Can we do the past justice?

Queen Charlotte

Despite writing short stories and novellas set in the Regency period for about the last ten years, I’ve always shied away from “real” people. In fact, I haven’t even resorted to the little stratagem many authors employ of having their characters bump into people such as the Prince Regent and Beau Brummel. Why? Because I just didn’t feel entitled to put words in the mouth of someone who truly existed. I could literally see their Georgian skeletons rotating in their graves at my presumption.

Two years ago, I found a reason to overcome my scruples. I picked up a book that had been long languishing on my shelf: Flora Fraser’s Princesses. If you haven’t read it (and you should read it!), this wonderful book gives a biography of the six daughters of George III. Ever heard of them? It occurred to me that so many people would love this story but would never know of it, because they simply aren’t the types to wander down the history section of the bookshop.  Fired up with enthusiasm for my new best friends, the Georgian Princesses, I decided I was going to tell the tale to those who wouldn’t read it otherwise.

Of course this was massively ambitious and naive. I may set out to write their story, but I will only ever tell my own.

Historical fiction is, I believe, wholly subjective. Yes, you could weigh the subject matter evenly and show every side of your protagonist from birth to death, but you would end up with an academic essay, not a novel. Although all my characterisation is based on research, I am bound to bend it to my own means. Essentially, I am writing about freedom and I will naturally select source material that helps me to express this. I’m not the only one: I was amused this week to see Charles Fox appear on Garrow’s Law as a slim, well-dressed man with small eyebrows – the polar opposite to most of the accounts we have of him. But as Garrow’s Law is aimed at showing a man before his time – liberal, reforming and a beacon of justice – his “radical” associates have to appear attractive to us. Old food stains and a monobrow like a caterpillar just wouldn’t do that. I can fully understand the casting decision.

I have had endless trouble moulding my three heroines Queen Charlotte, Princess Royal and Princess Sophia into “characters”. My problem is that they are people and, however much art seeks to imitate life, will never fit easily into the pages of a book. For example, contemporary sources tell us Charlotte started life in England as a “gay young Queen” but as we follow the course of history we see her beaten down into a selfish, morose woman. She was the type of person who would get herself into debt by giving too generously to charity but in later life acted with almost inhuman coldness to her own family. I have tried my best, and am still working on blending these two aspects of her psyche – but so far the response from test readers has been, understandably: “Why is she so nice in her narratives but so harsh in her daughters’ ones?” Some of this, no doubt, stems from a weakness in my writing and a need to further develop the psychological insight I offer. But I have found what the reader expects from “book characters” is consistency – and unfortunately, their real life counterparts don’t play ball!

Aside from this, there is the yawning gulf between your subject and your reader to consider. However well spoken Princess Royal was, I am compelled to use contractions such as can’t and won’t to make her dialogue flow. I have tried, where possible, to use my subject’s own words, directly from their correspondence. Amusingly, it is these lines that my test readers underlined with “This doesn’t make sense”. Quite rightly, the test readers also highlighted the young Princess Sophia’s narratives that jarred against their expectations: “She is seven! Were you this eloquent at seven?” Sadly, no, but Sophia was. In French, too. But when it comes to writing a good novel, it simply doesn’t matter. My test readers are right: to the modern eye, it looks stupid.

What do you think? Can we ever tell the true story of our subjects, or even present our own interpretations without bowing to the restrictions of the art form? Should we even want to? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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