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Historical Fiction: Turning Tides

Writing her first historical novel has raised some unexpected challenges for the historian Stella Tillyard.

It is just as well that I have written a Regency novel and not a history of the Regency; it seems my memory of the factual is weak. I had always thought it ran from 1810 to 1820; but in fact it began 200 years ago on February 5th, 1811, when a Bill ‘for the care of the King during his illness’ was enacted and George III’s son, the Prince of Wales, declared regent. By the time I realised this my novel, Tides of War, was finished. Thank goodness it didn’t matter; no one in the book exclaims ‘Ah, ha, its 1810 and the Regency has begun’.

Historiographically, and beyond the confines of military history, the Regency, after the upheavals of the French Revolution but before the period of industrial unrest that produced Chartism and the 1832 Reform Act, has been rather a blank time. Historians such as Boyd Hilton, Victor Gatrell and Ben Wilson have begun recently to close that gap; the era emerges from their work as both extravagant and severe, balanced between the license of the 18th century and the repressions of the Victorian age.

Perhaps in response to its weak professional characterisation the Regency has a much stronger flavour as a literary, architectural and filmic construction than as a professional area of study. Ask an ordinary reader what it evokes and the answers come thick and fast. It is Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Mr Willoughby in his curricle, Becky and Richard Sharp, Aubrey and Maturin, the Waterloo Ball, slippers and chestnut boots, cutaway coats, phaetons, waltzes, duels, boxers and Byron. It is a period of elegance and excess, bow windows and the curves of Regent Street. Brighton Pavilion with its bulges and domes is the quintessential building of the Regency and sums up its oddity and extravagance.

For a writer, and especially a first-time novelist, there are reefs under the Regency waters that threaten shipwreck at every turn. There is Jane Austen to one side, Leo Tolstoy to the other, and if those are avoided then the hazards of Thackeray, Patrick O’Brian, Bernard Cornwell and especially Georgette Heyer loom. It seemed to me, when I started out, that I ran everywhere the dangers of parody, emulation or, with Tolstoy, whose masterwork I have read four times, an unconscious risk of duplication of ideas or characters.

Yet the Regency that interested me was not that of fiction, film or even the most recent scholarship, but a much more uncertain and strange time. When I began writing in the spring of 2008 (before the banking crisis, but perhaps I felt some sort of vibration underground) I had a strong sense that our own times were shifting into uncertainty and that the Regency period offered a kind of mirror to our own age. Britain was shadowed by a very long war and then its aftermath, wracked with financial crisis and on the brink of industrial unrest. Science and technology were changing man’s relationship with the natural world and quickening the pace of industrial change, but attitudes towards them were not always positive. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, was the period’s most characteristic production and brilliantly heightened and reflected its fascination with science and the fear that man might be destroyed by his own creations. It is this Regency that underpins my book.

It is often said that the novelist has more freedom than the historian and can deal with history in a cavalier fashion, sidestepping unfashionable areas of debate, updating characters and language with minimal anxiety. As a novelist I have no need and do not seek to explain the past or give a portrait of an age. I try to show people and their emotions and motives in particular situations and at a particular moment in history. Fiction is led by the passions and events experienced by its characters and the history follows. So, although the more one considers the Battle of Waterloo the more astonishing it is as a historical phenomenon – a great pitched battle that decided the fate of nations, the huge number of casualties, the personalities there assembled – I do not describe it. One of my characters dies there, but the reader at that moment is in London, waiting for news with the dead man’s wife, and it is with her that we are concerned.
Novelists can thus be freer than historians with both the facts and the balance of history. But I have come to feel that this debate is confused. Of course professional historians must respect the facts of the past. But this does not make them any less free when they come to choose their subject matter or argue their case. Everywhere the forces of the present, both the collective unconscious and the individual unconscious, are hard at work.

For me Englishness as outsiders perceive it emerged in my novel as one of the themes and an important aspect of the history I portrayed. Tides of War is populated by the Anglo-Irish and the Scots who run the army and the Empire, starting with the Duke of Wellington himself, and by émigrés including an entrepreneur from Brunswick, a German Jew from Frankfurt, a seamstress from Paris and a Florence-born gentleman volunteer. Some of these are real people, others imagined. I had no idea when I wrote the book that this would be how the balance of characters fell. So why did they find me or I them? Because after 20 years living in the US and Italy I look at England with the eyes of an outsider and can no longer write from within: because I was an immigrant in other countries and because my family narrative is one of migration and standing just a little to the side.

But is this really so different from what happens in non-fiction? When I wrote Aristocrats, a biography of four 18th-century sisters, it didn’t occur to me at the time that I found them partly because I am one of three sisters myself. More pertinently, a work like Tony Judt’s history of Europe, Postwar (2005), read in the light of his memoir, The Memory Chalet (2010), accrues a new stratum. In his memoir Judt explains that in the late 1980s he learned Czech and travelled to Czechoslovakia in response to a personal crisis. Postwar was conceived on his way home from Prague in 1989. Moreover, beneath the professional opus is an exploration of the self. As The Memory Chalet makes movingly clear, the postwar history of Europe is Judt’s own history too. No writer (including the professional historian) can ever really get beyond the envelope of the self.

Yet some residual vanity (or is it anxiety?) remains. I may have used history ruthlessly in the service of feeling and story, but still I find myself wanting to declare: Here is the Regency in a different light; here is the moment when a government is forced to depend on a banker to turn the tide of war; here gas lights are lit in London for the first time; and here a woman sees how investing in stock and bonds can give her freedom.  

Is this history true or accurate? Perhaps the more interesting question is why are we so keen, as writers and as readers, that it should in some way be so? Does history have historical novelists by the throat and refuse to let go? Are historians, then, providing the master narratives of our times and historical novelists merely tinkering around the edges? And where is the bold writer who doesn’t care, who makes no claims to veracity, who does not murmur about ‘a greater truth’, who forges through the past like Scott or Dickens, oblivious to the wrath of readers and the insistent siren call of Wikipedia?

Stella Tillyard is the author of A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings (2006). Tides of War: A Novel of the Peninsular War is published by Chatto & Windus in May.

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