Once again I was torn between two reader questions, so I flipped a coin. Nina wins a book with this one:
“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)”
As indicated in my concern about the title for NOT QUITE A LADY (and I could totally relate, of course, to Jo’s wanting that comma in LADY, BEWARE)–I am nerdy to an extreme degree. I try to stay close to the facts. That doesn’t mean I always adhere strictly to them.
The nerd reads really boring biographies of fairly obscure personages. Henry Salt, British Consul-General in Egypt 1816-27, is a case in point. Though he makes only two brief appearances in MR. IMPOSSIBLE, I felt compelled to order Elibron’s two-volume facsimile of the 1834 edition of THE LIFE AND CORRESPONDENCE OF HENRY SALT, ESQ. F.R.S. &c. by John J. Halls. The excess verbiage and convoluted style is common in books of the period, and it paints a saintly picture of the man, but Salt’s letters are there, and they do give a sense of his personality. The extent to which I took liberties is hard to pin down. Several people might read the same book or the same memoirs and come away with a different image of the subject. There’s evidence elsewhere for the character I created but my version is, I hope, a bit wittier than the letters suggested.
Still, for most of us, this is a fairly obscure historical figure. The average reader doesn’t come to my book with a preconceived idea of him. It’s not like trying to put, say, Abraham Lincoln into a story. In that case, I would tread very, very carefully. This is how I feel about Wellington, too. I would absolutely try to get all the historical data right. He’s a gigantic figure, too well-known, too much written about.
Because it maddens me to read books with historical figures (or even famous fictional characters) who do not ring true, I try to avoid the big names and bring in lesser-known personages, like Ali Pasha in THE LION’s DAUGHTER. Yet I don’t simply use the name and make up the character from whole cloth. I may put my words into his mouth but I try to get the character as the historical references paint him.
With the understanding, of course, that the various references will not all paint the same picture of the same man or woman.
Historical truth is an elusive thing.
In fiction, the big question the author must ask herself/himself is, Will it destroy the suspension of disbelief?
Thus, even though the explorer Giovanni Belzoni does not come on stage in either MR. IMPOSSIBLE or LORD PERFECT, he is referred to often. Because he’s well known to those familiar with the world of Egyptian archaeology, it was all the more important to get the details right. And anyone who’s read either of those books since viewing last year’s BBC production, Egypt: Rediscovering a Lost World (which I highly recommend, by the way) will understand that I exaggerated nothing in my references to this larger-than-life figure or my descriptions of the dangerous world that was Egypt at the time.
Salt’s secretary Beechey is also a real guy. But here I took a liberty. He had gone back to England by the time of my story. However, since it was a question of months, rather than years–and no other substitute would do–I kept him in Egypt.
No easy answers. How far to stretch the truth is a judgment call, as is the case with historically accurate language…and, basically, everything. Writing a novel is one judgment call after another.
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair does not offer a strictly accurate picture of Waterloo. Does this spoil the book in any way?
An Infamous Army is regarded as a model of historical accuracy about the same battle. Does this make Heyer’s book better than Thackeray’s?
I think they are both marvelous works, and that’s all about the art of the storytelling.
What do you think about historical figures in books? What do you think works and doesn’t work when authors put real people in amongst their make-believe ones?