I write about real people. I know, I know, every author writes about “real people”, in that fictional characters come alive on the page of the book they inhabit, but I write about real people. The main characters of The Long Shadow, William Pitt the Younger and his elder brother John, Earl of Chatham, really existed. And for some reason, whenever I find proof that they did so, I am amazed, and I still have no idea why.
Two hundred years or so ago my characters lived and breathed on the earth. They spoke the words that were recorded by journalists and diarists; they wrote the letters I have read in the archives; they lived in the houses I have visited. They went to sleep at night, got up in the mornings (…. or more probably early afternoon, in the case of my boy Chatham), ate huge meals, wore sumptuous clothes, walked the streets of London, relieved themselves, caught the common cold, laughed, and cried, and, well … lived.
I already know this, because I’ve read about it, and yet there is still a sort of dislocation in my head that makes me unable fully to grasp the fact my characters were both real and human.
^^^ Real people ^^^
A few months ago I made a discovery, quite by accident.* I found this record on the finds.org.uk site, dedicated to recording archaeological finds of historical significance in the UK. I’ve blogged about it before, but I’ll talk about it again.
Why did this find stagger me so much? Because this, dear reader, is John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s personal seal. The one he affixed to private correspondence. And it dropped from his watch fob, probably sometime between 1783 and 1790, while he was visiting his mother at her Somerset house of Burton Pynsent, where it was found in 2006 — not, alas, by me, although every time I’ve been back there I’ve kept my eyes peeled in case, you know, he did it twice.
Think about it. I knew Burton Pynsent belonged to the Pitt family; I knew the 2nd Lord Chatham would have gone there many times. But here is concrete evidence that he was there, in person: that he was capable of losing things, just like anybody else. I imagine he was pretty annoyed when he found out he had lost it, too. It’s like a glimpse into a timewarp, just a blink of a moment in which the walls of time and space come crashing down.
I’ve had the same feeling so many times while researching John Chatham in particular. I think it’s because he’s virtually invisible in the history books, so to find any evidence of his physical existence is doubly disorientating. Remember my visit to Abington Hall, near Cambridge, which he rented from 1816 to 1821 (possibly longer)? It’s now the headquarters of The Welding Institute (TWI) and the estate changed beyond recognition, covered with prefab offices, storerooms and laboratories, but walking through it was like being haunted by the past.
Perhaps it was because John’s time there was hardly happy, but visiting a house where he actually lived affected me a great deal. There’s not much of “his” house left, but with assistance I was able to piece John’s Abington together. TWI’s records officer showed me the remains of a bridge over Chatham’s stream, the last remnant of his walled garden, the location of his stables, and the double line of lime trees leading to the London road that would have been his drive.
Chatham, moreover, left his mark. The house’s ground floor still has a flavour of John’s grand early-19th century reception rooms, and the outside still bears the peeling whitewash “inflicted on it by your boy” (as the records officer informed me, accusingly). The welders may have moved in, but I felt almost as though I could reach out through the centuries and brush Chatham’s sleeve with my fingers.
Sometimes, of course, the frisson I get from such a connection comes with a sense of embarrassment. I have often been reminded, while consulting the archives, that I am, essentially, reading someone’s private correspondence. I’m sure Pitt the Elder would have been horrified to know I would read the following line, written to his wife, Lady Hester, shortly after she had given birth to their third child: “How I long, now that you are out of the straw, to have you in the fragrant grass?” (National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/5 f 205) The historian always, of course, has something of the voyeur in him or her, but I still won’t be getting that image out of my head any time soon.
So yes: real. Not real in my head, but real in the flesh, two hundred years ago. I’ve stood over the Pitt family vault in Westminster Abbey and tried to come to terms with the fact that the people I have read so much about were there only a short distance beneath my feet. I can’t do it. I’ve touched things that belonged to them — I’ve seen John’s own miniature of his wife, held his cutlery, walked his estates, and I even have a letter he wrote hanging on my wall downstairs — but for some reason I can’t get over this barrier. I can’t comprehend that, even though they are my characters, they will never completely belong to me.
Surely I’m not the only one?
* Most of my best discoveries have been made by accident: one day I will write a post about my own personal Historical Research Fairy, who tugs me by the skirts, hisses “Pssssst!” in my ear, and places the right document in my hands, or turns my eyes to just the right place on a gallery wall.