Historical Perspectives: You Can’t Write Historical Fiction Without Them

My new novel To A Strange Somewhere Fled includes, at its end, a look at its historical aspects. Here is an excerpt:

“(The) history of private men’s lives (is) more profitable than state history.”

~ Roger North, from his General Preface & Life of Dr. John North

 Roger North (Sept. 3, 1651 – March 1, 1734) and Francis North (October 22, 1637 – September 5, 1685):

I didn’t have to imagine a male protagonist for the sequel to A House Near Luccoli to contrast the temperament and lifestyle of the charismatic and roguish composer Alessandro Stradella. English biographer and lawyer Roger North well-suited that role, especially as Donatella landed on his doorstep.

Portrait of Roger North by Peter Lely

Roger North by Peter Lely

Rather timid, even unsociable, Honorable was Roger’s title and the core of his character. He lived slowly, carefully, with a firm sense of belonging to his family, country, and the reaches of his intellect and interests—“practical diversions” that included writing, philosophy, architecture, mathematics, horticulture, sailing, and music.

Roger was born at Tostock, Suffock, the sixth son of the 4th Baron Dudley North and Anne Montagu. Despite a fifteen year age difference he was very attached to his eldest brother, Francis (great-grandfather to Lord North, Prime Minister of Great Britain during most of the American Revolution), and benefited from Francis’ professional and personal connections that took them both to the heights of Charles II’s court. In 1682 Sir Francis was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Roger began his service as King’s Counsel. Although staunch royalists, neither was comfortable with the cutthroat political environment of Restoration England.

Thanks to Sir Francis’ marriage to Frances Pope who died in 1678, Wroxton Abbey became his and Roger’s retreat from London. The Popes had been leaseholders of the Abbey since the middle of the 16th century, transforming it into the Jacobean manor house still evident in its present structure. Sir Francis bought out his sister-in-laws’ inheritance and his descendants continued their tenancy of the Abbey well into the twentieth century.

Wroxton Abbey - late 17th century by DM Denton

Wroxton Abbey – late 17th century by DM Denton

 

Portrait of Sir Francis North by Peter Lely

Sir Francis North by Peter Lely

“As to musick”, Roger and Francis carried on the North tradition of pursuing its appreciation, study and performance for familial and social pleasure, and solitary distraction. Their grandfather had traveled in Italy and took a great liking to the music he found there. Roger received instruction from the English composer John Jenkins, and possibly other masters including the spirited Italian violinist Nicola Matteis. It is likely that Roger played the viol, theorbo, harpsichord, organ, and even the violin. He observed and participated in the musical scene of London, his thoughts on theory and performance leading him to eventually publish The Musicall Grammarian (1728). The Seventeenth Century volume of Blackwell’s History of Music in Britain references Roger at least twenty-eight times.

Roger penned biographies of his brothers, a wandering autobiography titled Notes of Me, and even a Discourse on Fish and Fish Ponds, continually and painstakingly recording his reflections and findings on countless subjects. He was one of the executors of the estate of the famous portraitist Peter Lely, and guardian to the painter’s son, John, and daughter, Anne. His architectural talents came into play with improvements made to the north wing of the Abbey and the addition of a coach house and stabling, and he also managed extensive tree planting on the estate.

Notes of Me Book Cover Beyond the scope of To A Strange Somewhere Fled, the untimely passing of Sir Francis in 1685 was an oppressive blow to Roger personally, but also professionally for he had lost a true companion and ally at Court. After Sir Francis’ death he spent a little more time at Wroxton Abbey with his brother Dudley and, while winding up their brother’s affairs, they found some distraction in setting up a laboratory and forge there. Charles II died the same year as Sir Francis, and the next Roger was appointed Attorney-General to Queen Mary of Modena, but by 1687 he had turned his back on Royal and Parliamentary conflicts and uncertainties and devoted himself to writing and the improvement and self-sufficiency of the estate he had purchased at Rougham in Norfolk.

Roger was a quieter, plainer, more cautious, modest and moralistic figure than Alessandro Stradella, but no less singular, creative or complex, which made him as interesting to write about. He exhibited a similar if less reckless compulsion to engage himself in the possibilities of the gifts he had been given and to scoff – less openly and, as it turned out, less perilously than Stradella – at a society that expected him to behave as if he was compliant with it.

 

Roger North_pe_pe

From Wainwright Engraving of Roger North with a page from Notes of Me

 

 

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