Creating Strong Female Characters in Historical Fiction

Creating Strong Female Characters in Historical Fiction

How To Write

Strong Female Characters in Historical Fiction

 

Whether you’re a man or a woman the process of writing a book that is a good read about someone of the opposite sex can be tricky. Historical characters have to be every bit as complex as people today, they have to think and feel, have a back story, desires and beliefs.

People of either sex and those who class themselves as something in between are complex. Do you know where your characters score on the Big Five Personality Taits?

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

 

Where would your characters fit in the Myres Briggs range of personality types?

 

As an author who wants to write historical fiction books with believable characters I try to make my characters multidimensional and rounded. I like to write characters who change and grow as they overcome the obstacles I put in their way so who they are affects how they react, what they do and say.

 

As a writer, you have to show your reader the character.

To do this your actors have to understand some things about themselves, the people around them have to understand parts of their personality they are unaware of themselves, and they have discovered things about themselves as the story unfolds.

 

Use A Johari Window

Think of the Johari Window – In the open pane there are things known to self and others, then there are things known only to self, there are things known by others and not by self, and finally things about the character that are unknown to both. These are the things the character will learn of their journey.

Making your character want something big will give you a good starting point to build around. What will Jane or Belle do get what her heart desires? Of course, what she will do wholly depends on how you’ve set her up. So much women’s fiction, historical and modern literary fiction is based on morally deviant characters these days because its an easy way to get Jane or Belle to do something extraordinary, something shocking and unexpected.

 

Creating Memorable Characters

Memorable characters achieve their goals.

 

What makes these characters so well loved is that they overcame the obstacles society and their families put in front of them.

So, to write an attractive female character, she needs a goal and a lot of opposition, not necessarily a bad-ass attitude to the law.

 

 

Draw a Picture Warts and All

Angels are for heaven, not this earthly realm.

Being human, male or female, means we come with strengths and weaknesses and lots of imperfections. Try to make your characters interestingly flawed. Strengths, when we rely on them too much can be our downfall just as much as weaknesses.

Fears and Weaknesses

Overcoming weaknesses could be the making of a remarkable historical character, so don’t think to create a sassy heroine she has to be macho or fearless.

The most common fears for women are pretty much the same as they have always been. Which of these fears are you going to challenge your female historical characters with?

  • not getting married or finding a life partner,
  • not having kids or losing a child,
  • getting old, maimed or scarred,
  • being killed or raped,
  • being trapped in a loveless relationship,
  • being abandoned
  • ending up in poverty or dying alone.

 

Good writers let the reader know which fate awaits their historical  heroine should she fail.

Mesmerising historical characters use everything they’ve got, their strengths, weaknesses, and their ingenuity to save themselves from their horrible fate.

Not the Prettiest Girl in Town

Characters we come to love are not the prettiest girls in town or the girls who never lose their temper.

 

Historical women had pride, intellect and ambition. The felt pain, they hated people, and of you had been around to prick them they would bleed.

If your historical female character is the sidekick to an all-conquering male protagonist, why shouldn’t she feel peeved and throw the odd spanner in the works from time to time?

Surprises

Let your characters surprise you and surprise themselves.

  • Turn the tables on them, flip things around. Make what seemed impossible possible.
  • Let your characters find their courage, make fortuitous mistakes, try something they have never tried before even if it is taking the wrong advice.
  • Let your characters learn painful lessons, be confronted by their hypocrisy or the results of their stupidity.
  • Let them learn a secret that gives them power over others – lead them into temptation, and see how they perform.

 

Finally

Remember, whether you’re creating a female character or writing about a woman, she’s just human.

And that being human is to be full of possibilities.

Julia Herdman writes history and historical fiction. Her book Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s.

Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam.

Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street.  Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.

Her debut novel Sinclair is available on Amazon.

Click here to Get your copy today.

Sinclair_Cover Julia Herdman

 

 

 

 

For more tips on writing see:

Six Rules for Writing Historical Fiction

The Present Past – Writing History

10 Things That Turn a Character Bad

About

How to Write Historical Fiction

Best Historical Fiction – Five London Based Family Sagas

Best Historical Fiction – Five London Based Family Sagas

Tales of Tooley Street

Sinclair_Cover Julia Herdman

This London based historical fiction is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Sinclair is the eponymous hero but there are strong female leads including the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street.  Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.

 

Circles of Time: A Novel (Greville Family Saga) by Phillip Rock

Image result for circles of time philip rock

A generation has been lost on the Western Front when this London based historical romance gets started. The dead have been buried. A harsh peace forged, and the howl of shells replaced by the wail of saxophones as the Jazz Age begins in London. Ghosts of the summer of 1914 linger tugging at the memory of Martin Rilke and his British cousins, the Grevilles.

Everyone at Abingdon Pryory wants to forget the past.  The old values, social codes, and sexual mores have been swept away. Martin Rilke throws himself into journalism. Fenton Wood-Lacy is exiled in faraway army outposts. Back at Abingdon, Charles Greville recovers from shell shock. Alexandra is caught up in an unlikely romance.

Circles of Time captures the age in the midst of one of England’s most gracious manor houses, in the steamy nightclubs of London’s Soho, and the despair of Germany caught in the nightmare of anarchy and inflation. Lives are renewed, new loves found, and a future of peace and happiness is glimpsed—but only for a moment.

 

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

Related image

The Forsyte Saga is John Galsworthy’s monumental chronicle of the lives of the moneyed Forsytes. As London based historical fiction goes you really could do no better.

The Forsytes are a family at war with each other. The story of Soames Forsyte’s marriage to the beautiful and rebellious Irene and its effects upon the whole Forsyte clan run through the series.

The Forsyte Saga is a brilliant social satire of the acquisitive sensibilities of a comfort-bound class in its final glory. Galsworthy spares none of his characters, revealing their weaknesses and shortcomings as clearly as he does the tenacity and perseverance that define the most influential members of the Forsyte family.

 

 

The Palliser Novels: Anthony Trollope

Image result for Palliser Novels

In his autobiography, Anthony Trollope called the Palliser Novels “the best work of my life,” adding “I think Plantagenet Palliser stands more firmly on the ground than any other personage I have created.”

These London based historical novels centre around the stately politician Plantagenet Palliser, but the interest is less in politics than in the lively social scene Trollope creates against a Parliamentary backdrop.

Trollops’ keen eye for the subtleties of character and “great apprehension of the real” impressed contemporary writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James, and in the Palliser Novels we find him at his very best.

This is a masterful portrait of Victorian society and politics with a profoundly human touch.,

 

 

 

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Image result for Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

 

Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode.

Set in the 1840s, this London based historical romance starts when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters and begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 at the Duchess of Richmond’s new legendary ball, one family’s life will change forever, but you’ll have to read the book to find out whose it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Image result for The Cazalet Chronicles

The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change

Howard offers a classic English country-house saga, in this impressive London based historical saga covering the late 30s to late 50s. As the various members of the upper-middle-class Cazalet family circle are hatched, matched and dispatched against a background of the changing times Howard keeps the family and the story together. Her characters are forensically interrogated to reveal their strengths and their weaknesses. This historical fiction is based on her own experience, giving Howard’s characters a ring of authenticity that is rare. The war looms large and alters lives. It is the social history of this class of people who would disappear with the modernity and taxes of the 1960s.

 

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction.

Her novel Sinclair is available of Amazon. Click here to get your copy.

Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle  Also available on:

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon New Zealand

Amazon South Africa

Amazon USA

 

See Also:

Writers of influence – Hilary Mantel

 

 

 

10 Things That Turn a Character Bad

10 Things That Turn a Character Bad

10 Things that turn a character bad

All great stories have baddies. Baddies or antagonists are the characters who get in your hero or heroine’s way. They create conflict and problems – all the things readers love. Evil villains help create a story that is exciting and sometimes even scary.  Evil is up there with Love, Death, Beauty, Friendship, and Fate. Sooner or later we encounter at least a few of them in a good story. Here are 10 ways you can turn a character bad as a writer.

1. Bad Parents

When King Minos became king of Crete he challenged his brother to a dual. He prayed to Poseidon, the sea god for some help. Poseidon sent him a snow-white bull. The deal was that the king had to kill the bull to show honour to the gods, but he decided to keep it and kill one of his own bulls. To punish Minos, Poseidon made Pasiphaë, Minos’s wife, fall deeply in love with the bull. She was so in love that she had craftsman Daedalus make a hollow wooden cow, then she climbed inside it in order to mate with the white bull. The offspring was the monstrous Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him, and as he grew he became ferocious and started to eat people. Minos went to the oracle at Delphi for advice on how to handle his monstrous son. He had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur under the palace.

Deviant parents give a character a bad start in life as the Greeks knew all too well!

American author Ray Bradbury gave the theme a modern twist with his short story The Veldt in 1950.

The Hadley family live in an automated house called “The Happylife Home,” filled with machines that do every task. The two children, Peter and Wendy, become fascinated with the “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they imagine.

The parents, George and Lydia, begin to wonder if there is something wrong with their way of life.

Lydia tells George, “That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot.”

They are also perplexed and confused as to why the nursery is stuck on an African setting, with lions in the distance, eating a dead figure. There they also find recreations of their personal belongings and hear strangely familiar screams. Wondering why their children are so concerned with this scene of death, they decide to call a psychologist.

The psychologist, David McClean, suggests they turn off the house, move to the country, and learn to be more self-sufficient.

The children, feeling reliant on the nursery, beg their parents to let them have one last visit. Their parents agree and when they come to fetch them, the children lock George and Lydia into the nursery with the pride of lions. Shortly after, it is implied that the lions eat George and Lydia.

When the psychologist comes by to look for George and Lydia, he finds the children enjoying lunch on the veldt and sees the lions eating figures in the distance – George and Lydia, the reader is lead to presume.

2. Favouritism

 

Favouritism is a commonly used trope in Fiction Land. Bad enough when you’re an only child, but if you’re among a pack of siblings, this particular trope is nearly guaranteed to raise its head at some point in order to make life even more difficult.
Parental Favouritism is just what it sounds like — one child is given preference over their siblings.

Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve in the biblical Book of Genesis. Cain, the firstborn, tilled the soil, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, each of his own produce, but God favoured Abel’s sacrifice instead of Cain’s. Cain murdered Abel.

God punished Cain with a life of wandering and set a mark on him so that no man would kill him. Cain then dwelt in the land of Nod where he built a city and fathered the line of descendants beginning with Enoch. The narrative never explicitly states Cain’s motive though it does describe him as being wrathful, and his motive is traditionally assumed to be envy.

This biblical story and archetype of brothers locked in dual for their father’s affection is the basis for many a story and many a baddie. Sibling rivalry, envy, and wrath can motivate a character to a lot of very bad behaviour.

Favourites come in a number of varieties: Birth Order, Gender, Personality, Biological versus Adopted or Step Children – just think of all those fairy stories!

3. Lust

 

Way back in Ancient Greece King Tereus of Trace takes his wife Procne and her sister Philomela to visit their father in Athens. On the way, he lusts after Philomela. One night he rapes her. To stop her telling his wife he cuts out her tongue.

Those Greeks sure knew how to do baddies. Here sexual desire, power, and guilt are the key motivators along with a good dollop of misogyny.

4. Revenge

Continuing the story of the now mute Philomela; she weaves a tapestry that tells her story. When her sister finds out what has happened she kills her son by Tereus; boils him up and serves him up to his father for dinner. Philomela is turned into a Nightingale and given a beautiful voice by the gods to make amends for her terrible ordeal.

Yes, this is an extreme case and the origin of the expression revenge is a dish best served cold. Your characters don’t have to murder children to get their revenge putting rotting shrimps in the air conditioning ducts of his nice new apartment might be enough revenge for a women spurned.

 

5. Greed

Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth couldn’t just be happy with her Scottish castle and thanedom, could she?

“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.15-20)

After reading the letter from her husband which recounts the witches’ prophesy, Lady Macbeth’s thoughts immediately turn to murder. Problem: Her husband Macbeth has ambition, but he doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them.

The novel, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, begins when the knockout Miss Wonderly walks into Spade’s office. It turns out she’s a knockout with money. And she wants to hire the services of a private detective to find her missing sister, who supposedly ran off with a crook named Thursby. Neither Spade nor his partner Miles Archer, buy her story. But with the money she’s paying, who cares? When Archer and then Thursby are murdered, Spade realizes that he’s getting more than he bargained for. In fact, just about everyone around Sam Spade dies trying to get their hands on a bird figurine worth…$10,000.

Is the love of money the root of all evil? Charles Dickens thought so. Unlike Hammet he saves his character Scrooge from his lonely fate when the author shows him what happens to greedy and selfish men – that it when the author isn’t bumping them off at a rate of knots!

6. Rejection

 

This terribly sad true-life story shows just what can happen when someone feels rejected. Rejection is painful. Being made to look worthless is a frightening experience so rejection can be a powerful motivation for baddies. Children rejected by their parents are often lonely, angry and hostile to a world they perceive does not love them.

Because being left out can be so painful for children, researchers have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out why some children are rejected. About half of rejected boys are aggressive. They hit, kick, or shove more than other boys, and they also tend to be more disruptive and argumentative. However, not all rejected boys are aggressive. Another 13-20% are shy and withdrawn. Still, others are socially awkward. Their odd, disruptive, or immature behaviour is off-putting to peers.

The son of a Hollywood assistant director went on a shooting rampage near the UC Santa Barbara campus slaying 6 people and engaging in a shootout with police which left him dead. The young man was 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the son of Hunger Games second unit director Peter Rodger. Prior to the rampage, Rodger submitted recordings to Youtube, chronicling his catastrophic emotional state after admittedly being rejected by women for eight years.

 

7. Feeling Invisible

In 1917, “Baby Jane” Hudson is an adored yet ill-tempered vaudevillian child star while her older sister Blanche lives in her shadow. By 1935, their fortunes have reversed: Blanche is a successful film actress and Jane lives in obscurity, her films having failed.

One night, Jane mocks Blanche at a party, prompting Blanche to run away in tears. That same night, Blanche is paralysed from the waist down in a mysterious car accident that is unofficially blamed on Jane, who is found three days later in a drunken stupor.

In 1962 a wheelchair-bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) are living together in Blanche’s mansion, purchased with Blanche’s movie earnings. By now, Jane has descended into alcoholism and mental illness and treats Blanche with cruelty to punish her for stealing her spotlight.

Later, when Blanche informs Jane she may be selling the house, Jane’s mental health begins to deteriorate further. During an argument, she removes the telephone from Blanche’s bedroom, cutting Blanche off from the outside world.

Jane begins denying Blanche food, until she serves Blanche her dead parakeet on a platter—and, at a later meal, a rat that she killed in the cellar. Jane kills Blanche’s carer and then drives to the beach where she finally goes bonkers as the police arrive to arrest her for the carer’s death and Blanche dies.

This is a powerful case of sibling rivalry, ambition, and ego. The story of these sisters shows just how powerful these motivators can be in the hands of a great writer. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller–horror film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The screenplay by Lukas Heller is based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. Upon the film’s release, it was met with widespread critical and box office acclaim and was later nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design, Black and White.

8. Being Thwarted

 

Varys & Petyr Baelish Speak – Game of Thrones

Lord Varys: Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although, who doesn’t like to see their friends fail now and then.

Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish: You’re so right. For instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells, if I’m going, to be honest, I did feel an unmistakable sense of enjoyment there. Game of Thrones (TV Series), The Climb (2013)

Varys and Littlefinger may seem to be minor players — but the maneuverings of the noble families of Westeros often seem to come back to their ongoing chess game. Varys and Littlefinger articulate two very different philosophies. Lord Petyr Baelish, popularly called Littlefinger, was the Master of Coin on the Small Council under King Robert Baratheon and King Joffrey Baratheon. He was a skilled manipulator and used his ownership of brothels in King’s Landing to both accrue intelligence on political rivals and acquire vast wealth. Baelish’s spy network is eclipsed only by that of his arch-rival Varys.

Love them or hate them, Littlefinger and Varys are the series’ real game changers. They also take the reality TV show approach to competition, forming alliances, lying, and manipulating. Basically, they aren’t here to make friends. They are here to win. But, winning means different things to the two characters and the more they can thwart the other the better.

 

9. Lies and Betrayal

In the song made famous by Tom Jones the price for lies is death – ‘I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more, why, why Delilah?’  The biblical Delilah was approached by the lords of the Philistines, to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. She was offered eleven hundred pieces of silver for her pains. Three times she asked Samson for the secret of his strength but each time he gave her a false answer. On the fourth occasion, he gave her the true reason: that he did not cut his hair in fulfillment of a vow to God. When he was asleep she allowed his enemies to cut off his hair. They took him, put out his eyes, and bound him with fetters. Later, of course, he took his revenge by bringing the whole house down on his foes.

Betrayal destroys trust. If a loved one betrays us it crushes our faith in ourselves and others. The world and everyone in it can become an ugly place to live in. Betrayal is a particularly effective emotion-filled type of conflict that we can use in fiction to create long-lasting problems for our characters.

10. Being a Psychopath

Characteristics of a psychopath: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (i.e. broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.

A recent study suggests that 1-4% of the population is on the psychopathic scale. This means that we’ll probably all meet at least one psychopath in our lives.

Psychopaths love themselves. Even if nobody else loves them. They’ll think they’re the best at whatever it is that they do, even if they suck at it. It’s entirely possible they’ll take credit for other people’s success too – they live vicariously and will work how a way to feel they contributed to it somehow. Ultimately, their world revolves around them and no one else. Psychopaths are great characters to write as they give you so much scope for upsetting others and it’s so rewarding when, as an author, you can give them their comeuppance.

About the author: Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her debut novel Sinclair is available worldwide on Amazon.

Sinclair/TalesofTooleyStreet

 

 

The Present Past – Writing History

The Present Past – Writing History

Using the Present Tense to Write About the Past

Writing about the past in the present tense is hot with publishers but does it work for readers?

In writing and rhetoric, the historical present or narrative present is the employment of the present tense when narrating past events.

Dickens – David Copperfield

Dickens used it to give immediacy: ‘If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room and comes to speak to me.

“And how is Master David?” he says, kindly.

I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.

— Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Chapter IX

Recent Writing

Sarah Dunant

More recently, analysts of its use in conversation have argued that it functions by foregrounding events that is, signaling that one event is particularly important than others. Historical novelist Sarah Dunant is one of the ace exponents of this style of writing. She uses the present tense to bring the past to life. The elegance of her prose can be seen in this quote from her latest book, In the Name of the Family, Virago, 2017.

“He leaves for work each day at dawn. In the beginning, she had hoped that her nest-ripe body might tempt him to linger awhile. Florence is rife with stories of married men who use early risings of excuses to visit their mistresses, and he had come with a reputation for enjoying life. That even if that were the case, there’s nothing she can do about it, not least because where ever he is going, this husband of hers has already gone from her long before he gets out of the door.

In fact, Niccolo Machiavelli doesn’t leave the warmth of his marriage bed for any other woman (he can do that easily enough on his way home), but because the days dispatches arrived at the Pallazzo della Signoria early and it is his greatest pleasure as well as his duty to be among the first to read them.

His journey takes him down the street on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge, fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butcher’s shops. Through the open shutters, he catches glimpses of the river, its surface a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a goblet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs of his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist Niccolo thinks, not without a certain admiration.”

Dunant describes her inspiration in an interview with Meredith K. Ray.

She said, “I became interested in a very simple idea, which was, “What would it have been like to be in the middle of the cauldron [Florence] of the shock of the new that they must have felt when it was happening around them?”
I just kept thinking “Dear God, everywhere you go in this city, it must have been vibrating!” I wondered whether or not it would be possible to write a book that would capture that sense of exploding modernity within the past.

Then of course what happened is when I went back to look at the history, I realized that there had been a quiet but persuasive revolution going on within the discipline. When I was doing history [at Cambridge] . . . people studying [gender and race] had yet to move into doing their post-graduate work and become professors and start producing the literature which was starting to fill in the missing spaces or at least make a gesture towards the colour.

I really often think of [history] as a pointillist painting, which is made up of a thousand dots. It’s just bits of paint, but as you walk away, each one of them gives you more of a sense of internal life and dynamic. I really began to feel that that was true about some of the history that I’d studied: blocks of primary colour, but there was stuff missing and it was very important stuff. It was like, “What was it like to be half the population?”

Dunnant’s story proceeds through a succession of tremendous set pieces, including a sea storm, a plague, the delivery of a child and various skirmishes as the pope and his children seek to tighten the “Borgia belt” around Italy. The focus is on the immediacy of the experience in a similar way to Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels. Like Mantel Dunant’s project is a sympathetic presentation. The villains are human beings with families and needs – power being the first among many. Dunant has made the Borgia’s completely her own in this way. How the use of the present tense fits this aim is unclear as it used in all her writing.

 

Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s prose is sparse and more visceral by comparison;”The blood from the gash on his head – which is his father’s first effort – is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded, but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung loose from the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.“So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you an eel?” his parent asks. He trots backwards, and aims another kick.” Woolf Hall, Harper Collins, 2009.

Mantel said, “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claim.” Perhaps that is why she uses the present tense in her work.

She goes on to say that when we memorialise the dead we are sometimes desperate for the truth or for a comforting illusion. As a nation, we need to reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe. We find them in past glories and past grievance, but we seldom find them in cold facts. Nations she says are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our ancestors were giants, of one kind or another.

According to Mantel, we live in a world of romance. Once the romance was about aristocratic connections and secret status, the fantasy of being part of an elite. Now the romance is about deprivation, dislocation, about the distance covered between there and here. The facts have less traction, less influence on what we are and what we do, than the self-built fictions.

Novelists she says are interested in driving new ideas but readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn. However, if you’re looking for safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look say Mantel. Any worthwhile history is in a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is. If the reader asks the writer, “Have you evidence to back your story?” the answer should be yes: but you hope the reader will be wise to the many kinds of evidence there are, and how they can be used.”

Does writing about the past in the present tense work?  As much as I admire both writers I shall be sticking to the past tense in my writing with a bit of present tense thrown in for immediacy when required. As a reader, I find it much easier to read and hold onto the story when it’s written that way. Too much present tense, in my opinion, can end up like listening to the audio-description while you’re watching TV even if the prose is elegant.

Julia Herdman’s debut novel ‘Sinclair‘ is available on Amazon worldwide.

 

Julia Herdman

The Palazzo del Re – Home of the Stuarts in Exile

The Palazzo del Re – Home of the Stuarts in Exile

The Palazzo del Re was home to the exiled Jacobite court and the Stuarts in Rome. Owned by the Muti family, it was rented by the Papacy for the Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart. Both James’s sons, Charles Edward (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) and Henry Benedict, were born in the palace. The event depicted here is a celebration organised in honour of Henry’s appointment as a cardinal deacon on 3 July 1747. James, wearing the blue sash of the Order of the Garter, is shown greeting his younger son, who is dressed in the black coat, scarlet stockings and shoes with red heels often worn by cardinals in the eighteenth century. The palace itself has been lavishly ‘dressed’ with temporary architectural decoration, somewhat like a theatre set.

During their long exile, the Stuart dynasty commissioned a steady stream of portraits and subject pictures as propaganda for the Jacobite cause. The Portrait Gallery has an extensive collection of images of the deposed King James VII and II and of his son Prince James and grandson Prince Charles Edward (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), many of them of high quality by the leading artists of the day. This picture occupies a special place among this wealth of material. It is large, colourful and celebratory but the apparently joyful mood here belies some harsh political truths. In reality, the painting captures a moment when the Jacobite ambi­tion of re-establishing a Stuart monarchy in Great Britain was effectively at an end.

After their disastrous defeat at Culloden in 1746, the Stuarts were left politically isolated and vulnerable. In Rome, Prince James, the Old Pretender, finally acceded to the desire of his younger son Henry to become a Cardinal, immediately guaranteeing not just a degree of status but also much-needed financial security for the family. But for Henry’s older brother, Charles Edward, this pragmatic move was a catastrophe. By linking the Stuarts so closely to the papacy, it was clear that any hope of reviv­ing Jacobite sympathy back in Britain was now fatally undermined. Charles Edward refused to return to Rome and never saw his father again.

Our picture was commissioned to celebrate Henry’s appointment as Cardinal in 1747. In the foreground, James, wearing the bright blue Order of the Garter, stands with his court outside his residence, the Palazzo del Re, to greet his son, shown in a cardinal’s costume of black coat and scarlet stockings. A recent papal regulation required that new car­dinals should decorate their home with a false façade and provide a fete for the local populace. In the background, the palace is dressed with temporary architectural decoration to create an elaborate backdrop for the celebrations, with the arms of the English monarchy and the papacy promi­nently on display on top of the palace. The foreground is filled with incident to evoke a festive if somewhat unruly mood among the onlookers. Alongside the fashionable courtiers here are parading soldiers, beg­gars scrambling for coins and even some figures fighting. Elsewhere, musicians are preparing to play while food for a banquet is carried into the palace.

Until comparatively recently, the identity of the maker of this work was uncertain and it carried a traditional attribution to Giovanni Panini, the great Italian painter of topographical views. After it was acquired in 2001, an examination in the Gallery’s conservation studios indicated that more than one artist was involved in painting the figures as well as the background, and it now appears to be the work of three minor artists. It is nonetheless a fascinating document in which pomp and theatricality, colour and noise, mask the poignant significance of the event for a dynasty now destined to remain permanently in exile.

This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.