Character building ~ the real ones

I know I’ve spoken of writing character before–the research, the observation, the synthesis and imagination which when all stirred together and allowed to ferment produces my characters. 

But for creating the character of a historical personage, the process is rather different. 

Since I like to anchor my historical fiction to actual events and to those who were participants in these events, there’s no avoiding (not that I want to) the work so that I can honestly attempt to recreate something of what his or her contemporaries knew of this person. 

And when there are conflicting reports and views, it becomes a case of playing detective–sifting through not only the letters, speeches and journals of the individuals themselves, but also analysing the reports about them as well as their sources, judging who might be said to be reliable, who was likely to be writing down hearsay or gossip, and what if any are the pieces that just don’t fit.

And this best describes the research and process that went into the writing of that historical figure who came to be a fixture in both Of Honest Fame and May 1812: Robert Stewart, the Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary from February 1812 until his death in 1822, and leader of the House of Commons from June 1812.

Which drove me to look at contemporary opinions about Castlereagh. 

There’s this by Lord Greville, a Whig–therefore a political opponent: 

“His appearance was dignified and imposing; he was affable in his manners and agreeable in society.  The great feature was a cool and determined courage, which gave the appearance of resolution and confidence in all his actions, and inspired his friends with admiration and excessive devotion to him, and caused him to be respected by his most violent opponents.

“He never spoke ill; his speeches were continually replete with good sense and strong argument and though the seldom offered much to admire, they generally contained a great deal to be answered.

“He was one of the best managers of the House of Commons who ever sat in it.”

Lord Ripon accompanied Castlereagh to Europe for the negotiations in Vienna.  Afterward he wrote:  “The suavity and dignity of his manners, his habitual patience and self-command, his considerate tolerance of difference of opinion in others, all fitted him for such a task; whilst his firmness, when he knew he was right, in no degree detracted from the influence of his conciliatory demeanour.”

Another fellow, Samuel Bamford, described him thus in 1817:  “A good-looking person in a plum-coloured coat, with a gold ring on the small finger of his left hand, on which he sometimes leaned his head as he eyed me over.” 

(Detailed observations like this are worth their weight in gold.)

Brougham, another Whig, said, “One can’t help feeling a little for him, after being pitted against him for several years pretty regularly…Also, he was a gentleman, and the only one amongst them” [his fellow Cabinet Ministers].

These are by no means the only quotations that speak of him thus.  There are dozens of remembrances like this. 

Then too, research shows that his position as Foreign Secretary meant gave him a wider view of the situation in Europe, indeed in all the world, and he used this to advise Wellington on possible campaign plans against the French on the Peninsula, a fact which Wellington always acknowledged.  He considered Castlereagh both a patron and his chiefest supporter in Parliament.

Added to this are his letters to his wife written while he was travelling in Europe.  He writes of the shopping for muslins and china he’s done for her, how he hopes she’ll approve of his choices, he writes of how he misses her, his dearest friend. 

Still, it wasn’t all plain sailing.  Primarily because of some lines written by one fellow who didn’t like him. 

And the problem was, that fellow was the poet, Lord Byron.  And the problem with Byron is, well, Byron. 

Because despite everything, he was a superlative poet.  

For, when confronted with the sublimity of his verse, we forget that Byron was a drunkard, a sexual predator of voracious appetite, that he is known to have seduced at least one thirteen year old girl (this directly after he’d seduced her mother), had numerous homosexual liaisons, an affaire with his half-sister, was an obsessive gambler, perpetually deep in debt caused by his gambling, divorced after his wife got fed up with his infidelities and the violence of his temper…and finally had to escape to the Continent to avoid the scandals and the debt-collectors. 

(It’s somewhere around the third line of the above recitation that I recalled why it was I couldn’t take his word for anything other than literature…)

Then, of course, after shocking the Swiss by living in a menage a quatre with the Shelleys, he re-invented himself as a Freedom Fighter for the cause of a free Greece.  And died youngish and before the destructive effects of the syphilis he undoubtedly had could add to his reputation’s further downfall.

He also had, may I say, a rather cruel wit, added to his genius with the language.   So regardless that he was a violent, amoral, swinish thug, and invariably drunk, or high, what you have in his one-liners about Castlereagh are enough to condemn the poor fellow for all of eternity.  “I met Murder on the way — he had a mask like Castlereagh…”

Yet, as I say, there remains for the historian and writer, the vexed question of the reliability of the witness…was he clean and sober when he wrote those lines?  (Not Pygmalion likely.)  Or was he in one of his usual fits of drunken rage?

It’s at this point that I remind myself of his scathing condemnation of fellow-poet, John Keats:   “Here are Johnny Keats’ piss-a-bed poetry… No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don’t I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the Mankin.”  (Another of  his opinions I find I cannot share, and one that not only makes one question his reliability as a witness, but also his literary taste…)

Hence the Castlereagh I strove to write and sought to convey on the pages of my novels–the man I believe his colleagues and contemporaries knew and respected.  I only hope I have done him justice.

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8 comments on “Character building ~ the real ones

  1. Though I hesitate to say so, Byron is much more interesting (though vastly over-used and abused as a character).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Although I find Byron’s poetry sublime, I should find it impossible to write a paedophile, drug addict, alcoholic, and violent thug such as he with anything other than repugnance. And because he was all of these things, and took each to such an excess, there’s the difficulty of truth being so much weirder than fiction, and who could believe it?

      • But no one is truly born that way, and no one has a completely unredeemed life. Bonaparte wasn’t birthed with a desire to enslave Europe. Hell, Hitler liked kids and dogs.

        The interesting part of writing is always the villains, because you have to find a way to humanize even the worst of them, else you have a mere cartoon. That’s the chief difficulty I have with Sauron in LOTR: a mere faceless evil. Which is why my third book will finally delve into motivations of the Merchantry troublemakers. Splashy fight scenes against monsters are fun, but the reader needs more than that.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Joseph, Napoleon’s older brother, might disagree with your second statement…as might Napoleon’s uncle…

        And on the same grounds as an actor preferring to play Caliban over Ferdinand, there may be the perception that getting to write an evil character sympathetically may be more interesting or fun.

        But both are digressions from the subject of the above post–creating for the page a character who actually lived–the research, the detective work, and the weighing of information which is really the work of a biographer, though in a smaller, less formally bound way perhaps. Though Charles Moore’s comment about history certainly still applies: “In studying history, you must imagine yourself into the truly difficult choices people had to make in the past…”

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by diiarts, Eric Chase. Eric Chase said: Character building ~ the real ones « M.M. Bennetts: … perpetually deep in debt caused by his gambling, divorce… http://bit.ly/9mrd5p […]

  3. drew cross says:

    I have a fascination with the Byron/Shelley dynamic, important and superlative literature came out of it; and I read this with great interest.
    I sometimes think that the hearsay, rumour, gossip and unsubstantiated scandal about a character is just as useful to us. People are complex, multi-faceted, with many ‘faces to meet the faces we meet’ (forgive the imperfect quotation); we can be all of what our peers describe and none of it at the same time.
    Great post 🙂

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Frankly, Byron the man bores me witless. And I have little sympathy with those who wish to whitewash his character as if they were Victorian maiden aunts so they can swoon over his poetry.

      Were he alive today, he’d be spending the better part of his time in prison for crimes ranging from GBH to drug smuggling to rape to paedophilia and grooming and no one would feel an ounce of compassion for his ‘tortured genius’. He had an ego the size of Montana and cared for no one but himself.

      However, the character of genius always acts like a magnet, though in the case of Byron, his expression of genius was invariably self-absorbed and destructive (to someone). As opposed to Mozart or Beethoven, say.

      I do think, regardless of any affiliations though, he’d use whatever he came upon, if it made for a good line of poetry. And that I’ve had to conclude was the situation with Castlereagh. I can well imagine his disliking or even hating Castlereagh–he was everything Byron was not and everything Byron’s family had not been to him. And Byron’s ego couldn’t have put up with that.

      All of which make him a wholly unreliable source. And the difficultly with that line is, once you know what else was said about Castlereagh, you have to say, “What exactly does that line mean anyway?”

      As for interesting, I find it far more intriguing that these men, like Castlereagh, who were amateurs at everything, not an MBA or a financial or military expert among them (except for Wellington) managed through their tenacity, duty, sheer hard work and application, managed together to defeat the greatest military empire the world had ever seen, managed to steer their country through the potential economic ruin of Napoleon’s Continental System, and encourage the intellectual endeavours of the industrial revolution at the same time and all with a minimum of domestic unrest and bloodshed. Now that is achievement!

  4. Drew Cross says:

    I stand corrected. I wasn’t professing admiration for Byron or his work in particular though, more for your own posting about that dynamic.
    Back to my own writing – thankfully I’m possessive of no genius whatsoever 🙂

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