Guest Post: “Playing God” – Taking Liberties with the Lives and Personalities of Historical Figures

 

Poster copy

BITTERSWEET TAPESTRY 

BY KEVIN O’CONNELL

Publication Date: November 1, 2019
Gortcullinane Press
eBook & Paperback

Series: The Derrynane Saga, Book Three
Genre: Historical Fiction

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

A dramatic decade has passed since sixteen-year-old Eileen O’Connell first departed her family’s sanctuary at remote Derrynane on the Kerry coast to become the wife of one of the wealthiest men in Ireland and the mistress of John O’Connor’s Ballyhar – only to have her elderly husband die within months of the marriage.

Unhappily returned to Derrynane, within a year, under the auspices of their uncle, a general in the armies of Maria Theresa, Eileen and her sister, Abigail, departed for Vienna and a life neither could have ever imagined – one at the dizzying heights of the Hapsburg empire and court, where Abigail ultimately became principal lady-in-waiting to the Empress herself, whilst Eileen, for nine momentous years, served as governess to the Empress’s youngest daughter – during which time Maria Antonia, whom Eileen still calls “my wee little archduchess,” has become Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France, though she continues to refer to her beloved governess as “Mama.”

As Bittersweet Tapestry opens, it is the High Summer of 1770. Having escorted the future Queen of France from Vienna to her new life, Eileen and her husband, Captain Arthur O’Leary of the Hungarian Hussars, along with their little boy and Eileen’s treasured friend (and former servant) Anna Pfeffer are establishing themselves in Ireland.

Their ties to Catholic Europe remain close and strong; in addition to Abigail and her O’Sullivan family and General O’Connell, his wife and young daughter in Vienna, their brother Daniel is an officer in the Irish Brigade of the armies of Louis XV, whilst their youngest brother, Hugh, is studying at École Militaire in Paris, his path to a commission in the Dillons’ Regiment of the Brigade. His gentle Austrian friendship with Maria Antonia having inevitably waned, Hugh’s relationship with the strikingly-beautiful young widowed Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy is blossoming.

Though happily ensconced at Rathleigh House, the O’Leary family estate in County Cork, being prominent amongst those families which are the remnants of the old Gaelic order in the area, Eileen and Art find that the dark cloud of the Protestant Ascendancy hovers heavily, at times threateningly, over them.

Bittersweet Tapestry is a tale of stark contrasts – between Hugh’s life of increasing prominence amidst the glitter and intrigue of the French court and Art and Eileen’s in English-occupied Ireland – especially as the latter progresses into a dark, violent and bloody tale . . . ultimately involving an epic tragedy, which along with the events leading up to it and those occurring in its dramatic wake, will permanently impact the O’Learys, the O’Connells – and their far-flung circle of family and friends in Ireland and across Europe.

With his uniquely-descriptive prose, Kevin O’Connell again deftly weaves threads of historical fact and fancy to create a colourful fabric affording unique insights into the courts of eighteenth-century Catholic Europe as well as English-ruled Ireland. As the classic story unfolds amongst the O’Learys, the O’Connells, their friends and enemies, the tumultuously-dangerous worlds in which they dwell will continue to gradually – but inexorably – become even more so.

Bittersweet Tapestry joins O’Connell’s well-received Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home as The Derrynane Saga continues – an enthralling epic, presenting a sweeping chronicle, set against the larger drama of Europe in the early stages of significant – and, in the case of France – violent change.

Today here at Before the Second Sleep, author Kevin O’Connell talks about the merging of imagination and history in the historical fiction genre and some of his personal experience – the ups as well as the downs – of doing. See below for more stops on Bittersweet Tapestry‘s blog tour!

02_Bittersweet-Tapestry

“Playing God” – Taking Liberties with the Lives and Personalities of Historical Figures

Few if any other literary genres give an author the latitude that historical fiction does in allowing her or him to stray beyond the boundaries of fact well into the realm of fancy.

What is fascinating – especially in this age of instant information which permits us to seek and obtain “facts” with a few keystrokes – is that it is rather easy to believe that we “know” history: Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Washington crossed the Delaware, Joan of Arc heard voices and, at least for a time, led the French armies, the Bastille fell on 14 July.

But what is perhaps equally fascinating is that in many, if not most, instances we actually know very little beyond major events, beyond those happenings that were recorded as they occurred – or at least shortly thereafter. The reality is that so much more happened – or, at least in the mind of the historical fiction writer – may have happened. It is in this mystical sphere, where fact and fiction might be said to somehow intersect, where a good historical fiction author has the freedom to visualise, to roam far afield from recorded history to the locale of “perhaps” or “maybe,” most definitely to the area of “but this certainly could have happened….” Therein lies the magic – and the fun!

The “rules” are few, but rather clear: When “creating history” what one writes of as occurring must be plausible – wholly-believable by even the most knowledgeable reader.

Thus, actual events must stay true to history – unless, of course, one is writing parallel or alternate versions of history.  And even there, one must be careful.  “What if” can be interesting – it can also be wearisome, if not done properly.  Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel,  Man in the High Castle (currently a television series),  comes to mind as alternate history extraordinarily well done.

Staying “true to history” can be a challenge – especially when one is feeling, shall we say, clever or especially creative. An example from my own work: Those familiar with the earlier books of the Derrynane Saga will know that Eileen O’Connell and her young charge in Vienna had developed a close, virtually maternal, relationship such that the future Marie Antoinette would address her governess as “Mama.”

As the time of preparation for the young archduchess’s departure for Paris approaches, I had Eileen begin to discuss – in  rather significant, even graphic, detail –  the intimate particulars of married life with the barely fourteen-year-old, soon-to-be-wed Antoine, who reacted with wide eyes, much giggling and a not insignificant degree of interest. In my mind I had entitled the episode, “The Birds and the Bees – Done Well!”

Hubris – pure hubris – and awful . . . as I learnt when that part of the manuscript was quickly returned by my awesome editor, who reminded me of things I was well aware, but had dismissed in the name of “being creative”: that Antoinette and Louise Auguste’s marriage would remain unconsummated for some seven years for the very simple reason that both of them were basically ignorant of the mechanics of sex. Indeed, it was not until the young Queen’s older brother, the  Emperor Joseph, actually journeyed from Vienna to see what could possibly be wrong with the marriage that the situation finally began to normalise. Had my imaginative little scene made it into the book it would definitely not have been a positive addition. Thus, one must be very careful and mindful of the “realities” even whilst writing fiction!

Now, in terms of people, in writing of the Imperial Habsburgs thus far in Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home,  I did not stray very far from reality in presenting the Emperor Francis Stephen, Maria Theresa’s beloved albeit charmingly lecherous consort, nor their haughty next-to-youngest daughter, the Archduchess Maria Carolina, who became Queen of Naples and as prodigious a baby-producer as her mother.

I have, however, taken certain freedoms with the Archduchess Maria Antonia – Eileen’s beloved “wee little archduchess,” who was becoming Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France as Two Journeys Home progressed towards its close. In Derrynane, she was the pretty, pliant little girl of the history books. As she grew into late childhood and adolescence, she developed a gentle, at times wispy, personality – with moments of spark, such as when she expressed in no uncertain terms to the Countess von Graffenreit that she was going to France only as a matter of duty.

I have spoken of writing the Empress Maria Theresa as a “kinder, gentler” version of her real self, noting that I believed it was her interaction with my characters which perhaps made her less daunting than history would have us believe she was. These private moments with Eileen – as governess to her youngest daughter, and perhaps even more so with Abigail, who as Beyond Derrynane was ending, had risen to the post of Maria Theresa’s principal lady-in-waiting, the closest servant to the then-most powerful woman in the world – were gentle and laced with humour. Abigail’s gentle humour, her subtle-comedic personality definitely softened her mistress and their interactions almost from Abby’s arrival. In their relationship, there was little evidence of the prudish monarch, who sponsored “morality squads” to ferret out those courtiers she viewed as being sensualists, libertines. And, indeed, as the years passed, Maria Theresa laughed more and judged much less harshly – I believe because of Abby, and, to a lesser extent, of Eileen.

From these experiences, I concluded that the genre of historical fiction  permits its practitioners to depict not only actual historical events in a fictional manner but also events – and people – which could have happened . . . and who could have lived. Taking dramatic advantage of this latitude, I believe and hope that I have stayed within these bounds – and will continue to do so.

It was not, however, until the Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy was introduced in the closing sections of Two Journeys Home that I took the liberty, for the first time, of straying rather deeply into historical fancy – well far-afield beyond the known or recorded facts.

So it has been in connection with the planned re-appearance and development (in Bittersweet Tapestry) of Hugh O’Connell’s “Louise” that I am experiencing the creation of a significantly different temperament, indeed, personality and, in most ways an entirely dissimilar life for a relatively well-known historical character, and feel that the same can be rather daunting.

I must admit that, as with many of the twists and turns throughout the writing of the Saga to date none of this was at all well-planned, but rather developed as the story progressed and began to take shape or, as has been said of my work, that my “characters have pulled me along”!

As it was since their meeting in the closing pages of Two Journeys Home, Marie Thérèse Louise and Hugh continued – some days rather annoyingly –  coyly circling each other in my imagination, I continued to research the princess, in effect getting to know her better. This was achieved not only by reading, as well as studying literally dozens of portraits of her, but also – as the result of a beautifully-scheduled trip – by visiting her homes in Paris, both the Hôtel de Toulouse (the headquarters of the Bank of France), as well as a “country residence” she acquired in then largely-rural Passy in the mid 1780’s (now the Embassy of Turkey). I developed a sense that she perhaps might have been a more complex, indeed certainly a more interesting person than history has shown her to be.

Several of her portraits depict (at least to me) a very pretty young woman with a gentle, perhaps even playful sense of humour, one who laughs and makes others do so as well. She is, at least at this stage of her life, to a degree both shy and guileless, most likely a result of her sheltered life in Savoy and despite her singular position in the French monarchy. As she appears in Bittersweet Tapestry her life is undergoing rapid, totally-unforeseen changes – it and she are clearly both works in progress.

Lamballe is my greatest challenge to date because – at least to those even casually knowledgeable about the Ancien Regime and the horrors of the French Revolution – she is a familiar character.

At court, history tells us, she had a prudish, pedantic reputation (though it was also rumoured that she was for a time the Duc of Orleans’ lover) – as an aside, Orleans was the regicide who cast his vote in favour of the execution of  his cousin Louis XIV. Later known by his self-bestowed sobriquet Philippe Égalité, neither his name change nor his opportunistic striving proved sufficient to prevent his own execution on the guillotine.

It appears she was viewed by most as – at best – odd, strange . . . perhaps in more modern-day parlance she was a weirdo, most definitely not in the mainstream of the French royal family and aristocracy.

As people most likely sensed from reading  Two Journeys and will definitely experience in Tapestry, Hugh O’Connell’s Louise is quirky – but not in these ways. She is an interesting mix of hauteur and wide-eyed guilelessness – a Princess of the Blood with a sense of wonder, of whimsy.

As she continues to develop, she will – at times – be gently comedic in the way of Abby O’Connell. I believe this is but one of many reasons for Hugh’s attraction to her – she is an obviously bright, perhaps in some ways brilliant, most definitely beautiful young woman who can be funny, sometimes when she doesn’t mean to be. She is loving, she is kind, but she can – as is apparent from several scenes in Tapestry – also be a wee bit of a bitch!

As it has been alluded to, Louise and Hugh O’Connell will play prominent roles in the fourth volume of the Derrynane Saga. I believe that the liberties I have taken thus far – and shall continue to take in the fourth volume – with regard to the personality and life of the Princess de Lamballe, will make for a more compelling story going forward and, as the French Revolution descends into violence and terror, a much more dramatic and significantly more emotional conclusion to the Saga itself.

About the AuthorKevin O'Connell copy

Kevin O’Connell is a native of New York City and a descendant of a young officer of what had—from 1690 to 1792—been the Irish Brigade of the French army, believed to have arrived in French Canada following the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793. At least one grandson subsequently returned to Ireland and Mr. O’Connell’s own grandparents came to New York in the early twentieth century. He holds both Irish and American citizenship.

He is a graduate of Providence College and Georgetown University Law Center.

For much of his four-decades-long legal career, O’Connell has practiced international business transactional law, primarily involving direct-investment matters, throughout Asia (principally China), Europe, and the Middle East.

The father of five children and grandfather of ten, he and his wife, Laurette, live with their golden retriever, Katie, near Annapolis, Maryland.

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Blog Tour Schedule

Friday, November 1
Review at Gwendalyn’s Books

Sunday, November 3
Review at Carole’s Ramblings

Monday, November 4
Review at Locks, Hooks and Books

Wednesday, November 6
Interview at The Writing Desk
Feature at Chicks, Rogues, and Scandals

Friday, November 8
Feature at Maiden of the Pages

Monday, November 11
Interview at Passages to the Past

Wednesday, November 13
Review & Guest Post at The Book Junkie Reads

Friday, November 15
Guest Post at Before the Second Sleep

Sunday, November 17
Review at A Darn Good Read

Monday, November 18
Review at Books and Zebras

Tuesday, November 19
Feature at What Is That Book About

Wednesday, November 20
Review at Al-Alhambra Book Reviews

Friday, November 22
Feature at Historical Fiction with Spirit

Monday, November 25
Review at Hooked on Books

Tuesday, November 26
Review at Red Headed Book Lady
Review & Guest Post at Nursebookie

Wednesday, November 27
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews

Friday, November 29
Review at Broken Teepee
Excerpt at Coffee and Ink

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