As each of us Wenches have noted here, writing novels set in the past presents its own special challenges. One of the hardest parts is determining exactly how much history you want or need to support your story, and then how much of your “writing time” to invest in research to support that history. Of course this varies from writer to writer, and from book to book, with results that vary from the most mundane “wallpaper history”, set in the indeterminate past where everyone has big houses and wears silk, to more thoughtful books with enough factual background to please a good university press.
I’m a self-proclaimed history nerd. I love history, and I love research, and I’m perfectly happy to wallow in original sources all the day long. This is much of the reason that I’ve shifted my writing from historical romance to historical fiction, where the characters are almost entirely based on historical figures and the plot is driven by fact. For me, that’s more-better-funner writing, about as good as a job can get. But all that lovely research can also become as sticky as the LaBrea Tar Pits, and suck up my time like so many wallowing mastodons.
Which is exactly what happened to me with Bagnigge Wells.
I know this sounds like I’m writing a Nancy Drew mystery (The Secret of the Bagnigge Wells). Actually, my WIP is a historical novel based on the life and times of 17th century actress and royal mistress Nell Gwyn (The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn & King Charles II). Most of the book takes place in London, and a well-documented 17th century London at that, thanks to the writings of diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, and a surprisingly large number of other surviving letters and journals.
There are many writers fortunate enough to be able to travel to the places their books are set, and be able to walk literally in the characters’ footsteps. Alas, I’m not one of them; I have two college-age children, and that puts a damper on research junkets to England. And, as I’ve also realized, many of the places I’d want to see no longer exist. Not only did the Great Fire of 1666 destroy much of Nell’s London, but another fire, later in the 17th century, claimed most of Charles’s Whitehall Palace, too. What remained of Restoration London has since been absorbed, knocked down, remodeled, bombed, renewed, and rebuilt by successive generations. I’ve no choice but to rely on the descriptions of others to create my interpretation of the past.
But back to Bagnigge Wells. In book after book about Nell, there are references made to her “summer house” on the Fleet, a bucolic retreat where she and Charles often went to swim, fish, and generally make mischief away from the court. I liked this, and I worked it into the story as the book evolved. I wrote along with some of those big **** in the middle of the scene, astrisks that mean Notes to Self, and are my way of saying, “come back here and put in more when you’ve researched it.”
So with my scene more or less written, I went back to fill in the blanks regarding Bagnigge Wells. Hah. To begin with, I found no mention of the place in my standard 17th diaries, journals, or references books. I figured it had to be within a day’s journey by water of the palace, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on any map, old or new. In fact, to my chagrin, I realized that the earliest mention of the place in connection with Nell was in a book published in 1878 (Old and New London by Walter Thornbury), which had been repeated as gospel in every successive book about Nell. Here’s the passage, in all its high Victorian splendor:
“Bagnigge Wells House was originally the summer residence of Nell Gwyn. Here, upon the Fleet and amid green fields, she entertained Charles and his saturnine brother with concerts and merry breakfasts, in the careless Bohemian way in which that noble specimen of divine right delighted.”
I probably should have tossed the whole scene then and there. Relying on the word of a historian writing more than two centuries after the fact isn’t generally a good idea. But the summer house on the Fleet was certainly plausible, and entirely probable, and besides, I liked the scene, and I didn’t want to give it up. It worked. And I just liked the word "Bagnigge", however it may be pronounced (anyone know for certain?)
And so back I went a-hunting.
What did I learn? That the reason I couldn’t find Bagnigge Wells on any map is that it no longer exists. For that matter, neither does the Fleet. The River Fleet was once one of the major rivers of London, running from its origins on Hampstead Heath, through Kings Cross and Clerkenwell, until it finally emptied into the Thames near Blackfriars.
Bagnigge Wells was located on the Fleet near St. Pancras. The site of two wells known for their healing properties, it may also have been the location of an earlier, abandoned religious order. In Nell’s time, the area was still surrounded by open fields, with only a single public-house (The Pindar of Wakefield) as a landmark, and the river was clear and clean, yet easily traveled back into the heart of London. It was also considered a place with strong royalist tendencies, filled with Charles’s supporters. In other words, the perfect place to escape the 17th century version of the paparazzi.
But as for those “telling details” that writers so cherish: nothing. Not a peep. Everything dealt with Bagnigge Wells in the 18th century, when the healing wells were developed, and the spot became fashionable with the “middling sort”, who came to take the waters, flirt, and play skittles. (To the left is a genre print of "The Bread and Buttery at Bagnigge") But by the early 19th century, the Wells were described as a ruin, with urban sprawl relentlessly approaching. Only the old Pindar had managed to continue the connection with Nell, with a chimney piece that featured the royal arms and a portrait-bust labeled “Eleanor Gwynne, a favorite of Charles II.)
The once-sparkling Fleet had become little better than an open sewer, and by the end of the 18th century, was completely arched over and built upon. The springs, too, vanished, and all that remains today are two streets in the area: Gwynne Place and Wells Street. (For more information, check out The River of Wells.)
I figure I spent the better part of a morning to learn all of this cool stuff, none of which was really of any use to me. In other words, if I wanted to put Nell and Charles at Bagnigge, I’d have to do so without specifics, and to rely more on my imagination than any hard fact. So this, then, is the sum of how Bagnigge Wells is described:
“I vow you can’t catch me, sir,” I taunted, raising my head from the river’s surface only enough so my lips would clear it. “Hey, ho, can’t catch me!”
I gulped as big a breath as I could and plunged deep into the water, swimming low so Charles wouldn’t spy me. Finally my lungs were burning and I could keep under no longer, and I popped up with a splatter, gasping. Swiftly I looked about me for Charles, shoving aside my tangled hair that clung to my face and breasts like duckweed.
All around me was still: the green riverbed, the willows trailing their feathery branches into the water, the few ducks already nesting for the night in the tall grass, their heads tucked demurely beneath their wings. The days were shorter now, making the sky that velvety blue that comes before true dusk, with stars just beginning to spark. The evening mist floated low over the fields beyond the river, softening the horizon. I could hear the first nightingale’s song over the rush of the water, and louder still the racing of my own heart. Our clothes lay where we’d left them on the grass, untidy piles of pale linen, and on top of Charles’s lay two of his piebald spaniels, curled contentedly, I suppose, in his scent. Not far beyond lay the shadowy shape of the house I’d hired for our use for the summer. . . .
That’s it. Was a morning of research to prove I’d have no hard facts worth that paragraph? Was this time I could ever justify well spent to my editor (if I ever had to do so, which, fortunately, writers seldom are called to do)? Or was that morning among my research books more a general refilling of my writerly imagination, whether it generated anything immediately useful? Could it just be chalked up to…fun?
Whether this works (or whither the Wells) remains to be seen, at least until next summer, when The King’s Favorite will be released. But here’s a question for now: do you think you can tell when a writer has enjoyed writing a book? Can you sense if the book was a joy, or a trial? Have you ever read books that in some intangible way felt as if the writer had written under pressure (health, family, financial, or simply an idea that had ceased to be magical), or one that felt so right that the words must have flown from the keyboard?