History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 June 2010

Character Development on a "Grand" Scale

A recent Facebook exchange about character development with our own Tracy Grant inspired me to share our musings with you. The subject began with Talleyrand and quickly morphed into a brief discussion of the painting titled "Madame Grand" that hangs in the European collection of New York City's Metropolitan Museum. Painted in 1783 by one of the era's few female portraitists, Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun.

Catherine Noelle Worlee was born in India in 1762 to a French official stationed in Pondicherry. And it was in India in 1778 where the (barely) sixteen-year-old Catherine wed George Francis Grand, a British civil servant who could boast of Huguenot (French Protestant) roots.

Catherine was evidently quite the hoyden (I found a reference to her numerous "amorous adventures") both in London and Calcutta, leading me to suspect that she was perhaps the distaff version of an 18th-century rake. In fact, her affair with Sir Philip Francis, the deputy to India's Governor-General Warren Hastings, created quite the colonial scandal, resulting in her marital separation.

This portrait, where Madame Grand rolls her eyes heavenward as if she is so over something (her husband? her life? her social circle?) fascinates me no end.

Let's imagine that I did no research on her actual backstory, but merely found her an interesting subject for a novel, as either a leading or supporting character. I am intrigued by her facial expression, rare for any subject, as it's neither placid nor particularly pretty. It's so deeply personal that I want to know more about her -- and even invent it, guessing what lies behind her oh-I-am-so-over-it mood. Was she unhappily married to Grand? Something must have been going on, because she was awarded a divorce, also rare for the era. Was it her own infidelity that sparked the split? Or Grand's?

In 1802 she wed again, this time to her longtime lover, the powerful French diplomat, Charles Maurice Talleyrand, one year her junior, becoming Madame Talleyrand-Perigord, Princesse de Bénévent. It was Napoleon who forced his friend's hand and demanded that Talleyrand make an honest woman of Catherine. But this match was not much more successful than Catherine's first marriage. The couple drifted apart, although Talleyrand provided his estranged wife with enough to retain her luxurious London lifestyle. Catherine died in Paris in December 1834 at the age of seventy-two.

Talleyrand; painted by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

The portrait of "Madame Grand" immediately struck me as a terrific character study from either end of the equation, either as someone I might like to portray in historical fiction, or merely as the image of a woman who might epitomize one of my fictional characters.

Authors: do you ever come across portraits (or photos) and think "that's my character!" and incorporate that into your writing? During your research stage, do you ever look for a painting that might encapsulate the image of your creation?

Readers: do you "cast" a novel you're reading with images you've seen on canvas (or on film, for that matter)?

For everyone: how does having a "visual" for a character aid in understanding him/her better?


Blogger Unknown said...

I don't look for them anymore, but sometimes I do find them, LOL! Often it will be a particular shot in a period film, or even a magazine shoot with an actress.

When I first plotted out my Rakes of London series I found period portraits for ALL my main characters (because I was told in some workshop that this was what you did). This was George from Lord Sin (oddly enough, it’s also by Vigée-Lebrun):


7:34 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I'm like you, Kalen; I tend to come across them rather than look for them before I start. And on some occasions (this happened at least once with my contemporary fiction), I created a fictional character and some time later met someone who fit the physical bill (personality, too) so well that I might as well have modeled my character on them!

11:21 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Leslie! When I was a pre-teen first making up Regency stories, my mom and I named all the late Georgian/Regency paintings in San Francisco's Place of the Legion of Honour museum, and I put them in a story I was writing. Now, like you and Kalen, I tend to find paintings of my characters rather than look for them, but I often stare at portraits in museums and imagine the back story. I love the Jane Austen letter where she talks about going to an exhibit and finding a portrait of "Mrs. Bingley," and looking for a portrait of "Mrs. Darcy" but not finding one. She says she attributes this to Mr. Darcy not liking to part with portraits of his wife. It shows she thought about her characters going on outside the story, just like so many of us do.

I just turned my Vienna Waltz revisions in yesterday, so I've been spending a lot of time with Talleyrand. He took his nephew's wife, Dorothée (who may have become his mistress and certainly ended up living with him for many years) to the Congress of Vienna as his hostess rather than his wife. His relationship with Dorothée was fun to write.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, I can't wait to read Vienna Waltz, and will give special thought to Talleyrand as you portray him (and as I envision the portrait, above). :)

At The Players club on Gramercy Park, where I will be tonight and where Kalen and Lauren and I once hoisted a few, is a portrait of a man my Players friends and I have always called "Mr. Darcy." For years there was no name beneath the portrait, which still hangs in a dark corner of the dining room, yielding precedence to portraits of 18th, 19th, and 20th c. theatrical luminaries. We learned that "Mr. Darcy" was the son of some wealthy man who was appalled that he became a theatrical stage manager!

1:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The Players Club has such wonderful portraits! It was such fun to get a look inside too, and I totally remember you showing up "Mr. Darcy".

1:53 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Lovely post, Leslie. And here's some hoyden historical trivia about Talleyrand. The Madeleine (you know, the Proust cookie) was invented in Talleyrand's kitchen.

While as for getting one's characters from portraits, Marina Wyatt, heroine of The Edge of Impropriety is my version of Margaret, Countess of Blessingham, in her famous portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (on the old, classy cover of The Slightest Provocation). Margaret used to sit under her portrait at the parties she gave, and so does Marina, and their lives are similar in other ways.

But I invented a much happier ending for Marina. ;-)

3:14 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Pam, did you have cover consultation and request (or suggest) that they use the portrait of the Countess of Blessingham (and I adore the portrait and Marina)? Did they know she had been something of a muse to you?

And although I am both a baker and devourer of Madeleines and of course know their connection to Proust I did not know of their origin. Thank you for that! And ... who was Madeleine?

6:56 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oops, did I say Blessingham? Yes I did -- my bad, it's Blessington.

As for that cover, they did take suggestions from me -- this one was actually my second or third choice, and I knew nothing of the lady at the time except that she'd published some of her conversations with Lord Byron, which are still of interest.

No, I came to Margaret via my longstanding passion for dandies and fascination with triangular relationships, when I read about the young and outrageously handsome Comte d'Orsay who became the leading dandy in 1830s London.

Reading about the Comte and those close to him, I learned of Margaret's sad, exploited girlhood in Ireland (her father was a brutal fixer for the British who more or less sold her to a British officer), her becoming the mistress and then the wife of the absurdly rich Earl of Blessington, and their travels on the continent, where they took up the younger d'Orsay.

When the Count died he left Margaret comfortable but not rich -- much like my character Marina.
Whereupon, to indulge her taste for luxury (like Marina) Margaret became a writer of Silver Fork novels, and she and d'Orsay maintained a companionship until her death (sadly, of overwork).

Many of the same details, as you see, but Margaret's was a sad and not at all a romantic story.

While as to the original Madeleine, I don't know, but the scullery maid heroine of my Bookseller's Daughter learns to bake them, and names her own daughter Sophie Madeleine.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Leslie - I tend to find inspiration in people/actors in motion. So I rarely wind up using a portrait, let alone finding one in advance.

But a Ralph Lauren ad once informed me I'd need to write about it one day and I've never seen this rough edged guy anywhere else. When I hit writer's block on my current WIP, I dug this picture out. Something about the leather jacketed dude with the broken nose and the perfectly pleated black shirt makes my hero come alive, even though I can't see my hero wearing this.

Who knew a portrait could be so helpful? Not I!

3:30 PM  

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