When writing fiction based on real history and people, the need for accuracy may conflict with the drive to tell a good story. So how do you find a balance?
In 2016 I was commissioned to write a podcast for Historic Royal Palaces as part of the Outliers series, produced by Rusty Quill. I'd already written a trio of radio dramas about the relationship between animals and people (The Bee Maker, Countrysides and The Octopus). The Tower of London Menagerie was a natural choice.
Keeping it 'real'
HRP were understandably concerned with accuracy and keen to use their own archive as the primary source. Among the documents they provided was E. T. Bennett's 1829 'Natural History' of the menagerie, 'in which it is attempted to combine both art and science'. The 'art' is William Harvey's beautiful engravings. The 'science' straddles a transition from East India Company colonial animal collectors to the new formed Zoological Society of London and RSPCA, and from there onward to Darwin.
The mid 1820's was also a time of social change. George IV was ill and often incapacitated, the excesses of his Regency taking their toll. The Government and London financial institutions were becoming more powerful. The Outliers podcasts tell 'stories from the edges of history', and this hinterland of change, of muck and dander seemed perfect. But things got murkier when I chose head Keeper Alfred Cops as my subject.
So who was Alfred Cops?
When Cops took over the menagerie in 1822 it contained two moth-eaten lions, a tuskless elephant and some vultures. A few years later, he'd assembled the largest, most varied animal collection in its history. There is a good record of the menagerie itself: the cost of feed and wages, the animals' health, longevity and breeding. But there’s remarkably little information available about Cops himself.
A man of rumour and contradiction
We can deduce something of him from his achievements. 'Keeper' was not an honorary title for Cops. He was a talented, hands-on animal man. He was a good manager and negotiator, diplomatic enough to have the ear of the King. He may have come from a circus or travelling menagerie, less than reputable professions. He was probably Catholic. Nobility looked down on him. The facts are sparse, and throw up as many questions as they answer.
Did he feel comfortable living in a Protestant fortress? Running a Royal menagerie for ‘shilling gawpers' and an absent King? Did he believe animals had souls? Was he anxious about his patron-King's failing health? Did he respect the scientific men of the new Zoological Society? Or did he see their knowledge of animals as abstract and academic? He loved his animals, so how could he stomach their captivity?
We have no way of knowing. But for me, this grey zone of contradictions and questions was an inspiration, not an obstacle.
Rough edges, grey spaces, loose ends
When we create fiction, we apply logic to make it 'believable'. We want a satisfying conclusion, where the good guys win. History doesn't always give us that. There are lose ends, unresolved issues, injustices and omissions. Real people are multi-faceted and often inconsistent. And some, like Cops, take their favorite wolf and quietly disappear from public record.
I let him speak in his own voice. I let questions and lose ends shape the man. I imagined him giving me a tour of his animals, in his element and telling tales. I gave him space to ask questions of himself. I let his evasions and omissions to speak as clearly as his eloquence. I made him complicated, and I didn't try to wrap him up with a bow.
Writing any history requires both science and art: academic rigor and imagination. Drama and truth are often found in the uncomfortable space in between, at the outlying edges of fact.
'The Tower Menagerie' is available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from iTunes.
All pictures on this page were drawn from life by William Harvey
From E. T. Bennett's 1829 'Natural History' of the Menagerie, available on Google Books.