16 May 2017

Finding the real people between the pages of history

My Tuesday Talk Guest: Melissa Addey

Sometimes a strange thing happens when you write historical fiction. You’ll invent something – a scene, a description, which you believe is entirely fictional and also, perhaps, taking a bit of poetic licence… and then you find out it is true. This happened to me most vividly when I wrote The Fragrant Concubine

The novel centres around a real woman in China in the 1760s.
When the Emperor of China conquered her homeland of Turkestan (now known as Xinjiang), he summoned a local Muslim woman to the Forbidden City to become his concubine.  It seems she was a favourite, being given gifts and promoted before being buried with all due honours on her death many years later. But many legends grew up around her.

In China, they say that she was naturally possessed of a fragrance so bewitching that the Emperor fell in love with her. She was homesick, but he built her a mosque and a bazaar, gave her a cook from her homeland and trees to remind her of home and finally she forgot her sadness, fell in love with him and they lived happily ever after. Her own people, now known as Uyghurs, say that on the contrary: she was a rebel and was dragged to court against her will, leaving behind her family and husband. That rather than submit to the Emperor, she swore she would kill herself and kept daggers in her sleeves to defend her honour. At last, fearing all of this was too much for her son’s happiness, the Empress Dowager arranged to have her strangled by a white silk scarf. I wrote The Fragrant Concubine because I wondered which story was true: the sad one or the happy one. The novel is about what might have happened and tries to incorporate all of these legends. 

While writing the novel, I added a scene where the Emperor and concubine go hunting together, something that I knew was a bit bordering on the make-believe: although the whole court went to the hunting grounds, the women did not ride much, but it was important to my character’s storyline. Only after I had written this scene was my attention drawn to a small painting done at the time, intended as a private portrait for the Emperor’s eyes only. In it, the Emperor rides in the hunting grounds while at his side rides a woman whose clothing marks her out as a high-ranking concubine but whose hairstyle proclaims her a foreigner. It is likely, historians say, that the portrait is indeed of Rong Fei, the concubine who in legends became the ‘Fragrant Concubine’. 

I have recently finished writing a novella to accompany The Fragrant Concubine, which I give to my readers. In it, I described a new concubine, one of two lead characters, as looking like a young ruffled eagle, angry at her capture. Checking the meaning of her Chinese name a few days later (I don’t speak Chinese), I found that it means intelligence… and eagle. 

The other thing that can happen is when you ‘see’ one of your characters in a modern person, and this too can be fascinating. A few weeks ago I went on a research trip to Beijing. It’s a busy place and I took my family. My children drove me pretty crazy on our first day visiting locations. In the exquisite park that is The Garden of Perfect Brightness (the title of my work in progress, a prequel to the two I’ve already written), my five year old boy insisted on climbing on rocks perilously dangling over deep water or wading into the muddy edges of the lakes to try and ‘fish’ using a twig. He was annoying me because I was worried for his safety as well as feeling that I didn’t have the luxury of looking around me and soaking up the ‘atmosphere’ of this key location for my next novel. But I then had a sudden realisation that the character of the boy prince (who would one day become the Emperor Qianlong from my previous two books) that I was writing grew up in this sport: and what does any child do when given the opportunity to explore such a place: climb rocks and hunt for fishes of course! I watched my son in a new light after that, seeing in him another little boy who, three hundred years ago, would have explored this very place.

These moments are mysteries, but pleasant when they happen. It makes me feel as though, after researching a historical era and its characters thoroughly, something has floated to me across the centuries, that I have found the people beneath the dusty textbooks.  

Helen: I thoroughly enjoyed The Fragrant Concubine - it was reviewed on Discovering Diamonds. In fact I enjoyed it so much I chose it as my Book of the Month!

About Melissa Addey
I grew up on an organic farm in Italy and was home educated. I spent fifteen years in business, both in new product development and mentoring entrepreneurs before going full-time with my writing. I now live in London with my husband and two young children and am doing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey.

You can get The Consorts novella for free at www.melissaaddey.com/free and view images from my recent research trip to China on the slideshow link. 

Also of interest: 
Those Troublesome Typos by Helen Hollick

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