Tuesday, 29 November 2011

An insistent ghost by Fiona Dunbar

Our guest blogger this month is Fiona Dunbar, who is not actually a writer of historical fiction! But here she describes what happened when she became obsessed with an unlikely historical figure, who ended up appearing as a ghost in one of her Kitty Slade books. 

Fiona is a children's author and illustrator based in the United Kingdom. She was born in 1961 in Hemel Hempstead. She is the author of the Silk Sisters trilogies and Toon-Head. Her Lulu Baker trilogy was adapted to become a children's TV series called Jinx by Kindle Entertainment starring Amber Beattie; Jinx was first screened on CBBC in Autumn 2009.

Divine Freaks, the first of her new series featuring the character Kitty Slade was published in May 2011 and the second, Fire & Roses, was published in September 2011.

Welcome to the History Girls, Fiona!



Fiona Dunbar
How do you feel about putting words into the mouths of real historical figures? Do you find it harder than with made-up characters, or not really?

I ask because I was surprised to find myself doing this recently, when writing the second of my Kitty Slade books, Fire & Roses. I didn’t plan it, it just sort of happened, because in the course of my research I became fixated on one particular historical figure. Note that I do not use the term ‘falling in love’, in the way that Linda Buckley-Archer did when she blogged recently about preoccupation with a certain historical time or place.

Love this person? No way!

Like, even? Er, no.

Fascinated by him? Yup: definitely.

Utterly captivated. To the point where I teetered on the brink of writing a whole full-length adult novel, featuring him at the centre of it. Given that what I do is write 40,000-word books for children, featuring things like chameleon girls and magic recipe books, this might have brought a stony silence from my agent. You did what? Why?

So I had to, you know, rein it in a bit. Remember who I was writing for. Most 12-year-old girls don’t want to read about 18th Century politics – however stuffed with scandal and outrageous behaviour. And to be honest, I’m more than happy to leave the job of writing sophisticated historical novels to those who do it best. But…well, I was quite swept away, all the same.

So who was it that had this effect on me, and why?

John Wilkes, radical journalist and politician, twice Lord Mayor of London, wit, Hellfire Club member and sometime jailbird, referred to by King George III as ‘that devil Wilkes’.


It was my interest in the Hellfire Club that set me off down this route – an interest that goes back a long way (see my blog post here. Originally called The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, the group was started in1748 by Buckinghamshire aristocrat Sir Francis Dashwood.
Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood by Hogarth
It was not a Satanist group – that was a myth started up in the 19th Century – but a collection of politicians, poets and intellectuals, plus one artist (William Hogarth) with a taste for irreverent and licentious behaviour. Rabelais was their inspiration, and the Catholic Church was mercilessly mocked. The women who chose to attend did so anonymously; it is still not known who any of them were. All involved were sworn to secrecy as to the nature of the activities during the meetings, but one thing is clear: a lot of sex happened. Ahem. Well, since my typical reader is about twelve – and plenty are younger than that – I kind of skirt around that one. As it were.

Anyway: Wilkes. My initial interest in him specifically was sparked during a research visit to the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe. More tunnels than caves, they were hollowed out to produce chalk for road-building; once excavation was completed, Dashwood hit on the idea of using the subterranean labyrinth as a party venue. The ‘infernal’ aspect was bigged up, and what you see now is a wonderfully eccentric and rather camp attraction, complete with Classical-era style statues, fake stalagmites and stalactites, and its own mini River Styx. Here and there are caverns peopled by dusty models of Hellfire members and their friends. I love it for its silliness, and its whiff of Hammer Horror (trivia! The Dashwood Mausoleum, on the hill above, did actually feature in one: To The Devil, A Daughter).

Wilkes is represented in a part of the caves called the Inner Temple. Models of him, Dashwood and others are gathered as if for a Hellfire Club shindig. A placard and a voiceover both tell the story of an incident in which Wilkes had dressed up a live baboon in devilish garb, and hid the poor creature in a cabinet. Quite how it was kept quiet in there I have no idea, but Wilkes is reputed to have released the baboon at one point during the evening, by way of concealed wiring connected to a spring-loaded device. The baboon leapt out of the cabinet and onto the shoulders of another member, Lord Sandwich. Sandwich, convinced that he was experiencing some sort of actual devilish manifestation, frantically repented of all his sins – much to the hilarity of Wilkes and the others.

There is some doubt as to the historical accuracy of this story, but no matter – I was hooked. I then read The Dashwoods of West Wycombe by Sir Francis Dashwood – a descendent of the 18th Century one. That gave me a useful overview of the Hellfire Club. It ought to have been enough for my purposes, but the more I found out, the more I wanted to know.

I researched further, on the Internet.

Will Self said that writers who use the Internet to research their subjects are idiots: while I understand what he means, I think this is a snobbish remark that ignores the fact that real treasures can be found there. Notorious though Wikipedia might be for its inaccuracies, it is nevertheless a fantastic starting point – you then go on and check your facts elsewhere. And IF I had been writing a detailed account of Wilkes’ life, for example, what better material could I have consulted than actual facsimiles of his political pamphlet, The North Briton?


It’s there, you can find it!

I became engrossed in the reasons for the ultimate breakup of the Hellfire Club – and Wilkes and The North Briton were at the centre of that. His pamphlet was massively supportive of William Pitt – who, much to Wilkes’ dismay, had recently resigned – while also subtly lobbing defamatory insinuations in the direction of Pitt’s replacement, Lord Bute, other prominent Scots, and the Scots in general (and I’ve always been interested in the Jacobite rebellions, so that was another cue for me to get totally sidetracked …)

Clearly, Wilkes wound a lot of people up – not least my idol, William Hogarth. But what precisely caused Hogarth to publish a portrait of him like this?

Wilkes was as famed for his odd appearance as he was for his wit and charm: ‘It takes just half an hour for me to talk away my face’, he would say. Still, this depiction is clearly an exaggeration: the squinting eyes and heavy jaw, the leering grin…and the wig fashioned into devilish horns.

Why did Hogarth hate him so much?

To find out, I bought a copy of Jenny Uglow’s biography, Hogarth (a cracking read, by the way, and indispensable for any fan of the man’s work). Yes, I was really overdoing it now; no, I couldn’t help it.

The portrait was preceded by some considerable provocation on both sides. As Uglow says, “Wilkes, who so enjoyed fighting, was a dangerous person to annoy. Few would willingly enter the ring against him.” And yet Hogarth, who was pro-Bute, did a brave but probably foolhardy thing: he published his print The Times, Plate 1 (1762):


There’s an awful lot going on here, but the relevant parts to note are the flaming globe on the right, fanned by Pitt on stilts, while a fireman figure representing the king attempts to put the fire out. Two figures on the top floor of the ‘Temple Coffee House’ direct their jets at the king instead of the fire: these were known to represent Wilkes and his friend, poet Charles Churchill.

Well, Wilkes lashed out: the whole of the next edition of The North Briton was devoted to attacking Hogarth. This could have looked like nothing more than spite, but as Uglow tells us: ‘there was enough truth here to hurt, and hurt badly.’

And so it went on, with Hogarth producing another print featuring Wilkes in an unflattering way. Wilkes fought back, etc, etc… Eventually, Wilkes was imprisoned in the Tower for ‘seditious libel’ in his North Briton tirades. He was hugely popular, however, having become something of a free speech hero; he was soon freed. Hogarth wasn’t impressed, though: his portrait of Wilkes appeared the following year.

I was fascinated. Every time I told myself I really had to get on and write that children’s book, I managed to sneak in just one more peak at a page about the Seven Years’ War, or Wilkes’ notorious annotated Essay on Woman, a parody of Pope’s Essay on Man, or his assorted other rivalries…

In the end, I had to step back, take stock, boil everything down to the barest essentials. So, what did I end up with?

I had thought I might involve Hogarth in my story, but then decided that would be too complicated. I did still need an adversary for Wilkes, though. Who should it be? God knows, there were enough of them. But in the end, I made up my own. I took elements of Lord Sandwich and William Hogarth, put them together and created Sir Ambrose Vyner. I should explain that Vyner and Wilkes appear in my story in ghost form – the story is set in the present day. Wilkes is unique among the ghosts in my series so far, not only in that he’s a real historical figure, but also because he doesn’t exactly have unfinished business; he just likes to make mischief.

Vyner’s unfinished business was to get even with Wilkes, but he doesn’t actually feature much in the story; it is Wilkes that takes centre stage. And putting words into the mouth of an historical character felt like an audacious thing to do, for an inexperienced historian like me. I think – I hope – I have come up with a plausible voice. I certainly had fun writing him.

Two things I learned: I couldn’t have Wilkes refer to ‘the Prime Minister’, because that moniker had yet to be bestowed on the head of the government. The history books refer to Prime Ministers going back to Walpole, but it is a retrospective term. No doubt you all knew that, but I didn’t. Secondly, when Sir Ambrose finally appears, he denounces Wilkes for being, as we might put it today, full of shit. The word ‘piffle’ sprang to mind – no doubt influenced by the sort of language Boris Johnson uses (‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’ is a favourite of mine). But Sir Ambrose died in 1769, and the earliest recorded use of the word ‘piffle’ as a noun dates from 1890. Even the verb goes no further back than 1847. This rather surprised me; I thought it sounded quite Shakespearean. So, no piffle. Instead I have Sir Ambrose say the Wilkes is ‘all bluster and perfidious trifle.’ I hope there aren’t any overlooked anachronisms; if so, I’ll trust the History Girls to let me know.

Will I write another historical figure into one of my stories? No plans to at the moment. But if one sneaks up on me, I might not be able to hold back!






Many thanks for this post and I think Fiona might just have suggested another theme for the History Girls. How about more ghosts in December?





16 comments:

Stephanie said...

Thanks for the post! I am not a writer like you are but I have been kicking around the idea of writing a story about Katherine of Aragon. I love historical fiction and can't believe many events had taken place.

mary hooper said...

Great post! All the things I wanted to know about the Hellfire Club. Must visit immediately, it's only just down the road from me. Mary.

Katherine Langrish said...

I can see why you became so involved with Wilkes, Fiona! He sounds like a negative version of Renaissance Man - a well-educated all-rounder, with the emphasis on all the wrong things. Looking forward to finding what he gets up to in your book!

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating! I've only dipped a toe or two (as it were) into the 18th century, but it certainly seems to have been an interesting time. I didn't know anything about Wilkes. Have you read The Age Of Wonder, by Richard Holmes? It's about the back end of the century, so perhaps a bit past the time you're interested in, but it certainly makes the period a lot more interesting than history lessons ever did.

Thanks, Fiona!

fionadunbar said...

Hi Mary: Yes, go! And when you do, be sure to visit the West Wycombe Estate too, and the Dashwood Mausoleum. Lovely walks to be had around there. @Kath: so true! I hope you enjoy it.
Sue: no, I haven't: off to look it up now. Thanks for that!

fionadunbar said...

PS The Hogarth print 'The Times' appears very small, so be sure to click on it to enlarge, so you can see what's going on!

Mark Burgess said...

Great post Fiona!
Hogarth is a fave of mine too. And incidentally the bay window above the globe in 'The Times' is Hogarth's own. You can still see it at his house in Chiswick.

Linda B-A said...

Lovely to read your account of how one thing leads to another when you're researching. And so frustrating that you'd have to write an entirely different book to use it all! I absolutely share your love of Hogarth (and agree with you about Jenny Uglow's book). It's a shame you weren't with us to see the Hogarths at the John Soane Museum last week, though I'll be putting up a post about that on Friday.
P.S. Just noticed your comment on Polidor, the restaurant in Woody Allen Midnight in Paris - how interesting!

Book Maven said...

I'll go in and embiggen that picture, Fiona, if I can.

Book Maven said...

That's as large as I can make it without overlapping the edges of the post. Better?

fionadunbar said...

Mark: I didn't know that, no – even though I've been to Hogarth's House. Thanks for that!

Linda B-A: Ah, but I'd have been there under false pretences! I was there very recently actually – but need to go again for a longer look. That room is like nothing else I've ever seen! Extraordinary.

Mary: thanks for embiggening! Well done. Still worth clicking on to see the fine detail though.

Candy Gourlay said...

I read your book and thought that you made this up ... shocked to discover these goings on!

fionadunbar said...

Well, there was quite a lot of invention in there, Candy! Btw I realise I've failed on the repeatedly-mentioning-the-book's-title front. It's called FIRE & ROSES, people. FIRE & ROSES, FIRE & ROSES, FIRE & ROSES. There, hope that makes up for it a bit.

dorianegray said...

I'm sort of sorry you didn't write the adult historical novel - not least because I love the Georgians myself, though the object of my obsession is Horace Walpole. Who has, by the way, a fair amount to say about Wilkes in his Letters - if you've not read them, you'll find them on Project Gutenberg, and they're well worth seeking out.

fionadunbar said...

Thank you dorianegray, I shall take a look!

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