Historical novelist Margaret George is well-known for her impeccably researched novels about such fascinating characters as Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Cleopatra. As her latest book, The Confessions of Young Nero, launches in the UK, Catherine Hokin caught up with her to find out more about the eras and people which attract her and the relationships that underpin her re-examining of another complex personality.
You have spoken before about your well-earned reputation for accuracy but also the need not to be trapped by this. How hard is it to walk this line when creating your fictional world for these very real people and do you set yourself any rules?
I used to say I would never go against a known fact but I have had to retreat a bit on that, at least in small events. For example, Britannicus was born 3 weeks after Caligula was assassinated, but since I needed to have all of the characters together when they hear about it, the infant Britannicus had to be there. That’s not really a glaring change, though. In larger things, such as Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots meeting, I can’t allow that! The closest they ever got was 44 miles apart, although they meet often on stage and cinema. So, my rule is that for small things that make no real difference, I can alter or omit them, but for anything of real importance, no matter how inconvenient for me, I can’t change them.
Your novels have the feel of epic journeys and involve characters who are almost operatic in the sense of how broadly their lives sweep. What attracts you to the characters you have written about?
Ah, you have hit the nail on the head. I used to wonder what the characters I am drawn to have in common – how is Henry VIII like Cleopatra like Nero? Then one day I realised: operatic lives! Lives that are dramatic, dangerous, filled with highs and lows, desperate decisions and unrelenting fate—yes! Many of them meet early deaths – Mary Queen of Scots was 44, Cleopatra was 39, and Nero is only 30 – because of fateful decisions or relentless enemies. Perhaps I am drawn to them because my life is anything but operatic and I want to live that life from a safe distance.
I have read that the characters you are interested in are those who have been misunderstood by history. Rather than being the maligned figure popular culture paints him as, your Nero is a complex and artistic soul. How would you describe him and how did you come to see him this way?
As an artist myself, I was early aware of the pressure not to be one, because of practicalities. I have seen people who want to be actors, writers or artists pressured to go to law school instead, or join the family insurance business. It occurred to me that Nero was in exactly that position, but the stakes were much higher for him. The ‘family business’ was being emperor, and the only way he could leave the ‘family business’ was on a funeral pyre. So he had to go against his true calling in order to survive. It didn’t help his confusion that he turned out to be quite talented in the survival game as well. One historian, Michael Grant, said, “he was the first ruler in all recorded history, and indeed almost the only one of any real importance, to consider himself primarily as a singer and stage performer.” It took much self-knowledge, wilfulness, and courage, to pursue his artistic nature in spite of the barriers against it. His last words were “Qualis artifex pereo! What an artist dies in me!” and by those words he kept that identity to the end.
Did you uncover anything during your research that surprised you about Nero’s character? Anything you had not foreseen?
I did not realise he was an athlete. The stereotype is that he was an overweight guy in a toga. But he was a gifted athlete, especially as a wrestler and charioteer. One historian said he exercised naked in the public exercise yard! Imagine an emperor doing that! He encouraged Greek athletics in Rome, building a state of the art gymnasium for the public and giving out little bottles of olive oil as they did in Greece. Alas, it didn’t catch on. The Romans thought exercise for its own sake a waste of time, and preferred to watch gladiators fight it out while they sat in the stands and watched. The ultimate spectator sport!
One of the pivotal relationships in The Confessions of Young Nero is that with his mother, the very sinisterly drawn Agrippina. Could you tell us a little more about the sources you drew on to depict this and how you think the bond impacted on Nero’s life?
All three main sources on Nero’s life, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius, give us a picture that makes “Mommie Dearest” pale in comparison. Modern historians give her a bit of a break in saying that powerful women were seen as a threat in Rome and so she might have been treated unfairly by her biographers, who saw her as the stereotypical Evil Woman. Be that as it may, her relationship with her only son was a deeply complex one. They were bound together in a love-hate bond. In many ways she had been incorporated into his psyche so deeply that the only way he could be free to live a life without her control was to do away with her. After she was gone, he exploded in a frenzy of pent-up artistic and creative projects which she had forbidden. His need to rid himself of her was less for political reasons (as some would have it) but rather personal and psychological, trying to escape from her control. If there was incest, it was her last-ditch attempt to regain control over him, as the ancient historians assert.
As I would expect from a novel set during this period in Rome’s history, the novel is filled with a host of fascinating characters. Was there anyone else’s story that attracted you, that you think deserves a deeper engagement?
It’s hard to steal a scene from Nero, but I think Agrippina herself merits a closer look. She was sister to one emperor (Caligula), wife to another (Claudius), and mother of another (Nero). She was also the daughter of Rome’s great warrior-hero, Germanicus. Perhaps only Nero could upstage such a character. She was the most powerful woman yet in Rome, and after her, there were no others to follow her. She lived through turbulent times and the city of Cologne is named after her -Colonia Agrippinensis – the only colony named after a woman. “If walls could talk”…she lived within many walls and her story is waiting to be told.
You have moved periods between the Tudor and the classical worlds. When you are done with Nero, do you plan to stay in this period or is somewhere else drawing your attention?
There are four characters, all in vastly different places and times, that attract me: Boudicca, Pocahontas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Andrew Jackson. What an odd assortment!
And finally, if you could share one writing tip, what would that be?
There’s that old chestnut, read a lot. That is probably the best preparation for being a writer yourself. Ray Bradbury says to write a thousand words a day, every day. That’s hard to do, so I would re-phrase it as “keep the pilot light lit.” Keep your project going, even if you have to turn the heat way down for awhile, but keep it lit! Don’t let the flame go out or let the project get stale or abandoned. Keep it alive and keep going. That also reinforces your own idea of yourself as a committed writer, not just a hobbyist.
Catherine Hokin‘s debut novel, Blood and Roses, brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine – and blogs monthly for The History Girls.