Historical Fidelity, A Reader’s View
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One of the aspects of writing my Kydd tales that I particularly enjoy is bringing real-life historical personages to life; some have quite large roles, others just cameo appearances. I feel that the writer of historical fiction has a duty not to betray the figures of the past either by distortion or exaggeration. It is important, too, not to impose modern-day judgement on the Georgian period, but to try to present those who strode its stage as they would have been seen then. This takes quite a deal of research, even for just a short appearance on the page, but it is very gratifying when readers let me know that they have enjoyed seeing them come to life in my books and feel they are transported back in time to an age where the people were in many ways very similar – yet in some ways so very different.
One such is Robert Fliss:
‘The “intelligent, manipulative, gifted, and controversial” Commodore Sir Home Riggs Popham has cut a dash in several of your novels, including BETRAYAL.
I went back to my reading log and noted that I made this comment after finishing BETRAYAL:
“In an afterword, Stockwin promises more of Popham … Historic naval fiction being what it is, it makes sense to pair one’s hero with an inveterate risk-taker for a commander.”
One of the great pleasures of the Kydd series is the way you handle cameos from historical characters. For example, I thought your depiction of William Carr Beresford in BETRAYAL was dead-on. Not a dashing combat leader but a solid professional with fine organisational skills.
Being a Yank, I also appreciated your portraits of the gruff but honest Thomas Truxtun in QUARTERDECK along with Robert Fulton in INVASION, suffering the frustration that inevitably goes along with genius.
But the best cameo of all may have been in VICTORY, when Kydd deduces that his promotion to command L’Aurore likely came through Nelson’s influence. Nelson was a great judge of talent, and though Kydd served under him only briefly, it seems in character that Nelson would be looking after him.
Rescuing the mercurial Commodore Popham from obscurity is a real tour-de-force. Ditto for Sidney Smith. I enjoyed the fact that Kydd gets to serve under these two senior officers whose undoubted professional competence was matched only by their propensity for rubbing some of their contemporaries the wrong way!
The surprise factor is essential in making historical cameos work. Along this line, I might mention Kydd’s brief encounter with Captain Charles Austen in INVASION.
But the best cameo of all may have been in VICTORY
A large share of the fun in historical fiction is matching your own knowledge against the author’s research. Certainly, standards of historical fidelity have risen, which I credit in large part to George Macdonald Fraser. Bernard Cornwell is a worthy successor.
But I can name two aspects of the Kydd novels that beat Fraser and Cornwell.
First, the series is being presented in a reader-friendly straight time line. It’s hard to build a character when you’re constantly jumping around in the chronology, not to mention the high likelihood of continuity glitches. Cornwell fans often comment that the three Sharpe novels set in India were like a new series. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but a straight timeline is a better way to hook the reader for good. I read all the Kydd novels in the correct order and wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Second, Tom Kydd is one of the more approachable, human-scaled heroes in current genre fiction. Flashman the dashing rogue and Sharpe the fighting machine are both in their own ways a little over the top, not that the novels are any the less entertaining for all that. Tom Kydd reminds me a little of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, a hero whose defining qualities are not superpowers or eccentricities but professional competence combined with basic decency.
Those are traits pretty much absent from current literary fiction, which values the perverse and psychotic above all. Non-heroes are acceptable, anti-heroes preferred. But there seems to be no place for the traditional virtues.’
I welcome other comments.
Lots more blog posts coming in 2014, including Reader of the Month, a special focus on each of the Kydd titles and a regular feature on the colourful language of the Georgians.
Happy New Year to you all!
Nelson: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; Truxtun: By Bass Otis (d. 1861) (Portrait of Thomas Truxtun) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Austen: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
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