction writer did the book would turn into a biography. The challenge then is to take the facts and craft them into a riveting tale that readers can’t put down. In order to do that, writers often have to add additional plot lines and characters. Since history doesn’t record everything and we weren’t there to see what really happened, writers have the liberty of interpreting the gaps and adding in things that could have occurred.
I always write with this motto: Build the framework with true facts, but then fill in the unknown and decorate the house with enough color and drama to make a good story.
The title of the book says, A Novel of Amazing Grace. In what ways does the theme of grace come out in the book?
The theme of grace is very prevalent throughout the book because inherently that’s the theme of Newton’s life. In other words, I wouldn’t have been able to accurately write this book or portray Newton’s life without showing the amazing hand of God at work in drawing him back to the truth of the gospel.
Not only did God spare Newton’s life during a life-threatening voyage back to England from Africa, but God spared Newton numerous other times, during his youth and also while he was in Africa working as a slave trader. Newton should have been a dead man. But God saved him time after time, and certainly not because Newton was righteous.
In fact, Newton was vile, blasphemous, and mocked and rejected God. But through it all, God never stopped loving Newton. When Newton finally dropped to his knees and wept over his sins, God was there waiting to draw him in with outstretched arms. That’s truly Amazing Grace.
What do you hope readers walk away with after having read Newton and Polly?
During the very last time I read the book while I was doing my last edit, Newton’s return to God brought me to tears. I hope readers, too, are overwhelmed by the sense of God’s presence and grace in Newton’s life.
More than that, I pray that readers will have a new sense of God’s grace extended toward them, that they’ll realize that no matter what they’ve done or where they’ve been, that God is waiting to draw them into his outstretched arms into his amazing grace.
Jody Hedlund is a CBA best-selling and award-winning author of fourteen books. Among a variety of genres, she especially loves bringing long-forgotten women of history to life. She is the author of Luther and Katharina, which was awarded the ECPA Book of the Year Award in Fiction. Her other novels have won the Carol Award, the INSPY Award, and the Christy Award. She resides in Midland, Michigan, with her husband and five busy children.