Apr 10 2012 3:45pm

Hey, I Know That Guy!: Historical Figures in Historical Romance

King Charles II image via Wikimedia CommonsJust a couple of years ago, I first read one of Georgette Heyer’s lesser known—indeed, often thought Lost—works, The Great Roxhythe (of which, read much more here). Set in the latter days of Charles II’s reign, it tells of a fictional courtier to the King who helps set in train many of the more notable political events of the day. Now, while this is far from my favorite Heyer—indeed, it is among my very least favorites, and I completely understand why the author herself refused to have it reprinted within her lifetime—it did impel me to do one thing but few of her others have: further research.

Before reading this novel, I knew barely anything about Charles II. I knew he had been sent into exile as a youth (another Heyer, The Royal Escape, deals with this), and that the song “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” is about him. I guess I could also have claimed passing acquaintance with his luxuriant locks, his love of a particular breed of spaniel, and his famous succession of mistresses; plus, I vaguely recalled a Robert Downey Jr. movie featuring him one time. But after reading this novel, I started reading up, learning all kinds of fun facts to know and share: my favorite being that, while he died without a legitimate heir, he had twelve illegitimate kids, one of whom is an ancestor of both Princess Diana and Camilla Parker-Bowles…and that Prince William, should he ascend the throne, will be the first direct descendant of Charles II in the more than three hundred years since his reign. (What? It’s interesting.)

William of Orange via Wikimedia CommonsAnother prominent character in The Great Roxhythe is William of Orange, of whom I likewise knew but little. I knew he reigned as co-consort with a Queen Mary at some point. I knew that there is a university in Williamsburg, Virginia, named for them. Also, I was aware that William was an aggressive campaigner against Catholicism, particularly in Northern Ireland, because when I visited Belfast I was everywhere confronted with giant murals depicting him as either a hero or a villain. (Um, yeah, he’s been dead a while now, guys. Just sayin’.). But the fact that he was described so powerfully in the book made me curious about him, too, and so I sought out more information there, as well.

But even when historical figures in historical fiction haven’t led me on extensive Google searches, I still often learn a lot about them merely through their presence in the narrative—to be honest, historical novels are pretty much my one and only source into the scandalous lives of history’s elite. Fictionalized accounts of these figures’ existences are, of course, wealths of information about their subjects (and, likewise of course, disinformation) with authors like Phillippa Gregory, Jo Graham and Nancy Cato, among so many fanciful others, plumbing the recesses of knowledge, indulging in outright speculation, and treating us to possible versions of possible people in a past that is only possibly accurate. There have been miles and miles of prose dedicated to Arthurian Britain and the Biblical Middle East in their infinite uncertainty, and famous historical love stories—Paris and Helen, Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, Napoleon and his Josephine—are revisited again and again, given new twists with each new pass at them. It’s all very Lifetime movie-esque, the kind of “based on a true story” vague precision often played for effect rather than faithfulness, and films like Alexander and Agora, Braveheart and Rob Roy, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Bright Star, only serve to further contribute to this idea that other people’s real lives must needs be romanticized for our entertainment, centuries or even millennia after the fact.

The Great Roxhythe by Georgette HeyerBut in these oft-retold tales, it is the historical figure (or figures) who star. In The Great Roxhythe (1923), on the other hand, it is our titular, fictional lord who is our main protagonist, whereas King Charles and William of Orange and a bunch of other long-dead, have-their-own-Wikipedia-page folks are mere window dressing, the curtain rail onto which our story is hung. Historical fiction abounds with references to real people, and there is a tremendous tendency for novelists of the genre to namedrop the glorious and the great, at times seemingly for no other reason than to earn the authors themselves a little scholarly cred.

Historicals set in the Ancient World—Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc.—are bound to feature, at the very least, a pharaoh or an Emperor of whom we have heard, or perhaps may mention in passing a blind, itinerant storyteller who holds all spellbound with his tales of the gods and the fall of Troy. (Hmm, wonder who that could be?) Mary Renault’s Mask of Appollo (1966), a personal favorite, follows one Nikeratos, an actor in 4th-century B.C. Sicily, who befriends Plato and Alexander the Great, among others, and thereby changes the course of history—and it is also chock-full of historically-appropriate man love, which is awesome.

But perhaps you’d rather spend your time in the Machiavellian courts of continental Renaissance Europe? Then of a certain you will encounter at least one Borgia, a Medici or two, the occasional Pope of often questionable piety and hey, maybe even Machiavelli himself. For example, Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series, beginning with 1986’s Niccolò Rising (it’s a different Niccolo) reads like a Who’s Who of its chosen period, and very kindly takes pains to explain who, exactly, is whom there…which is one of the many reasons I love Dorothy Dunnett.

A trip to ye olde Scotland more your thing? Well, don’t be surprised if you run into William Wallace, Robert the Bruce or assorted chieftans who might well be them, if you squint your eyes just a little. And man, does Mary, Queen of Scots get around! Dunnett also did it here, in her Lymond series, beginning with The Game of Kings (1961), in which the young Mary is something of a central figure in the life of our complex, put-upon hero, Francis Crawford.

Across a Moonlit Sea by Marsha CanhamOther, real Francises one might encounter in tales set in Tudor times include the diabolical Sir Francis Walsingham, the adventuresome Sir Francis Drake, and even possible Shakespeare-ghostwriter, the multi-talented Sir Francis Bacon. You’re also likely to meet or hear much about Henry VIII and/or his plenitude of wives, and/or his less plentiful kids—not to mention Sir Walter Raleigh, perhaps history’s most famous brown-noser. Just look at Marsha Canham’s bodice-ripper, Across a Moonlit Sea (1996): it mentions most, if not all, of these figures in between raising blushes in a romantic adventure set on the period’s perilous high seas.

Jump forward a dynasty and you’ll note that any novel set in early Hanoverian times will doubtless be littered with mentions of noted wit Horace Walpole, the notorious Hellfire Club and/or the famous Gunnings sisters, penniless beauties who managed to wed Dukes. Heyer’s Georgian-era The Black Moth (1921) was not only her first novel, but was also her first chance to show off an impressively well-rounded education, and it is through her later works that I know of various politicos of the day—your Pitts, your Foxes, etc.—and their various convictions and alliances, among a vast assortment of other notables.

Taking us on through the Regency (my favorite time period to visit, incidentally), Heyer never lets up on the background detail, giving us snapshot images of leading hostesses Lady Jersey and the Countess Lieven, of the wealthy Golden Ball and the disreputable Harriette Wilson, of playwrights like Sheridan and actors like Kean and Kemp and Mrs. Siddons.

Beau Brummell via Wikimedia CommonsIn the Regency genre at large, the well-dressed Beau Brummell has probably received the most love, enjoying almost Jay Leno-level cameo appearances, even above the Prince Regent himself. (I know an inordinate amount about George Brummell, and that is due only to my love of Regency romance; before I started reading Heyer, he was merely an enigmatic line in a Billy Joel song). Lord Byron is another frequent flyer in such novels, along with his lover Lady Caroline Lamb, and if you don’t encounter at least one member of the venerable, scandalous Devonshire clan then you may consider yourself to have been roundly snubbed indeed. Meanwhile, no novel set during the Napoleonic Wars would be complete without a visit from Old Hooknose, the Duke of Wellington, or from doomed Admiral Nelson. One might even encounter an entirely different William of Orange here, who became engaged to a whole other English princess. (History is confusing.)

Across the pond in America, among Historical Western Romances, a passing sighting of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Doc Holliday or some other legend of the saloon is absolutely essential. Among turbulent, lascivious Civil War yarns, if you don’t sight Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee or General Hooker—with or without his retinue of ladies of negotiable virtue—then something is clearly very, very wrong. And if intrepid pioneer fiction is more your bag, then you are almost guaranteed a meeting with either a famous Pony Express rider, Brigham Young or some other historical Mormon, or the Donner Party; Vella Munn’s Daughter of the Mountain (1994), for example, has our heroine, Jessie, rescued from eventual cannibalism as part of that ill-fated expedition by our hero, mountain man Daniel Bear (whom I always imagined in my head as a more buff version of Grizzly Adams).

Heading south of the border? Then prepare to meet up with Montezuma or Quetzalcoatl, Ponce de Leon or Cortes; cf. Samuel Shellabarger’s awesome feat of conquistador fiction, Captain from Castile (1945), in which our hero, Pedro de Vargas, joins the quest to wrest Mexico from the Aztecs, and which, if you haven’t read it yet, go and do so now.

The question is, do we need all of this incessant namechecking to still enjoy our story, and to still feel a sense of the time? The further back into history we go, the less populated it is with celebrities—with characters, really—and yet novels set in these enigmatic times are still plenty enjoyable. I mean, we don’t tend to find recognizable faces in novels set in Prehistory, do we? Perhaps the best known of these, Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) isn’t exactly replete with “Hey, I know that guy!” moments, and yet anyone who has been swept away on those frozen plains, has huddled in furs and mourned with Ayla and her adoptive Neanderthal family, feels just as connected to that alien, unknowable time as anyone who has virtually visited Almack’s Assembly Rooms (circa 1816) on dozens of occasions, only to be stared down by the Princess Esterhazy and underwhelmed by the poor quality of refreshments.

The Barrister’s Chambers by Tina GabrielleIn her post Lovingly Researched or Wallpaper: Pick Your Historical Poison, H&H’s own Myretta Robens mentions a 2010 Regency, In the Barrister’s Chambers by Tina Gabrielle, drawing particular attention to this passage:

“I’ve been meeting with a group of feminist women and we are currently reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she argues women are regarded inferior to men because of their lack of education. Even though Wollstonecraft has been dead now seventeen years, her ideas still provide endless fodder for discussion, and we currently are debating her beliefs on marriage.”

Myretta’s comment:

Yeah, yeah. We can see that the author knows about bluestockings and Mary Wollstonecraft and even (thanks for sharing) how long she’s been dead. But does she really think a girl chat about marriage would sound like this? I’m pretty sure readers don’t want research shoved down our throats.

No, we don’t. And we certainly don’t want poor research shoved down our throats. Indeed, your Regency heroine often displays her smarts and independent spirit with a copy of Wollstonecraft in hand, and yet all too often the text itself is misquoted or misunderstood, our authors clearly having heard of the groundbreaking work but never, apparently, having read it. Or what about when Jane Austen shows up, either in person or as the author of a brilliant new novel about which our discerning heroine gushes… and then she is referred to as “Miss Austen,” yet the novel is set in a year when her works were still published anonymously? This is, frankly, just unforgivably sloppy. It’s one thing to utilize recognizable people of the period to make your history come alive; it’s quite another to do it wrong. In her recent, excellent post Zippers, Kohl and Woman-Beating: Anachronisms in Historical Fiction, Kate Nagy ponders the importance of proper research, and suggests that such trivial mistakes, while endlessly annoying, can occasionally be overlooked if the remainder of the story is engaging enough. I tend to agree, up to a point, but I have to wonder: are these novels then properly labeled Historicals, or Alternate Histories?

Some might maintain that discrepancies, inaccuracies or outright speculation presented as reality enhance these stories out of the past, and that the presence of whole phalanxes of long-dead people can only contribute to our understanding of the times in which we play tourist, whether all of this sampling from the Encyclopaedia is really necessary or not. Without doubt, the effectiveness of employing historical personages in fiction is just as much matter of degree as it is of veracity. If the story is set at, say, the Continental Congress and we don’t run into at least one of the Founding Fathers, then that might come across as a trifle odd; but if the story is set on a random Mississippi river boat and we just happen to run into Mark Twain, then that could well stretch credulity just a little—especially if the man himself was merrily ensconced in San Francisco at the time the novel is set.

Heath Ledger in A Knight’s TaleSure, anachronism can be fun (hello, Moulin Rouge, A Knight’s Tale and pretty much everything remotely Steampunk), and weaving VIPs out of history into more recent made-up tales can be as informative as it is entertaining. But it is important, I have come to realize, that we don’t start believing fiction is non-, that we don’t rely on the “scholarship” of historical authors, and that we don’t consider ourselves well-informed or learned just because we read or watch fictionalizations like The Other Boleyn Girl, I, Claudius or Showtime’s The Tudors. Much like watching the movie of the book and expecting to ace the English test, fictionalized accounts of historical personages are almost inevitably going to lead you astray.

Sure, it’s fun to imagine our Scottish heroine attending the Great Council at Glasgow, our Regency heroine getting the much-prized seal of approval from the Beau, or our Western heroine out-shooting Annie Oakley. But, most of the time we have to acknowledge these things could not have happened. Or, to quote Twain himself when his Connecticut Yankee time-traveled back to King Arthur’s Court (though, to be sure, somewhat out of context): “How empty is theory in the presence of fact!”

Charles II (by Simon Verelst), William of Orange (Antonio Moro), and Beau Brummell (by Robert Dighton) images—in the public domain in the U.S.—courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I've picked up a lot of history from my romance novels of choice. I know I learned about William the Conquerer in history classes, for instance, but I always remember him and the battle of Hastings because of a Catherine Coulter novel I read long ago...
2. pamelia
I once got the extra-credit answer on a history test because I'd read "The Kadin" by Beatrice Small which told the story of the supposed mother of Sulieman the Magnificent who was Sultan of the Ottoman Empire during it's height. Of course that book also included his father and grandfather who were historical figures plus his wife Russelan and myriad advisors. Small also included some real historical figures in the Skye O'Malley books with Robert Dudley (Queen Elizabeth's maybe-lover) in a villainous role. William the Conqueror made an appearance in Kathleen Woodiwiss' "The Wolf and the Dove". I think the best appearance of Prinny was in Kinsale's "Flowers From the Storm".
Vanessa Ouadi
3. Lafka
OK, when I read romance I certainly don't want to look at the book and wonder if I haven't picked an History textbook instead. And yes, there is definitely no point in introducing an historical character if it only makes the scene or, worse, the entire story unbelievable (I remember for instance a scene where Prinny crawled in London's sewers in Celeste Bradley's Liar Club series).

Still, I'm quite fond of historical fictions where real historical figures make a cameo appearance. I do believe that a talented author can introduce an historical character in a believable scene, because the said author has made some research which makes the scene credible, and yet won't give the reader the feeling of reading a documentary. I think it's pretty much the same for every book : if the background is credible and well-documented, it helps the reader enjoying the book, but the background shall remain that and not take predominant room in the reader's mind.
Post a comment