Bulgarian werewolves and Byzantine eunuchs: 12 historical lives that should be novelised

Artemisia I of Caria was portrayed (inaccurately) by Eva Green in 300: Rise of an Empire
Artemisia I of Caria was portrayed (inaccurately) by Eva Green in 300: Rise of an Empire

 Minoo Dinshaw on 12 unfamiliar lives – from a Byzantine eunuch to a Turkish arms dealer – that deserve to be novelised

British historical fiction is thriving, but its readers might be forgiven for seeking fresher banquets. The wild boar at the Henrician court grows overcooked. Hilary Mantel herself has written perceptively on the phenomenon of “Peak Tudor”, the dynasty’s odd and frustrating near-monopoly on the genre. It is as though publishers and television producers remain in thrall to listless school curricula, where King Hal and his chorus line provide recurring light relief between the inevitable Nazis. The enterprising consumer of historical novels will soon come to crave the marginal, the unfamiliar and the various. History, with its still unplundered stock of nuns, werewolves, traitors, lovers and even journalists, will not disappoint. Here, by way of example, are a dozen historical characters still in search of their chroniclers.

Artemisia I (played by Eva Green in the film 300: Rise of an Empire) was the 5th-century BC queen of Halicarnassus
Artemisia I of Caria

Herodotus, Father of History and, more discreetly, its fictional twin, was well acquainted with the exotic side-plot. He was born in one: the Greek-speaking city of Halicarnassus in the Persian Empire. In the Histories, he allots a memorable role to Halicarnassus’ 5th-century BC queen, Artemisia I of Caria. “It seems to me a most strange and interesting thing that she, a woman, should have taken part in the campaign against Greece… she sailed with the fleet in spite of the fact that she had a grown-up son… Her spirit of adventure and manly courage were her only incentives.” Regularly consulted, admired, and ignored by Xerxes, Artemisia becomes Herodotus’ sole mouthpiece of sound tactical advice on the Persian side. At Salamis, her sauve qui peut attitude (she rams and sinks an allied ship to save her own) extracts from the beaten Xerxes the despairing remark: “My men have become women and my women men.”

Medieval scholars tended to conflate the queen with the later Artemisia II of Caria (no relation), who won a demurer sort of fame by building her dead husband, Mausolus, a Wonder of the World: the eponymous Mausoleum. Another namesake, the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who painted Judith Slaying Holofernes in full gore, overshadowed her further. Even the original Artemisia’s cinematic outing (as played by Eva Green in Rise of an Empire, the sequel to 300), owed far more to the Italian artist – all sexual damage and masochistic temptation – than the wise, enigmatic politician we find in Herodotus. She awaits novelistic liberation from her own misattributed Mausoleum.



Some of the most deserving candidates for treatment in a historical novel are those who have been eclipsed by an outstanding contemporary. With his 1938 novel Count Belisarius, Robert Graves put a healthy transfusion of energy into historical fiction in general, as well as into British interest in the Byzantines. It is hardly surprising that Graves deliberately minimised the role of Belisarius’s most efficient colleague and rival, the Imperial Chamberlain and general Narses (478-573 AD). Whereas Belisarius was a brave warrior and arguably an honourable politician, Narses would make a more atypical and preoccupying protagonist. Already 60 when he held his first military command, he had, like many a Byzantine official, been castrated in childhood. History records many well-connected cavaliers, but few eunuch marshals. Graves, though, makes disappointing use of Narses, who is pallidly drawn as an archetypal scheming eunuch courtier, whose “ugly face turned uglier still as he listened”. Given that Graves uses another eunuch as a narrator, a chance to conjure up some sense of kinship and sympathy towards a condition rare in our time seems to have been squandered.

Constantinople in a 1537 Ottoman miniature (long after the passing of Kassia, Narses and the rest of the Byzantines) Credit: Alamy

A later Byzantine figure who displayed, from what little evidence is available, sharp wit as well as lyrical talent, is Kassia (c 805-c 865), a noblewoman turned abbess, and the Empire’s only recorded female poet. The latest historical research validates a story that was, in any case, good enough to have been plundered by any novelist worth more than their scruples: that Kassia once turned down the Emperor Theophilos’s hand in marriage. He tried to impress her with the backhanded line that “the baser things came of a woman”, alluding to Eve and original sin. She replied that “the better things came of a woman”, meaning Christ from the Virgin Mary. Theophilos, a religious iconoclast, persecuted the convent that Kassia entered, and she was scourged; but late in their lives he may have paid her a visit and attempted once more to win her affection.


Boyan of Bulgaria

One benefit of plundering fresh lives and marginal stories is that they can be far more fulfilling for the ingenious plotter. Very little is known, for example, about the remarkable Bulgarian princeling Boyan or Benjamin; only that his father was the conquering Tsar Symeon, his brother the weaker Tsar Peter, and that he composed a body of lost poetry and music whose quality, like Orpheus’s, could enchant animal as well as human hearts. It was also believed that he could “suddenly turn himself before men’s eyes into a wolf or any other beast you pleased”. Boyan’s lack of firm dates is a gift to the enterprising novelist, especially as he could easily have lived through the 971 conquest of the Bulgarian Empire by Byzantium. A brave pen might even try to recompose some of the werewolf’s songs that once held eagles in thrall.


Detail from the c1500 tapestry cycle La Dame à la licorne
Dangereuse de l’Isle Bouchard

The muse of courtly love who inspired the first of the troubadours is often thought to be Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and then England. In fact, it was more likely her grandmother, the viscountess of Châtellerault, known (from a single, irresistible document) as Dangerosa or Dangereuse (1079-1151). Although it seems scarcely Christian, Dangereuse was probably her baptised name, as she was separately nicknamed “La Maubergeonne” after the tower in which her “abductor”, William IX, the troubadour Duke of Aquitaine, deposited her. William, who carried an image of Dangereuse on his shield, once cried: “I shall bear her in battle as she bears me in bed.” Ignoring the protests of two of William’s better-born discarded duchesses, Dangereuse contrived to marry her understandably subdued daughter to William’s enormous and unamiable son, who fathered Eleanor. Dangereuse’s issue by the old Duke may or may not have included a feckless Prince of Antioch who may or may not have seduced his own niece.


Alice Chaucer

The medieval era is attractive to historical novelists for exactly the reasons that make it, in post-Marxist readings, a barren world of unreality, bereft of evidence for ordinary patterns of life, without moral or political application to the supposedly enlightened present. But medieval society was not, in fact, rigid and unyielding. A superb exemplar of its ambiguities can be found in Alice Chaucer (1404-75), granddaughter of the poet, and grandmother of the de la Poles, Yorkist heirs to the throne. By the sexual habits of John of Gaunt, who had married her great aunt, she was also connected to the Lancastrians. When she married for the third time, after losing a brace of paladins to Henry V’s French wars, it was to the Duke of Suffolk, a notoriously corrupt Lancastrian favourite.

Alice’s own financial chicaneries and political voltes-faces are preserved in the correspondence of the Paston family, who owned the adjacent estate, and suffered for it. Her story, encompassing social mobility, female empowerment and unrelenting capitalism, breaks every lazy assumption about the Middle Ages.


Mary Queen of Scot, right, with her short-lived husband Darnley
Sir Anthony Standen

Some of the shadows of history seem meant to remain shadows, but are no less suited to fictional treatment for it. The reign of Elizabeth I was rich in poets, playwrights, favourites, soldiers, buccaneers – and spies. One spy in particular seems to offer up so much intrigue that no historical novelist has dared to try and unravel it. The dates of Sir Anthony Standen are as vague as those of Boyan the Bulgarian werewolf, but he was restlessly, ubiquitously active as a diplomatic go-between from the 1560s until 1615, when he vanishes from the records. He was that rare thing, an Englishman who sought his fortune in Scotland, as an esquire to Lord Darnley, who claimed to have saved the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (and by extension that of her unborn child, James I) during the murder of her secretary, Rizzio.

Standen had a habit of making large claims and vanishing before they could be investigated. His knighthood, apparently bestowed by the hapless and soon-murdered Darnley, is far from proven. He sold himself to France and Spain, was seen in Constantinople and, in Bondian mode, took up with the Emperor Charles V’s mistress, Barbara von Blomberg. He seemed to know everyone, whether Italian princes, minor poets or Irish rebels. Standen’s best-suited (and very plausible) fictional metier would be as a hidden antagonist, betraying all around him.


Marchamont Nedham

Wars are prized fare to historical novelists, but they present the quandary of how to show the reader both sides of the coin. With more ingenuity than believability, Tolstoy resolved this dilemma in War and Peace by the bizarre episode of Pierre’s adventures as a battlefield tourist and a captive of the French. Walter Scott preferred to hedge his bets with sensible, slightly bloodless ingénus who adventure with more dangerous persons. Robert Louis Stevenson in Kidnapped may have struck nearer with the almost perfect device of pairing Davey Balfour and Alan Breck, avatars of Whig and Tory Scotland.

A more elegant solution is to find a protagonist who scarcely seems to care which side they are on: an anarchist rather than an enthusiast. For novelists hoping to relate the civil wars of 17th-century Britain, various usefully ambivalent players emerge from among the commanders (the pacifist Lord Falkland, the surprisingly reasonable Prince Rupert, the dashing Roundhead John Lambert, the opaque power-player Monck), but the answer seems to lie at a humbler level, with a pamphleteer known as the world’s first great journalist: Marchamont Nedham.

Nedham edited three early newspapers and changed sides twice between 1643 and 1660, and had a brief and nakedly mercenary comeback as a Tory in the 1670s. But, on the whole, his principles, especially religious tolerance, were (like his greater, more unswerving contemporary John Milton) manifestly consistent. As an independent character rather than a pure cynic, he could be a well-informed lens on impossible times.


Portrait of Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Chatelet by Nicolas de Largilliere (1656-1746) Credit: 
Émilie du Châtelet

Unlike the murky milieux of Standen’s world of “unofficial diplomacy” or Nedham’s proto-Fleet Street, both of which could readily be populated with fictional friends, allies, rivals and lovers, the intellectual circles of the Enlightenment come with ready-made casts, plentifully documented in correspondence and biography. It may be for this reason that the 18th century attracts period settings with wholly fictional personnel – such as Georgette Heyer’s regency romances – or quasi-novelistic non-fiction, like Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide or Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love. From the latter emerges a character who could well be ushered by a novel into greater prominence: the French physicist and mathematician Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49). Like Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace, Émilie’s legacy, as Voltaire’s grand passion, has been stifled by her proximity to a famous man. With intricate scientific and amatory careers, against the eccentric backdrop of a court of Lorrainer-Polish exiles at Lunéville, she desperately deserves a leading role. Voltaire, Frederick the Great and the other men around her would glisten in subordinacy to her admirable and tragic life. Narration could effectively be entrusted to the feckless poet Saint-Lambert, father of the child that killed her.


Arms dealer and 'merchant of death’ Sir Basil Zaharoff in 1928 Credit: AP
Sir Basil Zaharoff

One of the most uncategorisable men that history has to offer combines the double-dealing of Standen with the emotional interest of Émilie. Sir Basil (originally Zacharias) Zaharoff, nicknamed Zedzed (1849-1936), was a spectacularly successful arms dealer, known as “the merchant of death”. Like Maundy Gregory, who arranged Lloyd George’s auction of peerages, he is one of those disreputable but fascinating mystery men who have always for some reason felt at home in the British Liberal party.

Probably the son of a Turkish-Greek importer of rose oil, Zaharoff claimed every kind of exalted family background. After beginning as an arsonist and an assistant pimp, he progressed into dozens of far-flung fraudulences before cropping up in the arms trade in the 1870s. He meddled in every European war until the 1920s, notably bribing the Turks into an armistice in 1917, then stirred up the Greco-Turkish war two years later.

His striking physique and manner were fairly portrayed as “Basil Bazarov” in the Tintin books but his private life has rarely been related. For many years, he was the lover of a Spanish duchess, whose husband, a prince of the blood, was violently insane. Zaharoff eventually married his widowed, septuagenarian lover and arranged for their two daughters to be settled, comfortably off, in cosmopolitan mariages blancs. Osbert Sitwell, ignorant of Zaharoff’s tender side, called him “imposing and evil” with “the outlook of a super-croupier”. Zedzed once said, philosophically, but with false modesty: “I’ve been lucky all my life; if I hadn’t been I should have been murdered long ago.”


Prince Felix Yusupov by Valentin Serov, 1903  Credit: 
Prince Felix Yusupov

Talent is not a prerequisite for a successful protagonist of a historical novel. The main talents of Prince Felix Yusupov (1887-1967), it has been said, were his ability to maintain a consistently puzzling sexual ambiguity and to disperse the greatest fortune in Russia. Apparently a skilful guitarist but neither intellectually gifted nor naturally witty, Yusupov’s only important brush with history was his attempted murder of Rasputin – a botched job that was probably orchestrated and finished off by the British SIS.

In his long years of exile after the Russian Revolution, he busied himself with petulant litigation against Hollywood studios. His memoir is self-serving beyond the point of dullness. But his abundant mediocrity does not detract from the fascination of his circumstances. More so than many more committed, honest or able men, Yusupov distils the tragedy of early-20th-century Russia into a sense of the absurd.


Rattanbai Petit Jinnah, short-lived bride of Pakistan's founder
Rattanbai Petit Jinnah 

The most important weapon of the historical novel is its power to reveal the interior lives of its characters, where existing evidence can only hint at interest, motive or principle. The novelist can also spin out the tantalising threads of incongruity that poke out of history: the Duchess barters; the werewolf sings; the arms dealer is an affectionate family man.

Once, when the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was addressing the leading Muslim clergy of Bombay, his beautiful wife Ruttie (1900-29), officially Maryam after her conversion from Zoroastrianism to Islam, appeared in a limousine, stylishly and faintly dressed, with a tiffin basket, crying “J!” Interrupted in his pious oratory, the leader of the Muslim League was aghast to discover that his wife had brought his favourite lunch: ham sandwiches.

Ruttie’s last surviving letter to Jinnah, before her untimely death, is charged with a sincerity that dispels the idea of a frivolous debutante yoked to an uncaring statesman: “Try and remember me beloved as the flower you plucked and not the flower you tread upon.” Jinnah, a strong-willed man of steely, unforgiving privacy, wept like a child at his wife’s grave; only historical fiction at its best can tell us wholly why.

Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: the Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman (Allen Lane) is published next month