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11 November 2008

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?

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16 Comments:

Blogger Evangeline said...

I love politics in historical novels. It's utterly fascinating and I love to write or read about the sort of men (and later, women) who capture people enough to convince them to vote for them. I have a particular fondness for Teddy Roosevelt (well...Alice that is). As for my current views influencing past historical events, it's a given, considering, for example, how much I admire and am continually astonished by the bravery shown by Republican politicians both black and white during the Reconstruction era of US history.

1:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Two politicians -- Fox and Tarleton -- make it into my historical fiction novel ALL FOR LOVE, told from Mary Robinson's POV. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire got Mary involved in Whig politics and Fox was briefly Mary's lover before he moved on to Bess Armistead. Banastre Tarleton was the great love of Mary's life, even though they had opposing political points of view. Mary sympathized with the abolitionist movement and even wrote haunting poetry that "humanized" the slave so that readers would be compelled to acknowledge that people -- not property -- were being horribly wronged.

Tarleton, on the other hand, came from a prominent political Liverpool family (his father was the mayor at one point in his life). Liverpool was a major slave port and the Tarleton family itself derived much of their personal fortune from the slave trade.

What must it have cost Mary emotionally to ghostwrite Ban's famous pro-slavery speeches? I wrestled with that as I wrote ALL FOR LOVE. The events are factually accurate and I tried to wrap my brain around the whys -- what lengths Mary went to, to keep Tarleton (who kept breaking up with her and then coming back to her numerous times over 15 years).

Would you violate your own conscience and beliefs to do something that would enrich or advance the love of your life?

I tried to relate to Mary's choice. As many actors do, we search for events in our own lives for a nugget of personal truth and try to mine as much ore from that as we can in order to portray a character. I had a lover at one time whose political views were the polar opposite of my own, and who continually belittled my left-wing opinions. Why did I stay with him for as long as I did? I blush to admit it was for the same reason Mary was desperate to hold onto Tarleton.

I grew up working for political candidates in NYC, and most specifically the Bronx. I used to go into the voting booth with my parents and I still get a thrill out of pulling that big red-tipped handle and flicking the levers on the same old machines my parents voted with over 40 years ago. (And people wonder why I find voting erotic?) And I usually shed tears on election night. At least last week they were happy ones.

5:14 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I love reading about politicians in both fiction and non-fiction. I remember being riveted by both The Buccaneers and The Pallisers on Masterpiece Theatre. As a died in the wool Democrat, I sobbed last week when Barack Obama won the election, along with several of my friends. We then proceeded to dance our butts off in celebration.

I find both American and British politics fascinating. Like Evangeline, I admire the Republican politicians, both black and white, who tried to make Reconstruction work before the great debacle of electing Hayes in the 1876 election.

I've written about several on Scandalous Women, including Charles James Fox and his relationship with Elizabeth Armistead. As well as Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President in the US. Two of my political heroes have been both Roosevelts (Teddy and FDR, I plan posts on Alice and FDR's mistress Lucy Rutherfurd). I would love to see Disraeli in more books. In fact Caro Peacock does just that in her new book. I've always found Charles Stewart Parnell interesting. When I wrote about Jennie Jerome Churchill, her husband Randolph's career as a politician figured prominently in her life as did her son Winston. I've also written about Christine Keeler and The Profumo Affair.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've got Disraeli in The Edge of Impropriety, Elizabeth, as the ambitious young literary dandy he was in 1829: he wrote silver fork novels about style and politics before he turned to practical politics as a vocation (though he continued to write novels later as well).

My heroine Marina Wyatt is impressed by his literary success, "for as a Jew, he’d experienced nothing of the Society he wrote about, concocting his fantastic tale of high life and political intrigue out of the vapors of his burning ambition." And Marina also takes tea with his mother, being pleased to "assure Mrs. Disraeli that her odd, brilliant boy was bound to make his way."

Actually, I've gotten reviews that take me to task for writing about politics -- though one assured her readers that she'd liked "the story" enough to ignore all that other stuff.

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Fabulous Pam. I just ordered the book through B&N. I can't wait to read it.

On one of my last trips to London, I took a tour of the oldest synagogue in the UK, which was the one that Disraeli's family attended until his dad got pissed off at them and took the children to the church across the street to be baptized.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Virginia Harris said...

We need to know more about what women have done, so we realize what women CAN do.

Now that the 2008 election and its historic high turnout is history, there is much greater appreciation for the privilege of voting.

But most people don't realize that out of 44 American presidents, only the last 15 were elected by men AND women.

Until 1920 women were denied the vote, and few people have any idea of the struggle our suffragettes had to go through to right this wrong. It's an amazing, awe-inspiring story!

Now you can subscribe FREE to my exciting historical e-mail series that reveals HOW the suffragettes won votes for women. Believe me, it wasn't easy!

"The Privilege of Voting" is drawing rave reviews from readers all over the world. Dramatic, sequential short-story episodes follow the lives of eight of the world's most famous women to tell the true stories of the courage of the suffragettes. Read this FREE e-mail series on your coffeebreaks and be inspired by these amazing women!

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7:52 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Evangeline, late 19th-early 20th century politics are fascinating. So much was changing. Reconstruction is such time, and there's also the women's suffrage movement.

Amanda, I used to go vote with my parents too (and talk through the ballot with them before the election). I find Mary writing Tarleton's speeches so fascinating. I have friends who are married to someone with different political views, but actually writing his speeches is another whole level. I don't think I could do that--or maybe I just want to believe I couldn't.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, how could I forget to mention the Pallisers in my post? Both the novels and the television series were a huge influence on me (I read/watched them when I was first starting to write). I love the way he creates a whole world and we get to see the political workings of the various characters, both men and women. (Even though women couldn't vote or hold office, there were so many who were actively involved in politics). Love all your other examples!

Pam, that's too bad about the reviews (I love the politics in your books). I'm excited to read about "Disraeli" in "The Edge of Impropriety." Did you see the Masterpiece Theatre series about him years ago? It began in the 1820s.

8:39 AM  
Anonymous Betsy D said...

Georgette Heyer did write a romance with a politician hero -- Bath Tangle.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Virginia, I remember talking to my grandmother about the first election she could vote in. Which wasn't the first election in which women could vote, even though she was over 21 at the time. They first extended the vote only to women over a certain age--30, I think, even though men could vote at 21.

And then, in the Regency, of course, most men couldn't vote either.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This terrific topic, Tracy, is not only close to my heart but tied in with something else quite wonderful. Which is that we now have a president-elect who's a damn good writer.

Dreams from my Father contains passages of real depth and sensitivity, not only about politics, but about men: Barack Obama writes about his father, brothers, and (to me most beautifully) his grandfather, their dreams and frustrations, in a way that all of us in this biz could learn from. Highly recommended.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Betsy, thanks so much for the reminder of "Bath Tangle"! Not only is Ivo a politician, Serena (the heroine)'s father was as well. In fact, I recall, part of the conflict is that Serena is very politically astute and really wants to be a political hostess, which one reason she's much better suitor to her former love, Ivo, than to the man she gets engaged to. A good example of the active role women played in political life, and that being a poltical hostess was a career in and of itself. Emily Cowper was an influential political hostess though her first husband was very politcally active; but she came from a politcal family and her brothers, William and George, and her lover, Palmerston, (or perhaps more accurately, one of her lovers :-), were politicians.

Pam, thanks for mentioning "Dreams from my Father." I haven't read it, but I have read things Barack Obama has written, and I totally agree he's a brilliantly articulate and sensitive writer.

Pam, thanks

11:17 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

Politician hero--what an oxymoron.

4:43 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think that has a lot to do with why there aren't more of them in books, Linda :-). (One of my writer friends can't understand why I write about politicians so often). But to me, politician characters offer so many interesting issues to explore. And I find plenty of historical and modern examples with heroic qualities (as well plenty of examples of less heroic qualities).

8:28 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It's funny Tracy. I just tried to convince one of my best friends, who looks like a romance hero, to stand for Parliament back in England.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sounds like the start of a book, Elizabeth! We're you able to convince him?

11:05 AM  

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