History in Fact and Fiction at SW11 Literary Festival

30th Sep 2011


As part of this year’s SW11 Literary Festival, last Monday I headed down to Waterstones at Clapham Junction for a panel discussion with writers Tracy Borman and Fiona Mountain.

Hosted by former The Lady editor Paul Blezard, the History in Fact and Fiction session saw a writer of popular historical fiction (Mountain) paired with a historical researcher (Borman) to discuss their latest works and the role of history in popular writing today, from a particularly female perspective.

Tracy Borman has previously written a biography of Henrietta Howard, mistress of King George II, and told the story of Queen Elizabeth II from the angle of the women in the Virgin Queen’s life.

Now she has gone further back in time to perhaps the most famous date in British history, 1066, to write about Matilda of Flanders, the first woman to be crowned queen of England.

From the outset of deciding to write about the most recognisable of dates from a female perspective, Borman was warned by fellow historians that she was “on a hiding to nothing”- very few contemporary records of Matilda, or indeed any women, still exist.

Accounts of her life written since, predominantly by male historians, have typically overlooked Matilda’s role as a powerhouse of government and chosen to portray her in a more passive, supportive role, more in keeping with the traditional mould of a royal consort.

During her research, Borman discovered that, in spite of her noble birth, Matilda was headstrong and wilful from an early age, to the extent that she flew in the face of the protocol of the day to propose marriage to the man she loved at the age of seventeen.

Britric humiliated her by rejecting her proposal but Matilda would later stay true to her passionate nature and subject him to a terrible revenge…

Blezard enquired about the veracity of the famously violent courtship of Matilda by William the Conqueror. The story goes that Matilda, not keen to be married to someone known popularly as ‘the Bastard’, rejected William’s proposal.

On hearing this, William rode straight to Matilda’s home and caught her on her way to church. He then dragged her into the mud and proceeded to beat her to within an inch of her life. This tack seemed to work as Matilda then accepted William and had a long, and apparently happy, marriage with him.

Borman admitted that the story was very unlikely true in its popular form, that it can occasionally be difficult as a historian to look past the stories that one ‘wants’ to be true to find the grain of truth at the centre of the story.

Fiona Mountain chronicles another significant courtship in her new book Cavalier Queen, a fictionalised account of the life of Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I.

Mountain chose Henrietta as a subject since she felt that the Civil War had been under-explored in fiction (her last novel, Lady of the Butterflies, concerning the life of Eleanor Glanville, was set in the same period) and, like Borman, wanted to explore the events from a female point of view.

In addition, Mountain enjoys writing about characters considered ‘a footnote in history’ and discovered butler Henry German who fit the bill perfectly.

German formed a close bond with Henrietta, initially through his ability to speak French with the young queen, but later became so loyal to her that he was given an area of East London to re-invent and there were even rumours of a secret marriage between the pair.

Unlike Borman, Mountain has the luxury of ‘filling in the gaps’ not covered by historical accounts and has seized upon the notion of courtly love, introduced to the English court by Henrietta, to add a romantic aspect to the historical tale.

As much license as Mountain has to embellish the truth, she is nevertheless restricted by the actual timeline and much of her research involves finding the gaps in the narrative where the story can live.

While she comes under perhaps greater scrutiny than historians as to her accuracy, she feels that an emotional connection is essential to understand a figure and hence immerse oneself in their story.

Borman agrees; sympathy for a figure is necessary for making their story readable, she says, and found that she developed a friendship with Matilda over the course of her biography.

And while her research into Elizabeth I put her further in awe, even fear of the monarch, this still added a human element to the book that made it compelling.

The lines between fact and fiction are more stringently drawn by the publishers than perhaps they are by their readerships – Mountain laments that she is unable to use actual portraits of her historical figures on the covers of her books, having instead to use tagged photographs of models in period dress.

In spite of this, she also feels that a lack of period images allows reader and writer alike to develop a personality for a character; she found in writing Charles that her impression of him was so wrapped up in images that he was difficult to portray as a fully-rounded character.

But in this age of information as entertainment – think QI or Horrible Histories– both writers acknowledge the danger of creating new myths and hope that their writing inspires a love of the pursuit of knowledge rather than encouraging readers to accept everything they read.

Historical writing, both factual and fictional, is more popular than it has ever been. This year’s Royal Wedding provoked an interest in historical royalty, to the exclusion of other subjects; Borman was told that her proposed book about another Matilda, the Empress otherwise known as Maude, was less marketable than the wife of William the Conqueror.

It remains to be seen how her next book, about the witch trials in Lincoln, will be received by publishers. Mountain meanwhile is looking to capitalise on the filmic quality of her work and the trend for historical adaptations, and is courting Eva Green to portray Henrietta.

Intrigued? Cavalier Queen by Fiona Mountain is available in paperback for £8.39 or for Kindle for £7.97, while Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror by Tracy Borman is available in hardback for £10.60 or for £9.54 for Kindle.

Lucinda Chell

(Image via photobunny)