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The International Writers Magazine
: The Great Writing Conference 2005

Bringing Back the Dead - authenticity in historical fiction
Sam North - a discussion paper - part one

How to describe Lord Wellington?’ asks Susanna Clarke in her extraordinary tome ‘Johnathan Strange and Mr Norrell. ‘How can such a thing be necessary or possible? His face is everywhere one looks, a cheap print upon the wall of the coaching inn – a much more elaborate one, embellished with flags and drums, at the top of the Assembly room staircase. Nowadays no young lady of average romantic feeling will reach the age of seventeen without purchasing at least one picture of him….every schoolboy impersonates Wellington at least once a week …he is Englishness carried to perfection.’

Susanna Clarke takes great trouble to set the frame for her Wellington to inhabit, but how do we really know what Wellington was like – how did anyone know who did not know him personally in an age without TV or radio or even photography. Exactly how accurate were the schoolboy impressions. Indeed how real is Susanna Clarke’s Wellington.

We know from a reading of Andrew Roberts essay for the BBC on Monachs and Leaders - Soldiering to Glory that Arthur Wellesley was not a scholar, indeed failed at all the schools he attended, including Eton. He was sent to a French Military Academy (ironically given his future as military conqueror of France). After a fairly long military career, where he acquired a reputation for being a harsh disciplinarian, he became a Tory politician; extremely rigid in his views and by our stands anti -democratic. He ended up as Prime Minister.

Delving deeper into Wellesley, and according to Andrew Roberts in his book Napoleon and Wellington - the essential Englishman we discover was born in Dublin but always denied he was Irish, ‘being born in a barn does not make someone a horse’ was a favourite saying of Wellesley. Despite this, he was elected to a seat in the Irish parliament where he attended little and preferred to play his violin. When the French executed Louis XV1 in 1793 he became so incensed that he burned his violin and became a lieutenant colonel of the 33rd Foot Regiment fighting his first battle in the Netherlands campaign of 1794.

This is not a paper about Wellington however, merely scraping some facts off a man’s life to enable one to understand what a remarkable person he was and how differing fortunes enabled him to rise to the top of English life. Does it give insight into how he spoke and carried himself? Burning his violin was certainly a clue as to his character. Here was a man making a decision not to have fun anymore but take life seriously. That’s the kind of detail an historical novelist would seize upon. That and his antipathy to the drunken ‘scum’ he commanded. He took soldiering seriously and was contemptuous of the calibre of men he had to command. When finally a lieutenant-general in 1808 he was given command of the expeditionary forces destined for Portugal where he remarked :
They (the French) may overwhelm me but I don’t think they will outmanoeuvre me…because I am not afraid of them…’
Overall he was in battle with the French on European soil for nearly six years.

In Susanna Clarke’s novel, in which Wellington appears often, he is near the peak of his military career, placed in a real battle in Portugal, in real situations but engaging with her main character Jonathan Strange, the second most famous magician in London. For magician in this context, read Merlin figure, rather than Tommy Cooper in a top hat.
London, the government, worried that things were not going well for the British troops, sends Wellington a magician. Naturally, Clarke takes account of his natural disposition of being a sceptic. She writes:
Lord Wellington gave Strange a sharpe look. ‘What I chiefly need is men. Can you make more?’
‘No.’ The magician answers.
‘Can you make bullets fly any quicker to strike the French?’
‘No, my Lord.’
‘The name of the Chaplain is Mr Briscoll, the chief medical officer Dr McCrigar, should you decide to stay on in Portugal then I suggest you make yourself known to them. You are of no use to me.’


Wellington properly dismisses the magician and it is as we should expect from so ‘serious’ a man. Yet, of course, Clarke, the author, has to find a way to engage Wellington’s interest, impress him and make it work. He will be won over eventually and the French will eventually be defeated with the aid of magic. So successful will Johnathan Strange be, Wellington comes to rely almost entirely on magic to make the difference in battle. But note,Wellington is never grateful, almost as if he senses his place in history might be somehow demeaned if word got out and he succumbed to the ancient dark arts.

That Susanna Clarke so effortlessly weaves in a fictional magician to the great set pieces of British history is an achievement. Her recreation of the last battles at Waterloo (and vivid reanimation of dead soldiers for interrogation purposes) are pure excitement on the page. Upon reading her work, clearly any history book that now fails to cite the efforts of Jonathan Strange and his role in British victories would be remiss. Such is her power in bringing history to life and making it her own.

Is this just a matter of research? Is the quest for authenticity all that is required for a successful historical fiction to work on the page? Clearly not. If research were all, then it is possible Susanna Clarke would be unreadable. Her painstaking trouble with atmosphere, place, attitudes and the day to day concerns of the time made sure that all around her fictional characters were as authentic as possible, her sense of situation is so finely gauged anything is plausible. Her real characters such as the Prime Minister Lord Sidmouth completely accepts the idea of magicians as quite natural in their world order, their only requirements being that the British magicians should be superior in every way to the continental ones. Of course, it helps that historians such as Andrew Roberts, Christopher Hibbet, Richard Holmes and Elizabeth Longford have provided copious minutiae on the live of Wellington for her to draw upon. People like Roberts make it easy for the historical novelist. Mentioning that Napoleon was so confident of victory at Waterloo that he had ordered roast mutton for his supper and his robes to be transported to Brussels are exactly the kind of details a writer can weave into the story. It’s harder when less is known.

If one were to create historical novel say on the life of Thucydides (460-400BC) the author of ‘A history of the Peloponnesian Wars translated by Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol College in 1881 - we might think that we have little to go on. We know he was briefly a general in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and failed to save Amphipolis from the Spartans. For this he was banished. Throughout it all he set out to record the history, to set matters straight, thinking that as the Athenians and the Peloponnesians were at the height of their military powers, the events that would unfold could affect the world at large.
Daniel Boorstein, writing in The Discoverers 1983 states ‘we know nothing about his life except that his father had a Thracian name and that he owned a gold-mining concession in Thrace and was exiled from Athens for twenty years.’

His history took 22 years to write and provides us with great insights into the formation of Hellas as a ‘nation’.
Historical novelists look to the man and contrary to Boorsteins assertions, Thucydides is a veritable, dare I say it, gold mine of information. We have dates, we have a man with money and social standing, a general who has seen battle and lost many men, a whole city in fact. A man in disgrace, exiled from power and his friends, who, in his own words states in his history, ‘ I have described nothing but what I either saw myself or learned from others of whom I made careful and particular enquiry.’ Jowett, B (A history of the Peloponnesian Wars)
Chapter 1 Book 1.

That his work written 400 years before the birth of Christ is so readable means that, for example, when the film Troy was being made two years ago, this book was an essential resource for the recreation of ancient Greek. (Though the facts of it seem to have been largely ignored.) Thucydides writes again: ‘Poverty was the real reason why the achievements of former ages were insignificant, and why the Trojan War, the most celebrated of them all, when brought to the test of facts, falls short of its fame and of the prevailing traditions to which the poets have given authority’.
Jowett, B, 1881 A history of the Peloponnesian Wars Book 1, Chapter Eleven

For the historical fiction writer the observations of battles won or lost, even the tides that turned, of the number of galleys possessed by the Corinthians, is all treasure trove. It need not matter that we have no real idea of how Thucydides spoke, or what he ate, or who he loved; we know enough to recreate a former military man with a particular aptitude for setting the truth down (as he saw it) in epic form. We know, thanks to his own words, that he believed he was living in important times that would have reverberations down history. We understand he was man who sought immortality with his words.

At his death the work was unfinished, published posthumously it did not get the acceptance it probably deserved, for tastes had changed and people in 399 now preferred spin and glorious histories that did not depend upon the truth. Epic tragedy, it seemed, was so last century.

Through Thucydides, Homer, Herodotus and Polybius we can write about this ancient world with some degrees of certainty. Can we accurately recreate the people of Troy? Clearly when Wolfgang Peterson drew upon Homer’s epic poem as a ‘resource’ he was not aiming for authenticity. Scholars can’t actually agree as where Troy stood, there being no remains. Besides which, there are so many contradictions and points of view. It must have been hell deciding which story to tell. Luckily for us, it seems, in the film version, the Trojans and Myceneans spoke with impeccable cut glass English accents, were spotlessly clean and lived to ripe old ages. Achilles was not a thug, but a gentleman and only slightly enamoured with his pal Patroclus (as one wouldn’t want to turn off the middle-aged white bread audiences of Kansas.) Of course to represent history with total authenticity, we would have to look more closely at Thucydides account, rather than the boasting style of Homer. Reading carefully, although the tally was 1200 ships sent against Troy and a real spectacle on film, only the Boetians ships were large, carrying one hundred and twenty men. Some could carry fifty men, but Thucydides ponders why there is no mention of the sizes of other ships. He suspects that the force that arrived was less than great and given that the seize actually lasted ten years, rather than the film’s brief few months, the facts do not point to anything decisive, or grand as has grown with the telling down the ages. This would not suit the cinema audience and I dare say, had it been an historical novel, may not have attracted a large readership had ‘authenticity’ been paramount.

Clearly Oliver Stone is not in Kansas anymore as in his Alexander the Great (2004) he takes great trouble to recreate authenticity with costume and location. Nevertheless, all the children and Alexander himself seem to have spent a gap year in Belfast and yes, we have no real idea of what Alexander did sound or speak like, but it’s entirely possible that he may have been Macedonian. What we do know about him, according to Arrian, in his work Anabasis, (modelled on the work of Xenophon) is that possibly he was born on July 20th 356 or 355. That he had one dark eye and one pure blue. That histories were also written about him by Plutach and Diodorus, men who did not meet Alexander. Plutach’s work written in 100 AD. Ptolemy was the historian (and King) who actually knew Alexander and recorded his own History of Alexander, but none of these works refer to Alexander dying his hair blonde.

Does it matter? Film, like historical fictions are only entertainments, after all. They are not supposed to be scholarly works and would bore us all rigid if they were. The very fact that Arrian wrote Anabasis about Alexander meant that the after effects of his empire building were reverberating through history and that sometimes it is hard to separate fact from myth, even just a few years after an event.

Mel Gibson with his epic The Passion of Christ (2004) – a film telling of the final hours of Christ’s life is unusual in that it is spoken in Latin and Aramaic with English subtitles. This lends it sense of authenticity, at the same time ran a huge risk with audiences. That it became the most profitable historical movie of all time is testimony to the careful research done by Gibson and the writer Benedict Fitzgerald and the topic itself. But was it authentic?
Was this the real Christ? Were the Romans so callous and cruel? These were the last hours of Christ and it could be this was how it was or just another, rather vivid illustration. The point of historical fiction, I suppose, whether in film or print, it that everything is open to interpretation. Was Christ even real? That of course is another debate, but to strip away the layers of propaganda about him, what he meant, what he said, how he acted, who he trusted is hard. Everything we know about him was written after the event, some by men who knew him, such as the apostles, some by those who merely set down the oral histories after the filter of time.

This paper is entitled ‘Bringing the Dead back to life’ but, if you came thinking it is about Frankenstein or the work of Anne Rice, interesting though they may be, you will be disappointed. It’s about how we can find the right voice and manner through research to bring real characters to life in the writer’s ‘special world’.


© Sam North June '05
Editor of Hackwriters.com

Continued here
Back to Part Two of Bringing Back the Dead

Sam North is the author of Diamonds - The Rush of '72 and the forthcoming The Curse of the Nibelung - A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (To be published July '05) both at Lulu Press USA

See also Sam's extended essay on The Road Movie

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