We are delighted to welcome the author, Simon Edge, journalist, critic and novelist, to our blog to tell us more about the challenges he face when writing his latest novel, due to be released in a few days time, A Right Royal Face Off: A Georgian Entertainment featuring Thomas Gainsborough and Another Painter. So, with that, we’ll hand you over to Simon:
My first novel was based on the life of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The historical parts were set in the 1870s and 1880s and it did not require a huge effort to think myself into his era. Surrounded as we are by Victoriana – in our culture, our civic infrastructure and the clutter of antique fairs or auction rooms – it’s easy to have an instinctive feel for how the Victorians ate, got around, furnished their homes and so on.
When I came to write a comic novel about Thomas Gainsborough and his rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds for the affections of the Royal Family, I found myself on less sure ground.
The historical events of A Right Royal Face-Off take place between 1777 and 1785, a century earlier than my previous period. Did I have any clear idea what forms of technology were new at that time, and what was about to be invented?
Was I confident of what well-to-do Londoners had for their dinner, or what time of day they ate it? Could I picture a Georgian hackney carriage, or a Georgian newspaper? No, no and no again.
These things are far from unknowable, of course. The works of Fielding, Swift, Sterne or Thackeray offer plentiful insights, and I wince as much as any other visitor to All Things Georgian at the anachronisms in a bad film adaptation of Jane Austen.
However, I didn’t have any instinctive sense of the difference between the 1770s and, say, the 1720s or the 1820s, so there was a high risk of howlers. Most readers don’t have that sense either, but if it’s worth doing historical fiction, it’s worth getting it right.
I live very close to Gainsborough’s House, the painter’s birthplace museum in Suffolk, so I could examine his painting table, the kind of paintbox he might have used, the sort of mannequin he would have employed for human figures in his early paintings (painfully apparent in portraits such as ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’), and so on.
However, I needed basic guidance on ordinary living – the kind of stuff that novelists needs to get our characters out of bed in the morning and to take them through the day.
The trick, especially when you have a deadline, is to find a good guide who can help you cut corners, and mine was Fanny Burney. Her novel Evelina, about a country innocent introduced to London ways, was published in 1778 – spot on for my needs. Joy of joys, my edition came with detailed footnotes explaining hairdressing fashions, the dates of the London season and the difference between a sedan chair, a hackney-coach and a chariot.
Another boon was A Country Parson, the diary kept by the Norfolk vicar James Woodforde between 1759 and 1802. First published in the 1920s, its attraction for generations of readers is its homely detail, with meticulous records of meals taken, conversations with servants, journeys made, and so on. Woodforde lived a rural life, but he came from a similar class to Gainsborough and I found him invaluable every time I needed to give my characters a good feed. For example, when Gainsborough’s journalist friend Henry Bate-Dudley drops in for lunch, I provide him with a lobster, some mackerel, veal cutlets, a mutton leg with caper sauce, and a pig’s face, followed by a pineapple, oranges, a melon, damson tarts and a syllabub. If that gives you indigestion just thinking about it, take it up with Parson Woodforde.
A major issue for anyone writing historical fiction is language, particularly if the narrative is in the first person. You need to avoid anachronism – no shots in the arm or rollercoaster journeys, for example. That may sound obvious, but these things have a way of sneaking in. I once made myself unpopular with a writer friend by objecting to his description of buddleia (named after the 17th-century Reverend Buddle) in a novel about Roman Britain. Nobody loves a smartarse, but that doesn’t mean I was wrong.
Making characters sound authentic to their period isn’t just about avoiding modern slang – you need phrases of the time, too. I plunged into Fielding’s Tom Jones and made lists of idiomatic expressions: ‘he gave loose to mirth’, ‘she opined’ or ‘you are of the vulgar stamp’.
It took me back to my A-levels, trying to shoe-horn a list of idioms into French and German essays, and there is clearly a danger of trying too hard. Perhaps the best you can hope is that you fall into the right kind of linguistic groove. Total authenticity is not the aim.
One well-known literary novel from the 1980s, based on a brilliant idea, is virtually unreadable because it’s written in pedantically accurate 17th-century English. Better to suggest your period and not become inaccessible. A bestselling historical novelist friend insists this is all about word order: rearranging a sentence very slightly can create an impression of unfamiliarity, without forcing the reader out of their linguistic comfort zone.
I also found profanity very useful. We know from Gainsborough’s letters that he was a fantastically sweary person, so in my version he constantly calls the servants addlepates, whoresons and coxcombs. No doubt some of those expressions are ruder than others, just as we have our acceptable swear-words and our beyond-the-pale ones nowadays, but I used them interchangeably. It’s a comic novel, not a doctoral thesis on 18th century idiom.
I hope it entertains people, because that is the primary intention, but I’ll also be delighted if readers feel at home in my version of Georgian England. My bestselling historical novelist friend told me that my 18th century world was “lightly but effectively drawn”. I took that as the highest compliment.