The Contests of Truths

Writing the prize-winning Comptrollerate-General novels is a head-scratching pleasure. Robert Wilton describes the challenges in having to manoeuvre so tightly within the confines of the historical record, and throwing light on the remarkable stories of intrigue that lurk in the shadows.

Writing historical fiction is fun. But there are times when you get the suspicion, as P.G.Wodehouse put it, “that something has gone seriously wrong with the brain’s two hemispheres”, and wish you dealt in whatever buoyant genre is currently floating off the supermarket shelves. (Is there a middle ground? Fifty Shades of Sir Edward Grey, anyone?)

Traitor’s FieldPartly of course this is the basic need for accuracy, policed by a readership who – contrary to the reputation of historical fiction – are serious about their subject and tend to be very well-read in it. Conjuring the age of fighting sail in Treason’s Tide, or the campaigns of the New Model Army in Traitor’s Field, I am entering the domains of readers who are genuinely expert. I’m more confident in some areas than others: the currents of politics and ideas, whether in Civil War Britain or 1914 Europe for next year’s The Spider of Sarajevo, I am comfortable navigating; but the wish to put a bit of colour into a half-sentence description of atmosphere at the start of a paragraph in Traitor’s Field meant the best part of a day trying to establish what flowers would have been natural or imported in England in the seventeenth century and blooming at a particular time of year. Flowers aren’t a strong point for me; but no doubt they are for some readers.

Still more of a discipline is the framework of facts that a good historical novel must inhabit. Perhaps I was surprised – the fact that I’m now an author of historical fiction is the source of much hilarity among those who knew me as a history student – but I suspect that the rigour needed to write persuasive  historical fiction is almost as great as that needed to write, well… history. The Comptrollerate-General series of novels, all drawn from the archives of that elusive organization active behind the scenes during the most desperate crises in British history, must be seen to be entirely consistent with history as those stringent readers know it.

Treason’s TideTreason’s Tide describes the intrigue and action going on in the shadows of Britain and France while Nelson was trying to thwart an invasion and bring the French navy to decisive combat in the summer of 1805. The positions of the fleets of Nelson, Villeneuve and the other Admirals are a matter of record; and I can’t adjust their movements a day or a league, however dramatic the scene it would enable me to write. The battle of espionage at the heart of Traitor’s Field is set against the great sweep of military and political activity in Britain between Charles I’s death and the final defeat at Worcester in 1651, and Oliver Cromwell isn’t someone whose strategy one would want to play too loosely with. At the same time, the book focuses on the details of the violent death of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, a man who aroused fierce love and equally fierce hatred – he was the most senior soldier to support the Levellers’ campaign for political freedoms – and whose killing is well-documented as well as being rather mysterious.

In all of this, the historical record of battles, of speeches, of trials, of the specific actions and words of individual people, imposes a strict structure in which I can try to give imaginative life to individual characters, but not move them or their deeds to some dramatically more convenient place or time. It’s a test for an editor and a publisher too. (In Traitor’s Field there is also a series of historical documents that contain codes. This seemed a terribly clever idea until we got to the proof-reading phase; the editor, the proof-reader, the typesetter and I are just about speaking to each other now, but none of us has emerged unscarred.)

There’s a pleasure in weaving the narrative as tightly and seamlessly as possible into the historical record: I want the reader (you know who you are, sir, and I’m grateful to you) to feel that it all could have happened exactly like this. When you’re wondering how much is exactly true, I want you to be struck not by the remarkable detail I’ve made up, but by all the remarkable detail that I haven’t.

It’s also a chance to try to capture the way the world thought and felt at a particular time. At the moment I’m living amid the stubbornness, the fever, that carried Europe to war in 1914. Treason’s Tide showed a world of fears in 1805 – fear of the imminent and unstoppable invasion by Napoleon; fear of the currents of domestic unrest, among restive Irish, and among radical English plotting outrages and wondering who in the room was a Government spy – all as the industrial revolution put new strains on society. And Traitor’s Field, coming out now, conjures the extraordinary period in the middle of the seventeenth century, when the old orthodoxy of one faith and one system of government had exploded, and when print gave all the voices offering alternative models of society or of belief a much greater chance of being heard. It was a contest of possible truths and, as well as unleashing groups like the Levellers and the wonderful Diggers, that made it an unusually fertile environment for those who dealt in lies.

Perhaps the motive for historical fiction writing isn’t all that different from the motive for history writing. (Perhaps that’s why History In An Hour occasionally allows the taint of fiction on its august pages; like a disreputable cousin you have round for Christmas.) The Comptrollerate-General books are entertainments – hopefully ones that don’t require a reader to park their brain at the cover – and make no claim to be more. But I’m sincere in repeating in the introductions to each that I’d be pleased if they prompted readers to their own investigation of the facts. The reader of historical fiction is welcoming the same discipline as the writer; it’s not escapism, but exploration. We read historical fiction not only for entertainment, but to reinvest our past with greater life: to give it colour, and clarity, and to understand our world and perhaps ourselves a little bit better.

Robert Wilton is a novelist, diplomat, and charity founder who divides his time between Cornwall and the Balkans. The Emperor’s Gold, now out in paperback as Treason’s Tide, won the 2012 Historical Writers’ Association/Goldsboro Crown for best historical debut. Traitor’s Field, the next in the series drawn from the archives of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, is published on 7 May 2013. There’s more at www.robertwilton.com, and on Twitter @ComptrollerGen.