Alexander Mikhailovich Murav’ev (1802-1853) Lithograph. (1822) Piotr Feodorovich Sokolov (1791- 1848)
There can be problems when a writer tries to combine an engaging plot with historical truth. This can be particularly true when it comes to depicting characters who are ‘real’ people.
Historical novels vary widely in their historical accuracy, ranging from books that are openly counter factual and those with plots that are almost as fantastic as that of Game of Thrones, to those that, as far as possible, approximate to what ‘really’ happened.
I try to make my books both lifelike and as ‘truthful’ as possible. Sound research throws up a good deal of inspiration in itself and certainly repays the effort involved. Moreover, when describing real people, I feel it traduces them to invent too much about them. To do so seems insulting to their memory. A novel in which Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, and a pillar of protestant rectitude, is involved in a scene of gratuitous sadomasochism comes vividly to mind. I really do not want to go there, although I can see that the scene might be entertaining for some.
When I write about real characters, therefore, I try to find out as much as I can about them. It helps if they have written memoirs, since this really can bring them to life. But what the research reveals, and what they reveal about themselves, does sometimes get in the way of the story I had hoped to write.
For example, having read his memoirs, I wanted to include the real Decembrist Alexander Mikhailovich Murav’ev, pictured above, as the close friend of my fictional hero, Vasily. But my plot demanded that Vasily’s friend have a love interest, indeed a fiancé. When I read his biography on Russian Wikipedia, I learned that Murav’ev didn’t marry until well after his release from prison in Siberia, and I didn’t feel I could ignore this fact What to do? In the end I decided to merge Murav’ev’s story with that of his fellow officer in the Chevalier Guards, Count Ivan Annenkov, pictured below, who was much the same age. He was engaged to be married on the day of the uprising, and his fiancé, Pauline, travelled to be with him in exile.
This meant that I was obliged to write Vasily’s friend as a fictional character, Mikhail, but at least what happened to him, really did happen to someone! It could be said that Mikhail has the top half of Murav’ev and the bottom half of Annenkov.
Ivan Alexandrovich Annenkov (1802-1878) Lithograph (1823) Orest Kiprensky