Today I’m delighted to welcome Gill Paul back to One More Page with a fab guest post on writing historical novels. Gill’s latest book, The Affair was released last week and is a brilliant read set in Rome in 1961 and based around the filming of the 1963 film Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Gill’s previous novel, Women and Children First examined the impact of the Titanic disaster on the lives of those who survived it so Gill is certainly no stranger to writing from an historical viewpoint!
The Historical Writers Association says that to be considered ‘historical’ a novel should be set at least 35 years before the date when it’s written, while the Romantic Novelists’ Association says it should be set before 1960 – so one of them would consider The Affair historical while the other would not. But I think the era in which Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fell in love while filming Cleopatra was vastly different from our own in so many fundamental respects that it definitely counts as history.
Homosexuality was illegal, so Elizabeth’s best friend Roddy McDowall had to be very discreet about his lover John Valva, for whom he procured a minor role in the film. Most women hoped to stay at home and be kept by their husbands after marriage, so my character Diana was unusual in pursuing a career, particularly as she did so against her husband’s wishes. Just as in Mad Men, it still considered a harmless bit of fun if men grabbed a woman’s bottom or made personal comments about her figure in the workplace. And while some girls had sex before marriage, they had to be super-careful because abortion was illegal and unmarried mothers were social outcasts.
The furore caused by the Taylor/Burton affair would never be repeated in the modern age. Can you imagine the Vatican cardinals accusing a married movie star who has an affair of ‘erotic vagrancy’? Or an American congresswoman attempting to have her banned from America? Angelina Jolie and Kristen Stewart got off lightly by comparison when they had affairs with married men.
It’s not just the sexual politics that were different. International telephone calls had to be placed through an operator and the lines were crackly, so once Diana was in Rome it was hard to have a conversation with her husband back in London. The technology used in the filming would seem prehistoric to young filmmakers today: a focus puller measured the distance from the camera to the actor’s head in order to set the focus, and they actually had to build a dozen ornate battleships and destroy them for the sea battle of Actium (nowadays it would be done with CGI).
There are some bits of Rome that never change. Café tables still line the Via Veneto and Vespas chug past up the hill. The grand old villas on the Via Appia Antica where Elizabeth Taylor lived with Eddie Fisher and Richard lived with Sybil Burton are still there, hidden behind high walls. The antiquities remain the same, and the original Cinecittà studio commissioned by Mussolini still stands, but it’s now on the metro line and much easier to reach. And there are dozens of trattoria like the ones I describe, where the menus are the same as in 1962; the only difference is that they now charge euros instead of lire.
I had a wonderful time on my research trip to Rome in October 2011, and I read dozens of books on the era, but the 1960s truly came to life for me when I found an actor called John Gayford, who played a centurion in Cleopatra. He went through my first-draft manuscript correcting things like the colour of the doorman’s coat, the layout of the sound stages, the slang terms used, and the type of mineral water they served in the bar. I love having those details correct because they all add up to a stronger sense of the period: a period I maintain that was light years away from ours in almost everything – everything except what it feels like to fall in love.
Thank you Gill.
Find out more about Gill and her novels at: http://www.gillpaul.com/