Saturday, October 01, 2011

Dick Turpin ... as legend has it

Last month I went to see a new play exploring the truth and legend behind Dick Turpin. The play is a fast-paced musical called Dick Turpin’s Last Ride. It was on at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds and is now on tour around the UK (do see it if you can).

It was a fabulous play - I reviewed it here - and it really brought it home to me how ‘History’ is in the hands of the best narrator - and how we as historical novelists should be very careful with our research.

18th century illustration, Newgate Calendar
The real Dick Turpin, for instance, was a thug, a bully, a thief, a murderer and a rapist. He was reported as such after he swung from the gallows in 1739 and his name lay disgraced in the lists of criminals.

illustration from Rookwood, 1849
Yet the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth - in need of a plot device - borrowed that name, borrowed someone else’s epic ride, stitched them together... and by investing him with a more likeable character and livelier writing than anything else in his largely forgotten Gothic novel Rookwood, turned ‘Dick Turpin’ into a legend which others have themselves borrowed and embellished through the years.

romanticised highway robbery by Frith
An awful warning, I think, of the dangers in using real historical figures in fiction but not bothering to find out how those people would actually have acted or reacted.

Jan Jones


Jan Jones said...

I meant to add that it matters to me as an author that I get 'real' historical figures right in my books, but how do others feel?

Jane Odiwe said...

Do you remember the tv series Jan? It's a long time ago, but I used to love that-I think it was filmed around Castle Combe- a gorgeous place to visit!

Jane Odiwe said...

And in answer to your question, I absolutely agree, and love doing all the research that goes with it.