Are they dead yet?

And if they aren’t dead, where are they?

Who are "they?"

"They" are the figures of history with which writers of historical fiction sometimes pepper their novels. Over the years I have read any number of historical novels in which various personages of the time in which the story is set make an appearance. Or, sometimes these personages are referred to by the fictional characters in the stories without making a personal appearance. And entirely too often, the authors of these stories treat these once-real-life personages in much the same way that many of us today treat "has-been" celebrities.

That is, once the celebrity’s prime time upon the world or national stage is over, many assume that they are dead, unaware those people continue to live, to pursue a private existence. For example, a few month ago, I read a novel set in 1811, in which the author used an object made by the silversmith Paul Revere, during the American Revolution, as an important prop. This author’s characters referred to this object as having been made by the now deceased Paul Revere. Which I found very disconcerting, since Paul Revere was very much alive in 1811. In fact, he did not die until 1818. This fact could have been discovered with a few keystrokes on the net, or a quick look through the Rs in any biographical dictionary or encyclopedia. But this author did not take the time, and apparently assumed that since the American Revolution was over, not only had Paul’s star set, but his life was over.

In another novel, set in 1806 London, the hero tells the heroine he is going to escort her to a grand ball at Devonshire House on a November evening. He also told her he would present her to the duchess. I was appalled at this egregious faux pas, as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, had just died in March of 1806. To add to the sorrow at Devonshire House, Charles James Fox had died in September of that year. There would have been no balls, or any other social events, at Devonshire House in November of 1806, as the family was in deep mourning. And needless to say, there would have been no duchess to which the heroine could have been introduced, as the Duke of Devonshire did not marry Georgiana’s friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, until 1809. All of these salient facts are readily available online, or in the reference room of one’s local library. Why did this author not take the time to check her facts?

A novel set in London in 1820, was a glaring case of "where are they?" The main characters attended a ball given by the "Dowager Duchess of Devonshire." First, of course, the Duchess of Devonshire at this time was the former Lady Elizabeth Foster, who had married the widowed 5th Duke of Devonshire in 1809. When he died, in 1811, his son succeeded him. But Hart, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, never married. Therefore, his step-mother never styled herself as the Dowager Duchess, because there was no need to distinguish herself from the wife of the current duke. But more importantly, after the death of the Fifth Duke, the Duchess moved to Italy, where she spent most of the rest of her life. She did travel through Europe, but she spent very little time in England. In 1820, she was in Rome, supervising an archaeological dig in the ruins of the Forum, which she sponsored. Therefore, she could not have been hosting a ball in London that year.

In still another novel, set in 1822, a house party takes place at an English country house and is attended by the Duke of Richmond. The guests are entertained by stories told by the duke of his time in command of a force of British reserves in Brussels in June of 1815, and of the ball given by his wife on the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras. But the duke’s attendance at this fictional house party was impossible, as he had been appointed the Governor General of Upper Canada in 1818, and he died there, in August of 1819.

And how many Regency novels include an appearance by that notable arbiter of fashion and man about town, Beau Brummell? He appears in any number of novels set in the late Regency into the early Victorian age. While it is true that Brummell did not die until 1840, he fled England in May of 1816, just ahead of his many creditors. There is some indication that he may have returned to his homeland surreptitiously once or twice to attend to personal business, but he certainly did not appear in public, for he would have instantly been clapped in debtors prison.

Authors, if you choose to write novels which include real figures from history, please take the time to determine if those people were actually alive, well, and in the location in which your story takes place. And please, do not write about the demise of any of these historical figures before said demise actually occurred. It spoils the knowledgeable reader’s enjoyment of the story to find it riddled with such errors. Alternately, if you plan to write about people who have actually died by the date in which your story is set, perhaps you should label your work as paranormal, rather historical, fiction. Most of us who read historical novels want to learn a little about the period in which the story is set while we are being entertained. I, for one, feel insulted and betrayed by an author who cannot be bothered to take the time to be sure the historical facts in their stories are accurate. I have never been insulted or betrayed by Georgette Heyer.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Are they dead yet?

  1. Page Davis says:

    Well, it’s about time somebody came out and said this! I notice that nobody has replied to it, even though it’s been up for years. I wonder why?

    The worst offender was Georgette Heyer’s opposite number – nemesis, one might say – Barbara Cartland, who was once satirized as “Rosemary Cartwheel” in a parody paperback called “Love’s Reckless Rash”. But biographers and even memoirists are frequently making it up as they go along, either to shine up their own reputations by contrast with their subjects, or because they never actually met their subjects and are quoting the current gossip as if they were witnesses of it.

    The most frequently injured by this stuff is George Brummell, who attracted what would now be called “publicity whores” in droves, and did not have the financial wherewithal to keep them at arm’s length – especially not after he was forced into exile. It must be hell to an extraordinary man to hear his life summed up by so many mediocrities, while he is still trying to live it, with dignity but without funds. I seriously doubt he ever returned to England; but I think some of his groupies went over as a prank, pretending to be Brummell, and trying to sell a book on “Male Costume” that goes against most of his longest-held opinions about male dress. (Furthermore, it is deadly dull, and full of cutouts from fashion magazines as illustrations; Brummell was anything but dull, even after he went mad, and he would’ve made a great fashion illustrator as well as designer in an age when a gentleman was allowed to work for a living!)

    My own suspicion is that the culprit was none other than Captain Jesse, that preachy and prurient little Judas who stuck to Brummell like glue, yet somehow was never around to bail him out of jail or do much of anything that would’ve been the act of a true friend. The book he wrote about Brummell after his death was most certainly not the act of a friend – not even a worthwhile FRIENEMY would sign his name to such a self-righteous piece of Victorian propaganda! But this screed is the basic source material for practically everything you’ve ever read or seen on George Brummell, along with “The Memoirs of Captain Gronow”, a third-generation wannabe dandy who never even met most of the people who met his subject. Neither man had the slightest idea what George Brummell was like during the time of his ascendancy over London Society – and it shows.

    “Wales, ring the bell!” has all the historical veracity of “Let them eat cake!” – meaning there is a real story behind the saying which has absolutely nothing to do with either George Brummell or Marie Antoinette. (In the Queen’s case, it was one of her maiden aunts who sneered that if the people of France had no bread, they were welcome to her piecrust.) I have read in a lone source, for which I have no attribution, that one night at Carlton House, some of the guests teased a very overawed and slightly intoxicated young man into blurting out, “Wales, ring the bell!” The Regent did as he was told; when the footman arrived, he laughed and said, “Put this drunken boy to bed!” It is quite possible that Brummell was there; but he played no part in the business, other than most likely thinking it was all pretty funny.

    If I can find my book that tells this straight version of the story, I’ll come back and attribute it. And if by some miracle it should happen to have come from either Jesse or Gronow, I shall offer them my most abject apologies. But I bet it won’t!

    Tout a vous,

    Page Davis

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      There is an old saying that history is written by the victors, which is still pretty much how it works, even today. In Brummell’s case, I think the problem was that he was much too interesting, and certainly rather naughty, for a Victorian biographer to be willing or able to tell the truth, for fear of shocking his readers. One does certainly have to take those older biographies with a few grains of salt. More than likely, Captain Jesse probably thought he was doing Brummell a favor by “protecting” his reputation by sanitizing his story. Too bad, since the truth was so much more interesting.

      Barbara Cartland did do a fair bit of research for her historical novels, from the sources I have read, but certainly not to the depth that Georgette Heyer did. Nor did she weave as many historical facts into her stories. I assume, because she wrote so many novels each year, that she just hit the high spots of history as she wrote. But I did enjoy her early novels, when I first came upon them as a teen. I continued to read them through college and later, since they were always amusing and could be relied upon for a happy ending. But, at least for me, they never supplanted Heyer’s novels as my preferred reading. Rather like the difference between popcorn and steak.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Page Davis says:

        Dear Kat,

        If you read the reply I posted on the Signet Ring site, you know I’m having an off day – but I had to leave at least one post making amends to Barbara Cartland; as you say, she was far more accurate than many who came after her. She was also far more charitable in her depiction of the Regent than Georgette Heyer, whose Tory political bent is the only thing about her books which troubles me. (She was no fan of Byron, either, for obvious reasons.)

        On the other hand, there was some Barbara Cartland novel in which I believe the hero fights a duel with swords, after dinner, right smack in the middle of a party at Carlton House; he kills his man; and the Prince directs the servants, “Get him out of here, before he bleeds on the carpet!” If I am not mistaken, it was the Prince Regent who made duelling illegal, which makes such a scene highly unlikely. But perhaps we could just say that he was moved to outlaw the practice after the fictional event in question took place!

        Also, FYI: The book supposedly authored by George Brummell, “Male Costume”, is in the Graduate Library at UNC Chapel Hill; and I’ve read it, or tried to. My intuition alone tells me that he never wrote such a book, even if the story behind who did write it and why has disappeared. For one thing, it’s humorless; for another, it’s tasteless; finally, the illustrations are cutouts. None of this makes sense. I don’t know if there is anything in his own personal correspondance about his having ever considered writing such a book; and I do know that he started to write his memoirs, but then shelved them, when they could have made him a great deal of money. (Given his nightmarish situation in exile, the idea that he was being paid not to write his memoirs also makes no sense.) He did read one fictitious portrait of his character, in Bulwer’s novel “Pelham”; from what I remember, he found the character to be insulting…which doesn’t mean some elements of it weren’t true!

        Tout a vous,

        Page Davis

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I do think that Barbara Cartland often went for the drama in a scene, even if it was not historically accurate. But, since she set this scene in Carlton House and many of those who frequented the place were not known for their fine manners or their circumspect behavior, it is entirely possible that a couple of them could have come to blows, or even drawn swords. Although the sword bit is rather a stretch, since gentlemen no longer wore swords during the Regency. Not to mention that Prinny was fairly well protected and anyone who drew a weapon of any kind in his presence would have been surrounded by guards in short order.

          The authorship of Male Costume is a bit problematic, but there are a couple of things you might want to consider. By the time Brummell began work on it he was already in the early stages of the veneral disease which killed him, and it was probably already affecting his mind. Plus, he was very fond of cut-outs. In fact, he covered an entire room screen with cut-outs from various prints and magazines as a gift for the Duchess of York, who had been his friend in London and who had continued to send him money and small gifts when he was in exile in France.

          With regard to his memoirs, I recall reading that he received some threats if he published them, and also, some friends from his younger days had asked him not to make the information public. He was always known to be a good friend and he may have felt honor-bound not to do something that would embarrass his friends, even if it resulted in the loss of a potential source of income. There is also the fact that he lived in constant hope that the British government would grant him a diplomatic post, with a steady income, which would have secured his future. Sadly, that did not happen.

          Regards,

          Kat

  2. Cari Hislop says:

    You’re right, if real people are dead they should not be seen dancing etc…as you say…paranormal!
    However, not everyone reads Regencies for historical details.

    I’ve really enjoyed several Heyers novels, but generally (for me) she shares too much historical information as a narrator. I can’t stand it when an author pauses to describe the “delicious” food the character is eating etc. In my opinion, if a story needs a monologue it should be given in dialogue. I prefer historical facts to be embedded into the story. I don’t want to be pulled out of a romance to think, “That’s an interesting historical fact!”.

    I should probably label my stories Paranormal. My romances exist in alternative Regency universe. Several identifiable houses lived in by real people in the Regency (and I chose the houses on purpose) are inhabited/owned by my characters. Historically accurate? No. Historically realistic? Yes. That’s the joy of fiction. It’s fiction!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I guess the fact that I am an avid student of history makes me enjoy Heyer’s novels as much for the historical details she shares as for the romance. In fact, she never gave a date for any of her stories, she expected people to figure it out from the historical details she provided. Maybe that is what makes her stories such a pleasure for me, they allow me to employ all that history I have jammed into my head over the years. 😉

      However, I do agree with you that in fiction, history can be tweaked a bit to serve a good story. But not to the point of raising the dead to participate in the tale. Though I am not sure if your stories would fall into the Paranormal genre, unless you have vampires and witches and such running around. If you have just slightly altered the universe, but your characters are real people, perhaps they actually fall into the Fantasy genre?

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Cari Hislop says:

        That makes sense, that you’d enjoy the history because you love the history. I do need for things to be right if they’re mentioned. At the end of the day, I think Regency England is the perfect backdrop for romance. It offers such an amazing wide scope of possibilities for writers. It’s far enough away in time that it feels like another world, but similar enough that we can see ourselves there.

        I’m glad I found your blog. No matter how much I know, there always more to learn about Georgian England. A few months ago I read the Journal of Dorothy Woodsworth and was captivated. When she’s not walking the Lake District she’s taking care of her brother (Wm). She mentions in one entry some local woman has drowned herself and the body is lovingly buried in the cemetery. You hear about the poor souls buried at the crossroads or buried alone in unconsecrated ground, but not in the graveyard. I thought that was interesting. There were so many interesting asides, I ended up underlining half the book.

        Thanks for your lovely blog!

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          What a treat! I read Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal a few months ago myself, and I enjoyed it very much, too. I think it is a rare document of the time because she was not male, nor a royal or an aristocrat, she was an observant, literate woman who lived what was essentially a middle-class life style, and she shared so much about her daily life. It is a great insight into that world, from a woman who actually lived it.

          I am so glad you like the blog. I enjoy writing it, but I am always pleased to know that others find it useful.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • Cari Hislop says:

            I agree! Her journal was utterly fascinating. It was like standing behind her, looking over her shoulder. I thought the brother and sister relationship rather intense. I can still see the three of them squashed into a small carriage driving home from the wedding…Dorothy sitting in between the newlyweds, and her brother’s head on her shoulder/bosom. Even if the two women were friends, it must have been hard on the wife (though maybe the woman was just relieved to escape the shelf).

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Life in those days was very hard for women, unless they were very wealthy and had lots of servants. So, it is likely that his wife was glad to have devoted sister-in-law. From what I understand, the two women remained close all their lives and Dorothy was a help in caring for the children.

              Something that we do not often think about today is that most women found their emotional relationships among their female friends, few seldom had an in-depth emotional relationship with their husbands. Such relationships were quite rare, despite all the many romance novels set in the period.

              Regards,

              Kat

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