Nonhistorical and Historical Characters: Should They Mingle?

Finished reading Katherine Howard, a 1969 novel by Jessica Smith, yesterday. Like the other historical novels I’ve read about this foolish but intriguing young queen, it was somewhat disappointing, though I admittedly didn’t have huge hopes for it. Though the author often commented that Katherine was a featherhead, she didn’t come up with any motivation for what even a featherhead must have been able to realize was self-destructive behavior.

Toward the end of the novel, a minor, entirely fictional character, Clarissa, who is one of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting, plays a prominent part in the novel. She’s allowed to see Culpepper and Derham in their cells (rather improbably, since both men have recently been tortured); she arranges for Katherine to talk with both her grandmother and Lady Rochford before she dies; and she tries to intercede with Henry VIII on Katherine’s behalf. For some reason, Henry VIII takes a shine to her (not that sort of shine, fortunately) and following Katherine’s execution, he awards a soldier who has been taking Clarissa on her rounds a pension, on the condition that he marry Clarissa. Thus, the novel ends on a comparatively happy note.

Which brings me to my point (about time, you might say). On Carla Nayland’s blog, Alianor and Carla each expressed doubts about purely fictional characters who play major roles in novels that also feature historical characters. I myself can tolerate someone like Clarissa, who interacts with historical characters but doesn’t have an effect on their actions (though I think the novel would have been stronger without her). As my fellow bloggers noted, they can be a useful plot device.

Some such characters, however, come close to crossing the line into actively influencing the historical ones. In Sharon Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept and Time and Chance, the Empress Maude has a fictional out-of-wedlock brother, Ranulf, who stays loyal to Maude throughout and who just about everyone holds in the highest esteem. Henry II, Ranulf’s nephew, also has a high opinion of Ranulf, and the two are close until Ranulf fails to talk Henry out of blinding a group of Welsh hostages. Ranulf, who has a wife in Wales who also happens to be blind, then angrily leaves England, but the two men are reconciled toward the end of the novel.

Penman always provides the reader with an author’s note, and in both books I’ve been discussing, she duly acknowledges Ranulf’s purely fictional nature and the fact that at one point she gives him credit for the military exploits of another man. So if the reader is left with the impression that Ranulf was a living, breathing historical figure, that’s the reader’s fault and not Penman’s. These two are books that I like a great deal, as a matter of fact. Still, I found the scene where Ranulf tries to persuade Henry not to blind the hostages, and the following scene where Henry broods over the conversation with Ranulf, a little off-putting. One could argue that Henry would have been brooding over his decision anyway, even without Ranulf’s pricking his conscience, and Penman carefully avoids suggesting that the only reason Henry is brooding is because of Ranulf’s objections. But the fact remains I would have preferred that one of the historical characters did the objecting or that Henry’s conscience got pricked without the assistance of Ranulf.

So, dear blog readers, what do you think?

4 thoughts on “Nonhistorical and Historical Characters: Should They Mingle?”

  1. I haven’t read the Katherine Howard novel, but I don’t think I’d object to Clarissa, either – I don’t mind fictitious characters who mainly exist for the protagonist to confide in, so we can see what she’s thinking. To me, this plot device works better than lots of internal monologue. However, the character of Hannah in Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Queen’s Fool’ crosses the line of what I personally find ‘acceptable’, for want of a better word, and I’m not too thrilled at the thought of Penman’s Ranulf, either.

  2. Interesting question. I’ve been pondering it. I think my conclusion is that I’m happy with fictional characters where they fill in gaps. So for example if we know that a historical personage had, or would have had, a secretary or bodyguard or squire or maid or lover, it’s fair game for the historical novelist to invent such a character and have them do things consistent with the role. (Some periods require a lot of this sort of invention; take my period of 7th-century Britain, where if I’m lucky I might have the name of the king, some of his sons or brothers, some bishops and other churchmen and maybe, just maybe, the queen. I have to make everyone else up). Or if an event is recorded but it’s not known who did it, I don’t mind a fictional character filling the gap. E.g., somebody killed Tippoo Sultan in the fall of Seringapatam but it’s not known who, so I have no objection to Bernard Cornwell attributing it to his fictional Richard Sharpe. Taking your example, if it’s known that Henry had pangs of conscience over the blinding and it’s not known why, I don’t think I mind it being via Ranulf. I was less happy with Ranulf’s role as Maude’s ever-loyal supporter, though, because I rather felt that that might have shifted the pattern of events. Does this make sense?

  3. I don’t understand, though, why Ranulf had to be created; didn’t Henry I have like a zillion illegitimate children? Why not just pick one of them to do the role? But, thinking about it, it really doesn’t solve anything, since I doubt we know anything about most of his bastards. You’d have to fictionalize them in the end, anyway. Never mind!

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