The Backstory as an Integral Part of a Novel

Andrea here, musing today about backstories. Now, as a fiction writer, I consider backstories an integral part of the writing process for my characters. I try to imagine basic things about them—vulnerabilities, issues from the past, surprise revelations about quirks or talents—that I can reveal to readers. It’s especially fun if the characters are part of an ongoing series, where I can slowly unpeel layers—like with an onion!—to show the hidden depths.

But in my upcoming book, THE DIAMOND OF LONDON, the idea of backstory takes a  little different twist. In this book I delve into a new genre of historical fiction and have penned a fictional biography. Yes, I know, that sounds like an oxymoron, and at first I wasn’t sure whether I felt comfortable taking it on. My publisher wanted to bring to life the stories of remarkable women in history whose achievements have been hidden for too long in the shadows of traditional historical narratives. I loved the idea so I decided to do delve into the challenge and see if I picture a way to combine fact and fiction, as I would be imagining my subject’s thoughts and feelings.

I chose Lady Hester Stanhope (above) as a possible subject. I knew a bit about her later life as one of the early 19th century’s most famous adventurer. She excavated ruins in the Levant, raised her own private army and brokered power-sharing with the warlords of the region, wore men’s clothing and rode astride . . . in other words, she said “convention be damned—I’m going to live exactly as I please!”
How could I not be intrigued? However, I soon discovered that the part of her life that really fascinated me was her earlier days—in other words, her backstory to becoming an international “celebrity.” When I began to read about her extraordinary family and how that influenced both her triumphs and her tragedies, I was totally hooked on writing her “origin” story.

So here’s a short backstory on the elemental force that shaped Lady Hester and her family—it’s so fascinating that I wouldn’t have dared to make it up!

To understand Lady Hester and her family, you have to know about The Diamond. (left)

The story began in 1687 when the gem was discovered in the famous Kollur Mine of Golconda, an independent sultanate located in the heart of exotic India. Legend has it that the enslaved soul who found the treasure cut a slash in his thigh and hid it in the wound, and then with yet another show of boldness and bravery, he escaped during the Mughal siege of the sultan’s fort and made his way to the coast. There he encountered an English sea captain and offered to split the proceeds of The Diamond’s sale in return for safe passage out of India.

Alas, his courage was no substitute for cunning. The poor fellow paid for his naïveté in blood. The captain, who had a far more profitable deal in mind, murdered him and sold the stone—at 410 carats it was the largest diamond ever found—to a gem merchant named Jamchand. It changed hands again in 1701 when Jamchand sold it to Lady Hester’s great-grandfather, Thomas Pitt (below), a raffish adventurer turned nabob of the formidable East India Company, which had established a lucrative trading monopoly between Britain and the vast subcontinent.

There were rumors that Pitt’s acquisition of the magnificent gem was less than legal. Whatever the truth, it seemed that Pitt and The Diamond were made for each other. Both were bigger than life and glittered with a hard-edged fire, casting a mesmerizing glow.

In 1702, Thomas Pitt—now known as “Diamond Pitt”—sent the precious stone back to England, concealed in the heel of his son’s boot. It was entrusted to the London firm of Long & Steele to shape into a polished gem. The cutting took over two years and cost the extravagant sum of £6,000. him.

The Diamond, now a 140-carat white cushion-cut brilliant featuring lozenge and triangle facets that glittered with pale blue highlights, was truly extraordinary. Two of the smaller stones from the cuttings were sold to Peter the Great of Russia—but the real treasure was brokered to the French regent, Phillipe II, Duke of Orléans, in 1717. Dubbed the “Regent Diamond,” it adorned the coronation crown of King Louis XV in 1723. Later in the century, the blue beauty cast its spell over Queen Marie Antoinette (left), who fell in love with it at first sight and often wore it sewn onto her favorite black velvet hat.

The gem survived the French Revolution and then fell into the hands of Napoleon, who had it set into his coronation sword when he had himself crowned Emperor of France in 1804. In 1812, Marie-Étienne Nitot, official jeweler to the Emperor, recrafted it into the hilt of Napoleon’s military sword. However, just as it had for the poor beheaded queen, it proved an unlucky talisman. Napoleon was defeated in battle by the British and their Allies, who forced him to abdicate the throne

Luck, however, continued to shine on Thomas Pitt. The sale of The Diamond made him—already a wealthy man—fabulously rich, and his fortune gave the Pitt family entrée to the highest circles of power and privilege. Destiny continued to favor them as they gained increasing influence in Britain through marriage with the illustrious Grenville and Stanhope clans, as well as through their own scintillating talents.(One can’t help but wonder whether that singular gem sparked some indefinable inner fire in the family blood, for the descendants of Diamond Pitt have more than their fair share of luminaries.)

Lady Hester’s grandfather was the legendary orator and politician William Pitt the Elder, who served as prime minister of Britain during the epic Seven Years’ War with France to determine global supremacy . . . his son, Lady Hester’s uncle, was William Pitt the Younger, who made history when he was chosen as Britain’s leader at age twenty-four—the youngest prime minister ever handed the royal seals (above) . . . Lady Hester’s cousin, Sir Sydney Smith (below) was a swashbuckling war hero, who through sheer bravado held the citadel of Acre against Napoleon and his army, forcing the Little Corsican to abandon his dream of conquering Jerusalem and the East.

Then there was her other cousin, Thomas Pitt—1st Lord Camelford—a rakehell rogue and sometimes spy . . . William Grenville—1st Baron Grenville—Pitt the Younger’s cousin and yet another British prime minister . . . and her own father, Charles Stanhope, an eminent man of science who along with his good friend Benjamin Franklin was renowned for his experiments with electricity . . .

As I said, I was hooked. Lady Hester’s own dazzling life is equally full of fire, drama, and both triumphs and heartbreaks. The book turned into a labor of love. You can read an excerpt here. (all images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

What about you? Do you have a favorite unsung woman in history whose life you think would make a great novel?

10 thoughts on “The Backstory as an Integral Part of a Novel”

  1. I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are lots of interesting women who have been overlooked. Fascinating post, Andrea, and Lady Hester definitely had an amazing set of relatives and ancestors!

    Reply
    • Andrea, the Pitts were a fascinating clan and it doesn’t hurt that Benedict Cumberbatch played Pitt the Younger in the wonderful movie AMAZING GRACE, about William Wilberforce and his long campaign for abolition.

      For grand dramatic heroines, I’d choose Jane Digby. Born in 1807 to a grand British family and at 17 married off to an older lord. The marriage went badly and she left, thereafter cutting a scandalous swath through European society. In her forties, she settled down with a younger Bedouin chief in the desert. An amazing woman!

      Reply
      • Ha! I did do some research into her . . . yes, a fascinating woman, but I didn’t see how to make her appealing, or what the ultimate “message “of the story could be. She was like hippie flower child of the ’60s, falling in love, having a child and then growing bored, abandoning her child and moving on to the next attractive man.

        I wanted to like her . . . but didn’t warm up to her. Maybe I e read a bad bio. I may go back and take another look, because I WANT to like her.

        Reply
        • Andrea, I found Lady Jane likable–your description of her a hippy flower child is good. Her story doesn’t have the political dimensions of Lady Hester, but is can certainly be argued that Lady Jane was an early feminist defying the suffocating restraints on women of her class and time.

          Reply
          • I need to do more research on her. I really wanted to like her, but the bio I read portrayed her as not merely defying restraints but having little concern for the emotional distress she caused to the various children she had and then abandoned to head on to the next dashing man who caught her eye. I suppose she was simply acting exactly like the men of the era, so yes, maybe she decided it was fair for her to play by the same rules . . . I just have to think about how I would frame her as an appealing character to readers.

  2. I would have suggested Einstein’s wife Mitza Maric. She was a talented mathematician in her own right and struggled with the ussual prejudices against women at the time. Being the wife of a genius and leaving us wondering if she should have co-authored some of his most brilliant work is however, a story already explored by Marie Benedict … alas with no happy ending. I think Lady Hester Stanhope is also a fascinating subject and perfect for this type of novel … looking forward to reading it!

    Reply
    • Quantum, Mitza Maric is a fascinating, albeit far too frequent story. So many smart women are not given credit for their achievements. I hope that this new sub-genre of fictional biographies on unsung women will help shine a light on them.

      Marie Benedict has done a number scientific women, which is great!

      Hope you enjoy Lady Hester’s story!

      Reply
  3. They were not at all famous, but both of my grandmothers lived in the Netherlands during World War 2 and each hid a Jewish person in her home. I’d like to know more of their stories.

    Reply
    • That’s amazing, Kareni! It’s impossible to imagine how much courage that took. What heroines!

      WWII has proved a really popular era because of stories like these. Your grandmothers sound like perfect subjects for a novel!

      Reply

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