Saturday 20 July 2013

'Spooky' - Serendipity in Historical Fiction by A L Berridge

HEAT. It's bad enough for those of us indoors, but as I sit sweating unattractively over my keyboard I can't help thinking of the British soldiers who fought under a baking sun at the Battle of the Alma. Laden with full kit, these men were so desperate with thirst that they stopped to scoop water from the river right under the fire of the Russian cannon. Those who passed through the Bourliouk vineyard snatched handfuls of grapes as they ran, and many of the corpses collected afterwards were found to have grapes still in their mouths, the skin unpopped between their teeth.

It's two years now since I wrote about it, but it was just as easy to imagine back then. It was usually-chilly April when I went to the Crimea, but the sun seemed to know what I'd come for, and blazed over the Alma as viciously as it had in September 1854.

The Alma the day I saw it

It wasn't the only fortuitous bit of weather. Travelling down from Simferopol Airport we passed through a section of fog so dense it made me think of the Battle of Inkerman, but when we stopped to ask directions the sight of a hitherto invisible road sign made the back of my neck prickle. Інкерман, it read. Inkerman. The fog lay as thick as it had in November 1854, and I was there.

The battle of Inkerman

Luck, of course – but it’s the kind that seems to happen a lot with historical novelists. If you get five of us together with a bottle of wine then sooner or later the anecdotes will tumble out – lucky guesses with description, names and places we thought we’d made up and hadn’t, plot twists that turn out to have really happened. It seems at times more like serendipity – that moment where historical truth touches our own fiction, and the border between the two worlds melts away.

Woollarawarre Bennelong
Nor is the phenomenon limited to novelists. My own first glimpse of it came 22 years ago when I was researching for a television project on the life of Woollarawarre Bennelong, and trying to find out what he saw and did on his visit to Britain in 1793.  

Bennelong was an Aboriginal native of New South Wales, and the director was thrilled with the ‘culture-clash’ scenes of his hero visiting the theatre and being presented to King George, but we also wanted to touch something deeper – a trace of Britain’s own ancient heritage, and the way Bennelong might have responded to it.

The scene I kept picturing was Bennelong at Stonehenge. This dignified man of the Eora people, forced to dress in the ridiculous English fashions of the 18th century, suddenly put face to face with this

The director was of the Eora himself, and simply desperate to do the scene, but unfortunately I found Bennelong lodged successively at London, Eltham and Frognal, and was rather unlikely to have taken a little daytrip into Wiltshire. Then I paid one last visit to the Newspaper Library at Colindale and found a little paragraph about Bennelong’s arrival in the London Times. Unusually, his ship had landed him at Falmouth, and a look at old maps told me the rest. The route he would have taken had been the regular Falmouth-London carriage road for centuries, and the relevant section is what we now know by the unromantic name of the A303.


I’ll always remember the director’s response when I told him – perhaps because both his accent and word choice have since been immortalized by Dame Edna Everage. ‘Spooky,’ he said in a tone of awe. ‘That’s just… spooky.’

It wasn’t really. Lucky chances like that are massively outnumbered by the times our ideas don’t work out – which we conveniently choose to forget. When I was writing ‘Into the Valley of Death’, for instance, I was very excited by a scene between my hero and Fanny Duberly, the one officer’s wife in the Light Brigade – until I found out the wretched woman refused to stay in the camp and spent her days on a ship in Balaklava harbour instead. Honestly, some of these historical figures have no consideration.

Yet still the idea of this superstitious ‘luck’ persists. It’s understandable when it comes to a matter of plot – those times we ‘make something up’ then find out afterwards it’s something that actually happened – but there are still usually logical explanations. It might be a fortunate guess, or something we once read and have since forgotten, or it might just be that our idea is so obviously likely that the only surprise would be if it hadn’t happened. I once invented a plot to kill Cardinal Richelieu, for instance, but there was nothing remotely spooky in the discovery that the plot was real. The man had so many enemies that if he’d dropped dead at a dinner party there’d have been more suspects than in an Agatha Christie.

But what if we’ve invented something very unlikely? Something wildly off the regular historical track and which we couldn’t possibly have known about? What if we write it and then find out it’s true?

I had a weird one with my first novel ‘Honour and the Sword’, when I needed a really good excuse for a French army to come charging over the Picardy-Artois border to help with my hero’s liberation. It was true the French crossed in 1640 in order to besiege Arras – but the location of my hero’s village was fixed by the plot-essential Forest of Lucheux some twenty miles to the west, and it was hard to justify an army going so far out of its way. In the end I came up with the idea of a distraction – that this was a second French army advancing on the Spanish strongholds at Aire and Béthune in order to fool the Spanish into drawing troops from Arras to meet them. It was maybe a little devious and far-fetched, but it was possible and it did the trick.

And rather more. Weeks later I was browsing an amateur site with photographs of siege works, and stopped in disbelief when he made blithe mention of the French ‘distraction advance’ against Aire and Béthune. No sources were mentioned, no means of verification, and when I e-mailed the site owner he could only say regretfully that he thought he’d ‘heard it somewhere’. I turned to the experts and asked my distinguished colleagues on the academic H-France list-serv if they’d heard of such a plan, but not even they could help. Then at last Robin Briggs of All Souls said he’d come across a reference in an antiquated life of Richelieu, and the source seemed to be the memoirs of the Seigneur de Puységur. If I could only find those…

But there aren’t many 17th century French memoirs in British libraries, and this was easier said than done. At last I ran to earth a copy on the German site of AbeBooks, forked out an eye-watering sum of money, and bought the thing, because I simply had to know. I’m allowing myself the indulgence of posting a photo of the paragraph, because I can still remember the extraordinary sensation I felt when I first read it.

It was true, all of it. It really happened, and exactly for the reasons I thought I’d made up. Now that, as my Australian director would have said, is spooky.

But is it really? All I’d done was think myself into the mind of a French general in the situation in 1640, and if I was doing my job properly then it shouldn’t be surprising if I’d actually come to the correct conclusion. But it still feels like more than that. Writers are superstitious beasts, and the support of history can seem like a kind of ‘sign’ telling us we’re on the right track – that what we’re writing is in some way ‘meant’. That sounds bonkers, of course, but writing is an insecure business, brilliant ideas don’t come to order, and just as we personify inspiration into a mystical ‘Muse’ we can also look on historical affirmation as a kind of guardian angel guiding our steps to the truth.

Maybe literally. Lots of writers speak as if their stories and characters are real, and for historical writers it’s sometimes tempting to stray even further into belief. For ‘Into the Valley of Death’, for instance, I decided to make a plot character out of the mysterious ‘unknown officer’ who gave seriously dodgy orders at the Battle of the Alma, but when I set out to invent incidents to keep the story going I found he was already there. Balaklava, Inkerman, a strange cavalry patrol – the man had slipped under the historians’ radar for 150 years, but he was absolutely everywhere I looked. By the time I finished the book I was convinced the story I had written was more fact than fiction, and I’ve since been thrilled to find a couple of academic historians who agree.

It’s always wonderful when it works like that. Sometimes it feels as if we’re not ‘making things up’ at all, but merely blowing away the dust round a dinosaur skeleton to expose the story that was there all the time.

Maybe what my next book will look like...

But it’s not spooky. It’s deduction, that’s all, using the facts that exist to look for a pattern, and sometimes stumbling on one that’s real. If we start believing there’s more to it than that, then it’s time for the little men in white coats.


One last anecdote, one from my current book, and the one that decided me to write this post. Without giving away too much plot, this is how it works:

In my Crimean novel ‘Into the Valley of Death’ I established an English traitor and master villain with the innocent name of ‘Mr Shepherd’. For ‘Enemy at the Gates’ I’ve expanded his role to include the (genuine) network of local spies who did business round Balaklava, and needed the character of a young Crimean-Tatar wineseller to be one of those loyal spies. My knowledge of Crimean-Tatar is non-existent, so I googled to get a list of Tartar names and chose (randomly) the name 'Çobanzade’. 

Crimean Tatars 1862
As the book went on the plot expanded. I needed Shepherd to have had an affair with a Crimean-Tatar woman at least twenty years before the war, but for her to be still loyal to him now. It only took a minute to invent a reason for her continued loyalty – there was an illegitimate child and Shepherd is still supporting him. Better still, make the son the Tatar wineseller, link them all together and kill two narrative birds with one stone. Perfect.

Two days ago I needed another Tatar name and found a different website that even gave the names their Tatar meanings. Among those listed was ‘Çobanzade’, and I couldn’t believe it when I saw what it meant.

Son of shepherd.

Explain that one, Sherlock. When I gave Shepherd his name I had no idea he’d ever appear again in another book. When I gave Çobanzade his name I had no idea what it meant or that I’d ever want him to be more than ‘Tatar Wineseller #1’. The name could have meant 'big nose' or 'rose of spring', but it meant Son of Shepherd and it had been there all the time.

Coincidence, of course, and I do understand that. I’ll only say that it gave me that prickling feeling again, and I bet you’ll understand that.

Because it’s not just me, is it? We all have these stories, and I’ve heard far better than mine. So come on, ladies (and gentlemen, if you're out there) - own up and make me feel less weird by telling me yours.


Beth said...

Fascinating post, Louise! Even if one may be able to rationalise these 'coincidences' afterwards, it can be pretty spooky when you notice them, and I think a taste of that always remains.

The one that sticks in my mind from my own writing is where I had a character who I wanted to portray as being a bodyguard to some royal children - yet I'd already cast him as a crack cavalryman, and I didn't want to do away with that. The only way I could see to change things was the give him some kind of injury which would render future fighting on horseback (but not necessarily fighing per se) impossible; so I did. Then I looked him up in one of the sources I hadn't got around to before and found that he had a nickname - one that means 'wounded, mangled, broken'. It
was a small thing, but poweful all the same...

alberridge said...

Yes - that's exactly it! That's a wonderful example - the kind of clue that would mean nothing to most people without the resonance of your idea.

I'm now furiously wracking my brains to think who you're writing about. 17th century France...?

Beth said...

6th century North Britain! Which, I must confess, I can't prove to be the period during which this man lived - it was my own deduction from what little (about a line!) was written...not really even about him, but his wife. Yet it felt right, and the 'coincidence' reinforced that. Yes, you're right about blowing dust away to expose the dinosaur, what was already there simply waiting to be found - it often does feel a lot like that.

Stroppy Author said...

My coincidence is a bit different... I'd got a wealthy Venetian nobleman who was embezzling money from the Republic and needed a decent motive. I'd spent all day reading 16th century Venetian manuscripts in the library and wanted a break, so I wandered into Petrarch's library (yes, really) and picked up the first thing I could see that was not in Italian. It was a French PhD thesis on the salt trade in Venice. I opened it at random and started reading. It turned out that the Republic had borrowed thousands of ducats from the noble families in the late 15th century to buy salt and never paid it back. When they finall did - at the time my story was set - they had no record of who they'd borrowed it from and paid it back at random, causing some of the nobles to feel cheated and very annoyed. There was my motive. But I could have picked up any book at all, or opened it at a different page.

DrGrandpa said...

Great blog.
I only recently arrived at the idea that Bennelong passed by Stonehenge on the way to London, then found your blog.

I had my own Eureka moment when I found that Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne sang a song in Mayfair in 1793 in an 1811 book (see 'A song in Mayfair' online in the Electronic British Library Journal).
I am the author of Bennelong (2001) and have researched his theatre visits etc. for a follow-up work. I would love to know the name of the film about him if it was produced.

Keith Vincent Smith