Andrea/Cara here, As most of our readers know, I'm a big fan of historical mysteries, and the Regency-set series by Tracy Grant featuring Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch is one of my favorites. So I'm delighted to welcome Tracy back to the Word Wenches to tell us a little about her love of history and how she weaves it into her intricate plots. Like the Wenches, Tracy loves research and is an expert on the people and places that makes the Regency such a fascinating era. From the cloak and dagger spy intrigues of the Napoleonic Wars to the details of Mayfair's elegant ballroom, she paints a vivid picture of a time of upheaval and fundamental change, and how individuals react to those challenges. So, please join me in welcoming Tracy as I hand the proverbial pen to her!
Writing about real historical figures in a way that is historically accurate and yet also brings them to life as vibrant individuals is one of the things I find most challenging as an historical novelist. I find it particularly challenging with very well known figures about whom readers may have a lot of assumptions and whom many other novelists have dramatized. Talleyrand, Metternich, and Josephine Bonaparte come to mind among those I’ve written about. But perhaps none more so than Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.
Wellington is an iconic figure in the Regency era. Even people who know little about the time period recognize his name. Integrating this icon into the world of my fictional intelligence agents Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch seemed daunting at first. To step from reading his letters, looking at pictures, reading books about him to actually putting words in his mouth was an intimidating leap. In the end I had to draw a breath, take the plunge, and let him live and breathe on the page along with my fictional characters. In fact, from the moment in my Waterloo novel, Imperial Scandal, where Wellington informs Malcolm that an indiscreet letter to a British officer’s wife who has just died a mysterious death was written by the Prince of Orange, I found the duke quite easy to write. At least my version of the Duke of Wellington, which I hope bears some relationship to the many-faceted reality. Wellington was a complex man, and he has a complex relationship with Malcolm, a diplomat and spy who is often pressed into the service of military intelligence. Malcolm is a negotiator and a progressive reformer. Wellington is a soldier with a conservative bent. They differ on many issues, from Catholic Emancipation to the best course for post-Waterloo Europe. Yet Malcolm has a great deal of respect for Wellington and Wellington, though he is anything but effusive with praise, has respect for Malcolm. Which doesn’t mean Malcolm entirely trusts Wellington when the duke becomes entangled in (fictional) murder investigations both at the time of Waterloo and later in Paris (in The Paris Affair).
My new release, London Gambit, takes place in June 1818, three years after Waterloo. The story begins with Malcolm called to a shipping warehouse where a friend’s runaway nephew has stumbled across a dead body. On the same night, Suzanne is called away from a Mayfair entertainment to tend to an injured man who has slipped out of Paris one step ahead of Royalist pursuit. In fever-wracked delirium, the man warns her of a plot to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena. A plan that could upend Suzanne’s world, for she was once a Bonapartist agent herself.
As I developed these two plot strands, which intertwine in unexpected ways, I found echoes of Waterloo reverberating through the story. For Malcolm and Suzanne; for their friends, Bow Street Runner Jeremy Roth and former intelligence agent Harry Davenport , who both fought at Waterloo; for Harry's wife Cordelia who nursed the wounded along with Suzanne; for Raoul O’Roarke who is Suzanne’s former spymaster and Malcolm’s father (yes, their lives are complicated) who fought on the French side; for Malcolm’s spymaster Lord Carfax, who still fears Bonapartist plots; for the murdered warehouse thief, himself a veteran of the battle. From the first, I knew I wanted Wellington to be part of the book for a host of character and thematic reasons. But in 1818, Wellington was still British ambassador to France and based in Paris. I always struggle with how far I can go having historical figures involved in fictional events. I try to stick to having real historical characters only do things they might have done. But Wellington certainly visited England while he was ambassador to Paris, so I decided fairly early on I could have him present in the book.
More challenging was the fact that I found myself wanting more and more to have the denouement revolve round the Waterloo anniversary. And what I really wanted was to set it at one of the banquets Wellington did in fact give for veterans on the battle’s anniversary at his London residence, Apsley House. But though Welllington bought Apsley House from his elder brother Richard in 1817 (to help Richard out of financial difficulties) he probably didn’t give his first banquet for Waterloo veterans at Apsley House until 1820, and the first of his banquets took place in a dining room that could only seat 35, so the guests were limited to senior officers.
After the Waterloo Gallery was completed in 1830, up to 85 guests could attend, including guests who had not been present at the battle, but the guest list was limited to men. There’s a painting of the banquet in 1836 by William Salter (capturing the moment when Wellington proposed a toast to the sovereign, after which the band played the national anthem) that shows some ladies standing by the door, including Wellington’s niece, Emily Harriet, who was married to Fitzroy Somerset, his military secretary at Waterloo (also a character in London Gambit), and a “Miss Somerset” who may be their daughter who was a baby at the time of Waterloo, born in Brussels in the weeks before the battle. Perhaps they had been dining separately in the house and joined the gentlemen for the toast.
After some debate, I decided Wellington could have come to London on the third anniversary of Waterloo and given a dinner at Apsley House. And since the dinner would be fictional, I could have the guest list include women and other characters I needed present. I dithered some more but in the end I centered the denouement around this fictional dinner with an historical note explaining the liberties I’d taken. Wellington acquired several additional scenes in the book during the revisions. Once again, Malcolm respects the duke (and in fact has a great deal of affection for him, more perhaps than he’d admit to) but isn’t entirely sure he trusts him. Now, as I plan the next book in the series, I’m wondering how the duke’s path may next intertwine with that of Malcolm and Suzanne.
Do you have a favorite novel featuring Wellington? How far do you think writers should go in fictionalizing history? Writers, how do you approach these issues? And what real historical characters do you find particularly challenging to bring to life on paper? I'll be giving away an e-book copy of London Gambit to one winner, chosen at random from those who leave comments here between now and Thursday evening.