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09 February 2016

Wellington, Waterloo, Apsley House, & historical liberties






Historical novelists always to a certain degree combine fact and fiction because we fill in gaps in the historical record. This is even more true when one writes novels such as I do with fictional main characters and real historical figures in major supporting roles, one inevitably combines historical events with fictional ones. I try to stick closely to the historical record, but of course I end up taking some liberties with it whether it's Lady Caroline Lamb a childhood friend of one of my fictional characters who of course she never new, putting Lord and Lady Castlereagh at a fictional ball they of course wouldn’t have attended, or having Castlereagh, Wellington and Sir Charles Stuart preoccupied with the intrigue surrounding the death of the fictional Antoine Rivère in post-Waterloo Paris.

With London Gambit, my latest Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch historical mystery, which I just finished, I faced a dilemma. The timeline of the series naturally put the book in June 1818, three years after Waterloo. Perhaps because I was subconsciously aware of this, echoes of the battle reverberate through the book. I needed a major social event for the denouement of the book, and I really wanted it to revolve round the anniversary of Waterloo on 18 June. I knew from a research visit to Wellington’s London home, Apsley House, that Wellington had given banquets for Waterloo veterans on the anniversary of the battle.

Apsley House  (which stands on the edge of Hyde Park at Hyde Park Corner) was designed by Robert Adam and built in the 1770s for the second Earl of Bathurst (who had been Baron Apsley before he succeeded to the earldom). Wellington's brother Richard, Marquess Wellesley, purchased Apsley House in 1807 and engaged James Wyatt to improve it (with the assistance of Thomas Cundy). Though the grateful nation was offered to build Wellington a London home, Wellington instead bought Apsley House from his brother in 1817 (to help Richard out of financial difficulties). In 1818 Wellington engaged Benjamin Dean Wyatt, James Wyatt’s son, to make repairs to the house. Wyatt installed the nude statue of Napoleon by Antonio Canova, which Wellington had acquired, at the base of the stairs.

But Wellington was still British ambassador to France in 1818. He probably didn’t give his first banquet for Waterloo veterans at Apsley House until 1820, and the first of his banquets took place in a dining room that could only seat 35, so the guests were limited to senior officers. After the Waterloo Gallery was completed in 1830, up to 85 guests could attend, including guests who had not been present at the battle, but the guest list was limited to men. While I worked on the first draft of London Gambit, I danced round what to do with the Waterloo anniversary. I thought about having a fictional character give a dinner on 18 June. I even thought about having Wellington come over from Paris for the dinner. And then I thought—Wellington did own Apsley House in 1818. He could have given a dinner on the anniversary of Waterloo (even if in fact he did not). And, since the dinner in m book would be fictional, he could include women among the guests…

I debated some more, wrote it with Wellington giving the dinner at Apsley House, debating changing it in subsequent drafts. In the end I left it, with an historical note explaining the liberties I had taken. Reading over the galleys, I’m glad I did. The Waterloo anniversary ties the themes in the books together beautifully and having the event at Apsley House with Wellington present gives it added weight.

For more information about Apsley House and Wellington, the Victoria and Albert Museum offers an excellent publication book Apsley House: Wellington Museum (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2001).

Readers, how do you feel about writers taking liberties with the historical record? Writers, what liberties have you taken with historical figures, events, and timing?






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9 Comments:

Blogger Miranda Neville said...

Sounds good to me. In my forthcoming book I moved the London premiere of Fidelio up 14 years. Hey, it had been performed elsewhere. It's not my fault the English were too dumb to buy it. Author's Note erase most sins.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Maureen said...

I visited Apsley House in 2014 and was blown away. The art Wellington collected or was given is phenomenal, especially the sets of porcelain with pictures of his battles and the portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The house itself is like a small palace. And there are few tourists…wonderful to find in London. I so want to return if only to see the wonderful Lawrence portrait of Wellington. I totally think you did the right thing Tracy…I can handle “changes” to history as long as they make sense (something the real historical figure might do given the chance) and you, the author, tell me that you made a change. Now I cannot wait for London Gambit to come out…

8:31 PM  
Blogger Helena said...

I agree that a change like this, which isn't inconsistent with what the real person would have done, is absolutely fine when there is an Author's Note to explain it. What I dislike is something you do not do, which is to use real historical figures and make them act out of character, or fundamentally change some aspect of their lives.

I think it is important not to defame real historical people, since all they have left is their reputation and it is so easily damaged. Those authors who appear to be using real people and events have a duty not to misrepresent them, something you clearly appreciate!

8:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Miranda, I can totally see doing that! The opera had already been written, so it *could* have been performed. Can't wait to read your book - I love Fidelio!

11:25 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Maureen, isn't Apsley House amazing? I loved my visit there, and I agree it was delightfully not crowded, at least on my visit. I'm glad you feel okay about the change I made and are looking forward to London Gambit!

11:28 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Helena, I so agree about trying to stick with what a real historical figure might actually have done, even if they didn't do it. The example I often give is that I'd feel okay inventing a fictional love affair for a person who was known to have had a lot of love affairs but not for someone who was known to be a famously faithful spouse. When I was writing Vienna Waltz, I struggled a lot with how far it was okay to have Talleyrand go in his involvement in my fictional intrigues. I think where I ended up is in line with what is known about his involvement in real intrigues. It's a constant and fascinating dilemma for the historical novelist!

11:34 PM  
Blogger Betty Strohecker said...

One of the reasons historical fiction is my favorite genre is because it gives me a close look into the life and actions of real people I never knew. Including events that could have happened is fine with me, as long as it does fit within the known lifestyle and behaviors of the historical personnage. We cannot know every word or action of these people, so it is entertaining and informative to read things that might have happened and to mingle the characters among people like those they really encountered. After all, it is fiction. Authors' notes help the reader to distinguish fact from fiction - that's fine with me. Often I am led to research these people and events from HF that I read and that so helps me increase my knowledge. My thanks to great authors like you, Tracy.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Betty, thanks for the nice words! I love it when my books send readers to explore the real history behind them. A lot of my interest in history as a child came from reading historical fiction or watching historical movies and then wanting to know more about the actual history. My parents were great at helping me explore this (which in pre-internet days, meant lots of trips to the library!).

2:27 PM  
Blogger Helena said...

Tracy, I do so agree that historical fiction can cause or increase an interest in history. Like you, I loved historical novels as a child and wanted to find out more. I'm sure it's no coincidence that my favourite periods -- Romans (especially in Britain) and the Georgian & Regency in England -- coincide with the periods which featured most in my childhood reading. Fortunately I could cycle to our library! and thank goodness for the Internet now.

9:47 AM  

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