The Silence of the Archives

If it takes a historian to bring an exciting but little-known character back to life, the historical novelist can imagine them a new one. But how does this work, and what are the pitfalls? These questions were brought into sharp relief during the writing of Killing Beauties, a novel that follows the adventures of two female spies, Susan Hyde and Diana Jennings, in 1655/6, when England was a republic under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. These women dealt in information, and the novel begins with the delivery of a message by Susan’s brother, Sir Edward Hyde, that will change their lives.
I was introduced to Susan and Diana while working as research assistant to the author of Invisible Agents: women and espionage in seventeenth-century Britain, Dr Nadine Akkerman, as she painstakingly uncovered their stories for her awesome book. I knew immediately that these women, both real-life she-intelligencers, were perfect protagonists for a work of historical fiction.
I suppose there are two approaches available to the historical novelist: to fictionalise history or historicise fiction. A fictionalised history is one in which a story is woven around actual event, while a historicised fiction is one in which historical detail is inserted into a story. I would say I chose the former, but it would be more accurate to say that the former chose me. And this was because of the nature of archival research: it is often the gaps that are the most revealing. The stories Nadine was uncovering from new, ignored or buried evidence were compelling, but sometimes lacked detail of the most tantalising kind. More often than not, diligent sleuthing would reveal it; sometimes, a mystery remains a mystery, however.
Evidence is the heartstone of historical research: after evidence comes interpretation. Both are, to a degree, subject to change. A letter that identifies a previously unconsidered suspect in a murder and has languished unread or even unopened may be uncovered and re-read, and so the evidence changes, and with it the possible interpretations. Often, however, the archives lack the information the historian needs.
My approach, as a writer of historical fiction, was to take advantage of the lack of clarity in the archives. It is in how they approach these gaps that the historian and the novelist diverge: for the former they are traps; the latter, portals. The stories of Susan and Diana were very detailed in certain areas, and utterly obscure in others. Diana practically vanishes until the 1660s following her arrest, while Susan’s final few days on earth are recorded in a letter that also says her body was spirited away from prison by friends. Edward Hyde, her brother and the author of the History of the Rebellion fails to mention her death at the hands of Parliament. This omission, the reasons for which we can only speculate upon, gave me a great opportunity. I had a solid story of a woman risking all for king and country, and losing. The fact that she then vanishes from the records meant that I could do anything I wanted, within reason.
Where there is a lack of evidence, the historian must tread carefully, warily avoiding suppositions and remembering not to fall foul of the sin of repeating a ‘perhaps Shakespeare had seen X’ in the form of ‘having seen X, Shakespeare …’. This historian may speculate, but carefully, very, very carefully. Both historian and novelist chart the same territory, but the latter may draw the map that results however they wish.
People in the past appear more reliable, honest, predictable and knowable than we are for one reason – their stories are fixed in the history books. It is in that fixedness that we find the safety of truth. But truth, like the history presented in books, is in large part an illusion.
The stories of Susan and Diana were rich enough in information to show me the way, and yet it was the silence of the archives that allowed me the freedom to play.

To give an example of how lack of knowledge breeds opportunity, let’s consider chapter 1 of Killing Beauties. In this chapter Diana Jennings, a woman apparently alone and thus vulnerable, hops on a boat from Dunkirk to Queenborough in Kent. She is joined by three men: Talbot, a Scots Colonel, Duggan, an Irish Captain, and a certain Mr Skinner. So much is included in the transcript of Diana’s later interrogation by the authorities, and is corroborated in a letter sent to England from the continent by a parliamentary spy. So much, therefore, is ‘true’. Mr Skinner, however, is an unknown figure, a mystery – and mysteries are there to have ‘truths’ foisted upon them. As it happens, Skinner was one of the code names used by Sir Edward Hyde, who also happened to be chief advisor to king-in-exile Charles II, as well as head of the royalist secret service, so much as it was. Bingo! One executive decision later and Diana is crossing the channel with Susan’s brother. And from there the story flows – onceĀ  the reason for Edward and Diana meeting with Susan is in the bag, they’re off. The delivery of a message is legitimate, plausible, and allows for the two women and their trade, intelligence, to be put to the reader. From that decision onwards, it’s all about the whys and wherefores. And that’s storytelling.

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