Do historical figures inhabit your fiction work?
Some past events and long-dead people crop up in The Red Cliffs Chronicles—the 1621 Battle of Khotyn, the 1588 Battle of Gravelines, the 1793-1794 Reign of Terror; the fifteenth-century Turkish cartographer Piri Reis, Voltaire, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and so on. I like throwing bits and pieces of history into my novels and then tweaking them to fit my narrative purposes.
One particular man has his cameo appearance in all my stories—Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, a statesman I deeply admire.
Along with Catherine the Great and Frederic the Great, Josef II has been considered one of the three most important Enlightenment rulers.
History doesn’t call him “Josef the Great”, but to me—and I’m not alone–he is the greatest among the three of them. His vision was broader, more modern, more humane. More idealistic. He didn’t possess the ruthlessness of the other two and, unlike Catherine and Frederick, didn’t eradicate his powerful opponents to enforce his reforms and thus give them a chance to consolidate.
As someone said, he wanted too much, too fast, too early.
There isn’t better proof of this statement than Josef II’s reformation of the legal system: in 1787, he abolished brutal punishment and death sentence.
The radical changes Josef II initiated didn’t take root during his lifetime. His triumph, however, although postponed, was ultimate—his reforms became the bedrock for modernization of the Austrian Monarchy and its pathway to democracy.
According to many accounts, the emperor was a contemplative, lonely man with melancholic blue eyes. He died relatively young, without children — his only daughter didn’t survive childhood. His first wife, whom he adored, didn’t love him in return; just the opposite happened in his second marriage. Reading and learning about him, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question that often pops into a writer’s mind – what if things were different?
And this is how Josef II ended up with an alternative biography, much happier than his official, imperial life story had even been. But then, when I took over telling it, he wasn’t an emperor anymore. Just a man, free to dream and love.
In this a small excerpt from Chapter 35 of Guardian of the Realm, in which our heroine meets an interesting man.
“… Dr. Gerhard Falkenstein bore an astonishing likeness to Josef II, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and one of my favorite historical figures. I tried hard to ignore the fact that Falkenstein had been the alias the Emperor had used for his travels as a commoner since I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t find even a remotely reasonable explanation. Dr. Falkenstein was a pleasant, quiet man and had light blue, somewhat melancholic eyes, like the man whom he resembled. His Midwest American accent was a welcoming reality check. The Emperor had liked to travel, but no history book mentioned that he’d reached Colorado. The solemn Dr. Falkenstein couldn’t be his relative either. It was well known that the Emperor’s only child was a daughter who had died very young…”