Politicians as heroes
I spent most of the night of November 4th in front of the television, in tears much of the time, savoring the moment, wishing my parents were still alive to see it. Politics has been a fascination in my family for as long as I can remember. I think the first "historical event" in my memory is the Nixon/McGovern election in 1972. My father was at an election night party. My mother, home with me, turned on the news and said “let’s see how bad it is” and there was President Nixon saying something along the lines of “as a man looking ahead to four more years in office.” Which in retrospect, has the ring of irony. (I have memories in subsequent years of waking up in the morning to the sound of my parents listening to the Watergate hearings). In 1976, my mom let me stay up until the networks called Pennsylvania for Carter. The next morning, the first question I asked her when I woke up was “Did Carter win?” In 1984, I called my dad from college, depressed and a bit lonely (growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d never spent an election night surrounded by so many people who had voted differently from the way I had; an eye-opening and valuable experience). In 1992 my parents and I drank champagne while we watched the returns. In 2000, my friend jim and I kept checking the electoral map online as Florida changed from blue to red to uncertain.
Growing up in this environment, it’s perhaps not surprising that I frequently write about politicians. In fact, I sometimes think my fascination with writing about liberal Whigs in the Tory-dominated Regency and 1820s comes from being a liberal who came of age in the Reagan era and saw a lot of my parents’ dreams dashed. Charles Fraser, in m Charles & Mélanie books, is , of course, is one of those liberal Whigs (they were called Radicals), a Member of Parliament, as are his friendsDavid Mallinson and Oliver Lydgate. There aren’t many battles Charles, David, and Oliver are likely to win in Parliament c. 1820. On the other hand, I comfort myself that they’re young enough to be in their prime in 1832 when the Reform Bill is passed. Thinking back over my earlier books (including those I co-wrote with my mom), I realize I’ve written four heroes with active political careers. Of the others, three were diplomats (two of whom developed active parliamentary careers), one was a novelist and one a playwright (both with strong political views), one was a journalist, and one a soldier/spy who became a journalist. So in all cases, politics were there in one way or another.
Yet trying to think of other literary examples, I come up rather short. Which I think is too bad, because it’s a profession that offers such wonderful opportunities for characters who range from idealistic to conniving, visionary to myopic, generous to greedy–and very often all of them wrapped up together in fascinating shades of gray. Georgette Heyer’s titled heroes would sit in the House of Lords, but I don’t think any of them is actively involved in politics (in Frederica, Alverstoke’s secretary, Charles Trevor, regrets that his employer doesn’t take a more active role in politics). Robert Goddard has a wonderful early 20th century M.P. in his novel Past Caring, who falls in love with a suffragette and endangers his career (I picked bought that book on the strength of the premise and was not disappointed; Goddard became one of my favorite writers). Two of my favorite literary politicians are Robert Chiltern in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, a fascinating look at ambition, ideals, and human frailty. And Guy Thwaite in Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, who finds himself caught between his ambitions, honor, and the love of his life.
The Regency era offers a wonderful array of real-life politicians, many of whom have made appearances in my books, and who offer rich literary inspiration. A few notes about just a few of them:
Charles James Fox, the leader of the liberal wing of the Whig party, a brilliant orator who spent much of his life out of office and died while trying to achieve peace with France.
Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary for many years, a man of keen intellect if narrow vision, with whom Charles clashes in my books over his view that the way to peace and stability is to preserve the status quo at home and abroad. Tragically, Castlereagh suffered a breakdown and committed suicide in the 1820s.
George Canning, a long-time rival of Castlereagh’s, also a Tory but with more moderate views (his support for Catholic Emancipation was a source of strain between him and the Tory establishment). Castlereagh’s and Canning’s disagreements led them to actually fight a duel at one point, when Canning was Foreign Secretary and Castlereagh was Secretary of State for War. Canning (a hero of many of the younger, more moderate Tories) eventually became Prime Minister in the 1820s, though his health failed and he died in office.
William Lamb, whose career in the Regency era seemed hampered by his unstable wife, Lady Caroline, but who would go on to become Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister.
Lord Palmerston, like Canning a Tory of the more moderate variety, who carried on a long-term love affair across party lines with William Lamb’s sister, Emily Cowper. Like many moderate Tories, he eventually joined the Liberal Party. He also married Emily after her husband’s death. Eventually he too became Prime Minister in the Victorian era. Palmerston appears in several of my books, particularly Dark Angel.
Henry Brougham, also a brilliant orator, called an opportunist by many but also a man of passionate beliefs. He defended Queen Caroline when George IV tried to divorce her before the House of Lords in 1820 (the centerpiece my mom’s and my Frivolous Pretence). He was one of Harriette Wilson’s lovers and she ultimately blackmailed him over her memoirs. He also ran off to the Continent with Caroline Lamb, not William Lamb’s wife but the wife of William’s younger brother George, also a politician as well as a playwright (George’s Caroline, Caroline St. Jules, was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and his mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster). Emily Cowper had to to after Brougham and “Caro George” and bring her home (Palmerston followed her to the Continent). Brougham appears in several scenes in my book Rightfully His as a friend and confidant of the politician hero, Frank. They have a number of talks about political ideals and political expediency.Do you like politics and politicians in historical novels? Any favorite examples to suggest? Any favorite real life historical politicians you’ve read novels about or would like to see in novels? Writers, have you written about politicians? Do you find your present day political views and experiences influence the political issues and events you're drawn to in writing about the past? Any election day stories to share, from this year or years past?