Tomorrow, The Diamond of London, my first foray into historical fiction, will release. And while creating a book is always a journey, this endeavor was particularly interesting one.
When my editor and I first began discussing the idea of a fictional biography on Lady Hester Stanhope, I had some reservations. A fictional biography? That seemed like such an oxymoron, and coming from the world of fiction, where I could happily scribble away, making things up as I went along, the thought of trying to piece together Truth and Imagination in one story seemed a little daunting . . .
And then there was Lady Hester Stanhope herself. I’ve written a number of books set in Regency England, so I’m fairly knowledgeable about the history and notable people of the era. Her name was familiar to me, but only for the later part of her life, when she was the most famous—and eccentric—adventurer of the early nineteenth century. From what little I had read, Lady Hester was considered opinionated, abrasive, headstrong, and emotionally unstable. That certainly gave me pause for thought. To write a book about her meant that the two of us would be spending a lot of time together. What if we didn’t get along?
Still, her story was intriguing enough that I decided to do a little more research. One of the first things that caught my eye was the tale of The Diamond—the “origin story” of the Pitt family’s rise to become one of the most powerful and influential aristocratic families in Britain. Intermarriage over several generations with the equally impressive Stanhope and Grenville families added yet more luster to the family tree. The more I read, the more I became fascinated, not only by the clan’s position within the highest circles of Society but also by the amazing range of their individual talents and achievements—three prime ministers, a foreign secretary, and First Lord of the Admiralty, a famous scientist, a dashing war hero, to name just a few.
So how did Lady Hester fit into this blazing array of luminaries?
With her own fiery spark, I quickly discovered. As soon as I delved into her life, it became clear that she had inherited the same fierce intellect and ambition that so many of her male relatives possessed. The trouble was, she was born into a world that permitted women—especially aristocratic women—no role in life save to produce an heir and a spare, ensure the smooth running of a household, and smile prettily at parties while keeping any opinions to themselves. And yet, that didn’t deter Lady Hester.
As I read on, I was captivated by what a strong sense of self she had, even as a child, and how determined she was to have a voice and be heard. Showing the same grit and daring as her great-great-grandfather, “Diamond” Pitt, and wielding her own considerable wit and charm, Lady Hester rebelled against the rules. And against all odds—though not without disasters to go along with her triumphs—she earned a place for herself in the highest echelon of government, working with her uncle as his private secretary and hostess, where she was included in the debates on the great issues facing Britain. Her personal life was just as colorful, as she was intimately involved with some of the leading men of her era.
And yet, I had never heard of Lady Hester’s extraordinary achievements during her life in England . . .
And that’s why this book became a labor of love for me. I came to admire and applaud Lady Hester. Yes, she had plenty of faults. She could be hot-tempered, impetuous, and reckless. Her judgment was sometimes flawed. But her courage, her compassion, her refusal to surrender her dreams won me over. Her story, and her achievements, deserves to be known.
Now, on to the actual process of combining fact and fiction!
First of all I had to gather the historical facts. I was fortunate in finding a wonderful scholarly biography of Lady Hester Stanhope, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis. Its meticulous account of Lady Hester’s life not only gave me a good overview of her and her extended family, but also provided detailed dates from which I could build an accurate timeline for the part of Lady Hester’s life that I had chosen to write about. (Trying to cover her whole life in one novel struck me as impossible, so I decided to concentrate on her life in England, which interested me even more than her later exploits in the Levant.) The timeline gave me a skeleton. Now I had to flesh it out by learning enough about the real people involved to make them come alive in my head. And then I had to shape all the bits and pieces in to a plot, for a novel needs to have pacing and dramatic moments to keep readers engaged.
And that meant I also read biographies and articles on George Brummell, Lord Camelford, Granville Leveson Gower, William Pitt the Younger, and Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore, which helped me to understand them as individuals, which in turn allowed me to create a more nuanced portrait of Lady Hester.
So how did I put this all together?
As someone who believes that actual history is often more interesting and provocative than fiction, I decided from the beginning that I wanted to stay as accurate as possible in telling Lady Hester’s story. So I’ve tried to stay true to the known facts in depicting her relationships with her family and the four men with whom she was emotionally involved. Whenever I found a notable detail in my research, I would work it into my fictional narrative—for example, helping her half brother Mahon escape from Chevening by climbing out an upper window using bedsheets tied together; creating the gardens at Walmer Castle by marshaling the local militia to dig and plant; the house party hosted by her dashing cousin, Sir Sidney Smith, which included Princess Caroline, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Bessborough—are all true. Using these vignettes, and a myriad of others like them, I then would use my imagination to write a scene with Lady Hester as the narrator. I chose to tell her story in first person because she was such a forceful, magnetic, and emotionally complex individual it seemed the best to capture the nuanced facets of her personality.
When it came to the four important men in her life, I also wanted to portray those relationships as accurately as I could.
Lady Hester arrived in London with little experience in the world of the beau monde due to her eccentric upbringing. Through her uncle, William Pitt the Younger, she soon met the cynical, self-assured George “Beau” Brummell, who by all accounts taught her elemental lessons about the intricate rules-within-rules that governed the highest circles of society. Lord Camelford, known as the “Half-Mad Lord,” appealed to Lady Hester’s rebellious nature. She found his devil-may-care recklessness exciting and alluring, while he, in turn, sensed a kindred soul who chafed at the idea of leading a boring conventional life. His behavior did become increasingly erratic, and she was smart enough to realize they would both likely burn each other to a crisp.
Granville Leveson Gower was the exact opposite. Handsome, charming, skilled in the art of diplomacy, he appeared a paragon of perfection, and Lady Hester was smitten. Lady Hester did set out to win a marriage proposal from him . . . with disastrous results!
The historical record is less forthcoming concerning her relationship with Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore. They did become friends during her early days at Walmer Castle and often rode out together—Lady Hester was a superb equestrian and was known to ride astride—before his military duties sent him abroad. And the friendship was rekindled when he returned to England and came to give her his belated condolences on Pitt’s death. As for their personal relationship . . . historians disagree about it, but I came to my own conclusion!
Fact and Fiction. As I have said, I’ve tried to be historically accurate in each scene. But as for the actual conversations and expressions of emotion . . . that’s all my creative speculation. Some historians may take issue with my decisions, but that’s the beauty of writing fiction. Imagination is an integral part of the process. That said, I’ve tried to be true to the essence of all the incredibly interesting people who played a part in this story. As for Lady Hester . . .
If she were to read this book, I hope she would smile and feel that I’ve done her justice.
There has been a growing trend for fictional biographies in all time periods of historical fiction. Have you read any? If so, do you enjoy reading about a real life person is a “storybook” where fact and fiction are blended? (all images courtesy of Wikicommons)