In preparing to write my new book Fortune’s Flame, I listened to and read several historical books, mostly nonfiction, and not all of them taking place in the era of Fortune’s Flame. But each of them, in their own way, succeeded far better than I did in bringing the world of the characters alive. None did so better than Death at the Priory by James Ruddick. In this tale of sexual scandal and murder in Victorian England, Ruddick goes the extra mile in order to set the events against the times in which they took place. He takes us through the characters’ lives and attempts to explain the psychological constraints and motivations behind each of their actions.
As I was listening to Death at the Priory, I identified with the characters, especially Florence Ricardo, the woman at the center of it all. I saw her as a real person in a way I hardly ever see historical figures outside of fiction.
After a scandalous involvement with a married doctor and a bad first marriage, Florence wed a successful attorney called Charles Bravo in 1875 in an attempt to escape her past. After the ceremony, however, Bravo’s true colors were revealed. Shortly after their wedding, Bravo collapsed and three days later, he died. He was poisoned but by whom remains a mystery. Ruddick thoroughly goes through each suspect one by one, explaining their motives and relaying their testimony.
Although Elliot Pattison is talking about fiction in this most excellent article on the importance of historical fiction, I think in this case we can attribute it to Ruddick’s book as well: “Historical fiction thus becomes an antidote to our historical apathy. It can make those characters resonate within our spirits, not just allowing us, but motivating us, to experience their world through their eyes. There is no better vehicle for helping us discover that despite contrasts in technology and material objects, the inhabitants of those prior worlds had appetites, ambitions, frustrations and conflicts much like those we experience today. We are all, today and in the past, swimming in the same great ocean of humankind. Trying to reduce complex humans to shallow soundbites and symbols just because they are no longer living diminishes our own ability to understand humanity.”