There are many different types and degrees of history in historical fiction. There are stories in which the setting is historical but the characters are wholly fictional and historical events don’t impinge on the book. There are novels like my fellow History Hoyden Amanda Elyot’s which center on a real historical person and real historical events. In between, there are an infinite variety of types of books. Novels in which the characters and plot are fictional, but real historical events impinge on the fringes of the story (such as Venetia Lanyon’s brother returning from the Napoleonic Wars in Heyer’s Venetia). Novels in which real historical figures make cameo appearances (such as the Countess Lieven in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy). Novels in which the central characters are fictional but the story is so intertwined with real historical figures and events that it is difficult to tell where fiction leaves off and history begins (Heyer’s An Infamous Army, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolò; reading Dunnett’s books, you wonder how history followed the path it did without Francis Crawford of Lymond and Nicholas de Fleury and reading Cornwell you wonder how the British could have won the Peninsular War without Richard Sharpe).
Since I tend to write about politicians, going back to when I wrote the Anthea Malcolm books with my mom, most of my books have at least walk-on appearances by real historical figures and some reference to historical events. Emily Cowper and Harriet Granville appear in several of my early books, Lord Castlereagh plays an important role in The Counterfeit Heart, Frivolous Pretence revolves round the divorce trial of Queen Caroline, A Touch of Scandal deals with the renewal of the East India Company’s charter. Dark Angel takes place largely in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War and not only Emily Cowper but her lover Lord Palmerston were secondary characters. Waterloo and its prologue and aftermath are crucial to Shores of Desire (and several real historical figures make appearances). The French Revolution and post-Waterloo industrial unrest drive the plot of Shadows of the Heart. Rightfully His deals with 1820s debates over emancipation of slaves in British colonies. Henry Brougham appears in several scenes as the hero’s friend and confidant.
The plot of Secrets of a Lady is inextricably intertwined with the events of the Napoleonic Wars, and several real people are mentioned (Castlereagh, Sir Charles Stuart, Wellington, the Prince Regent) but no real historical characters actually have “screen time.” Castlereagh does appear in Beneath a Silent Moon, however. He has a key scene with Charles, and his presence influence shadows the story.
The vogue in historical fiction these days is for stories that revolve round real people and events. Partly because of this, partly because of the direction my own interests and research have taken, real historical figures are playing more of a role in my books. Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte (Josephine’s daughter, Napoleon’s stepdaughter and sister-in-law) is a major character in The Mask of Night, as is her lover, the Comte de Flahaut, and Flahaut’s father, Talleyrand. Josephine appears in flashback and her presence hangs over the book. The younger generation of the Devonshire House set (Harriet Granville, Caroline Lamb) will be important characters in Charles & Mélanie Book #4, and I’d love to find a way to use Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (who was a friend of Elizabeth Fraser’s), in flashbacks. I’m already pondering what real people and events to weave into subsequent Charles and Mélanie books.
What role do you like to see real historical figures play in historical fiction? Main characters, supporting characters, walk-ons? Favorite examples? What real life historical figures would you like to see Charles and Mélanie interact with?
Updated to add–this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is a birthday letter from Charles to Mélanie.