A Muse on Character

Queen Desideria of Sweden – image courtesy of Wikipedia

As with many in our language, the word character can be interpreted in several ways and mean different things to different people.

For example: It may be used to describe someone with a distinctive individuality and/or eccentric personality.

Or it may be used to define the quality of a person’s moral fibre; the essence of an individual’s psychological make-up. People requiring a reference would naturally be hoping to be spoken of as being of good or strong character rather than bad or weak.

To a calligrapher or scribe it may mean one of a set of symbols used in a language.

To a writer it means a person or personality portrayed in a novel or drama. And in this case, developing a set of believable characters is everything. No time or energy is too much to spend on this essential building block.

However, the character of some of them, as in real life, can leave much to be desired.

Even one word can be enough to bring a character to life: Machiavellian, wolfish, foxy, warhorse, porcine, ox-like: all conjure up images that need no clarification.

Phrases such as the lift of an eyebrow, the quirk of a lip: all help to paint a picture of character (the character of the character, so to speak).

In real life there are people so evil that it takes your breath away and people so heroic and self-sacrificing that it is equally hard to comprehend. But most of us and our fictional characters fit somewhere along the spectrum of these two extremes: slightly flawed but lovable, just the same.

There are many such fictional characters and one I will always have a soft spot for is the Earl of St. Erth created by Georgette Heyer in her Regency romance The Quiet Gentleman.

Amongst the real characters of history, I am especially drawn to the gentle, tragic Earl of Derwentwater, whose only crime was loyalty; and vibrant and loving Katherine Swynford, both brought to life with amazing clarity by Anya Seton in her novels Devil Water and Katherine respectively.

Recently, I reread Désirée by Annemarie Selenko, the story of a real life heroine: Désirée Clary, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who was loved by two of the most important statesmen of her day, finally becoming a queen: Desideria of Sweden.

She must have had plenty of character to have attracted the interest of an Emperor and a great General whom a country invited to be its King; and if you look at her portrait above you can see that she has it in spades.

Character and character: the one so forgettable without the other.


Granville-Paris Express Incident in 1895



How often do we hear railway metaphors and similes used to describe dramatic events in our lives? We say that someone has made a trainwreck of their life; that our plans have been derailed; when we speak of life-changing circumstances. Even in a small way, we might describe a feeling of tiredness as having run out of steam or puff, another allusion to the trains of a bygone era.

The railways have made a great impact on life and language since their eager acceptance by the British public in the 1820s and 1830s. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, train travel represented possibly the fastest and most economical way to cover long distances; and the most endurable if you were not rich enough to command the comforts of life.

Speaking of such things, I found the above amazing image on Wikipedia while researching the Paris railway stations for my Master of Illusion series.

On 22nd October, 1895 (when Madame Dupont was also having a little holiday away from her diary) the Granville-Paris Express overran its buffer stop at the Gare Montparnasse; crossed the concourse before crashing through the wall and came to rest in spectacular fashion, nose first, in the street below.

Incredibly, only one person was killed: not by the train directly, but by falling masonry. And here we see the irony of fate: The poor woman was minding her husband’s stall while he was away running an errand. Definitely, the wrong place at the wrong time!

And what of the stall holder himself? Did he congratulate himself on having had an amazing escape? Or did he wish that it had been him? Or miss her so much that he felt he should have died with her? We will never know.

More recently, the Gare Montparnasse is famous as the venue for the surrender of Colonel Dietrich von Choltitz to General Jacques-Phillipe Leclerc and Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy on 25th August 1944.

Colonel von Choltitz, the German commander of Paris during World War II, was hailed as the saviour of Paris by its grateful populace for his refusal to obey Hitler’s insane orders to destroy the city.

General Leclerc was the commander of the French 2nd Armoured Division formed in London in late 1943. The Division landed in Normandy attached to General George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army and fought alongside the FFI in the Battle for Paris (19th – 24th August 1944).

Colonel Rol-Tanguy, known by his nom de guerre of Colonel Rol during WWII, was the leader of the Paris division of the FFI. A real hero of the French Résistance, he fought on grimly from the underground through all the years of the war.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.