WITH AUTHOR SARAH JOHNSON AND HER BLOG, READING THE PAST. THE ROLE OF MINOR CHARACTERS IN HISTORICAL FICTION, AN ESSAY.
March 22, 2021
The Role of Minor Characters in Historical Fiction
I still do not fully comprehend why I have such fondness for the three minor characters I created in Eleonora and Joseph: Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment. Maybe the reason is that I see them as stepping-stones to connect the novel's dots. As I was writing the book, these characters seemed to have a life of their own, popping out of my mind to solve plot issues I needed to address. We know how a novel thrives on conflict between major protagonists to advance to its conclusion. Those minor figures, however, far from conflicting, helped shape de narrative's details. As a result, I developed a sense of wonder about them. Like in a magician's show, they emerged from my imagination as stars from inside a top hat.
Two of these figures existed: Edward José Correia da Serra (1803-?) - the son of Abbé Joseph Correia da Serra - and Louis René Latouche-Tréville (1745-1804). I needed them for my plot – and they were there for me! Suor Amadea della Valle, a nun, is a person belonging to a ubiquitous social group in eighteenth-century Naples but, as I explained in a previous interview, a character of my imagination.
I will address Eduardo as Edward - the English translation of his name I use throughout the book. I would have enjoyed meeting this young man in real life! Edward seems to have had a formidable Parisian education and to have enjoyed his stay in America. Most probably he had ambivalent feelings about his paternity when he was young; but the Abbé certainly visited often mother and son while he was in Paris. The bond developed between the two men at that time must have been the basis for a satisfying relationship later on. Correia da Serra arrives in America in 1812, therefore Edward lived alone with his mother after the age of nine. The name Esther (Delavigne) suggests Edward's mother was Jewish.
In the so-called "Memórias" of the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon, there is a letter where Correia thanks a Parisian friend for lending him some money for Esther and Edward. The letter is written in New York and dated of 1813. The writing is in French and he addresses Edward as his 'petit filleul', "little godson'. It is not known when Edward arrived in America to be with his father, but in 1817 he is at St. Mary's College in Baltimore. Before that, father and son lived in a boarding house in Philadelphia. In the correspondence below, Edward speaks fondly of their occupants. At one point, he says he has been to Monticello with his father and that he recalls how Jefferson loathed newspapers in the later part of his life. This is the reason why I included in my novel a description of one of Edward's visits to Monticello.
At the end of The Abbé Correa in America (1812-1820) – a book about the correspondence between Correia da Serra and Jefferson ‒ Richard Beale Davis includes a few letters that Edward wrote to several people in America after father and son left the country. Almost all I know about Edward comes from these letters. The tone is polite, deferential, intelligent, and liberal.
As I proceeded to explore his character, I kind of worried for Edward. Beale describes how he was introduced as his father's secretary or nephew in America. How horrible Edward must have felt! The family secret, however, must have been disclosed to Thomas Jefferson during an intimate conversation in Monticello. When encouraging his friend to accept, one day, a teaching position at the University of Virginia, Jefferson tells Correia to settle in Virginia with his family. Moreover, he offers his house for the family to stay.
I also wondered what Edward thought about his father's confession to the inquisition. The confession is about Joseph's sexual peccadilloes while he lived in Lisbon. He is a Catholic priest, he is supposed to be chaste. In his letters, Edward mocks the provinciality of life in Lisbon, the despotism of priests, and the inquisition's instruments of torture. If so, how would he view his father's disclosure, once he found out about it? Even if the Catholic Church kept those documents secret, Edward was bound to find out about them one way or another. What a stain in his father's character! This is why I conceived a paragraph or two at the end of the novel where Correia considers the best way to discuss the issue with his son. He wants to ask for Edward's forgiveness, and is undecided as to the best way to proceed. Would it be better to have a conversation with him, or write a letter his son could read after his death?
Curiously, Edward also mentions in one of these letters a job he holds for a while in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Lisbon. He hates the job, considering it beneath his capability. Moreover, he describes how pleasing it is that the building where he works – a public building now – had been in the past an Inquisition palace. I quote Edward: "an ancient temple of cruel superstition." He is keen to leave Lisbon and move to Paris to study medicine, he wants to have the same profession his grandfather once held.
Edward seems to get along quite well with his famous father, another endearing trait.
Louis René Latouche-Tréville is the dashing French Admiral who, in real life, arrived at the bay of Naples in late 1792 commanding a French squadron at the head of a warship, the Languedoc. As he announced, he was ready to reduce Naples to "rubble," as the French Republic took offense on a diplomatic incident with the Kingdom of Naples. Latouche –Tréville was a French aristocrat who early on had joined the French revolution, and was elected a deputy to the Tiers-État, in 1789. He renounced his title to serve the French Republic and fight for the sans-culottes, the people!
Besides this stupendous credential, of the outmost importance to the Neapolitan revolutionaries, the Admiral had served in the American War of independence. The French had given him the immense privilege of transporting aboard L'Hermione the Marquis de Lafayette during his second voyage to America. The frigate also carried supplies, munitions and troops to help Americans fight for their independence.
Eleonora goes on board when the admiral decides to provoke the king and queen of Naples and invites the Neapolitan Jacobins to a banquet aboard the Languedoc on January 12, the king's birthday. Daring as she had become, Eleonora attends the festivities with her compatriots, the only woman among, maybe, two hundred guests! She feels she has nothing to lose at this point in her life.
In the novel, Eleonora ends up falling in love with the French naval hero and, for her, the meeting is transformational. She says that since the time she was in love with Correia da Serra, she hadn't felt that way. Latouche-Tréville had her sit at the main table, to his right, and they discussed the current political events in both their nations. As the conversation proceeds, they fervently smiled and glanced at each other. Among Phrygian caps and tricolor cockades, the two end up the evening dancing on the warship's deck at the sound of patriotic songs the French sailors chant.
After this moment there is no going back for Eleonora. She is fully committed to a radical change, and to help install a Republican government in Naples. She has learned in the flesh that, if the French revolutionaries can change a government, so can Neapolitans if they so chose. When in prison later, she dreams of the flamboyant French admiral and his invitation to see him in France. When she is in the Bay of Naples ready to go into exile, it is him who comes into her mind as she envisions a new life. At this point in the novel, the political and the romantic reverie became for her, truly, one.
I feel very pleased to have imagined Eleonora falling in love late in life; in 1793 she was forty-one years old. But, this, of course, is totally within her character.
I put in Suor Amadea della Valle's words what the diarist Carlo de Nicola ‒ someone who recorded the Neapolitan Republic in great detail ‒ said about Eleonora the day she was hanged. She is in the crowd in Piazza Mercato watching the event.
Suor Amadea is a character of my imagination. I made her the Madre Superiore, the nun in charge of the Vicaria Prison, the women's section. Not an unlikely situation, since many religious orders were involved in public and community work, devoting their lives to ameliorating the condition of the destitute.
Sour Amadea had to enter the novel at an early stage so that she and Eleonora could develop a close relationship throughout the years. So I had her pay a visit to Queen Carolina when Eleonora is the queen's librarian. As the Madre Superiore, Suor Amadea had to be literate (as only members of the high classes of Naples were). She goes to the Royal Palace to ask for royal assistance in helping the prisoners acquire the rudiments of reading and writing. The majority of Neapolitans were illiterate, it being common to sign one's name by making the sign of the cross.
As Eleonora writes her memoir in secrecy while in her filthy prison cell – awaiting her sentence – her account must be found later, after she dies. Suor Amadea had placed her old friend in a cell by herself, and had given her a table to write, parchment paper, a quill pen, and a jug of ink. She shows Eleonora the table's secret compartment, where she advises her to hide all those objects. Given the appalling conditions of a Neapolitan prison in the late eighteenth century, only a devoted friend would provide Eleonora with such luxuries.
I see Suor Amadea as one of the nuns portrayed by Saverio della Gatta, which I have included in the Gallery page of this website. She is the one fully dressed in the olive green habit, with the matching green hood. She is plump, and friendly, and warm-hearted. Like Eleonora, Suor Amadea is also of Portuguese descent, a link both women discuss when they originally meet at the Royal Palace.
Amadeu Lopes Sabino calls Suor Amadea a feminist avant la lettre, someone ahead of her times. And this is exactly how I see her. Her sense of solidarity towards Eleonora, despite her official position as the prison head, is palpable throughout the novel.
Suor Amadea understands Eleonora both at a human and a spiritual level. She offers comfort to her friend, she is kind and compassionate – even if there is really nothing she can do to alter the course of events. She acts courageously, albeit covertly, while Eleonora is at the Vicaria prison under her official surveillance. She is surrounded by nuns, and she knows some are cruel and ruthless; one among them could denounce her for aiding a convict. Eleonora is not a common prisoner; she is a political prisoner who risked defying the Neapolitan monarchy. Suor Amadea's discretion is imperative to bring her own plan to fruition: if Eleonora is to die, her memoir must survive. To find out what she does, one must read my novel!