Judith Cutler

Writing Historical Novels

Using Real People In Historical Novels

historical image

I've only ever used a living person by name as a functioning character in a novel once – the distinguished buildings archaeologist, George Demidowicz had a small but significant part in Dying in Discord. Since he’d helped me with the research that underpinned the book, I could do no less than ask him to choose a name for his fictional counterpart, and to my delight he suggested his own.

By coincidence, I’ve just read two quasi-historical novels featuring real people, one very much alive and named in full, the other recently dead and given a fictional name but a very real CV. Clearly the dead one couldn’t have given permission for her story to be hijacked, and I very much doubt if the living one did.

Night of Triumph by Peter Bradshaw, features a genuine historical event – VE Day, when the free world celebrated Hitler’s downfall. It is known that the then Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret were allowed to leave Buckingham Palace to mingle incognito with the joyous masses in London. What they did then I neither know nor particularly care, but I do strongly suspect that while they may both have joined a democratic conga neither became separated from their escorts and consequently became involved in two murders. They might have met Noel Coward during their travels but did they see Tom Driberg at his most lecherous? The book is arch and witty, a gentle satire. But, though I am no royalist, it troubles me that someone can simply invent incidents which cast a living person in a fairly poor light. It’s fine to write books disparage monarchs like Prinny or Victoria: they’re dead and their foibles make them fair game.

Does that mean I’m happy with Untold Story by Monica Ali? The premise here is that Princess Diana, a woman both dead and abounding with foibles, didn’t die in a Paris car crash but deliberately staged a swimming accident (why change the truth?) to escape her intolerable life with and probable death at the hands of the establishment. Ali calls her Diana-figure Lydia, but all the back story is Diana’s. Her future? Well, it’s pretty banal, set in the US and just as stifling, I’d have thought, as anything in the UK. Perhaps I’m being unfair to pick on a book which never sets out to be a historical novel, but is one of the curious ‘what if’ genre currently in vogue.

I was probably the only woman to visit London at the time of Diana’s death not carrying a bunch of flowers to leave at the massive shrine; I never worshipped at her altar when she was alive, so why start after her death? But I do find it really distasteful to kidnap her posthumously, as it were, and make her (albeit with a new name) a character in a novel. I wouldn’t like it even if the novel were a lot better than it is (it falls far short of what we have come to expect of Ali).

To revert to my opening paragraph: would I have used George’s name without his permission? After all, I’ve co-opted W G Grace into my fight against crime and may well go on to employ D H Lawrence (probably not) or Henry James (though I might not get to the end of his first paragraph). No, I don’t think I would; it’s his property, his identity, his essence. I might have thought back to another writer, who, let’s face it, took more liberties with history than either of the writers I’ve discussed: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”