The power of historical fiction for bad and for good can be immense in shaping consciousness of the past.
When THE WOLF AND THE LAMB, First Book in the Berkeley Series, was a work in progress, it was described as a biographical novel, a recognised genre. Several months after publication, the tag was changed to 'novelised biography'. This doesn't fit any ready-made heading, but more accurately describes the process. It seems to spark greater curiosity and arouse a more focused interest. Who? When? Where? How? Why?
Why not write a biography? It might have been easier! An historical novelist, whilst using imagination to reconstruct events and decide what hinges upon what, shouldn’t meddle with a timeline and should never discuss or overtly suggest. Fiction, however, is free to present itself as a considered view, even a fairly objective view, yet one calculated to engage with and carry its theme to a satisfying resolution. A distinct chronology is demanded because the story is about real people and it deserves to be as faithful as can be understood. For the writer, this presents a significant challenge because fiction must conform to its own principles and laws of architecture. The problem exercised me for a long time, until one day, out walking my dog, it struck me that the story had to be in three volumes if it were to be told whole!
The novel form was truly seductive because this woman's experience begged to live in literary 3-D. It needed to be a product of the social, cultural, economic, religious and political conflict of the times. The late Georgian era was one of dynamic change to landscape and livelihood and the beginning of a revolution that is ongoing. Then there was Bonaparte, the Corsican Monster, on the doorstep. I wanted to make a psychological journey into Mary Cole's life and try to discover how it was for her, how she forced the locks of the oubliette that was her universe, whilst striving to cling to the brand of reputation lost to her ambitious sisters. There is no doubt that she identified with many of Mary Wollstonecraft's beliefs, but never resorted to assertive feminism. It would have been unbecoming. And, I dare say, she would have had to do battle with her pride and would have considered it a weakness. ‘Show, don’t tell’ was a maxim that could definitely be applied to her.
Think how it must have been for her, abducted, cut off from family and life in the bustling port of Gloucester, to be hidden in a series of properties in London and then spirited away to a dour medieval pile for the next twelve years, where Edward II had been murdered. She dealt with mystified servants who turned mutinous at the wifely 'status' accorded her when the Berkeley ménage was clearly irregular. In London, the devastating truth had dawned upon her that the secret nuptials she had gone through in Berkeley church, conducted by a corrupt cleric, had no legal basis! (The couple's bid to legitimate their eldest son and repair his prospects, which landed Mary in a House of Lord's trial as a widow, is a saga in itself.) Lord Berkeley had forbidden her to consort with her relatives and no lady of social standing would come calling except for a compassionate sister of Dr Jenner's. Often, Mary dined with his lordship's male friends and proved an intelligent hostess who conducted herself with propriety, but there was only one inference to be drawn from a lone woman in the company of gentlemen.
By this time, there were two children to consider and another on the way. Mary decided to take fate into her own hands! She was skilful at housekeeping and husbandry. She not only made improvements to the castle’s routines with all despatch and the way Lord Berkeley’s life was ordered, but to the lives of many of his disaffected tenants. He was neglectful of his responsibilities, fickle, a chancer and a dilettante, more than twice her age, not uncongenial, and content with his new-found domestic life, but firm in his long-held resolve not to marry. As it turned out, some of his reasoning proved sound. Mary knew little of the lives of her siblings. She had no idea of the size of her middle sister’s depravity who played fast and loose with the law. Susan was bent on fostering her interests any which way she could, meanwhile taking great delight in playing the aristocracy at their own game.
Mary was safe for as long as it lasted. She worried incessantly about what would happen to her and the children if her captor turned them out. She did not trust his Lordship's disposition to remain a bachelor, or even to provide for her if the novelty waned. Her position fretted at her conscience and her self-esteem. What if Berkeley should decide to marry an heiress in order to provide for the succession, as seemed likely at one point? This was only natural. His was a family of great consequence in the life of the nation.
The second reason for choosing to write fiction is bound up with the first. It’s because I can tell you what appears to be true, but it may not convey the truth about how astonishingly brave, humble yet tenacious Mary Cole was. Yes, mine is a personal reconstruction and it's possible there are places I've joined up the dots wrongly. But from ranging wide and delving deep into research documents, trawling through thousands and thousands of records, checking and cross-referencing, this is at least the basis on which I believe the events played out. What has fascinated me most about researching Mary Cole’s life is the uncanny and illuminating way that many of the characters on the fringes of the story come to the fore again and again in other scenarios, often in the same groups. This has served to highlight a mechanism of personal vested interests impacting the course of events.
As a young writer, I rifled through less well-known figures of history in a bid to find a subject that snagged attention but hadn't been addressed. On an arts course based in Bath, a visit to Berkeley Castle brought the quest to an end. There, in the drawing-room, flanking one side of the fireplace wall, was the Hoppner painting above. (It now has pride of place above the mantelpiece.) It brought a tingle to the nape. I knew that woman. In spite of her Jane Austen gown, Mary Cole struck me as modern, a woman whose strength of character shone through her beauty. There is in her a wistfulness, a touch of injury and a resolve not to be defeated by circumstance. She had plenty of confidence, instilled by a mother who saw status as an accident of birth, and a father who strove to provide an education for his daughters, albeit modest, in a local academy. She also possessed quick intelligence and a grasp of how the world worked.
The three sisters were all women of destiny.
Ann and Susan eventually married to material advantage, emigrating to the New World where they daily performed their roles among prosperous merchant bankers and the founders of the American Constitution. Mary, the youngest, was demure, and from the moment the feckless Lord Berkeley spotted her sitting in a bow window in Gloucester with her needlework, he hounded her from every hiding-place, eventually resorting to a convoluted plot, in league with her sister, Susan, to kidnap her.
George, Prince of Wales, later Regent and George IV
As one half of a couple, and as a widow, she consorted with royalty and the movers and shakers of the day. Her life was intricately meshed with theirs, so that it is impossible to tell her story merely against an historical background. Some of these figures were antagonistic towards her, but there were others who genuinely loved her.
Her story has been with me for forty years (although not the writing!) I do hope readers enjoy it, but whatever they make of it, this is my magnum opus. In Book Three, there are more sparkling dots to join up which cast a trenchant light upon the earlier decades and present a whole new tier of consequences. One thing is certain, old enemies die hard and scandal has a life of its own!
It’s been a fascinating journey which has enriched my life beyond telling.