Siân Evans: How I bring historical characters to life
As a historical biographer, I want to bring my characters to life in a way which engages and intrigues the reader. However, I don’t want to imply that their lives were some primrose-strewn path to personal perfection, nor that they were entirely admirable characters with no personal foibles or quirks. It is the imperfections and idiosyncrasies that make us all human. However, biographers have a duty to be fair; after all, I chose to write about my subjects, they didn’t select me. Therefore, I try to understand every aspect of their lives and times, so that I am writing from a position of knowledge, and that requires an immersive approach to research.
Most of my subjects are independent and dynamic women active in the late Victorian era and the first half of the twentieth century. The oldest of the six society hostesses featured in my recent book Queen Bees was born in 1863, and the youngest died in 1964, so I often have to cover a lot of ground to bring my characters to life.
Planning a new book is rather like a detective investigation – I need to know who did what, with whom, when, where and why.
Naturally, I start with the usual sources – my subject’s life story, any existing autobiographical material, previous biographies, journals and correspondence. ‘Witness statements’ come from accounts, diaries and letters written by their contemporaries.
Some of my characters left their own copious paper trails, such as volumes of press cuttings, but these require caution, as they were intended to burnish a future reputation, not to tarnish it. Through other sources, I often find that a subject has fudged the origins of an illegitimate child, pared a few years off her own date of birth, concealed the murky origin of a fortune, or edited out a rogue relative, such as the clerical uncle who died of syphilis. These subterfuges are interesting in themselves, both for what is stated and what is absent, and reveal hidden aspects of a character’s personality and motivation.
Where possible, I talk to people who knew my subjects, and they often provide vivid insights – the daughter of Mrs Greville’s personal maid, the son of Diana Mosley, or an aristocratic family friend of the Astors. I also seek out tape-recordings and interviews with people whose memories were recorded by professional or amateur interviewers. Sound archives provide an aural ‘snapshot’ of an era, and the people who were physically closest to my subjects were often their servants, who saw them ‘off guard’. I try to trace sound recordings of my subjects talking – impressive women such as Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and Wallis Simpson had such distinctive voices. Direct quotes from my subjects instantly bring them to life decades later.
Having explored the more traditional biographical sources, I then try to immerse myself in my subjects’ lives, by visiting and photographing the places where they lived, worked or travelled. I collect diverse images of the era, creating a specific ‘mood board’ to represent a particular era. I also devise a dateline, where personal events that affected my subjects are recorded above the line, with a corresponding narrative of significant national or world events dovetailing below.
Historic newsreels, press and media from a particular era are invaluable; in the magnificent Newsroom at the British Library I scroll through the electronic archive of newspapers and magazines. I read the whole publication, the ‘Court and Social’ report, the gossip columns, the international news, the cartoon strips, and the fascinating adverts, garnering a sense of the texture of everyday life. Similarly, I always sample the popular songs of the time, which are very evocative for any biographer limbering up to write a new book. I am currently researching transatlantic travel between the wars, so La Mer by Charles Trenet, and Je Cherche un Millionaire by Mistinguett are high on my current playlist. As Noel Coward wrote in Private Lives, ‘Strange how potent cheap music is….’
By Siân Evans