The other evening my husband went out cycling. Yes, it’s November. Yes it was dark. But he and his friends do this weekly after work whenever they can. At nine-thirty, it started to pour with rain as forecast. At ten p.m., just as he returned, the whole town had a power cut.
I heard with relief (since he’s the only one of the cycling group who hasn’t broken a bone on one of these jaunts) the screech of our garage door and went to look out for him, shining my phone torch into the rainy darkness.
My drenched husband said it was like being guided into the house by Florence Nightingale.
My nursing skills boil down to ‘here’s a kiss and an aspirin and/or a plaster and/or a blanket and/or soup and I’m sure you’re fine really’, so this was the first time I’ve been likened to any medical professional let alone a nursing heroine, and got me thinking.
Did Florence Nightingale really did carry a lamp? Or was this a myth long since debunked along with Napoleon being short and Marie Antoinette saying ‘Let them eat cake’? (He wasn’t and she didn’t, and for other historical myths click here.)
At a talk a while ago I was asked if I was ever tempted to write a novel based on a real character. So far my answer is no.
The first reason why I haven’t is that doing so is complex and can be controversial.
With real historical people a novel can only capture the elements of their life that the author wants to focus on, and since real lives don’t follow a story arc, or narrative pattern, real events might have to be moved about or omitted. Then readers complain about inaccuracy or bias.
Going back to Florence, yes she did have a lamp, but surely the nurses working for her in that Crimean hospital carried them too? Yet the image of the Lady with the Lamp popularised by the Times, and Longfellow’s poem ‘Santa Filomena’ turned Florence Nightingale into a celebrity. In the 1970s, I was taught that she was the only pioneering nurse in the Crimean War. But in the 2010s, my children were taught about Jamaican born Mary Seacole who was also there nursing injured soldiers, but without government support or newspaper fame presumably because of views on her race (which may have been a factor in my not learning about her sooner too).
And while Florence radically transformed nursing and reformed the running of hospitals, she was also a firm believer in the right of British Empire colonisers to interfere with the culture of the native people, because Western beliefs and customs were superior and ‘correct’.
Anyone novelising her life would have to include this. Yet there would still be those readers who’d say the focus of a novel should only be on the positive, and anything negative should be brushed under the carpet on the grounds that Florence ‘was a product of her generation’. She was, of course, but there were people of her own race/nationality in the same generation who thought it was wrong, and the native peoples suffering were also of her generation. Do they not deserve a voice? Whatever interpretation you put on it, leaving negative things out surely means the fictionalisation doesn’t reflect the real person at all.
My second reason is that I like to use my imagination.
All my historical books are set in a real historical setting. The Margaret Demeray series also includes or refers to real events and people. ‘Death In The Last Reel’ includes the Siege of Sidney Street and Winston Churchill (film footage here); ‘The Treacherous Dead’ refers back to the Boer War, Emily Hobhouse and ‘Breaker’ Morant. The forthcoming ‘Dying To be Heard’ has my (fictional) characters witnessing the real actions of militant suffragette Emily Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby (film footage here)
But I like to dig about in the British Newspaper Archives for less well-known things to provide a flavour of the times, because the third reason I prefer to create fictional characters is that I want to imagine ordinary people like my ancestors and perhaps yours, put them in extraordinary situations and see what happens next.
The rich and famous have plenty of books and films written about them. Let’s see what an ordinary person might do.
In 1913, the newspapers headlines were mostly about suffragette militancy and the Balkan crisis. But there was frivolous celebrity news including the Royal Wedding of a German princess – the last time European monarchs met in peace, and before many monarchies disappeared forever. (Not that anyone knew that then.) I also found reference to a moving picture ‘comedy’ about hot-headed suffragettes in which one (played by an actor in drag) was ‘hilariously’ force-fed champagne; a German dentist in Portsmouth who turned out to be a spy (both getting a brief mention in ‘Dying To Be Heard’into the book); and something I’m keeping back for book five.
I discovered advertisements for a folding baby car (pushchair/stroller) priced five shillings and a vacuum cleaner priced forty-two shillings. (In context, a housemaid might earn twenty shillings per week.)
This is what gets my imagination going. Were ordinary people worried about suffragette attacks? Or irritated? Did they lap up the celebrity news and discuss what the rich ladies wore to the wedding?
The German dentist spy was captured in a sting operation and sentenced to five years’ hard labour. But what happened to him when World War One broke out? And what happened to the man who informed on him (who was also German but loyal to Britain)?
What does a maid wielding a vacuum cleaner that’s worth two to four weeks of her wages think of something that might put her out of a job?
How does a woman in the medical profession who desperately wants the vote feel about a suffragette bombing campaign that might kill someone?
And finally – what happened to the person who thought a vacuum cleaner was a perfect Christmas gift in 1912? I know what would happen to anyone who gave me one now…
Words copyright (c) 2023 Paula Harmon. Not to be used without the author’s specific consent. Advert for baby car from Daily Citizen (Manchester) 26th April 1913 and advert for vacuum cleaner from Illustrated London News 30th November 1912.