So I’m thinking very seriously about getting to work on my story about a British radical named Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891). Bradlaugh is the British equivalent of America’s “Great Agnostic,” Robert Ingersoll, only more so. Unlike Ingersoll, Bradlaugh was extremely political—he was even elected to Parliament and prevented from taking his seat for six
And he lived in very interesting times. Bradlaugh met everyone! And this is the part that makes him so attractive as a subject for fiction. In a biography, I could observe that young Charles and Charles Dickens were at the same Reform demonstration in 1868. In a novel, I could give them dialog! Same with many important historical characters: John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, William Gladstone, Karl Marx, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini, Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson—Bradlaugh actually knew all these people! Rather than simply telling why Marx and Bradlaugh couldn’t stand each other, it might be much more fun to show it.
It’s no secret that historical novels are widely popular, and I think it’s because most people prefer to be shown than told. What I lose in authenticity, I can make up in immediacy. Good historical fiction is based on lots of real research, and seems to try to maintain the reader’s interest by being plausible. The characters have to stay “in character,” or else it’s just anachronistic fiction using some names from history. The ultimate model of this kind of writing, for me, is Neal Stephenson’s Baroque series beginning with the novel Quicksilver, which I’ve just been rereading. Although some elements of the story are completely fantastic, the characters generally behave as you’d expect them to (if you had studied them to the degree Stephenson did), and they always show up on cue at the times and places recorded in real history—although often with slightly different motivations and mental states than they really had at the time.
Freedom to speculate about the interior lives of the characters is one of the attractions of fiction, for the writer. The other big attraction is the ability to "fill in the blanks," and tell the story as you believe, but can't quite prove, it must have happened. Several people who read An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy said they’d wished there would have been more about Charles Knowlton’s wife, Tabitha. Problem was, there was no data I could use to expand her role. I suppose I could have said more about women’s work, and drawn some type of outline of a typical 19th-century wife, but that wasn’t what people were asking for. They wanted to know how much Tabitha was a catalyst for Knowlton’s thinking, and how she felt about her husband being hounded and imprisoned for his ideas. I had nothing to hang my hat on, in a biography. In a novel, I could have told the story as I’m almost certain it happened—but not certain enough to call it history.
So in any case, I’m outlining Bradlaugh’s story as a novel, and planning on including fictional (but plausible and “in-character”) dialog with the many important real people he meets. I’ll also introduce a few completely fictional characters who will exemplify the world in which Bradlaugh lived. The point, I think, is to give readers a way to understand the time, place, and story, without reading the background I’ll have to read to produce it. A way to touch these people and understand something about their lives, times, and legacy without reading thousand-page biographies of each. Readership numbers suggest historical fiction is one of the main ways many people gain an understanding of history. And, if done well, it can be based on the same type of information (mostly, authoritative secondary source material) that goes into (much less popular/readable) textbooks. This is suggested in Stephenson’s Acknowledgements at the beginning of Quicksilver, where he says, "Particular mention must go to Fernand Braudel, to whose work this book may be considered a discursive footnote. Many other scholarly works were consulted…Of particular note is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill’s six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh." It was Stephenson’s series, incidentally, that got me started studying history and drove me to grad school. So, big circle completed, I guess—except, of course, I’ve still got to finish that dissertation!
The contemporary relevance of the story is a bigger concern—certainly a more explicit
The question of reform is at this moment to be looked at from two points of view, the first is whether there is sufficient virtue to be found in the aristocracy and landed interest of the country to enforce it; or whether the unrepresented, and consequently, the injured part of the community, must rouse and bring into action their strength to bring about that which must finally be enforced. I am of opinion that every opportunity has been afforded the former, had they possessed the virtue; and having neglected the opportunity, or rather having shewn a want of feeling altogether in the cause, the latter are imperatively called upon immediately to unite, to rally their strength; and I have no doubt but they will be found sufficiently formidable to carry the measure…