Monday 20 May 2013

'Time Travel and the Unknown Hero' by A L Berridge

Writers and readers both find it easy to visit the past. A few words, a little stir of the imagination, and we’re on a street in 17th century London as if we’d just stepped in a time machine.  But while readers observe what’s around them as discreetly as visitors to a museum, writers are a bunch of vandals who barge joyously into the midst of it and create characters of our own to interfere with the outcome. The past to us is a field of freshly fallen snow, and we can’t resist leaving our dirty footprints all over it.

Go on.... You know you want to.
 All harmless fun, of course, but I remember the film ‘Back to the Future’, where the hero’s visit to the past jeopardises his own future by inadvertently messing up the first meeting between his parents.
That’s a sci-fi fantasy, but the principle of a fragile time continuum applies to historical fiction too. Unless we’re writing ‘Alternative History’ we can’t whizz into Tudor England, kill Henry VIII at age 10, throw the subsequent six hundred years of history into chaos, then calmly stroll off whistling.

Well, we can, and we'll all have our own personal rules on these things, but I’m of the school of writers who like to leave the past as we found it. My own criteria are that nothing in my novels should ever contradict a genuine primary source, or require a single word of a reputable history text to be rewritten to accommodate them. Omissions are acceptable, and I don’t expect current history texts to mention my entirely fictitious heroes, but what was said must be said, what was done must be done, and credit must always be given to those who historically deserved it.

That’s quite straightforward where our main characters genuinely existed.
Hilary Mantel's ‘Wolf Hall’ gives us wonderful fictional insight into Thomas Cromwell’s mind, but as long as his body does what the record says it did, then history rolls on its way undisturbed.
A safer option is to keep our characters beneath the historical radar altogether – a romance between a Greek slave and a Roman soldier won’t make so much as a ripple in the tide of time. But if (like me) you want your characters to have an impact and still remain fictional, then that’s a lot harder.

It can be done. The first method is the dreaded ‘Helpful Friend’ scenario (aka the ‘By Jove, I think you’ve got it!’) virtually patented by the late great G.A. Henty, but growing in popularity ever since. This is the one where Julius Caesar is at a loss at the Rubicon until an obscure centurion clears his throat and says ‘Excuse me, Caesar, but might it be a good idea to cross it?’ Naming no names, but I’ve read one novel where the same hero advises both the Duke of Wellington and General Blücher, carries almost every message that was ever sent, and tops off his day by ensuring the battle is called not ‘La Belle Alliance’ but ‘Waterloo’.

 The second is arguably more elegant, and that’s simply to steal the actions of someone else. Most readers would raise an eyebrow if America were to be ‘discovered’ by Eric Smith rather than Christopher Columbus, but provided the subject is sufficiently obscure it’s possible to get away with it. Alexandre Dumas did it all the time, and it never bothered me when I was reading him. The same action happened, it was glorious and exciting, and the whole thing seemed more relevant and personal because it was performed by characters I knew rather than those I’d never heard of.

Yet I can’t quite bring myself to do it in my own novels. It would only mean a tiny change in history, only the substitution of one name for another, but to me it seems somehow immoral, like robbing the dead of their laurels.
Changing history in more ways than one
I recently read a Crimean War novel where the hero led a raid which was actually commanded by Colonel Egerton of the 77th Regiment of Foot, and the knowledge made me squirm. I wondered what Egerton’s descendants would think of the book if they read it, and how they’d feel. I knew how I’d feel. I know how I felt when I saw U-571 and realized Hollywood was glorifying Americans for a raid actually performed by British submariners in U-110.

But it’s the story that matters, and my smug moral superiority won’t do me the slightest good if my own characters are creeping round the margins of the action in awe of the real-life heroes shaping events in the middle of it. How can I get them at the centre of the action without compromising historical integrity?

Enter (modestly) the Unknown Hero. 

The Unknown Hero is as old as time. He (or she) has been there forever, a kind of ageless Forrest Gump who crops up at all of history’s greatest moments and sneaks away before anyone has time to ask for an autograph. He’s the sweating horseman who brings the news ‘the French are out’, the wounded soldier who rallies his comrades with the reminder that they are ‘Queen Victoria’s soldiers’, the sole voice in the crowd that cries ‘Vive le Roi!’ to give comfort to Louis XVI on his way to the guillotine. Time and again he (or she) makes a contribution worthy of the history books, but when it comes to the record no-one knows his name.

Which is why vultures like me are able to steal it. If it ‘could have been anyone’, then it’s jolly well going to be one of my characters. I scour the sources for his spoor, and for ‘In the Name of the King’ I was lucky enough to find several traces of his presence. 

 Somebody (no-one knows who) passed a copy of the conspirators’ secret treaty to Cardinal Richelieu – so in the novel it’s my fictional André de Roland. Somebody (no-one knows who) warned the Prince du Condé that the Spanish army had an ambush waiting in the woods at Rocroi – so here comes André again, panting heroically as he delivers his message. My character earns the title of ‘hero’ by making a difference, yet nothing in history is changed.

There’s nothing new in this. Historical novelists have always pillaged in this way, and the master of it has to be George MacDonald Fraser.
The real Kavanagh at Lucknow
His Flashman pops up at every historically significant event, and frequently in the skin of the Unknown Hero. One of my favourite instances is during ‘Flashman in the Great Game’, when MacDonald Fraser casts him as T. Henry Kavanagh’s ‘unknown companion’ in the daring break-out from the Siege of Lucknow in the Indian Mutiny. It’s true the original companion is described in some sources as an Indian – but Flashman makes the journey disguised as a mutinous sepoy, and once again history is undisturbed.

But the Unknown Hero has an equally valuable counterpart we neglect at our peril - the Unknown Villain. He’s just as pervasive throughout history, and in the Crimea I found he’d left footprints as big as a Russian Yeti’s. 
What else could a writer possibly make of an ‘unknown officer’ who repeatedly told British soldiers not to fire on the advancing Russians, who ordered disastrous retreats, who mysteriously appeared and disappeared but always with ludicrous orders that favoured the enemy? I know what I made of it, and this wonderfully useful man gave me the entire plot spine of ‘Into the Valley of Death’. It’s pure fiction, but I don’t think there’s a word in it that doesn’t chime with known historical fact – thanks to the Unknown Villain.

And really, of course, these two valuable entities are the same person. Villainy or heroism depends entirely on which side the reader’s on in the first place, and Forrest Gump can become Форест Гамп at the click of a mouse. All that matters to scavengers like me is that they should be unknown, unoccupied, empty vessels into which we can pour the fiction without disturbing the outside world. Historians may knit their brows at unexplained events, but we leap past with our sleeves rolled up, shouting ‘Out the way, fact-meisters, it’s our turn now.’

That doesn’t mean we don’t care about facts. They matter more than ever, as we construct our stories from every tiny scrap of information we can find and try to ensure the final result fits with every one of them. The hardest task I ever had came in ‘In the Name of the King’ when the conveniently mysterious death of the conspiratorial Comte de Soissons was attributed by different witnesses to suicide, an accident, death in battle, and assassination by an agent of Richelieu.
The very dodgy Comte de Soissons
With my hero straining at the leash it was pretty obvious which 'unknown agent' I was going to go for, but I still had to make it not only possible but likely that the known primary sources would still have written exactly what they did. Easy enough just to say ‘Yeah, well, those other accounts were just lying’, but to me that would be cheating. I used existing eyewitness accounts to create a possible version of the ‘battle death’, and choreographed the real death to fit with both the forensic evidence and the three other versions. When we know the Comte de Soissons genuinely had a habit of lifting the visor of his helmet with the barrel of his own pistol, then that’s not as hard as it seems…

But it’s round about now that the word ‘sad’ comes into play. What does it matter, for heaven’s sake? Tell a good story, see it doesn’t mess too much with the facts, and Bob can be your great-great grandfather if you like.

Only it does matter. I’ve only got a ‘visitor’s pass’ into the past as long as I don’t abuse it. I need to be like a responsible visitor to the countryside, who takes nothing with me, leaves nothing behind, and if I open a gate I need to close it behind me. 

 Dumas knew that. Nobody created more havoc than he did, and when it comes to crashing through facts we’re not talking so much about a coach and four as a bloody London Bendy Bus - but he always knew how to come home when it was over. In ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ he even gives Louis XIII a secret twin brother, but the story ends in such a way that we can still read the history books without needing to change a word. 

That’s what I want. If someone who’s read my novels goes on to read a history book, I don’t want them to think I’ve told them a pack of lies. History and fiction can co-exist, and each can make the other more real. All we need to do is wipe away our footprints and remember to close the door when we leave.


Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant piece, and very funny. I love the unknown centurion who politely suggests to Caesar it might be an idea to cross the Rubicon!

alberridge said...

Thanks, Sue - you're very kind. The awful thing is that I didn't notice these things half so much until I started writing myself...

Mark Burgess said...

Good stuff, Louise, and very entertaining. So good to see you back here too!

H.M. Castor said...

Hear, hear! Fantastic post. Funny, exacting, bang-on right - and a call to arms... I aspire to keep to your standards, Louise. They are the very highest, and I am applauding as I read.

Susan Price said...

Great post - witty, informative, lively. Enjoyed it very much.

Penny Dolan said...

Very well said!

alberridge said...

Thank you so much, everyone. It's wonderful to be back here, where we can rant about such things without anyone pointing out how geeky we are. Because obviously we're not. At all.

Harriet - I wish I deserved your comment, but my standards are often more aspirational than real. I'm afraid I've even slid awfully close to the 'Helpful Friend' on occasion... But thank you for such a lovely, kind comment.

Stroppy Author said...

I so agree. I'll bend over backwards to make sure everything fits facts which no one else will ever look at. Brilliant post - and great to see you're still alive after all x