As part of my ongoing series on the 7 elements of historical fiction, I recently challenged author David Ebsworth – aka David McCall – to do a guest post featuring Catherine Yale and how he developed her character for his trilogy. David responded to the challenge with gusto.
Character, the Catherine Yale Example
I didn’t even want to write it! A novel about Elihu Yale? The man is a historical celebrity here in Wrexham, North Wales, where he’s buried. Perhaps the first real nabob, a hundred years before Clive of India, carving the foundations for what would become – with all its contradictions – British India. A famous philanthropist – who would later gift his name to one of the world’s finest educational establishments. But one who, as the Governor of Fort St. George in old Madras, oversaw the East India Company’s despicable trade in Hindu and Muslim slaves throughout the 1680s.
Friends had put the suggestion to me, all the same. There has, after all, never been a novel about Yale. But I dismissed the suggestion, until I came across a copy of his will. And this wonderful line: To my wicked wife… Then, nothing. No bequest. Not even a name.
In a moment of epiphany, I knew that here was the story I might want to write – Elihu Yale’s story, but told entirely through the eyes of this woman, damned for all eternity by her husband’s own hand.
But who was she? Would I be able to find enough to at least begin to fill out an Elizabeth George-style character sheet or, in my usual way, to try and pursue Ian Irvine’s 55 Ways to Create Compelling Characters.
I started with Yale’s biographies – most notably, Hiram Bingham’s seminal 1939 study – and found no more than a few references. To Catherine. To her previous marriage with a man called Joseph Hynmers, another official of the English East India Company. But as I checked for records of her birth, her wedding, her family, I realised that almost everything else written about her was simply wrong. Most notably, she was not half-Indian, for example – which seemed to be the most common reason, apart from her gender, for earlier writers to dismiss her significance.
So, here was the first thing. If I was going to write a credible account of this person, I’d have to dig deeper. I’d have to explore Yale himself much further too. Serendipity. An obscure reference to letters in Yale University’s archives. Fifty-seven letters to be precise. Written by Elihu, after his return to London in 1700, to the mistress he’d left behind in Madras, a woman called Katherine Nicks. Lots of references to yet another mistress, Hieronima da Paiva. But almost no mention of Catherine. Except this one: I have got my old affliction by my side, a hair-brain’d, craz’d, ill-natur’d toad that loves nothing so well as her bottle. God ridd me of her, for she makes me so very uneasy. Oh, dear. References to laudanum. Conflict between Catherine and her seven surviving children – four sons to Joseph Hynmers, three daughters to Yale.
A decision to be made. Just how “fictional” might this yarn be? Well, I quickly decided that I would actually have very few truly fictional characters in the story. Catherine’s actual background, I now knew, was filled with a mass of ready-made, real-life and well-rounded personalities – each equally neglected by historical fiction. Too many to mention here, but including her father and mother, Walter and Anne Elford, proprietors of one of London’s most famous coffee houses. Or another acquaintance from Fort St. George, Governor Streynsham Master, who would later have some connections to early Jacobite plots. Or her father’s friend, William Penn. Or the first Duke of Devonshire, whose son James would marry Catherine’s daughter, Nan – and who was also a driving force in the Glorious Revolution. All these people helped me shape her.
Second decision. How might I create Catherine’s voice? Perhaps because of those Elihu Yale letters, I began to think of diary entries. I’d been reading Deborah Swift’s Pepys novels, but wondered whether Pepysian-style accounts would answer. After all, she’d have to be a pretty prolific scribbler to cover all the ground I needed. But then a separate batch of research opened up yet another new world. More journal writers of the period, and especially the Puritan Reverend Roger Morrice. There he was, writing copiously about everything under the sun. Impossibly detailed. Lengthy entries. No television, of course, to fill his evenings. And precisely the medium I needed to create Catherine’s inner thoughts, her beliefs, her politics, her conflicts, her choices, her passions, her most treasured possessions, her taste in clothes and her prickly comments about the fashion of others, her intimacies – and maybe just a hint of unreliability. After all, I know from personal experience that diary entries – as honest and first-hand as we’d like to pretend they might be – can sometimes be terrible self-deceptions. And thus the title for the novel, The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale.
Third decision. One book, or more? By the time I’d filled enough pages for a novel of my normal length – after I’d hacked out the requisite 10% of superfluous stuff – I had still only told Catherine’s story, all of it set in old Madras, from 1672 until 1689, the year she’d finally had enough of Yale’s philandering and came home to London – just in time to become embroiled in the Glorious Revolution. So, a second novel, Mistress Yale’s Diaries, The Glorious Return. That one took me from 1689 until 1699, and Elihu’s own return to England, somewhat in disgrace but determined to bring a now independent Catherine back into marital line. Part Three, Wicked Mistress Yale, The Parting Glass, carries us through to 1721, Elihu’s death, and perhaps – just perhaps – a final twist, an explanation for that reference in the will. To my wicked wife…
Not one novel, therefore, but three. The Yale Trilogy.
Final decision. How to fill the many, many gaps in Catherine’s real-life story. To add my trademark love of intrigue and mayhem. And to do it in a way that would resonate with modern audiences. A woman of her time but still relevant today.
I’d been reading Clare Mulley’s fabulous The Spy Who Loved and other books about contemporary women spies, tracked these back to perhaps the most famous Seventeenth Century example, the playwright Aphra Behn, who spied for Charles the Second. And then there was Catherine’s largely fictional involvement with the Dissenters and Quakers who, even in the 1680s and later, were already declaiming the evils of slavery. Themes of mental and physical abuse in marriage – in an age when, factually, the easiest way to get rid of an unwanted wife was still to auction her to the highest bidder. All of that kneaded together in a batter of England’s terrible divisions, worse than anything we’ve ever seen since – until now.
It wasn’t enough for me that readers should simply recognise Catherine Hynmers Yale as a character, as a person – as Stephen King advocates so well – but that they should actually be Catherine. But only readers will be able to say whether I succeeded or not.
Many thanks for elaborating on the topic of character, David.
David’s works – often with strong female protagonists – cover the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the Spanish Civil War, Zululand in 1879, the Napoleonic Hundred Days of 1815, and 6th Century Romano-Celtic Britain. His website has a factual biography of Catherine Hynmers Yale, covering his original research into her fascinating story.
1700 and East India Company Governor Elihu Yale is back in London, seemingly intent on reconciliation with his wife Catherine after ten years of separation. But those ten years have given her a taste of independence that she’s not ready to easily surrender. The ghosts of her previous life continue to haunt her, however – yet another former foe returned with her husband and seemingly still intent on revenge. And a more evil enemy still, in the shape of that Jacobite Colonel John Porter who had caused such damage to her youngest daughter. Drawn back even further into espionage on behalf of her nation, Catherine must battle madness, her desires, the rifts in her family, riot, rebellion and assassination in this tumultuous third and final act of the Yale Trilogy.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.