Historical Notes: Time does not distort reality. Life does

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The Independent Culture
AT ONE time or another, we must have all felt that we were born into the wrong era. We pine for the false simplicity of the past or yearn for a feature of infinite possibilities. This is why we read fiction, to expand if only for a moment the terrible literalness of our daily lives.

For some unfortunates, however, circumstances leave them wondering if they might not have strayed into the wrong life altogether. Foremost among these must have been Dr Johnson's hapless friend Richard Savage, "born", according to Johnson, "with a legal claim to honour and to affluence" as the illegitimate son of the fourth Earl Rivers by the Countess of Macclesfield. Savage descended into a short life of bastardy and confusion. After an orphaned youth, he followed the literary profession with only limited success and finally died in a debtors' prison. Most of his days, he could well have echoed Gerard Manley Hopkins's later complaint, "Why must disappointment all I endeavour end?"

And never more so than on the night of Monday 20 November 1727, when Savage and two associates stopped in at Robinson's coffee-house near Charing Cross. Rushing into a room that was just being vacated, the newcomers sparked a quarrel with the departing guests. In the succeeding melee, Savage's sword somehow found its way through the belly of one James Sinclair. The victim fell to the floor, crying, "I am a dead man, and was stabb'd cowardly." By mid-December, Richard Savage stood in the Old Bailey, declared guilty of murder. If it had not been for the royal pardon arranged by his important friends, history might have recalled the poet more as a common bully than as a tragic idler.

Yet, as Clarence Tracy notes in his book The Artificial Bastard, Savage "has become a legend rather than an historical fact". The killing, along with the celebrated trial, has remained as conjectural as the attack on Christopher Marlowe in Deptford. Random violence so often blurs everything within its reach. And, when the defendant's supporters included none other than the Great Cham himself, it was no wonder that the event should have been transformed by its retelling. Johnson's account, the earliest of his great Lives of the Poets, was frankly biased, yet became over time all but factual. He concluded that Savage was a "modest, inoffensive man, not inclined to broils or to insolence" and, therefore, deserving of mercy, if not outright exoneration. More recently, Richard Holmes has argued that Johnson suppressed evidence and betrayed the biographer's code. Yet even he is forced to admit that it was one of Savage's companions, William Merchant, who triggered the confrontation, and that there were plenty of inconsistencies in the depositions. What truly happened that night may lie for ever beyond our knowing.

When I decided to use his incident in my book about a 13th-century watchman named George Man, it was precisely these uncertainties that I most wanted to exploit. Time, I reasoned, does not distort reality. Life distorts reality. If even Savage's contemporaries were divided on their facts and memories, we of later ages need feel no misgivings about letting our imaginations recast the scenario. Altered definitions, shifted points of view, extrapolated behaviour - these are legitimate devices for the novelist to use in an effort to recreate a past that would otherwise be lost to us. He must of course, keep faith with the sights, tastes, and thoughts of the times. But, if he does, he may very well capture what eluded even the participants and eye- witnesses themselves, the natural ambiguity of life as fickle as quicksilver.

In his poetical satire On False Historians, Savage writes of "romantick" tale-tellers that "stead of history, such authors raise / Mere, crude, wild novels of bad hints for plays". I trust that, given all his own failings, he would not have judged my version of his life too harshly.

Keith Heller is the author of `Man's Loving Family' (Headline, pounds 5.99)