Andrea here, As I mentioned recently, I’m starting a new book project in a new genre, which is both exciting and a little intimidating. It’s historical fiction with a twist—a “fictional” biography, inspired by the life of a real-life person. In my case, it’s Lady Hester Stanhope, an extraordinary individual who broke just about every rule—both written and unwritten—that governed what a woman could and could not do during the Regency era.
The project requires a lot of research, as I need to know not only the details of her life, but also the details of those close to her, and how their stories interweave with hers. Now, I’m a total history nerd, so this is what I consider fun! I’ve already tracked down a number of out-of-print books and memoirs on the internet and google books—thank you to all the libraries, museums and historical society who have so much of their archives digitized. It's wonderful to have an amazing treasure trove of material that I can access while I sit in my pajamas at my writing desk!
But in this project, it’s not only books, but visual material that is eye-opening! Lady Hester comes from a very fascinating family tree, where marriage twined together three very prominent aristocratic families—the Stanhopes, the Pitts and the Grenvilles—over several generations. Her relatives include three British prime ministers, adventurers, military heroes and a scientific genius, some of whom were, to put it mildly, exceeding eccentric. (No wonder Lady Hester had unconventional ideas!) And so, they were often the subject of the famous satirical cartoonists of the day.
What’s already been great fun in this project is discovering how interesting and unusual the rest of her family was. In fact, some of the “crazy” details are so perfect for a novelist that I worry that readers will think I have made things up. (I can already see that there will be a VERY long author’s note!)
Lest you think I am exaggerating, I’m going use Lady Hester’s father as an example. Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope, was considered a genius in early life. The family moved to Geneva when he was ten in hope that the climate would be beneficial for the ailing health of his older brother, the heir. Stanhope studied at the University of Geneva, showing an amazing aptitude and interest in scientific subjects. While a teenager, he invented a type of mechanical adding machine that drew great acclaim.
Alas, his brother died of consumption, and the family returned to England, where Stanhope continued to impress the scientific world with his breadth of interests and clever mind. He showed immense talents in both abstract thinking and mechanical aptitude, and was elected a member—the youngest one—of the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific organization.
Stanhope married Hester Pitt, daughter of the legendary orator and politician William Pitt the Elder, who served as Prime Minister in the aftermath of Britain’s war with the American colonies. His brilliant brother-in-law, William Pitt the Younger, was a rising star in politics, and the Stanhope household in London was lively intellectual cauldron of scientific and political ideas.
Scientific interests continued to dominate Stanhope’s life. He made important to make innovations in technology—he created one of the earliest prototypes for a steamboat and invented the Stanhope printing press. Made entirely of iron, it also included key innovations with the platten and the levers that created better and faster impression of the type onto the paper. It became the standard design for all printing presses through the mid 19th century.
He also became fascinated by electricity and wrote some important papers on the subject, which led him to become friends with Benjamin Franklin. The two of them were considered the leading thinkers on the subject.
While his scientific accomplishments were much admired, his ideas on political and social philosophy were becoming increasingly eccentric. Stanhope became an ardent admirer of the Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau, who believed than men and women were born innocent and it was Society that corrupted them. He applied these ideas to child-rearing (His well-educated wife had died when Lady Hester was four, and he had promptly remarried a more malleable lady.)
His children were taught to read, but weren’t allowed books in their early life. Believing in the moral superiority of Nature and manual labor, Hester was tasked with taking care of the chickens and his sons by his second marriage were apprenticed to the local blacksmith, despite being aristocrats.
Just as eccentric were his political beliefs. He became a big supporter of the French Revolution. After the Bastille was stormed, he tore the the aristocratic coat of arms off the main gate of his grand ancestral estate, renounced his title and started calling himself “Citizen Stanhope.” This naturally made him the butt of many satirical cartoons (I have peppered them throughout this post) and caused great embarrassment to his brother-in-law, who was now Prime Minister.
As you can imagine , this made for a rather, er, interesting childhood for Lady Hester and her siblings.The irony is that he was a great supporter of Equality and Fraternity,, and yet was a tyrant with his family. I’ve already discovered a great many bizarre anecdotes. But those I will save for the book!
This sort of research is one of the reasons I love history. There are so many fascinating and colorful stories behind the “facts” one reads in a textbook. History is the action and interaction of people, who are rarely paragons of perfection! I find that discovering them in all their flawed glory gives me a richer understanding of the past.
This new genre of fictional biographies is bringing a lot of unknown details about the lives of famous people to light—especially of women. What do you think of them? Have you read any of these recent fictional biographies? Do you enjoy learning of their lives, warts and all?