Would you like to dine with Nancy Astor at her fabulous Thames-side estate, Cliveden, and spend a country house weekend at Lord Beaverbrook’s Cherkley Court, along with Rudyard Kipling? My characters do. They also rub shoulders with multimillionaire Alfred Vanderbilt aboard the doomed Lusitania, know Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, meet Britain’s (and Canada’s) top WW1 Ace, Billy Bishop, in an officer’s mess in France, and attend the moving funeral of poet-doctor John McCrae.
Fictional Chas Thornton attends Magdalen College, Oxford, at the same time as the Prince of Wales, so it’s only natural that affable and debonair Chas knows “David”. Plucky, audacious Victoria Wyndham, who drives an ambulance during the war, encounters the Prince in France during his stint with the Grenadier Guards, just as a real ambulance driver with the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) did.
Having fictional characters interact with real people bestows a greater sense of reality to my historical novels. Of course it means that I do lots of extra research to ensure that I’m doing justice to the real people, and that any words I put into their mouths are plausible and in character. When Max Beaverbrook says to ambitious but fictional Jack Wyndham, “A cleaning lady at Whitehall once berated me for not being a gentleman, because true gentlemen never show their faces before 11:00 AM. It’s preposterous! You can’t run a country, and certainly not a business or a war, with that sort of lackadaisical attitude…” I was paraphrasing what Beaverbrook himself had said and thought, according to one of the several biographies I read about him.
Memoirs are particularly rich mines for historical research, not only providing detailed, first-hand descriptions, but also conveying the mindset of the person and the era. Lady Diana Manners’ autobiography, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, allowed me to create, among others, this exchange between fictional Lady Sidonie (Sid) Dunston and her brother Quentin:
Sid lamented, “I loathe this war. What is the point of saving England or democracy or anything else if one’s family and friends aren’t here to share it? Thank God you’re safely in London, Quentin.”
“I might be knocked down by a crazy cab driver on my way home,” Quentin pointed out.
“Then I suggest you not stagger along the streets after a debauched night at the Cavendish,” Sid retorted.
Quentin guffawed as he reddened. “Whatever are you on about, Sid?”
“You should know that you can’t keep anything secret in London. Mrs. Lewis is renowned for her entertainments. Or as Diana Manners calls them – orgies.”
Chas suppressed a grin at his friend’s embarrassment. He had heard about the Cavendish Hotel where the ebullient, large-hearted Cockney proprietress, Rosa Lewis, a favourite of Edward VII, was famous not only for her cooking, but also for providing approved gentlemen with a ‘nice clean tart’.
Rosa Lewis was immortalized in the TV series, "The Duchess of Duke Street".
As a writer, I find it great fun to interact with real people, many of them pre-eminent in their day.