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.