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?)
Partly 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.
Hard on the heels of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice comes another literary bicentenary, writes Lynn Shepherd. Only this time it could hardly be further removed from the civilized elegance of Austen’s iconic novel. The episode that would later come to be referred to as ‘Shelley’s Ghost’ took place on 26 February 1813, in the midst of a raging storm, when the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was staying at Tremadoc on the coast of North Wales. What really happened that night remains a mystery, even now…
Before moving to Tremadoc, Shelley had spent eighteen erratic and restless months moving from place to place with his young wife, Harriet Westbrook, after their elopement in August 1811. During a stay in Ireland his radical politics had drawn the attention of the Home Office, and when he subsequently moved to Devon, government agents were deputed to spy on him. But when one of the Shelleys’ servants was arrested for posting the poet’s inflammatory material on local trees, the Shelleys were forced to flee the area, eventually finding themselves in Tremadoc.
The town was then in the throes of a hugely ambitious – and ultimately doomed – land reclamation scheme, the brain-child of the local landowner, William Madocks. Shelley’s outspoken views quickly made him a number of influential enemies (not for the first time), most notably the Honourable Robert Leeson, a prominent local quarry-owner, whose site supplied the stone for the construction project. Shelley profoundly disagreed with Leeson’s treatment of his workforce, and relations went from bad to worse. By early February 1813, Shelley was taking loaded pistols to bed with him.
So what happened on the night of February 26th?
The statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles stands before the creamy columns of the Victoria Theatre in a quiet corner of central Singapore. Double life-size, he cuts a magnificent figure, with shoulders squared and best foot forward. At the base of the statue is an inscription to his “Foresight and Genius”.
There is much that is remarkable about this monument – not least that it is still standing. While his contemporaries have been toppled from their perches in post-colonial cities across the globe, Raffles, a 19th century British imperialist, is still there at the heart of a modern, independent Asian nation. But the most remarkable thing of all is that the statue was erected in 1919. Raffles himself died in 1826 with a moth-eaten reputation, a litany of blunders and insubordinations fresh in official memory, and no great epitaphs to his name. This, then, is not a monument to a man, but to a legend of a later century.
But for me the Raffles statue in Singapore symbolises something more: the great and often egregious power of biography, and the critical inadequacy at the core of the traditional biographer’s craft.
I never planned to write a biography of Raffles. I wanted to write a book about the British occupation of Java – the five-year interregnum between 1811 and 1816 during which Britain ousted Holland from Indonesia and took control of their nascent empire. I had been reading and writing about Indonesia’s past for several years; I had the cultural and historical contexts already on file, and now I wanted a story that would draw on them.
I knew that Raffles had headed the British administration in Java, and I thought that I already knew his story – a lowly clerk who rose rapidly through the East India Company ranks, ran Java, oversaw a Sumatran outpost, and ultimately founded Singapore. Somewhere along the line, I thought, I had read a book about him. But the vague vision that flickered in the back of my imagination – of scholarship, liberalism and decency – seemed to have been formed mainly by osmosis. So when I made my first forays to the wellspring – the mass of archive material from the British Interregnum now held in the British Library – I was baffled.
The history of the Great Game, writes Tim Hannigan, offers a fine stock of ripping yarns.
At the start of the 19th century some 2,000 miles of turbulent Central Asian territory – deserts, mountains and unstable Muslim khanates – separated Britain’s Indian territories from the edge of the Russian Empire; a hundred years later these same frontiers were just a few miles apart. The “Great Game” was the cold war of exploration and espionage, fought out in the ever-contracting space between.
Every foreigner who stepped into Central Asia during this period was playing the Great Game, whether he wanted to or not. There was no such thing as an apolitical expedition, and men who went to survey mountains and map passes found that the charts they drew were handled like dynamite by politicians in Calcutta, London and St Petersburg. There was derring-do, endurance, betrayal, triumph and tragedy. This is the stuff that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s tales, Kim and The Man Who Would Be King
The players of the Great Game were a motley crew of spies, soldiers and charlatans, running the gamut from bristling imperial archetypes to unhinged Anglican missionaries, and over the subsequent decades many of their tales have been told in books by authors such as Fitzroy MacLean, John Keay and Peter Hopkirk.
But there was one Great Gamer who always seemed to stand a little apart from the crowd, a gaunt and ill-omened young man by the name of George Hayward. Continue reading
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, “A Study in Scarlett,” published in 1887, Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson “I have found a reagent which is precipitated by haemoglobin and nothing else.”
And so, writes DE Meredith, began the brilliant stories of Sherlock Homes which, almost single-handedly, introduced the British public to the idea that science could be used to solve even the most heinous of crimes.
Forensic science is now common parlance and despite a number of technical flaws along the way and the occasional, terrible miscarriage of justice, on the whole we believe in this science and because of programmes like “CSI” and “Waking the Dead” we are also hugely entertained by it.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Death and all his hideous crew
Here is a description of a nineteenth century morgue by the composer Hector Berlioz:
When I entered that fearful human charnel-house, littered with fragments of limbs, and saw the ghastly faces and cloven heads, the bloody cesspool in which we stood, with its reeking atmosphere, the swarms of sparrows fighting for scraps, and the rats in the corners gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window, and fled home as though Death and all his hideous crew were at my heels. It was twenty-four hours before I recovered from the shock of this first impression, utterly refusing to hear that words anatomy, dissection, or medicine, and firmly resolved to die rather than enter the career which had been forced upon me.
Authenticity. A word that, for a writer of historical fiction, can be at one and the same time an inspiration, a labour (whether of love or hate), and the most enormous elephant trap. Lynn Shepherd explains.
An inspiration, because if you’re anything like me, the more you learn about the past, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more material it offers for new stories. A labour, because research is a time-consuming and often tedious task, and one that can very easily morph into the most insidious displacement activity. And an elephant trap, because however much work you do, there’ll always be something you’ll get wrong, and there’ll always be Someone Out There Who Spots It.
That said, there are some writers who don’t seem to care very much about historical accuracy, though whether that’s the result of laziness, or a deliberate decision to focus more on creating a certain ‘atmosphere’, can be hard to tell. And at the other end of the scale there are those who’ve done so much research that they’re determined to ram it in somehow, at whatever cost to the pace of the story, or the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Historical authenticity: how far?
So the question is, how far should you go? And the answer to that question is, ‘it depends’. That’s because authenticity isn’t monolithic: there are different types of historical authenticity, some of which (I think) are vital, and others which require a rather more flexible approach.
Alice Perrers, mistress of that most powerful of Plantagenet Kings, Edward III, at the same time as she was a damsel (lady-in- waiting) to Queen Philippa, first crossed my path, writes Anne O’Brien, when I discovered a copy of Lady of the Sun, the Life and Times of Alice Perrers by F. George Kay in a second hand book shop. I was not impressed with Alice. There was little that we knew about her that could be supported by evidence. Furthermore she had an astonishingly bad press from contemporary writers, painting her reputation black with absolutely no redeeming features.
‘There was … in England a shameless woman and wanton harlot called Ales Peres, of base kindred … being neither beautiful or fair, she knew how to cover these defects with her flattering tongue …’
This was the view of Thomas Walsingham, a monk at St Albans who knew Alice well.
Alice faired no better at the hands of reputable modern historians who have been hardly less damning. ‘Edward III was sick and enfeebled, given over to the wiles of his rapacious mistress.’ The adjective rapacious figures widely.
And yet something attracted me to this remarkable woman from the fourteenth century. Here is Alice, in all her notoriety.
Alice the low born usurper of royal power
Alice had neither breeding nor wealth nor significant family connections. According to rumour, she came from the lowest of the low, being the illegitimate daughter of a town labourer – a tiler – and a tavern whore. She was born with nothing and deserved no promotion, but she did not know her place. With ruthless determination she stepped out of it, rising above herself to become one of the Queen’s damsels and mistress to the King.
My debut novel, writes Jenny Barden, is an epic Elizabethan romantic adventure set against the backdrop of Francis Drake’s first great enterprise: his attack on the Spanish ‘Silver Train’ in Panama.
Francis Drake, national hero
The focus of his campaign was the mule train loaded with bullion in transit from the mines of Peru to King Philip II’s treasury in Spain. Panama was the weak link in the long journey – the point where the treasure had to be transported by land across the isthmus dividing the Pacific from the Caribbean and the Atlantic, and the place where the might of the armada fleets could offer no protection. After more than eight months of failed attempts and set-backs, Drake and his allies, French Huguenot privateers and black runaway slaves called Cimaroons, together enjoyed a remarkable triumph. They captured the Silver Train near Nombre de Dios with little resistance and few casualties, and Drake was able to return home, with about thirty of the seventy-three mariners who had set sail with him over a year before, and a haul in treasure amounting to a sizeable fortune.
It was enough to swell Queen Elizabeth I’s coffers and establish his reputation as a national hero. His success was the first of many and seen as a blow for independence and religious freedom against the hegemony of imperial Spain; these sea-based victories ushered in the Elizabethan Golden Age, and they heralded the rise of England as a great maritime power.
In my last piece for History In An Hour, writes Hilary Green, I wrote about the work of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry during the First World War. When the conflict was over the FANY did not disband, although there was some difficulty in keeping membership buoyant in the inter-war years.
Nevertheless, a loyal core continued to train, although now the emphasis was not so much on nursing as on transport. It was clear that there was no longer any need for mounted nurses, the function for which they had been founded in 1907, but their ability to drive and maintain motor vehicles had been crucial during the 1914-18 period. So now they concentrated on this aspect of the training and shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War it was suggested that they should come under the aegis of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the ATS) as the Women’s Motor Transport Company. And it was in this capacity that many of them did sterling work driving ambulances and chauffeuring high-ranking officers during the war. (It was into this corps that Princess Elizabeth, now our Queen, was recruited in order to ‘do her bit’.)
Some long-standing FANYs, however, refused to be subsumed into the ATS. Their independence from other authority had always been a matter of pride and they insisted on maintaining it, becoming known as the ‘Free FANY.’ It was this independence that made them ideally suited to working with the SOE.
Special Operations Executive
For as long as I can remember, writes Melanie Clegg, I have wanted to write about history. I was raised by my grandparents since early infancy, which was mostly really odd but had the bonus of meaning that I grew up surrounded by my grandmother’s enormous historical fiction collection, which was very much of its time and featured such treats as the Catherine series by Juliette Benzoni; Forever Amber; the complete works of Jean Plaidy, Norah Lofts, Margaret Irwin and Anya Seton and also a plethora of Georgette Heyers. Even more pleasingly, nothing was off limits as my grandparents discouraged me from reading children’s books so although I read my first Charles Dickens at the age of seven, I have never read a single line written by CS Lewis.
Coupled with this were my bedtime stories from my history mad grandmother and former Scots Guard grandfather whose particular specialty were gruesome tales of executions and hauntings in his old beat, the Tower of London. I grew up madly in love with the past, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. Living, flesh and blood boys held no interest for me – how could they when my heart belonged to Prince Rupert, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, Oscar Wilde and Henry V? Why wear a uniform to school when you can go in dressed as Anne Boleyn? The ensuing detentions (which were just as much to save me from vengeful beatings from my classmates as a punishment) were perfect down time to read more history books. Also, who in their right mind would prefer a ra-ra skirt to a really nicely trimmed and furbelowed polonaise? I’m showing my age now so I’ll move swiftly on…