Mary Jo has discussed the nature of beauty in regards to our characters, and Jo has addressed the ever-popular question of how, as writers, we “cast” our characters based on their appearances. Since we write fiction, we can pretty much let ourselves be inspired any old which-way we please. We can write that the hero is tall and handsome, a fine figure of a man in his prime with a rough-shaven jaw, and every reader will insert her version of that description. WE could have Homer Simpson in our heads, but so long as we don’t write that our hero’s the color of a ripe banana, we’re fine, and everyone’s happy.
But what happens when our fictional characters are based on real people?
All the writers on this blog (I think; I hope I’m not being presumptuous here!) have written at least one story where a real historical person makes a cameo appearance, or sometimes plays an even bigger role as a character. This can be a great deal of fun for writers and readers alike. Having your heroine be presented at court to Queen Victoria, or your hero fight in the Battle of the Nile alongside Admiral Lord Nelson not only gives your fictional character a firm grounding in the past, but also gives us hardcore “history-nerds” a chance to show a different side of a familiar figure.
However, since I’ve begun writing historical fiction along with historical romance, I’ve crossed over into a writing-world where nearly ALL the characters are based on real people. I won’t go into all the challenges of that kind of research in this blog; I’ll save that for another day. But to my surprise, one of the unexpected ones was having the appearances –– the “beauty”, as it were –– of those characters already determined for you by their portraits. And that beauty doesn’t always agree with modern conventions.
Just as most modern-day professional beauties –– fashion models and Hollywood actresses –– would have found little favor in a past that favored the more lushly appointed, it can be hard to look at three-hundred-year-old portraits with modern eyes and see the same thing. I have just finished (as in THIS MORNING, which is why my blog’s fashionably late today) a fictionalized biography of Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, called ROYAL HARLOT. She was the most prominent mistress of King Charles II, and one of the baddest bad-girls in English history, which makes for a most entertaining heroine, if not perhaps the best girl-friend you’d call in a pinch. Barbara was universally regarded by her contemporaries as the most beautiful woman in 17th century England. Crowds would gather wherever she went, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, every head would turn when she entered her box at the theatre, and even happily-wed diarist Samuel Pepys made a point of walking by her house on laundry-day, just so he could see her lace-trimmed smocks hung out to dry and fantasize like mad.
Like most famous beauties of the past, Barbara was painted repeatedly, and her portraits by Sir Peter Lily are among the most enduring “images” of the Restoration. But her beauty hasn’t traveled well through the centuries. Sure, Alexander Pope wrote “Lely on animated Canvas stole/the sleepy Eye that spoke the melting soul”, but today those bedroom-eyes look, well, kind of burned-out and druggy, and the double-chins that were so celebrated among Restoration beauties seem matronly –– especially considering that most of these paintings were done before Barbara’s thirtieth birthday.
As a history-nerd, this didn’t bother me. I am up to the challenge. But the marketing folks at my publisher were scared to death, and as a result you won’t find Barbara’s face on the cover when the book hits stores next July. Instead we’ll counting on readers to supply their own mental image of what she looked like –– even if it’s not close to the 17th century truth.
So this is my question for y’all: does have prior knowledge of a real historical character increase your enjoyment of historical fiction, or not? Could you never imagine George Washington as a handsome young man, breaking hearts and fighting in the French & Indian Wars, because old toothless George on the dollar bill is too firmly entrenched in your consciousness? Are you turned off by all the Anne Boleyn novels because all you can see is Charles Laughton as Henry VIII? Would you have looked at Barbara herself on the cover and thought “Intriguing!” or “Wasted!”