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.