Wednesday 20 July 2011


It sounds rather sad to say I've been thinking a lot about Cardinal Richelieu's face. Not, I hasten to add, in a Charles Aznavour kind of way, but in a sense that's perhaps even more disturbing.

With apologies to the squeamish, I've been thinking about this:

Poor Richelieu. His wasn't the only aristocratic grave desecrated during the French Revolution, but the front of his mummified head was actually carried away and sold to Nicholas Armez of Brittany, a wealthy collector who reputedly not only exhibited and lent it out, but would also (as a special treat) entertain favoured dinner guests by manipulating the well-known features as a kind of macabre glove-puppet.

I learned this last (hopefully apocryphal) detail from a museum curator, and as I was writing about Richelieu at the time it hit me rather hard. I wasn’t depicting him as a villain, I was working well within the known facts, but ‘IN THE NAME OF THE KING’ is still fiction, and in putting words into Richelieu’s mouth and thoughts into his head, was I really any better than that collector?

Mary Hoffman has already referred to Antony Beevor’s mistrust of fiction depicting real people, and A.S. Byatt has described it as ‘an appropriation of others’ lives and privacy’. There is certainly some truth in this today. Anyone who achieves a degree of fame seems immediately to be ‘owned’ by an increasingly entitled media, and if Julian Assange can be depicted against his will in the play ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ then arguably his face has been stolen as effectively as Richelieu’s own.

As a historical writer I tell myself firmly I am better than this because I only write about the dead. But that’s why the issue of Richelieu’s Face disturbs me, because it raises the obvious question: are even the historical dead really fair game?

My current book is set during the Crimean War, and during a recent visit to Sevastopol I was introduced to a young man visiting the spot where his great, great grandfather had stood during the Battle of Inkerman. His pride in his ancestor was both obvious and justified (Colonel Henry Percy won the VC) and I wouldn’t help a slight qualm at the recollection I’d been putting dialogue into his mouth just two days before. I’d written nothing disrespectful, but coming face-to-face with a real flesh and blood descendant I had an uneasy sense of having taken a liberty.

That seems, on the face of it, ridiculous. A father may ‘belong’ emotionally to his family, but an ‘ancestor’ is public property. But where do we draw the line? Grandfathers? Great-grandfathers? The death of the last person who actually knew the character? Is this a simple issue like copyright where we can do what we like 70 years after somebody’s died? In terms of distressing living relatives that seems quite reasonable, but if this is an ethical issue then the passage of time shouldn’t make the slightest difference. Either the dead have rights, or they don’t – and if we say they don’t, then there is nothing wrong with what Armez did to Richelieu’s face.

Those rights still aren’t absolute, any more than those of the living. Newspapers are allowed to deal with those parts of a person’s life ‘in the public domain’ and so of course are we. Henry VIII as Henry VIII is a persona rather than a person and I wouldn’t have the slightest scruple in writing about him, even to his detriment. I think the issue only really arises when we go beyond that and (literally in Richelieu’s case) try to get inside these people’s heads. A.S. Byatt makes the distinction when she admits Oscar Wilde appears in ‘The Children’s Book’ but adds drily ‘The novelist doesn’t say what he thinks.’ An interesting article by Guy Gavriel Kay takes that idea even further, arguing that historical fiction writers are all right as long as they steer clear of ‘point of view’ and don’t pretend to be privy to the secret thoughts and feelings of real people.

But…But…But!! That’s where the good stuff is. That’s what I want from good historical writing: new insights and deeper understanding. Are we never to be allowed a ‘Wolf Hall’? H.M. Castor's 'VIII'? No soliloquys in Shakespeare’s History Plays? Surely we want to see all round a character rather than merely the two-dimensional image of encyclopaedic fact?

It's true our portraits can never be completely true, but then they don’t claim to be. We’re not pretending to be psychics, and our readers know we are only offering an interpretation.

But yet again we’re confronted with the spectre of Richelieu’s face. I very much doubt Armez’s dinner guests believed that was really Louis XIII’s First Minister gurning at them from their host’s hand, but does that make it any less offensive? For me it’s not so much an issue of libel as one of dignity, and I’m not sure a disclaimer of ‘this isn’t real’ is enough of a defence.

So what is?

We'll all have our own answers to this, but personally I think it lies in the intent. Byatt’s interview conjures up an image of a bunch of harpies gleefully pillaging the graves of the dead, but I don’t know a single historical writer who approaches their subject with anything less than respect. Not one. We chose history because we love it, not because we want to debase it. We understand the importance of truth, which is why we spend so much of our lives reading and researching rather than just ‘making stuff up'.

I LOVE reading historical fiction from the perspective of real characters, and there are some wonderful examples of 'how to do it' right here on this blog. The only reason I haven’t written an internal ‘point-of-view’ like that myself is because I haven’t yet felt sufficiently qualified to do so. I planned to attempt it with the marvellous hunchbacked Marquis de Fontrailles for ‘IN THE NAME OF THE KING’, and even spent a grisly day hobbling about with a rucksack full of rocks on my back just to see how it altered my perception, but in the end my French simply wasn’t good enough to comprehend the nuances of his wit, and without the authenticity of his ‘voice’ I had to let the idea go. That may be just as well, actually. The first line I gave him was 'Do you ever look at feet?'

But 'respect' doesn’t have to mean 'reverence'. If we adopt a ‘nil nisi bonum’ approach to real characters then we’re not only producing dull writing we’re also distorting the truth. My own theory is that we need to bring to them much the same attitude we have towards our ‘own’ characters, whose humanity we recognize even when they’re behaving at their most vile. This is almost inevitable perhaps, under the theory of 'tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner'. We mustn't whitewash, but I don’t think anyone here will laugh at me when I say my personal creed for tackling real characters is to do it with respect, do it with truth, and perhaps, in the end, to do it with love.

In 1866 Napoleon III managed to rescue Richelieu’s mummified face and restore it to its rightful owner in the Sorbonne. Now whenever I’m haunted by the spectre of that first photograph I replace it with this tender detail from the restored tomb:

It’s ironic, perhaps, that the undoubtedly ruthless Cardinal should now be represented by this rather sentimental image of comfort, but perhaps Phillip Larkin had it more right than he intended in ‘An Arundel Tomb’:

‘…..The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.’

If we do our jobs well enough, then perhaps it will.

IN THE NAME OF THE KING is published by Penguin on 4th August 2011

INTO THE VALLEY OF DEATH is due Spring 2012

A.L.Berridge's website (in the process of updating)


michelle lovric said...

Wonderful post! It feels quite cathartic to have a fellow-writer describe so viscerally the queasy symptoms that arise when impersonating the once-living dead. The first times I grave-robbed, it was men whose thoughts were minutely diaried - Ruskin and Casanova, the latter having supplied 3000 pages of handwritten memoir, and the former having offered diaries, books and letters. But then I went to a reading given by Andrew Miller, from his novel about Casanova in London, in which he substantially changed a part of the true story involving a desired woman and parrot. Not in anger but in wonderment, I asked him why he did that. And his reply was, 'By the time I wrote that scene, my Casanova was not Casanova's Casanova, and he wasnt capable of behaving the same way.' And given the brilliance of the writing, and the excellence of the novel, I was satisfied with that answer. However, I know that the Beevors and the Byatts would not be.

Katherine Langrish said...

Very thought-provoking post. I suspect the argument will never be decided one way or the other: but the tension between the two sides is healthy!

Sue Purkiss said...

A fascinating post, and it discusses issues that I've sometimes felt uncomfortable about. I think as far as historical figures are concerned, it's exactly as you say - it's trying to get inside their minds, to see why they did what they did, that's interesting - as I said in my post about writing about Alfred the Great. And that's not the same as manipulating the Cardinal's face as an after-dinner joke - the motive is utterly different.

Where I do feel uncomfortable is in dramas and films about people who are alive or recently dead. If they're good, I love watching them, mind - Andrea Riseborough as the young Maggie Thatcher, Helen Mirren as the Queen - but there have been times when I've felt uneasy; particularly in the case of The Social Contract, about the founder of Facebook. Quite apart from the question of what it must do to a young man to be portrayed as someone unpleasant (whether he is in actual fact or not), there's just something that doesn't sit quite right about the idea of having a larger than life representation of your life played out in front of millions of people - what does that do to your perception of who you are?

Anyway - very interesting - thanks!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Much to think about here. I love to write about what might have happened or what real-life characters might have done. That's the fun in writing. But I do feel that where facts are involved - dates, families and so on - they should be strictly adhered to. Of course this can create problems in a story line and we wish that something had happened a year before or not at all! But if writing historical fiction were easy, everybody would be doing it, wouldn't they?
Thanks for an interesting post.

H.M. Castor said...

A fantastic post, and a fascinating discussion... Sticking my neck out here, I wonder whether it could even be argued, in the case at least of the long-dead, that we OUGHT to try to explore what it might have felt like to be them, why they took the decisions they did? Readers understand, as you say, that writers are not psychics... and different writers will present different conjectures, just as different academic historians present different theories... Isn't our understanding of the past vastly poorer if we don't let ourselves even attempt to make this imaginative leap? Our duty is to do it as well as we can, of course. But we know that - that's why we all sweat blood over our work!

Linda B-A said...

What a great post. It articulates many of the dilemmas of writing historical fiction. I happened to be interviewing an historian this week and I asked him to what extent did he believe history was fiction (in the sense that it is constructed and woven into narratives by historians). He said that he didn't but it was why he stuck to documents as opposed to memoires when looking for evidence. So, for instance, he would read Saint Simon on Louis XIV but might take what he said with a pinch of salt. I think that as readers of a historical novel we are in a similar position. We have chosen to read a novel rather than an historical account of a particular figure. We do so because we want to enjoy the the drama of a particular historical moment and the insights given to us by entering into that character's mind. But we are also perfectly capable of taking the words put into that character's mouth by the author with a large pinch of salt. If we thought otherwise we would have to start putting warning labels on novels like on cigarette packets: WARNING: PARTS OF THIS HISTORICAL NOVEL MAY BE FICTION...

Mary Hoffman said...

"Taking Liberties" might almost be the historical novelist's motto, don't you think? There will always be some reader who thinks we've gone too far and everyone's limit will be different.

I think Louise has it absolutely right in talking about intent. There is an implied respect for the subject, even if he or she is someone the writer regards as villainous.

If you've ever been interviewed for a newspaper, you will experience the faintly unpleasant feeling of knowing that the journalist (I'm one myself) has put words into your mouth. The next time it happens to me, I shall think of Richelieu!

(Mind you, I am almost as repelled by ordinary puppets and vent dummies, but that's another story)

Theresa Breslin said...

Great post and follow on discussions. Re the preserved head. When I went to the University of Pavia where da Vinci studied anatomy the preserved head of Antonio Scarpa situated above the door to keep an eye on the students was a feature in one of the labs! Re the ethics of writing about the recently dead and those with relatives still alive this was very much in mind when I was researching Remembrance. A family gave me the personal letters of a great uncle who'd been killed on the Somme. The innermost thoughts of this young man were revealed - his hopes his fears, the tedium of the trenches, his seeking advice from his father about his sweetheart. It was a terrible responsibility,at times I felt he was standing in the room with me. I didn't ask them for these - they were offered on trust that I would in some way bear true witness to his life. As responsible writers of historical fiction isn't that what we do?

adele said...

Everyone has already said what I was going to. We are all agreed that it's a fantastic post though. Really interesting questions raised and answered very well.

Emma Darwin said...

I agree that there are ethical questions, even if we label this as A Novel... Once we're beyond offending relatives it does get easier.

And yet legally you can't libel the dead. Also, I'm not interested in offending readers, and I'm not interested in trashing or caricaturing my characters. BUT I worry, and I find in my own writing, that if you/I shrink from ever writing anything which might offend anyone, even when the project really needs it, the resulting story is ghastly: a sort of sanitised, disneyfied, blancmange of pointlessness. Fundamentally, I don't think that if someone is offended by something I wrote, it's necessarily my fault, as long as I made careful, creative decisions about why I've written it like that, and wasn't just out to shock or offend for the hell of it.

And I do think we have a worthwile function, in writing fiction about real historical figures, which isn't just because it's fun (although it is) or easier to sell (which it is too). Byatt also says, comparing Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety with Simon Schama's Citizens, which draw on exactly the same material, "She tells what Schama can't" - i.e. finding/feeling her way into the inner lives of people who did have a huge impact on the world at large, as well as giving voice to those people - wives, for example - which History (as a discipline) has chosen not to record or explore.

Shawn Robertson said...

I think H.M. Castor is right when she says that historical fiction righters may actually have a duty to get into the heads (figuratively) of historical figures. The further back in history, the more acceptable this is. It may be a few hundred more years before a novelist attempts to write from Hitler's point of view or Osama bin Laden's, or even Mother Teresa's. There is definitely a continuum of offense that you are going to dish out. The more recent and well known the character is, the more people will be offended, and vice versa.

For those more recent figures, I like the next best option of making up characters that are close to them, who can talk about what it was like to be near those great (or terrible) people. Those characters can speculate all they want and give less offence.