When using real people in historical fiction, how far must you be true to them? Or, rather, how wildly may you traduce them? William Sutton ponders a common concern for writers.
Do you worry about misrepresenting historical figures?
“You faithless writer,” cry my characters, as I attribute to them words and attitudes they would renounce.
Tom Stoppard, in Travesties, took care to give Lenin only speeches that were historically attributed to him. But with his main character, Henry Carr, he was more daring. Carr’s fame (reported in Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce) rested on his quarrel with the great author over a pair of trousers he’d bought to play Algernon in Joyce’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
How surprised Stoppard was, after his play opened, to receive a letter from Carr’s widow. Thankfully, she was generous about any misrepresentation.
How would you feel if you received a letter from a relative of your character (especially if you’d portrayed them cavalierly and unflatteringly)?
If they’re dead, is it still libel?
I have made a prince behave like a cad. I’ve made a famous engineer unwitting accomplice to conspiracy. I’ve put an erotic memoirist at the heart of a network that would trouble Operation Yew Tree. Might their descendants demand restitution?
Top Ten Traducements
Here is a cricket team of real people I have casually introduced into my fiction. Only now, as I write about it, do I worry whom I have traduced and whom represented faithfully.
- Charles Dickens
- Prince Albert
- John Camden Hotten, publisher
- Edward Lear
- Wilkie Collins
- Bertie, Prince of Wales
- Skittles (Catherine Walters/Anonyma), courtesan
- Kitty Hamilton, bawd-house madam
- Walter, author of My Secret Life
- William Armstrong (my Earl of Roxbury)
- Joseph Bazalgette, engineer
- 12th men Jenny Marx, The Crippled Nutmeg-Grater Seller, The Hot-Potato Seller
How well should we know our characters? How well can we?
Some writers demand total rigour; some alter the world a little, others a lot. Romantic historical novelist Diana Gabaldon was agonising over a detail of Jacobite clothing. Her exasperated husband was puzzled, in books that begin with time travel from a stone circle, that she worried about such details. Her reply was curt.
We historical novelists, I’d suggest, set ourselves a standard. Often those with the wildest plots are the greatest sticklers for realistic journey times, accurate clothing and pinpoint language. I spend forever on Google Ngrams, checking for anachronistic language.
Errors, inevitably, creep in. I was called out in my first ever review (Allan Massie, The Scotsman) for attributing whiskers to cricketer WG Grace’s brother, EM Grace. That showed a level of detail I had not expected. Nobody pointed out that Bertie, Prince of Wales, whom I teased for his rotundity, was at 21 a willowy youth.
We are all grateful (through gritted teeth) to friends and editors who spot such anachronisms: the Criterion Theatre was not around in 1864; “zounderkite” is not attested in the period, despite the suggestions of pop slang sites. More problematic was this edit suggested for Lawless & the House of Electricity. I mentioned priest-holes during Tudor persecution. My editor said Elizabeth I was more accurate than Henry VIII:
‘I’ve read of hapless priests hiding from Elizabeth I’s torturers.’
Historically better – except that Elizabeth was not known as Elizabeth I in 1864. She was plain Elizabeth, until there was an Elizabeth II. We spotted that error just in time.
I fought over the diagnosis of Lady Elodie’s illness in this book. “What would the illness be diagnosed as today?” she demanded.
“That’s not relevant,” I replied. “And why do we assume we’d be right, and they were wrong?”
She was right to ask. It led to this plea in my afterword note on sources:
Perhaps, just as we laugh at Victorian diagnoses such as strolling congestion, drawing room anguish, dissipation of nerves and imaginary female trouble (factors cited upon commitment to a Victorian asylum), we should think how today’s diagnoses will be laughed at in the future.
Getting to Know Them
There are errors and oversights, and there is traducement.
How well do you get to know your characters? While writing my first novel, I was a Victorian novice. I asked friends: who was in London in 1859, as the Metropolitan Line entered construction? Who should I include? Answers came swiftly: Marx, Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, Edward Lear, pre-Raphs. They threw in Magwitch, Raskolnikov and a cavalcade of fictional characters.
I had no idea how deeply I would end up in this world. As Historia readers will know, the deeper you get, the more you realise you know nothing.
Period background I gleaned from Peter Ackroyd’s inspired book on Dickens. Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House generated detail. A visit to the Geffrye Museum opens the eyes to differences between eras, attuning the eye to style, colour, pattern and textures. A film clip of 1890s Tower Bridge at the Museum of London conveyed the mayhem of traffic better than contemporary accounts – for them, it was normal. Why describe it? Police reports on Lee Jackson’s Victorian London site give the flavour of their prose, accents and slang, unashamed identification of criminal types, and moral undertones through so much of life.
I’ve wasted time too. I read a Disraeli biography, then cut him. (Even his one line about “climbing the greasy pole” of politics.) I read a book on the Geneva Convention, then cut its founder, Henri Dunant.
Princes, Politicians, Prostitutes
Must we represent them fairly, these past figures we dare to reanimate? I like to know them well enough to orchestrate their voices and intentions, but not so well I’d feel ashamed of making them spout whatever claptrap I wish them to voice.
The hugely famous I treat reverentially. Dickens appears sparingly: two lines in my first novel and one in my second, our detective reticent about their acquaintance. To Prince Albert I attribute only sentiments lifted verbatim from his letters, as Stoppard with Lenin. Albert’s son, Bertie (later Edward VII), is a different matter.
For lesser celebrities, I take risks. I place publisher John Camden Hotten in Holywell Street, peddling pornographic novels. Hotten penned the wonderful Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and the Vulgar Tongue. Should I feel ashamed of placing him in such sordid environs? Not really: he also penned Lady Bumtickler’s Revels and published Swinburne’s scurrilous poetry.
I feel I know Edward Lear from Vivien Noakes’ Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer; but I had to steer clear of knowing exactly where he was day by day (as recorded on Marco Graziosi’s Lear website). Likewise, I am cavalier with Wilkie Collins; but Andrew Lycett’s biography A Life of Sensation backs up the ebullient bonhomie, opiates and sybaritic jaunts I accord to him.
Who have I most roundly misrepresented?
Joseph Bazalgette strides through my first book, a triumphant hero redeeming London from the scourge through his sewerage. Researching my third, I discovered contemporary accusations of false practices, even bribery, in the proposal and design stage. So I’ve put him in again, reeling from these allegations.
Bertie, Prince of Wales, we know from the history books and law court records (and fiction such as Peter Lovesey’s mysteries). I don’t regret making him consort with famous courtesan Skittles; I made the most of his real teenage dalliance with dancing girl Nellie Clifden.
Skittles herself proved one of my readers’ favourites in Lawless and the Flowers of Sin. So much was written of her at the time – riding in Rotten Row, Gladstone sending boxes of tea, conquests in Paris – it’s hard to allege anything that would offend her or her admirers. I did invent her association with famous madame Kate Hamilton (and Kate doesn’t come off as kindly).
‘Walter’ the pseudonymous author of My Secret Life is perhaps the character I worst traduce. We cannot be sure of his identity (most likely erotobibliomaniac Henry Spencer Ashbee, creator of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum). I used this uncertainty to create JW Brodie, a Jekyll/Hyde impresario who bestrides London like a spidery colossus, orchestrating crimes worse than Walter ever admitted to.
The Crippled Nutmeg-Grater Seller was interviewed by Henry Mayhew: his story made me weep. I couldn’t resist giving his story fresh voice, with added volubility, in my character Bede, the storyteller in Flowers of Sin.
For my new book, I had already invented my House Of Electricity before learning of Cragside, home of Baron Armstrong, the electro-magus of the north. I loved Henrietta Heald’s glorious William Armstrong: Magician of the North. But I kept my right to fictionalise by creating my Earl of Roxbury, melding attributes of Armstrong with other industrialists past and present. I also wanted to tell a tale of family life (like Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love) – and Armstrong had no children.
Should I feel compunction?
It turns out that Tom Stoppard did misrepresent Henry Carr. He made him a self-regarding draft-dodger, around which Joyce, Lenin and Dadaist Tristan Tzara humorously investigate twentieth century culture. In truth, far from evading the draft, Carr was a prisoner of war, sent to Switzerland through an amnesty because he was wounded. Thank goodness his widow didn’t complain.
How well should we know our characters? How well can we? After all, perhaps contemporary accounts are just as unreliable. If we steered clear of unknowables, we would have no historical fiction at all. No Eagle of the Ninth, no Saxon Stories, no Rob Roy, no Tale of Two Cities. No Iliad.
We can only research so far.
- Wilkie Collins
- Prince Bertie (a young Edward VII)
- Skittles (Catherine Walker)