Tag Archives: history

Altering History : is it OK in Historical Fiction?

cranium silhouetted against question markAltering History. In other words, changing what actually happened into something that didn’t happen; or didn’t happen in quite that way; or happened at a different time…
Is it OK for an author of historical fiction to do that?

Always? Sometimes? Never?

Does it depend on what the alteration is? Some think it’s OK to alter small things, relating to minor characters, but not decisive things relating to really important characters.

Some might say an author can do whatever he or she likes, provided the reader knows what the author has done. In other words, the author has to come clean.
Others don’t care, as long as the end result is a good read.

Altering History : a Big Deal for Queens

Altering History as Schiller did in his Maria Stuart: print of Mary in 1859 production of Schiller's Maria Stuart

Mary, in Schiller’s Maria Stuart

One classic example of altering history for the sake of a satisfying plot is Schiller’s play Maria Stuart (used by Donizetti as the basis for his opera Maria Stuarda). The play is still powerful in the twenty-first century. It had sell-out English-language runs in London (2005), Broadway (2009), and Stratford (2013).

Altering History as Schiller did in his play Maria Stuart: Queen Elizabeth in 1859 production of Schiller's Maria Stuart

Elizabeth I, in Maria Stuart

The crucial section of the play features a confrontation between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. That confrontation did not happen in real life. The two women never met. But, of course, the audience knows the confrontation never happened; they know that it is a playwright’s device to heighten the drama. So, although Schiller was altering history, the audience generally goes along with it. It’s drama, and tragedy, not history.

Still, altering history by putting Mary and Elizabeth together in the same room is most definitely A Big Deal.

Altering History : a Big Deal for Generals

Putting Napoleon and Wellington together in the same room is A Big Deal, too.

Napoleon on campaign in 1806

Napoleon (1806)

portrait of Duke of Wellington by Goya, 1812-14

Wellington (Goya, 1812-14)

As far as I’m aware — and readers will correct me, I hope, if I am wrong here — Napoleon and Wellington never met face to face. The two may have glimpsed one another from a distance on the field at Waterloo, but that was it. They didn’t meet; they didn’t speak.

This blog was prompted by my reading of the final volume of Simon Scarrow’s Wellington and Napoleon Quartet, where Wellington and Napoleon have a clandestine meeting at 4 am, the morning after Waterloo, on the road to Charleroi. To be fair, the history books do say that Napoleon was around there at the time. But Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great has Napoleon arriving south of Charleroi after five in the morning, taking a quick bite and galloping on towards Paris. So where was the time for a meeting with Wellington? In any case, Elizabeth Longford’s authoritative Wellington—the Years of the Sword is clear that Wellington was back at his Waterloo HQ, writing his despatch in the early hours, and then leaving for Brussels.

 Cover Simon Scarrow Wellington & Napoleon Quartet ICover Simon Scarrow Wellington & Napoleon Quartet II Cover Simon Scarrow Wellington & Napoleon Quartet III Cover Simon Scarrow Wellington & Napoleon Quartet IV

Altering History : OK if the author comes clean?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this series, right up to (almost) the end of the last book.
Scarrow has obviously done masses of research into his two protagonists.

Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) in India 1804

Maj-Gen Wellesley in India, 1804

I found the first two books particularly illuminating. They covered the early years of Napoleon and Wellington. They showed how each learned his skills as a commander and how different they were, in personality and in approach to battle command.

The sections about Wellington in India were especially revealing, I thought. (He started as a mere Colonel Wesley and finished as Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley.)

Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, as Lieut-Col of battalion of Corsican volunteers

Bonaparte, aged 23

In the first book of the quartet, Scarrow says quite openly that he’s been altering history by showing the reader an imagined meeting between the two young men at the School of Equitation in Angers, twenty-nine years before Waterloo. And he makes a pretty good case for his imaginary encounter, which most readers will accept, I imagine. After all, the author has been upfront about his desire to make his fictitious story more appealing to readers.

Scarrow tells readers where he has been altering history and mentions examples in books 1-3. He includes explanations in his Author’s Notes, typified by this from Book 3:

As in Young Bloods and The Generals, I hope that I have presented this epic period of history as accurately as possible. In order to make the story flow freely I have been obliged to change some details, for which I apologise to those who are well read in this period.

Altering History : still OK if the author does not come clean?

Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo by Hillingford

Wellington at Waterloo (Hillingford)

But in the last book? Sadly, there’s nothing like that.

The final Author’s Note is about the lives of his protagonists after Waterloo. It says nothing about presenting history as accurately as possible. Nor does it give any background about the chapter where Wellington and Napoleon are shown together after the battle.

I’ve read quite a lot of the online reviews of Book 4 and I can’t find a single murmur against that post-Waterloo “encounter”. word cloud of book reviewsThe vast majority of reviews are 5-star; a few (less glowing) ones complain about having to skip over the many intricate battle scenes or about one-dimensional characters in the book.

Most authors will understand Scarrow’s motives. Having written the (non-historical) early meeting between Wellington and Napoleon, Scarrow then writes a second meeting which gives a pleasing symmetry to his series. And he even has Wellington say, at the outset, “If this meeting serves no purpose I have no intention of ever admitting to it.”
Clever. It makes Scarrow’s second meeting more plausible.

Not for me, I’m afraid. Though maybe I’m the lone worrier about this? Right or wrong, I would have been happier, as a reader, if Scarrow had explained why he wrote his ending this way.
Still, I am only one reader. What do you think?

Joanna Maitland, author


Historical Costume 1800-1820: a spencer for a skimpy gown?

In BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear spencers, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing

In BBC’s 1995 Pride & Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear a spencer, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing

What to wear if it’s cold? A spencer?

replica Regency gowns with spencers

Replica spencers (BBC’s Persuasion)

As the Pride & Prejudice picture shows, the high-waisted Regency gown needed a particular kind of outerwear.
A normally-waisted coat would have ruined the shape of the lady’s silhouette. So fashion called for something special. The answer was the spencer.

From about 1804, the spencer was a short-waisted jacket with long sleeves. It could be prim and proper, buttoned up to the neck, as modelled by Mary Bennet (above). Or it could be rather more risqué, accentuating the bosom, as Jane Bennet’s does.

But why was it called a spencer? Continue reading

Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?

1807 white muslin wedding dress © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A Regency gown might not be so simple?

1807 wedding dress asymmetric embroidery on front

A Regency gown might look simple but the wedding dress shown above clearly is not. Mainly because of the hand-embroidered muslin, rather than the fairly standard design.

That stunning dress was worn by a seventeen-year-old bride, Mary Dalton Norcliffe, for her marriage to Dr Charles Best in York on 11 June 1807. It’s made of Indian muslin and the V&A suggests the embroidery was done in India, too. Not only is there beautiful embroidery all round the hem and train, there is asymmetric embroidery across the front of the skirt, recalling the classical toga. You may find it easier to see the white-on-white embroidery in the close-up, shown left. Continue reading

Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?

What is a Caraco?

Striped silk sack-backed caraco, 1760-1780

Striped silk sack-backed caraco, 1760-1780

Caraco isn’t a word that many of us are familiar with. It’s not in many dictionaries, either. It is in Wikipedia, though, along with this illustration of a lovely caraco jacket, dating from 1760 but altered in the 1780s. The original is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

So… what is a caraco?

It’s a woman’s jacket, usually waisted and thigh length, with a front opening. It could be worn as the bodice of a gown and was termed a “caraco dress” when it was complete with a skirt. Some simple versions had high waists even as early as the 1780s.

According to Wikipedia, the original French caraco was often worn with a stomacher to fill the front opening, as with the silk one in the picture above. The English version was designed to meet in front and didn’t need a stomacher. Which is a pity, as stomachers can be truly beautiful, like these from earlier periods… Continue reading

Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown

Polonaise not Panniers!

1780 polonaise replica

1780 polonaise replica

1787 polonaise original

1787 polonaise original

This blog looks at the lovely Georgian polonaise gown, as a follow-up to my earlier blogs about the hard work of the seamstress and the lady’s maid. We marvel at these gowns in museums — and most of us know that every stitch was hand-sewn — but do we stop to think about the detail of the process?

Shown left is a modern replica of a 1780 polonaise gown, made in plain white fabric to show off the detail of construction. Shown right is an original gown dating from the late 1780s and with the back only partly lifted.

Normally, the back of the polonaise would be lifted in two or more places to show the petticoat beneath, as shown below. Continue reading

Peru Poser: Humour or Porn?

I said that Joanna’s blog last week reminded me of an encounter of my own with a Secret Room in a Museum and some unusual cultural artefacts – in fact it turned out to be a Peru Poser: Humour or Porn?

Peru Aunt Lucy“Peru?” I hear you cry. “Home of Machu Picchu, the Inca Empire and Paddington Bear’s Aunt Lucy? That Peru?”

Yes. That Peru.

“Well strike me pink with gold knobs on. What on earth was the woman doing there?”

Um – would you believe work? Also expanding my experience of other cultures and seeing the world. Continue reading

Stirling Castle & Mary Queen of Scots’ Dad!

Stirling Castle, sitting on extinct volcano

Apologies for the tongue-in-cheek title to this post. I’m guessing that if I had headed it “Stirling Castle and James V”, quite a few of our readers would have said, “Who he?”

Stirling's statue of James V as Old Testament prophetHe is James V, King of Scots. Yes, he was the father of the rather better-known Mary, Queen of Scots.
James V and Stirling Castle had quite a relationship. (And did you know that the mound on which the castle sits is actually an extinct volcano?)

Portrait of James V of ScotlandBoth these images represent James V. In the statue, he has a long flowing beard, like an Old Testament prophet, ready to usher in a golden age for Scotland. In the portrait, he has his normal neat beard and gorgeous clothes.
He didn’t make it to prophet status. James died when he was just 30, leaving one legitimate child (Mary), who was only 6 days old. James also left at least 9 illegitimate children, so he was definitely neither saint nor prophet 😉 Continue reading

A Sideways Look at Regency Life — All At Sea!

figure contemplating slightly stormy sea

When we read fiction set in the Regency period, we often come across references to sea journeys but, usually, they’re over pretty quickly. On one page, we’re at Dover or Harwich or Falmouth. A paragraph or two later, we’ve arrived at our destination and the story continues. (Not in all fiction, of course. Who could forget Mary Challoner’s horrendous cross-Channel trip in Heyer’s Devil’s Cub? Still, at least Vidal proffered a basin at the vital moment.)

Nowadays, our ships have GPS and radar and even engines! 😉 So this modern figure, staring out over a slightly stormy sea, has little to fear from going on board. But what was it really like, making a sea voyage on one of the Regency’s relatively tiny and fragile sailing craft?

Let’s take an imaginary sea journey…

Continue reading

Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage

Imagine a Regency lady with a beautiful evening gown, like this one in grey silk with pink trimmings and grey gauze oversleeves. But — oh, dear — she’s ripped it, or perhaps something has been spilled on it. Who will repair the damage or clean off the stain? The lady herself? Continue reading