Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Why Author notes are a good thing for historical novels

When a Fiction romance novel is read and the reader views the story line as unreal and unbelievable, how does an author view that kind of criticism? There can be no comeback as such, for how the reader has assessed the story is that person’s POV, and it really would be extremely arrogant of said author to respond with a scathing remark. However, the story, though not exactly biographical, was indeed inspired by two historical persons of note within the Georgian period, therefore the characters are representative of the lives of the aristocracy in their time. Would author notes have helped in providing the reader with more in depth knowledge of the period in general?    

After all, the Georgian period was renowned for men who acquired mistresses at will resulting in hard-done-by wives, and of course, in many cases, a string of illegitimate offspring. One of the most notorious of the Georgian aristocrats was William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, whose wife, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire suffered the indignity of her husband’s mistress residing within the family abode along with the illegitimate fruit of his loins. It was her story, read long ago, that indeed inspired the writing of The Reluctant Duchess, though unlike Georgiana's heartbreaking story, the character Liliana has a happy ever after!  

Georgiana was young, beautiful and vibrant and as good as sold into marriage to William Cavendish, a man of good dress, outwardly brusque though charming in manner, and with a considered eye to the prospect and acquisition of future heirs. When married to Cavendish poor Georgiana soon realised his charm was a mask, his tongue cruel, his actions no less cruel. Of course Georgiana’s story is recounted within many biographies, and she did become a popular English socialite, style icon, political activist, and author:   "The Sylph" is attributed to Georgiana Cavendish.

So what are authors to do when readers have little or no knowledge of a historical period and cannot envisage events as they unfold, e.g. a character who flaunts his mistress before his wife, albeit essentially as a means unto a purposeful and happy ending! The simple answer is to include author notes to enlighten the less historically well-read, and I have no desire to belittle the reader, I just wish I had thought to include author’s notes at end of novel. 

Aside from the notorious Cavendish household; what of Prinny, the Prince Regent and his string of mistresses? What of Admiral Lord Nelson the great Georgian naval hero, and his mistress Emma Lady Hamilton, who was another fashion icon of her day and forever on view within numerous portraits. Go a little farther back in time to the Restoration of Charles II, for he and the Duke of Buckingham acquired a string of mistresses as did others of their ilk, and again the Duke of Buckingham’s wife suffered the indignity of more than one mistress residing under the marital roof.

One could blame Jane Austen for having given a false impression of Georgian society as that of a twee idealistic world in which gossip, humour, and social mores were far from blighted with immoral sins and indecent behaviour. But when all is said and done, Jane Austen was writing escapist fiction, escapism from the real-life aspect of her time: when poverty could be but one unpaid debt away, when sickness could mean death in days, when war was raging across the channel – The French Revolution, The Peninsular Wars, The Napoleonic era until 1815 when Napoleon was finally dispatched into exile on the island of St Helena situated in the South Atlantic Ocean.

As an aside, it is said by experts that all the portraits supposedly depicting Jane Austen are idealistic artists impressions derived from her biographer, James Edward Austen (1869), who commissioned a local artist James Andrews of Maidenhead to recreate Jane from a description of the lady herself.

In reality not only did Jane Austen write idealistic escapist fiction, images in her name are equally idealistic impressions of a young Jane Austen.