Imagining History

When writing historical fiction I have found it almost essential to visit the places in which the actual events occurred. Being where the characters once were inspires me to feel I know them so much better and am more confident therefore to imagine scenes and put words in their mouths where no actual evidence of such exists. This is especially important where the central character was of little historical importance and few records of their life were ever made.

I was therefore very excited to discover that the Chhatar Manzil building in Lucknow is being restored and will be open to the public as a museum of Avadh’s unique culture and history. Designed by Claude Martin, French soldier and entrepreneur, as his town house, the building was the first home of the heroine of my novel The Black Princess’ after her marriage in 1789.

Nur Baksh’s husband was Captain, later General, Benoit de Boigne, a highly trusted soldier in the service of Mahadji Sindhia, then leader of the Mahratta alliance who, but for his early death, might have become the ruler of central India as the Mughal Empire collapsed and British influence increased.

I learnt of her existence in the wonderful book ‘White Mughals’ by William Dalrymple and felt especially drawn to her because she spent most of her life living in the English countryside, very near to where I live with my Indian husband. I cannot find her house but I have visited her grave in St Mary’s churchyard in the town of Horsham in the county of Sussex. She lies aligned in a north to south direction according to Islamic not Christian custom, despite the fact that in all the years she lived in England she was known as her husband renamed her: ‘Mrs Helena Bennett’. It was her Sussex neighbours who, evidently finding her presence among them strange, called her ‘The Black Princess’ although she was neither royal nor dark-skinned.

Later home to a succession of Nawabs, following Independence and until recently the Chhatar Manzil housed a drug research institute and was inaccessible to the public. I could only manage to view its beautiful exterior from a rowing boat on the Gomti. In the book I imagine Nur enjoying a similar experience together with her sister Faiz, who was married to Captain William Palmer, officer of the East India Company and a great lover of Indian culture, and with Colonel Martin and his chief consort, Boulone. As I let Boulone remark: how strange that they are three friends all with European husbands who are also friends. She wishes they could have their portrait taken together.  (Fortunately, there are portraits both of her and of Nur in the company of Faiz and William and their children, both by the German painter of both the British and Austrian Royal families, Johan Zoffany.)

There are other wonderful buildings in Lucknow that inspired my book, such as the breath-taking Bara Imam-Bara, built by order of the then Nawab to provide employment for the city’s population after the famine of 1784. There are the remains of the British Residency, the main building of which is a museum, where Nur lived with the Palmers before her marriage, and which was besieged in the uprising of 1857. Were it not for the pandemic, I would be visiting Lucknow again this winter. Meanwhile I shall console myself with the thought that the Chhatar Manzil will be fully restored and open to the public by the time that I can return.

Maggie Voysey Paun

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