The Puzzle of History; the challenge of writing historical fiction

Originally published in the Bulletin, published by the Napoleonic Society of America.

A passion for history is not unlike a passion for picture puzzles. One assembles “facts”, trying to put together a picture of what happened. The overall picture continues to elude us. Obsessively we search for the missing pieces to the puzzle. One found, we gasp as it falls into place: How it changes the image! Now, about that gaping hole in the middle…

I did not come to history naturally. As a student, I found it intolerably dull. But in mid-life, researching a publishing project, I read a biography of Josephine that inflamed my imagination to such an extent that it changed the course of my life. At the risk of sounding prosaic, I confess it was as if lightning struck.

Over the next decade, my fascination with Josephine grew. I decided to write a short biography of her life – “to get her out of my system,” I thought. I thought it would take one month. That was many years ago. Since then I have being living with Josephine, writing her story in fiction, looking for the missing pieces of the puzzle, trying to find the answers to the questions: What happened? What was Josephine like? Trying to give her a voice. Trying to be true.

This is not an easy task. My bibliography numbers well over three-hundred texts. Frustrated by my ignorance of French, I enrolled in a university course in an effort to learn the language (a life-time endeavor, I know). Frustrated by my ignorance of place, I travelled. Everywhere, I looked for answers; instead, I only found: more questions.

Writing Josephine’s story was like crawling through her life, day by day by day. In the process I produced thousands of pages of manuscript and countless drafts.

Finish the picture, find the missing pieces, put the puzzle together. It sounds so easy … if only the picture would stop changing!

In my research, the most shocking bits of information are discovered quite unexpectedly, buried in obscure journals. Having completed the story of the first part of Josephine’s life, for example, where, amongst a great deal else, she learns of her husband’s love for an older woman, Lauré Girardin – I read, in the Memoirs of Mme de la Tour du Pin, on the subject of Mme du Pin’s step-mother: “Her mother, Mme de Girardin, was a sister of Mme de La Pagerie. The latter had just married her daughter to the Vicomte de Beauharnais … .”

Wait a minute. I read the passage again. Beauharnais? Was it possible? Josephine’s first husband was Vicomte de Beauharnais. The daughter referred to, then, was Josephine…

But Girardin. “The other woman” in Josephine’s life was Lauré Girardin. Could it be that Mme de La Tour du Pin’s step-mother was Lauré? I checked the names. Yes! And therefore, Lauré Girardin was Josephine’s first cousin. (Only a few biographies acknowledge a relationship, and then as a distant relative.) In a work of fiction, the infidelity of a woman’s husband to another woman is one thing; to her cousin is quite another type of drama altogether. I groaned. So much had to be changed!

In still another journal someone is mentioned as visiting a Mme Hosten “on her death bed.” Mme Hosten? Josephine’s friend? In this accidental way I discovered the death of one of Josephine’s closest friends – a matter unworthy of mention in scholarly biographies, but in terms of Josephine’s life story, of significant emotional importance.

Writing the second novel in the trilogy, again quite inadvertently, I discovered that one of my main characters had saved the life of another. (Barras had saved Hoche’s life during the Terror.) Again, where this detail might be omitted (and is) in most histories, in a work of fiction it changes the nature of the relationship between two people. Again, back to the keyboard!

In a more hopeful moment I confessed to my husband that I sometimes I felt that Josephine was looking over this book. He responded, with humour, “Could you ask her to please stop sending you new information?”

Does research ever end? I doubt it. For once one is touched by the desire to know, to understand, how can one not stop, pick up a piece of the puzzle, look to see where it fits? How can one not ask questions, seek answers? For whether one is a student of history, or a writer of research or of novels, we all share one common passion: to try to understand, to know, and, as much as is humanly possible, to be there.