Tales of Incarceration: Historical Fiction in Uncomfortable Settings
I like writing books set in places of confinement.
Maybe it’s because I loved every moment of reading The Count of Monte Cristo as a teenager on holiday in the Pyrenees, refusing to go sight-seeing because I needed to keep reading. Or maybe it’s because I found Papillon in my grandfather’s bookshelves and read it under the covers at night, shocked and amazed by the story that unfolded, as well as by the fact that my grandpa would read such a book. So many factors influence writers, but in this case I see a direct link between my teenage reading and the books I write. I still always love stories set in places of isolation or confinement—prisons, asylums, islands, even lighthouses—and so it’s no surprise to find this reflected in my historical fiction.
Charlatan (2016)—featuring the Chateau de Vincennes
One of the oldest royal residences in France, Chateau de Vincennes has been in existence since the 12th century. It was highly fortified by thick walls and still features a high donjon (a tower, eight floors tall) built in the 14th century as a residence for Charles V. In the mid-17th century, approaching the period of my novel Charlatan, it was one of many building projects entrusted to the architect Louis Le Vau and became the residence of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s most trusted adviser until his death in 1661. But Chateau de Vincennes was also regularly used as a prison. During the Affair of the Poisons, when a sprawling investigation into poisoning and witchcraft threatened to engulf Louis XIV’s court in scandal, Chateau de Vincennes became the key holding place for those arrested. Police chief Nicholas La Reynie visited Vincennes frequently, conducting interviews and interrogations, prior to taking prisoners to face trial in the Arsenal in nearby Paris.
In Charlatan, the prison is central location. It is here that La Reynie’s assistant Louis Bezons is drawn to the daughter of La Voisin, a key figure in the Affair of the Poisons. It is also here that the magician and confidence man, Lesage, tries to find a way to stay alive while men and women he has worked with are brought to trial and executed. As the scope of the investigation grew, security was a problem at the prison—prisoners were able to communicate with each other and with the outside world—and desperate people, with time on their hands and urgent desires, can make wonderful characters.
The Road to Newgate (2018)—featuring Newgate Prison
In my second novel, The Road to Newgate, London’s famous Newgate prison is an often-visited location for my characters, sometimes as visitors, but also as inmates. Newgate was notorious for the poor conditions prisoners experienced—unless, of course, they had money. The prison was first built in the 12th century and then, as a casualty of the Great Fire of 1666, it was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. In the 17th century, Britain was in transition. Many aspects of society were advanced and modern but in terms of crime and punishment, things were fairly medieval. Heads were still displayed on spikes and traitors were hung, drawn, and quartered. The sounds and smells of Newgate are an important aspect in my efforts to create a believable picture of life in London at this time—warts and all. Here’s an excerpt from The Road to Newgate, with one of my characters, William Smith. He has just been arrested and taken to the prison.
“No-one will tell me what charges I face, but they are serious enough that the Keeper of Newgate raises an eyebrow and whistles when he looks at the paperwork the soldiers give him. He tells me I may send no messages and will receive no visitors. I’m manhandled into a large dark room and sold a candle that costs me nearly every shilling I have on my person. Then I’m left to find a space for myself in the gloom. Men, little more than bundles of misery and rags, huddle on the floor or on narrow boards fixed to the wall. The smell of excrement is overpowering. I find a gap in a far corner and lean into it as my stomach heaves and sweat breaks out on my forehead. This is the condemned hold.”
The Girl Puzzle (2019)—featuring the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum
For my next novel I’m writing a dual timeline story about Nellie Bly, an intrepid young journalist who agreed to be committed to a lunatic asylum in order to report on conditions from the inside. In 1887, the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum was not a prison, but for the women committed there, it might as well have been. Here’s very different scene from the one above, when Nellie first arrives in Hall 6:
“The arrival of five new patients causes a stir. There are perhaps forty women in the room, dressed uniformly in ugly blue and white calico checked dresses. They’re mainly seated, crammed together on hard wooden benches set out at intervals around the walls. They look like birds, huddled in flocks on telegram wire. It’s a large room, bright, at least, but the air is cool. She can see her breath. Light shines down from barred windows, reflecting against whitewashed walls. Three small lithographs hang slightly askew: in one she recognizes the composer Fritz Emmett, the others depict negro minstrels. While the patients crowd the benches, nurses in heavy coats sit at a central table covered in clean white cloth. At one end of the room stands a square grand piano, not a fine looking instrument, but serviceable. At the other end, doors lead to what Nellie thinks might be a doctor’s office or perhaps an examination room.”
Among the many challenges (and joys) of writing historical fiction, is the need to convey the time period naturally within the story. Conditions in prisons vary drastically from country to country and from century to century. Small details can be very telling. The same is true of how societies treat people with mental illness.
Another plus I’ve found in writing scenes set in places of confinement is that characters are never at their best when they have lost their freedom. They might be frightened, they might be angry. They may be innocent or guilty, sane or insane. Taking away a character’s freedom and seeing how they respond is a fascinating way for a writer to explore a personality. And stories where characters face conflict and strife will always have the potential to explode onto the page.
Kate Braithwaite is the author of two historical crime novels set in Europe in the 17th century but is jumping century and continent for The Girl Puzzle (Crooked Cat Books, 2019) to explore the life of Nellie Bly in 1880s and 1920s New York.
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Images: Chateau de Vincennes, Newgate Prison, and Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum, all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.