Which characters do we admire in novels?
What makes somebody rebel?
What makes somebody rebel?
by Jeffrey Manton
shortlisted for the 2015 HNS New Novel Award
Historical Fiction writers sometimes look at the world through modern eyes - come on, let's face it, some characters seem to have great big crystal balls when it comes to what's happening next. People are driven by the faith of the time, the morality, the formality, the impossibility of rebelling, the desire to conform. So a woman's choice to take another path is truly extraordinary and I think that choice comes step-by-step; and not because they're another fast-riding, chase the boys about the garden, hate nice dresses, won't go to their début sort of girl. Please - no more of those.
Rebellion comes at a price. Does it always make us happy? Does the gesture succeed? Or end up forgotten. On the lonely road to Thetford, route to nowhere (I'll get into trouble for that) - almost hidden in pines and birch, on sandy ground - there sits a statue of a Sikh on horseback, a magnificent man, head held high. So I stopped and asked what on earth he was doing there - in Norfolk of all places (I'll get into trouble for that, too) - and wondered at the market town of Thetford being the final resting place for the last Maharajah of Lahore, the owner of the Koh-i-Nor diamond (until Queen Victoria snaffled it up) and the leader of the Sikhs. Here was a man who wanted to belong, who cared about belonging, and rebellion cost him dear.
|Duleep Singh Last Maharajah of the Punjab in the public domain in the UK |
The British authorities took Duleep Singh away from the Punjab as a child in 1849. He could meet no Indians. He converted to Christianity. On the one hand they left him pieces of his identity, the romantic parts, that is; on the other hand they made him into an English gentleman. He dressed like every other aristocrat; he owned estates in Scotland and Norfolk; here was a member of the British Empire's Establishment. Or so it seemed. Then he wanted his identity back; it's fair to say that he wanted his money back too; but what shook the Maharajah was the way British Gentlemen behaved when he dared to break out - they didn't play by the rules. Duleep Singh made foolish mistakes, was often petty, sometimes absurd, but the campaign he waged for his rights as a Punjabi was brave, reckless, ahead of its time. You can see his hand-written notes in the British Library on the history of the country of his birth. He died penniless and shunned in Paris, just fifty-five years old - and the present Queen of England still has that diamond.
Are people natural rebels? Surely something pushes them over the edge and makes them reckless, often poor at decision-making, but admirably brave. Few people rebel - even today most people conform.
'Four days after the wedding, Katherine Mason discovered her husband's diary...'
So begins Katherine's journey from wife to rebel in 'The Maharajah and Mrs Mason'. I created Katherine to explore a woman's struggle with rebelling against all she holds dear; a woman who only wants to belong, who is conventional and practical, who never takes her wealth for granted - until her penniless husband marries her for money. Only Mr Mason wants more. And so does her sister. When Katherine befriends the Maharajah of Lahore, she creates a scandal that rocks the British Empire - and the family seize on the opportunity to discredit her. Only Katherine won't go quietly...
The Maharajah existed, Katherine Mason did not, but there's every reason to think that they might have been neighbours in Norfolk. What interested me was characters from the Establishment and yet outside of it; never quite belonging; and in a period of mass fear whipped up by the media - the 1880s was twenty years after the Indian Mutiny; there were bombs on the London Underground; the Russians intervened in Afghanistan; telegraph delivered news quickly; the newspaper business flourished and couldn't always be controlled. Sound familiar? So the Establishment could use Katherine Mason to bury bad news or use public opinion and lock her up - after all, she was only a woman. In the end, Katherine is astonished that anyone sees her as a rebel, she never wanted to be one; and her journey comes at a price.
I like historical fiction as a way to show how far we've come as a civilization and yet how nothing changes. Laws do, perhaps. But family rivalry, greed, passion, the desire to be part of something, to belong, a sort of tribal instinct - none of those change. I'm not sure if we ever learn from history but it's a rollicking good way of reminding us of our mistakes and the flaws that make us human - please, no more perfect characters. We don't want them all to 'come right' in the end now, do we?
You can find out about Maharajah Duleep Singh on www.duleepsingh.com and be linked to the site for Thetford while you're about it. His children are equally interesting, his daughter became a suffragette, but there's another tale...
Call back tomorrow to resume the April A-Z Challenge!