I didn’t have a Holbein in 17th century France, where both Honour and the Sword and In the Name of the King are set. French painting of the time is mostly highly formal, and pays closer attention to clothing and setting than it does to the face.
Here, for instance, is a picture of 17th century French clothing, with Louis XIV inside.
Inspired? No, I wasn't either.
Fortunately I tend to avoid writing about Kings and Major Personages anyway, so I can make my heroes look just as I please. Thanks to Penguin I know exactly what André de Roland looks like, and it’s this.
But I wonder if it can sometimes be a drawback to know what our characters really look like. My first venture into historical writing was at age 7 when I wrote shockingly bad ‘fanfic’ based on the film ‘Zulu’, doubtless inspired by the manly glamour of the stars. Then my historian father insisted I do some proper research, and I was horrified to find ‘Lt Bromhead’ didn't really look like Michael Caine at all.
Superficial, of course, but I somehow didn't feel quite the same after that...
The truth is there's something very uncompromising about photographs. Historical novelists can easily forget the reality of bad teeth, smallpox scars and unwashed bodies when they consider the work of tasteful portrait painters – but photographs show everything but the smell. I suspect ‘scratch’n’sniff photos of the past would be the death of historical romance.
But my next novel (Into the Valley of Death) is set in the Crimean War, and here I have to use photographs. The pioneer Roger Fenton took a huge and impressive collection, but although they certainly show the reality of the bearded and unkempt soldiery (a million miles away from the glamorous young men in the 1968 film ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade') the nature of early photography means they still can’t show personality in the way a Holbein can. The ghostly flatness of sepia robs the figures of substance, while the formality of the poses endows them with the glassy eyes and frozen features of dead people standing up. In a picture where the subject has had to sit unmoving for several seconds nothing natural remains to be read.
Or so I thought. But even modern formal photographs reveal vulnerability the moment we understand what they really are – a manifestation of how the subject actually wants to be seen. In ordinary life we protect ourselves with a string of familiar excuses (‘What, this old rag? I only flung it on at the last minute’) but there’s no escape in a photo. Like it or not, we’re telling the viewer ‘I think I look nice in this dress, I think this expression is particularly winsome’. When the dress doesn’t actually work the result can be devastating. One of my favourite photographs is of a baptism group always known in the family (rather unkindly) as ‘Auntie Mary’s Shoes’…
Historical photos have even more of this quality, because the art was so new and a photograph was a special occasion – perhaps the only one its subject would ever have taken.
Here’s one of my Crimea favourites, of a cornet in the 11th Hussars who looks magnificently martial and heroic until we start to question the suspicious swelling of that puffed out chest. With apologies to the poor man’s memory I’m afraid it makes me think of this famous advertisement for tuna…
This photo gave me the inspiration for one of my characters, not for his appearance, but his personality – just the attitude he takes to being photographed.
Here’s another I think reveals even more:
There’s no pretence here. His posture is slumped as if he doesn’t care what people think of him, and the hunted expression speaks clearly of a man who didn’t want to be ‘taken’ at all. But there’s humour in that face, and I’m almost certain he’s looking at someone out of shot who’s trying to make him laugh. Just on this picture I decided he was his own man, and with a hint of devilry beside.
He was. He turns out to be Captain Verschoyle of the Grenadier Guards, who led a group of volunteers to stand with the 93rd Highlanders in the Thin Red Line at Balaclava, and saved the colours of his regiment at the Battle of Inkerman. He was, in fact, a hero, and I had already planned to feature him in my novel.
I’m not sure we could learn so much from a painting, even by Holbein. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed his sitters to behave as the men in this last picture do, where not even one is looking in the right direction.
It only works when we know what it is – the group photograph of the 13th Light Dragoons who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade. The tall man with the beard is Colonel Doherty, who missed the Charge altogether, but these other men all rode into the Valley of Death – and came out again, leaving the bodies of their comrades behind. Those averted heads say it all.
That’s what the best pictures do. They don’t just show what’s inside the frame, but what’s outside it, perhaps even what happened before and after they were taken. It’s easy to imagine my Auntie Mary putting on those horrible shoes with pride in their glorious whiteness, but I can also see the cornet flopping with relief in his saddle the moment the photographer finished, and hear Verschoyle’s laugh as he was released. The faces of the Dragoons are hidden, but even without seeing them I think we all know what they show.
When I think of that, then perhaps I’m not so jealous of Holbein after all.
A.L. Berridge's website
'In the Name of the King' was published by Penguin August 2011
'Into the Valley of Death' is slated for June 2012