Just Call Him Evelyn
When our Royal Newfoundland Regiment set off on its ill-advised cross-country drive towards an unknown Hubrin base in 1920, the one most responsible was a Major General named Evelyn Hughes. Son of forceful Canadian politician Sam Hughes, Evelyn used his influence to compel Sir Julian Byng and Arthur Currie to launch the motorized mission, even though every expert warned him that it would be a disaster.
And a disaster it mostly was. As I’ve already explained at some length, the trucks and scout cars available in 1920 were not equal to the demands of a thousand-mile cross-country trek. Land Rovers were still two decades away, so the mission was doomed before it was launched. Only the creativity of the b’ys, and the abilities of the alien lorries they’d captured, allowed some success to be retrieved.
All that trouble because of one man –– one character who assumed he knew better than everyone else… and who, during the drafting stages of The Expedition, was not named Evelyn.
See, Sam Hughes’ actual son was named Garnet, and as I explained (at some unnecessary length) in The Expedition‘s historical notes, Canadian history widely regards him to be a villain. The story goes that Garnet –– who was good friends with Arthur Currie leading up to the First World War –– responded to the first-ever gas attack launched by the Germans in 1915, by launching a night attack across no man’s land. Men from the 10th and 16th battalions were sent over the top shoulder-to-shoulder, supported by nothing at all, and with no reconnaissance to guide them. They suffered terribly, and remembering this after he was promoted to command the Canadian Corps, Currie made certain Hughes never rose higher in the ranks. Feeling scorned, Hughes spent the rest of his life trying to assassinate Currie’s character.
Or so the story goes.
As I said in The Expedition, I haven’t dug into any primary source material about that collision of egos, and because it’s possible that history can condemn men unjustly (especially officers from that era, who are often unfairly treated), I didn’t feel it right to simply include ‘villain Garnet’ in the series. Instead, it seemed wiser to insert a doppleganger –– in this case, Evelyn.
This wasn’t a one-off decision. Before starting His Majesty’s New World, I set a rule for myself: only include real historical figures if you’re going to say something nice about them. Villains and fools would be fictional; any real characters involved would have to be be treated fairly. Thus, Sir Julian Byng, Sir Andrew Skeen, Arthur Currie, and even Harry Crerar are all real people from Canadian history, and while I don’t profess to having gotten everything right about each of them, I’ve done my best.
Everything from Byng’s refusal to take his hands out of pockets, to Skeen’s book on Afghanistan (which was difficult to get a copy of) are drawn from reality, and when I had to fill in the gaps with fiction, I always erred on the side of positivity. In Champions, this pattern was repeated with Douglas Bader. As I’ve mentioned, my portrayal of our double-amputee hero probably better resembles Kenneth More’s portrayal in Reach For the Sky, than it does the real man… but that strikes me as fine.
I’m not trying to whitewash anyone’s history –– by now it should be plain that I’m aware of the flaws apparent on various sides of most historical issues. But it would seem the height of disrespect for me to sit here and smugly cast unsubstantiated (or plainly fictional) dispersions on real people, especially when those people fought for the benefit of the country that’s afforded me my easy life. I’ll repeat it again: we writers are privileged to have the time and education to practice our craft. Using it for needless slander just seems untoward.
And yet, it’s common.
Last week, I tuned into AMC’s new show, TURN. Purported to be an authentic portrayal of America’s first spy ring, the program brings viewers into the early days of the American Revolution, when British troops (of the apparently ‘Royal’ Army) have arrived in the colonies to stamp out insurrection. It is meant to be visceral, sophisticated, and accurate… but it’s not off to a good start.
I can’t comment on how TURN will tackle the many issues surrounding the Revolution, but I can say that its first episodes have already violated my rules about historical characters. The victim: John Graves Simcoe.
Canadians who stayed awake in some of the more boring days of history class will distantly recognize that name; Simcoe became the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. A dedicated Imperialist who suffered not at all from modesty, he founded Toronto, and did other significant things –– for instance, naming the largest lake he could find… after himself.
In TURN, he is played by Samuel Roukin, and the writers suggest to us that he’s a sort of sociopath, who is predictably obsessed with a beautiful revolutionary inn-keeper. He is also shown to be vicious, relentless, and entirely sadistic in his efforts to quell the savage Americans.
American writer Greg Caggiano has already dismantled some of this portrayal, and you can read that here. Allow me to add a Canadian perspective, courtesy of the ever-useful Dictionary of Canadian Biography:
Simcoe was known to be accessible, pleasant, and eager to please. He was the only surviving son of a British father who died on the Quebec campaign in 1759, and followed a similar career path, but intelligently; he became a proponent of light infantry (that is, soldiers who didn’t fight in line). When he arrived in the Americas in 1775, he took command of the Queen’s Rangers –– an irregular outfit that wore green coats instead of red.
I suspect this is where the TURN writers got the impression of him as a murderous villain; they seem determined to treat the Rangers as a band of killers available for hire… when their ranks were, ultimately, filled by Loyalist refugees who’d been driven from their homes by the Continental Army. Simcoe drilled the Rangers into a highly-disciplined force, but then he was captured for six months, and was eventually invalided home.
Perhaps ironically, history remembers Simcoe as an admirer of the American way of life… he just couldn’t understand why Americans thought that lifestyle was incompatible with the King. When he returned as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, he hoped that the family feud between Britain and the colonies would soon fizzle out, and that everyone would come back together, stronger than before. Obviously, he read that one wrong… but in the meantime, he got other things very right. In 1792, for instance, he convinced the Upper Canadian assembly to phase out slavery, decades before Britain and the United States did the same.
Clearly, this was the act of a one-note villain. I bet he only did it because he was trying to cheat a conveniently powerless female character out of her corset.
I’ve written before of the accuracy requirement in fiction, and here again is an example of it being abandoned for no good reason. Want a sadistic soldier to create tension in your plot? Fine. One might argue it’s a tired trope, but if it’s what you need, then do it –– and do it well. Just be sure that you don’t attribute those characteristics to a man who doesn’t at all resemble them.
To earn his pay cheques, Simcoe navigated through a war against people he admired, then put an end to the institution of slavery in Canada.
To earn their pay cheques, TURN‘s writers invented a fictional sociopath, then pasted a real person’s name onto him.
They can do better, AMC usually does better, and our American friends deserve better.
So next time, just call the bastard Evelyn.