Most of us who write historical novels play tricks with the truth. However much we check what people were wearing or eating or saying, the names of the dances or the popular songs, we will always get stuff wrong. People though, stay roughly the same. They make the same mistakes and have the same hopes and dreams. That’s usually enough to make our stories work.
And sometimes – often, even – there’s a strange synchronicity that happens when you’re writing so that something you imagine and didn’t know was true turns out to be so. This probably comes about because you listened to something on Radio 4 and it sort of trickled into your subconscious rather than because you are brilliant but hey ho.
This is a story which I first read about in a work of fiction – Jason Godwin’s marvellous Yashim the Eunuch books – which then led me to loads of non fiction, including a fantastic history of the Ottomans also by Godwin, Lords of the Horizon. But I still willed the story to be true.
This is it; two cousins, sisters even, who grew up on the tiny French Caribbean island of Martinique grow up to marry two of the most powerful men in the entire world; Napoleon, first Emperor of France and Abdulhamid I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
We all know Josephine, even if it’s only from the Eric and Ernie sketch with Vanessa Redgrave telling Ernie Wise ‘Not Tonight….’.
I knew she was born to a wealthy planter’s family (although I didn’t know her mother’s family was Irish) and her real name was Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie. After the collapse of her family’s fortune she was married (unhappily) at 16 to a French businessman who was executed in the reign of terror. After a period in prison she moved in political circles and became Napoleons mistress then his wife at 30.
But what about her cousin Aimee Dubuc de Rivery? She was Josephine’s cousin, that’s true, also wealthy, also a planter’s daughter, and she was on a ship sailing from the Caribbean to France aged 11 when that ship vanished, completely and utterly. Aimee and the ship were never heard of again, disappeared somewhere out in the Atlantic and as far as anyone can gather that is all absolutely true.
But the legend is so much better.
Legend has it she was captured by Barbary pirates and sold to the harem of the Sultan Abdul Hamid and became one of his wives. She took the name Naksidil, taught him French, introduced western ideas to the court, fashions and décor and mothered a sultan – Mahmoud II. The position of Valide Sultan – Mother of a Sultan was possibly the highest open to a woman in the Ottoman Empire at the time. The Valide ruled the harem and the palace household. She was the most important and highest ranked woman in half the known world, she was the power behind her son’s throne, confined in the harem but with a reach into all corners of an Empire that stretched from Asia to Europe.
However, the sad thing is there is no hard evidence for this. Although there was a Sultana called Naksidil, and she was a white woman, but most probably a Caucasian with a taste for Paris styling.
I’m bringing this story up because my next book – Sawbones – includes a child of the harem, a boy who has (with the conniving of his foreign born grandmother, the Valide) been sent overseas to get an education and escape The Cage a sort of hellish imprisonment whereby male heirs were shut away under lock and key until needed and kept safe from intrigue and poisoning and other power plays.
Of course this never happened, at least there’s no proof, but I reckon, two hundred years ago, just like today, the most wealthy in the world sent their children overseas to school.
In my book Mahmoud is on the run, his Grandmother’s enemies out to get him, the Russians desperately wanting to move in on the Ottoman Empire and install a Sultan of their choosing. Don't get too excited though, because, as we say here in soapland (oops I mean continuing drama) Mahmoud's story is very much the 'C' strand. My 'A' story being a concoction whipped up from a seed of something I saw in the Hunterian Museum. You will be sick of me talking about it so let's just say Sawbones is an 18th century forensic murder mystery for twelves and over....