The International Writers Magazine: The Great Writing Conference
Back the Dead - authenticity in historical fiction
Sam North - a discussion paper
- part one
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
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 Clarkes 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 mans 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. Thats 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 dont 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
In Susanna Clarkes 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
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 Wellingtons 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. Its 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
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
Homers epic poem as a resource he was not aiming for
authenticity. Scholars cant 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 wouldnt
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 films
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
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 its 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. Plutachs
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 Christs 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
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. Its
about how we can find the right voice and manner through research to
bring real characters to life in the writers special world.
© Sam North June '05
Editor of Hackwriters.com
to Part Two of Bringing Back the Dead
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
also Sam's extended essay on The
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