Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Michelle Styles: The Joy of Historical Outliers

Outliers, people out of the ordinary who sometimes do extraordinary things interest me. I particularly like discovering people who do not fit various historical narratives and writing about them. This has been one of the major themes through out my published writing career.  I love the detective nature of it as these are people who exist in the historical records but who are often overlooked because historians view the world through specific lenses (EH Carr was the man who developed the notion that all history is subjective and to understand what was truly going on you must first understand the lenses you are viewing it through. The time line objective view of history is a 19th century Leopold von Ranke idea.  Carr was a Marxist by the way).
The Lady Soldier which I co-wrote with Kate Allan (the agent Kate Nash) was the story of a woman who becomes a successful soldier during the Peninsula Campaign. Kate developed the hero and I was responsible for the heroine. A publisher, John Hale promised to look at it but he didn’t hold out much hope as he wasn’t sure such women existed. Cue a research note at the end of the manuscript detailing real life women soldiers who were being overlooked and my author note habit was born.
I absolutely loved writing His Unsuitable Viscountess as  it allowed me to research women business-owners in the Regency (my editor expressed doubts). I loved discovering the two highest paid bankers in the 1820s were women – Sarah Childs of Childs of Bank (aka Lady Jersey of Almack’s fame  -did the Lady Patronesses actually need Brumnell's input or was it a useful fig leaf?) and Harriot Coutts of Coutts bank ( where the Royal Family still banks). All in all there were 20 women who held licenses to print money in the Regency times. I discovered other businesswomen as well. Of those who married, most had sons and passed the business on to them. Over time, the narrative gets altered and the women are subtly erased until people believe such women never truly existed.
 When I first wrote Taming His Viking Woman, the evidence was circumstantial that such women warriors existed. I was pretty sure they must have. Then they did DNA testing and discovered that women warriors did exist in the Viking age and were not a product of some writer's fantasy.
At the moment, there is a strand of argument in historical romance circles that People of Colour shouldn’t be there in starring roles as it is unrealistic. That no POC was a member of the First Estate, if you will and they all led miserable, horrible lives. What utter balderdash and nonsense. 
There are a few outliers, probably more than the ones I mention), many who have been rendered invisible because their lives don’t fit the historical narrative or lenses of the writer. Simply because people believe the received and skewed historical narrative doesn't make them right.
 Off the top of my head to combat nay-sayer  – John Perkins (the first black British Naval Officer) is from the Georgian period. He won the most prizes of any naval officer in the Georgian period except for Nelson.  He was mostly based in the Caribbean and was particularly effective against he Americans. His Naval Chronicle obituary states ‘ he annoyed the enemy more than any other officer, by his repeated feats of gallantry and the immense number of prizes he won.’ The records of what happened to his substantial estate are lost and he never married. When I last looked Naval officers were members of the First Estate. 2. Nathaniel Wells, the High Sherriff in Wales in 1818 and friend to the Prince of Wales . His first wife was the daughter of the chaplain to George II. His second wife was related to William Wilberforce's wife.  The son of a slave, he inherited his money from his father and was extremely wealthy through sugar plantations.  3. Cesar Picton, a man who rose from being a slave to a wealthy coal merchant in Kingston upon Thames. His estate when he died included 2 acres of lands, ships, shops and a wharf. 4. Equiano aka Gustav Vassa who made his first fortune in shipping and his second from being a best selling author. He marries a white woman and leaves his surviving daughter a sizable fortune.
Protrait of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas from Wikipedia

 There were over 10,000 people of colour living in Britain in the 18th century and not all in abject poverty. It is just that few people are actually interested in researching them as they don't fit the narrative and so they get overlooked.  Or their race and colour is referred to obliquely and people forget or prefer to gloss over. Let me put it this way -- Wellington probably never raised an officer from the ranks as Bernard Cornwell would have it but the Prince Regent did regularly dine with the son of a slave -- Nathaniel Wells. 
I could go on about France which is possibly somewhat more interesting for the historical romance novelist. Alexandre Dumas’s father Thomas-AlexandreDumas Davy de la Pailleterie was a high ranking general in Napoleon’s army. Thomas-Alexandre was the son of a Marquis and his mother an African slave.  And his entire life is fascinating. There was a habit of French planters, particularly men like the Marquis  to send their natural sons (if you will) to be educated in France as they were immediately freed once on French soil (until Napoleon brought back slavery).  People of Colour were very involved in the arts. Gericault the artist had a favourite Haitian model who was very wealthy in his own right. And of course, you have the whole Haitian and Santa Domingo history. 
However these few examples should be enough to prove that there were wealthy people of colour, people who fit the definition of First Estate during this period. It is simply that htey have been overlooked for years because we view history through certain lenses.
Gercault's Raft of the Medusa with his favourite
model, waving at the top, from Wikipedia
This is not to say that these people did not suffer huge racism, particularly from arrogant imbeciles.  It is merely to illustrate that some people of colour were in the First Estate in Georgian and Regency times and they deserve to have their stories used as inspiration, rather than derided as some politically correct  fantasy.

And I have promise myself not to ask why there are so few Jewish set Regencies and Victorians when you have the Rothchilds, Sebag-Montefiores and other prominent families making such positive contributions to British society.
Personally I love researching historical outliers and hope more people will actually try to write stories based on these people or at least stop deriding things as fantasy when they are historical fact.
In other news:
I sold my 28th novel to Harlequin Historical, A DEAL WITH HER REBEL VIKING. It will be published n December.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances in a wide range of time periods for Harlequin Historical. Her most recent was Sent as the Viking’s Bride. You can learn more about  Michelle and her books on

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