Beauty & the Barbara

From Susan/Miranda:

Barbaragold005Mary 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.

Barbarawhite_dress004Just 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.

Barbaragoddess007As 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!”

24 thoughts on “Beauty & the Barbara”

  1. Good question, Susan Miranda! As a mild history nerd myself, I really enjoy seeing real people portrayed as secondary characters. The master of this is George Macdonald Fraser, who inserts his wicked Flashman into all kinds of real historical situations, usually military. When I was younger, I read his books and wondered how on earth he did it.
    Now I know how he did it–but his achievements are still impressive!
    Mary Jo, who thinks that Bad Barb looks pretty good, but a size 0 she’s not

    Reply
  2. Good question, Susan Miranda! As a mild history nerd myself, I really enjoy seeing real people portrayed as secondary characters. The master of this is George Macdonald Fraser, who inserts his wicked Flashman into all kinds of real historical situations, usually military. When I was younger, I read his books and wondered how on earth he did it.
    Now I know how he did it–but his achievements are still impressive!
    Mary Jo, who thinks that Bad Barb looks pretty good, but a size 0 she’s not

    Reply
  3. Good question, Susan Miranda! As a mild history nerd myself, I really enjoy seeing real people portrayed as secondary characters. The master of this is George Macdonald Fraser, who inserts his wicked Flashman into all kinds of real historical situations, usually military. When I was younger, I read his books and wondered how on earth he did it.
    Now I know how he did it–but his achievements are still impressive!
    Mary Jo, who thinks that Bad Barb looks pretty good, but a size 0 she’s not

    Reply
  4. Good question, Susan Miranda! As a mild history nerd myself, I really enjoy seeing real people portrayed as secondary characters. The master of this is George Macdonald Fraser, who inserts his wicked Flashman into all kinds of real historical situations, usually military. When I was younger, I read his books and wondered how on earth he did it.
    Now I know how he did it–but his achievements are still impressive!
    Mary Jo, who thinks that Bad Barb looks pretty good, but a size 0 she’s not

    Reply
  5. I like real people as secondary characters, too–but I like the characters to bear some resemblance to what we know of these real people. In some books, the historical personage seems to be thrown in as simply a familiar name. One of the things that makes Flashman such a wicked delight is his making historical figures so very human.
    Being another history nerd, I, too, can see Barbara’s sex appeal. Her eyes remind me a little of Susan Sarandon’s.

    Reply
  6. I like real people as secondary characters, too–but I like the characters to bear some resemblance to what we know of these real people. In some books, the historical personage seems to be thrown in as simply a familiar name. One of the things that makes Flashman such a wicked delight is his making historical figures so very human.
    Being another history nerd, I, too, can see Barbara’s sex appeal. Her eyes remind me a little of Susan Sarandon’s.

    Reply
  7. I like real people as secondary characters, too–but I like the characters to bear some resemblance to what we know of these real people. In some books, the historical personage seems to be thrown in as simply a familiar name. One of the things that makes Flashman such a wicked delight is his making historical figures so very human.
    Being another history nerd, I, too, can see Barbara’s sex appeal. Her eyes remind me a little of Susan Sarandon’s.

    Reply
  8. I like real people as secondary characters, too–but I like the characters to bear some resemblance to what we know of these real people. In some books, the historical personage seems to be thrown in as simply a familiar name. One of the things that makes Flashman such a wicked delight is his making historical figures so very human.
    Being another history nerd, I, too, can see Barbara’s sex appeal. Her eyes remind me a little of Susan Sarandon’s.

    Reply
  9. The littlest wenchling here assuming that the included images are of Bad Barb. (who sounds very interesting) The first one… wouldn’t want that woman mad at me. The second… a beautiful lady she is — mischievous, pouty and oh so willing, for a price. The third… I can see her skewering the artist for giving her a too large nose and very weak chin. I did not, however, see a double chin on any. Sorry. I think the second picture would have made a fascinating cover.
    Personally, I like heavily fictionalized stories about real people. Ones that play a bit of what if or let’s assume. I would love to find something on the Iron Duke himself. For all prim and proper that he was, I’ve read a few things that would lead one to believe he was a bit more than all that. And strong military leaders fascinate me.
    Currently, I am working on a story that is loosely based on a real person. There are a lot of ‘holes’ in his life so I am playing with that but staying true to the time and place in which he lived.
    Question for the Wenches: To those who have put ‘real’ people in their historical romance novels, where do you draw the line on accuracy? If you need Wellington or Castlereagh in London, do you make sure he was actually there at the time? (other than the grossly obvious like June of 1815)

    Reply
  10. The littlest wenchling here assuming that the included images are of Bad Barb. (who sounds very interesting) The first one… wouldn’t want that woman mad at me. The second… a beautiful lady she is — mischievous, pouty and oh so willing, for a price. The third… I can see her skewering the artist for giving her a too large nose and very weak chin. I did not, however, see a double chin on any. Sorry. I think the second picture would have made a fascinating cover.
    Personally, I like heavily fictionalized stories about real people. Ones that play a bit of what if or let’s assume. I would love to find something on the Iron Duke himself. For all prim and proper that he was, I’ve read a few things that would lead one to believe he was a bit more than all that. And strong military leaders fascinate me.
    Currently, I am working on a story that is loosely based on a real person. There are a lot of ‘holes’ in his life so I am playing with that but staying true to the time and place in which he lived.
    Question for the Wenches: To those who have put ‘real’ people in their historical romance novels, where do you draw the line on accuracy? If you need Wellington or Castlereagh in London, do you make sure he was actually there at the time? (other than the grossly obvious like June of 1815)

    Reply
  11. The littlest wenchling here assuming that the included images are of Bad Barb. (who sounds very interesting) The first one… wouldn’t want that woman mad at me. The second… a beautiful lady she is — mischievous, pouty and oh so willing, for a price. The third… I can see her skewering the artist for giving her a too large nose and very weak chin. I did not, however, see a double chin on any. Sorry. I think the second picture would have made a fascinating cover.
    Personally, I like heavily fictionalized stories about real people. Ones that play a bit of what if or let’s assume. I would love to find something on the Iron Duke himself. For all prim and proper that he was, I’ve read a few things that would lead one to believe he was a bit more than all that. And strong military leaders fascinate me.
    Currently, I am working on a story that is loosely based on a real person. There are a lot of ‘holes’ in his life so I am playing with that but staying true to the time and place in which he lived.
    Question for the Wenches: To those who have put ‘real’ people in their historical romance novels, where do you draw the line on accuracy? If you need Wellington or Castlereagh in London, do you make sure he was actually there at the time? (other than the grossly obvious like June of 1815)

    Reply
  12. The littlest wenchling here assuming that the included images are of Bad Barb. (who sounds very interesting) The first one… wouldn’t want that woman mad at me. The second… a beautiful lady she is — mischievous, pouty and oh so willing, for a price. The third… I can see her skewering the artist for giving her a too large nose and very weak chin. I did not, however, see a double chin on any. Sorry. I think the second picture would have made a fascinating cover.
    Personally, I like heavily fictionalized stories about real people. Ones that play a bit of what if or let’s assume. I would love to find something on the Iron Duke himself. For all prim and proper that he was, I’ve read a few things that would lead one to believe he was a bit more than all that. And strong military leaders fascinate me.
    Currently, I am working on a story that is loosely based on a real person. There are a lot of ‘holes’ in his life so I am playing with that but staying true to the time and place in which he lived.
    Question for the Wenches: To those who have put ‘real’ people in their historical romance novels, where do you draw the line on accuracy? If you need Wellington or Castlereagh in London, do you make sure he was actually there at the time? (other than the grossly obvious like June of 1815)

    Reply
  13. “I would love to find something on the Iron Duke himself. For all prim and proper that he was, I’ve read a few things that would lead one to believe he was a bit more than all that.”
    Nina, he’s the one who allegedly said ‘Publish and be damned!’ when the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson was blackmailing her former lovers, asking for money in exchange for them not appearing in her memoirs which were to be published. Heyer tends to depict him as a bit of a flirt with the ladies, so I’ve always thought of him that way too.
    Ah, here are some more details about his amorous exploits: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2099-2469953_1,00.html

    Reply
  14. “I would love to find something on the Iron Duke himself. For all prim and proper that he was, I’ve read a few things that would lead one to believe he was a bit more than all that.”
    Nina, he’s the one who allegedly said ‘Publish and be damned!’ when the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson was blackmailing her former lovers, asking for money in exchange for them not appearing in her memoirs which were to be published. Heyer tends to depict him as a bit of a flirt with the ladies, so I’ve always thought of him that way too.
    Ah, here are some more details about his amorous exploits: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2099-2469953_1,00.html

    Reply
  15. “I would love to find something on the Iron Duke himself. For all prim and proper that he was, I’ve read a few things that would lead one to believe he was a bit more than all that.”
    Nina, he’s the one who allegedly said ‘Publish and be damned!’ when the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson was blackmailing her former lovers, asking for money in exchange for them not appearing in her memoirs which were to be published. Heyer tends to depict him as a bit of a flirt with the ladies, so I’ve always thought of him that way too.
    Ah, here are some more details about his amorous exploits: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2099-2469953_1,00.html

    Reply
  16. “I would love to find something on the Iron Duke himself. For all prim and proper that he was, I’ve read a few things that would lead one to believe he was a bit more than all that.”
    Nina, he’s the one who allegedly said ‘Publish and be damned!’ when the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson was blackmailing her former lovers, asking for money in exchange for them not appearing in her memoirs which were to be published. Heyer tends to depict him as a bit of a flirt with the ladies, so I’ve always thought of him that way too.
    Ah, here are some more details about his amorous exploits: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2099-2469953_1,00.html

    Reply
  17. Thanks, Laura! Very interesting stuff.
    I didn’t mean to imply that I thought him to be amorous. Although I’ve read a few things (non-fiction) that would lead one to believe so. I was really referring to what type of life he must have lived and the choices he made — the things that made him so great, so determined, so decided and yet compassionate and in some ways very easily moved.

    Reply
  18. Thanks, Laura! Very interesting stuff.
    I didn’t mean to imply that I thought him to be amorous. Although I’ve read a few things (non-fiction) that would lead one to believe so. I was really referring to what type of life he must have lived and the choices he made — the things that made him so great, so determined, so decided and yet compassionate and in some ways very easily moved.

    Reply
  19. Thanks, Laura! Very interesting stuff.
    I didn’t mean to imply that I thought him to be amorous. Although I’ve read a few things (non-fiction) that would lead one to believe so. I was really referring to what type of life he must have lived and the choices he made — the things that made him so great, so determined, so decided and yet compassionate and in some ways very easily moved.

    Reply
  20. Thanks, Laura! Very interesting stuff.
    I didn’t mean to imply that I thought him to be amorous. Although I’ve read a few things (non-fiction) that would lead one to believe so. I was really referring to what type of life he must have lived and the choices he made — the things that made him so great, so determined, so decided and yet compassionate and in some ways very easily moved.

    Reply
  21. Well if you don’t mind a man’s take on this, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the old portraits as being accurate representations of what these people actually looked like. There are just too many facial features that are the same in every portrait even though they’re showing completely different people. These are all stylized images with more in common with caricatures than with exact accuracy. They aren’t photographs after all, and many of those “common features” that I mention are more the result of the artistic style of the period than with the people really looking like that.
    So, no, I would have no problem imagining Washington as a handsome dark haired young officer during the Seven Years War. Funny you should mention him btw as he appears at the end of my first book and the lead character of John Sinclair, who had met Washington during that war, is shocked at how much he has aged in the intervening 20 odd years.
    Actually I tend to see Richard Burton as Henry VIII from “Anne of the Thousand Days” not Laughton.

    Reply
  22. Well if you don’t mind a man’s take on this, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the old portraits as being accurate representations of what these people actually looked like. There are just too many facial features that are the same in every portrait even though they’re showing completely different people. These are all stylized images with more in common with caricatures than with exact accuracy. They aren’t photographs after all, and many of those “common features” that I mention are more the result of the artistic style of the period than with the people really looking like that.
    So, no, I would have no problem imagining Washington as a handsome dark haired young officer during the Seven Years War. Funny you should mention him btw as he appears at the end of my first book and the lead character of John Sinclair, who had met Washington during that war, is shocked at how much he has aged in the intervening 20 odd years.
    Actually I tend to see Richard Burton as Henry VIII from “Anne of the Thousand Days” not Laughton.

    Reply
  23. Well if you don’t mind a man’s take on this, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the old portraits as being accurate representations of what these people actually looked like. There are just too many facial features that are the same in every portrait even though they’re showing completely different people. These are all stylized images with more in common with caricatures than with exact accuracy. They aren’t photographs after all, and many of those “common features” that I mention are more the result of the artistic style of the period than with the people really looking like that.
    So, no, I would have no problem imagining Washington as a handsome dark haired young officer during the Seven Years War. Funny you should mention him btw as he appears at the end of my first book and the lead character of John Sinclair, who had met Washington during that war, is shocked at how much he has aged in the intervening 20 odd years.
    Actually I tend to see Richard Burton as Henry VIII from “Anne of the Thousand Days” not Laughton.

    Reply
  24. Well if you don’t mind a man’s take on this, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the old portraits as being accurate representations of what these people actually looked like. There are just too many facial features that are the same in every portrait even though they’re showing completely different people. These are all stylized images with more in common with caricatures than with exact accuracy. They aren’t photographs after all, and many of those “common features” that I mention are more the result of the artistic style of the period than with the people really looking like that.
    So, no, I would have no problem imagining Washington as a handsome dark haired young officer during the Seven Years War. Funny you should mention him btw as he appears at the end of my first book and the lead character of John Sinclair, who had met Washington during that war, is shocked at how much he has aged in the intervening 20 odd years.
    Actually I tend to see Richard Burton as Henry VIII from “Anne of the Thousand Days” not Laughton.

    Reply

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