Balancing Historical Figures and the Story

Recent posts have been about the best way to use history in historical fiction. The goal is to use as much history as possible without burying the story in unnecessary details or derailing the story with unnecessary asides. You want to have history support your story. You don’t want the story to become just travelogue in which the characters watch history parade by.

In previous blogs, I’ve given examples of writers who used history well (and sometimes didn’t), and I’ve given examples of fascinating history I chose not to use because it didn’t meet the criteria. Today, I want to give examples of history I did use, and why.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen involves the “missing years” of Austen’s late twenties. We know little of this period, for Austen’s family destroyed virtually all the documentation of it. But there have always been rumors of a lost love or tragic affair. Vague family references to this possible romance or that possible romance are confusing and smack of disinformation. It makes inquiring minds wonder whether her uptight Victorian relatives didn’t want the world to know about a particular romance. …

This time of her life was also appealing because Austen was no ingenue. By September 1802, she was nearly twenty-seven. In a phrase of the time, she had “lost her bloom,” and in her own phrase she was approaching the “danger years” for a single woman looking to marry.

What would have happened if she, as a mature woman, had married in those years to a man who would be seen as perhaps disreputable for her Victorian nieces and nephews? Regardless, I wanted to see how a strong, intelligent woman would handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, which was life for women in the 1800s.

Jane lived in Bath in 1802, so that became the setting. I wanted to honor the city and its social life by beginning the novel with a ball. I also gave a tip of the hat to the city’s legendary masters of ceremony by making oblique references to these two great social arbiters. The first was Mr. Beau Nash, who was the mediator of taste for decades in the generations before Austen. After Nash, Mr. James King was master of ceremonies of the Lower Rooms from 1785 to 1805 and the Upper Rooms after that. It was common for the MC to make introductions. In Northanger Abbey, the real Mr. King introduces the fictional Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney.

I wanted the entrance of the male protagonist, Mr. Ashton Dennis, a bright but uncouth young man, to cause a stir. I was delighted to find that Mr. Nash had once confronted another ill-dressed young man who wanted to attend one of “Nash’s” balls. I used Nash’s challenge to open the book, though my leading man fared better than the original.

In The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, Mr. Shanking is an amalgam of two MCs (his name, in particular). Physically, the character is based on a portrait of Nash as an older man (above, by headline). This fact led to a near-mistake of overdoing things in a small but meaningful way. In my desire to be historically correct, my detailed description of Mr. Shanking, a minor character we never see again, made him as prominent as the main character, Mr. Ashton Dennis. (Ashton physically resembles real-life Harris Bigg-Wither and sartorially resembles the real-life Tom Lefroy, both beaus of Austen.)

But I had to shrink Mr. Shanding into the background. Deleting one’s transcendent prose is like disinheriting one’s children. Nonetheless I whacked back the description of the MC until his existence was confined to “looking more French than English in his powdered wig and a florid velvet outfit.” It was a small but important victory for editing and context.

The novel being about Austen, I routinely slipped in a phrase here and there from one of her letters or novels (seldom one of her more memorable lines). In Chapter 1, Jane looks out on the dance floor and sees women “with the same broad face, bandeau, white shoes, pink husbands, and fat necks.” Jane used a similar phrase to describe a Mrs. Blount at a ball, Letters, 20-21 November, 1800.

The rest of the scene involves Ashton seeking to entice Jane into a dance, while her sister Cassandra, and Ashton’s sister, Alethea (the name taken from a Bigg-Wither sister), look on. When Jane refuses, Ashton heads out to dance with other eligible women.

I had read numerous articles on Georgian-Regency dances. I understood the kinds of dances, the general flow, the look of ballgowns, etc. Ditto with the description of the Upper Rooms. I could even point out the actual orchestra conductor, Mr. Rauzzini, who wore a tied-on wig. But I did not have enough information to feel comfortable with any detailed rendering of dance protocol. My early drafts “vagued up” the actual performance.

Susannah Fullerton’s book “A Dance with Jane Austen” provides the ordinary reader and a fiction writer with everything they might want to know about dance during Austen’s day.

Then I came upon a wonderful book by Regency expert Susannah Fullerton, A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and Her Characters Went to the Ball. This work had every detail that anyone would want about the specifics of ball-going in Austen’s day. It also corrected a couple of errors and misreadings on my part. (The book is also graced with beautiful artwork.)

The biggest “save” was to learn that, if a woman refused a man’s request to dance, she could not later accept an offer from someone else. This elevated the importance of Jane’s initial refusal, for she would rather sit than dance with someone she thought was using her respectability to provide him an entrée to younger women. It also brought an addition, in which Ashton withdraws his offer so that Jane has nothing to refuse: “ ‘Then I rescind my invitation. His movement was that of a conjurer making a coin disappear. ‘It is invisible. It never happened.’ ” His response shows that, however rough he might be, Ashton is not unkind. That, in fact, he wanted to dance only with Jane.

Getting things right proved a way to make points about both of their characters.

The final version of the text uses two or three other small but important bits from Fullerton’s book to add the kind of specificity that brings a scene to life. This includes the exact number of chandeliers in the Upper Rooms, five, and the loveliest detail of all, that women in their beautiful gowns had to be mindful of the chandeliers to avoid the dripping wax.

Because these touches are woven unassumingly into the fabric, they will not detract from the story for the ordinary reader who does not know or care about minutiae. At the same time, the bits add a spark or recognition, or perhaps a chuckle, for those readers who do know the history—in this case, the history of Bath, of dance, and of Jane’s suitors. Having all these elements in hand gives the writer the confidence to fully elaborate the story without worry of hedging or making a mistake that would undermine the fiction’s credibility.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

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