25 January 2012
Posted in Books and Poetry
Kirsten Ellis explains how her book Star of the Morning, The Extraordinary Life Of Lady Hester Stanhope came to be adapted by Oscar-winner David Seidler
Writers often feel that their books are their mythical, and in some cases actual, children; creations that spring from and are woven into their DNA. Whatever you might, in hindsight, wish to have written differently, there is no way to relinquish your progeny’s claim on you. For better or worse, your book, like your child, is part of you, and always will be.
So when your book is optioned for adaptation to the screen, it creates an immediate form of separation anxiety. Suddenly your child is no longer yours, but a creature that belongs to other people too. You hope they will do well out there in the world, but you can’t control the outcome. You have to trust and let go, always remembering that, unlike a child, your book will always remain the way it was when it finally saw life; movies or television may well transmute your story into something you barely recognise, but your book will always be your book.
It was always hard not to imagine that the subject of my book, Lady Hester Stanhope, was obvious material for a film. Her life was packed with more drama, adventure, romance and exoticism than that experienced by most mortals. Noted equally for being headstrong, witty and beautiful, Hester went from living at 10 Downing Street with her uncle, the unmarried Prime Minister William Pitt (for whom she acted as both unofficial hostess and confidante), to a life in Syria so remarkable that it might have been invented by Rider Haggard. Her charisma and horsemanship so impressed the Bedouin that they made her an honorary emir, naming her for the Arab goddess, ul-Huzza, ‘Star of the Morning.’ A hundred years before T.E. Lawrence, she hoped to help unite the Arabs against the Ottomans, backed by the British, but her dream – and her hope to be a power-broker in the Middle East – put her too far ahead of her time.
Hester was an almost exact contemporary of Jane Austen – born three months apart - and the two could not be more opposite creatures of the same age.
Bedlam Productions optioned the film rights to my book part-way through filming their feature The King’s Speech, and well in advance of that film’s spectacular critical and commercial success. Indeed, I first met producer Gareth Unwin between takes on set in Portland Place on the day Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush filmed their famous f-word scene. I came away with a strong feeling that something truly magic was happening and with (The King’s Speech screenwriter) David Seidler writing the screenplay, I trusted that my book, which would now become The Lady Who Went Too Far, was most definitely in the best hands possible. The Bedlam team continue to impress me at every step with their commitment to remain true to the spirit of the book, and most importantly, to Hester herself.
It’s not all about just trusting and letting go of course. Over the past year, as consultant on the story adaptation of The Lady Who Went Too Far, I’ve collaborated very closely with David on the developing script, learning a lot about the process of carving out the filmic story – heavily chiselled and diamond-sharp – from my epic biographical study, which if adapted literally, could easily make for an eight-hour movie or a 12-episode drama. Time compression was essential: events which take place over a decade, when Hester ranges in age from 28 to 38, got major nip and tuck treatment. Paring down was also vital: too many life events would cram up a feature film as would too many numerous colourful personalities. Beau Brummell and the revolutionary General Francisco de Miranda (to name only two) had to be dropped, as well as a surfeit of lovers. We concentrated on the pivotal story of Hester’s relationship with the Napoleonic spy Yves Vincent Boutin: their mutual attraction and mistrust, and, ultimately, how their passionate love affair gets played out against the larger backdrop of belonging to opposing sides. It’s a drama, a political/espionage thriller, and a love story.
There have been numerous debates and discussions about achieving the right tonality, language, dialogue and ‘feel’ and keeping it all historically
accurate, often via Skype between my home in Surrey and David’s in Santa Monica. These were conversations in which David was able to access and draw on my fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of Hester’s life and times in a free-wheeling fashion, then use whatever was relevant. These ‘Hester conversations’ fed directly into David’s creation, shaping and layering of the scenes as he was writing them. David did a lot of what Lady Antonia Fraser has delightfully phrased as ‘optical research.’ I walked him around Hester’s London, Walmer Castle and her family pile, Chevening, in Kent, and urged him to visit her fortress ruins in southern Lebanon, as well as Damascus and the ruined city of Palmyra, so he could experience the great desert wilderness and mountains she traversed in between. We were lucky to go last October; trying to make the same trip now might be somewhat more difficult.
It had been my own travels in Lebanon in the early 1990s that first sparked my interest in Hester, when I visited the town of Joun in the Chouf mountains near Sidon. I was on my first trip to the Middle East and picnicking with friends among the ruins of her palazzo-style fortress. My friends – two Lebanese sisters – were visiting their family house, which they had not seen for more than a decade because of the civil war that had raged since 1975. I was curious to know why this remote Englishwoman had lived almost 20 years in such a spot; over many cups of cardamom-scented coffee I heard Arab stories about Hester – whose fiefdom everyone called ‘Dar el Sytt’ or place of the lady – stories that had been passed down that revered and celebrated her.
I took a long detour through journalism and travel writing before finally settling down to write Hester’s biography. My research took me back to Turkey and the Middle East, especially Lebanon and Syria, where I made a point of going where she had gone as much as possible, as well as seeking out direct descendants of those she had known, among them Walid Jumblatt, former warlord and Druze leader, who asked me to lunch at his palace in Mouktara where his ancestor had often entertained Hester.
Researching and writing took four years. A good biography should be as unputdownable as a novel (yet of course every statement and description must be buttressed by established fact) and while writing it I was frequently on tenterhooks myself. The detective hunt took me to the great trove of the Stanhope family papers in Maidstone and numerous archives across Britain; digging into hitherto overlooked Arabic and French sources tucked away in libraries in Beirut, Istanbul, Paris and the United States, as well as a stash of never-published, often deeply affecting letters scattered from Ireland to Australia.What I found was a story greatly at odds with the long-held, traditional view of Lady Hester, which had been passed like a baton from one biographer to the next over the generations, the depiction of her as the classic English eccentric whose exotic adventures, although certainly diverting, proved ultimately feckless, while she herself was doomed to a Miss Havisham-style descent into debt, isolation and madness. This version of her life was a myth, originally perpetrated by her doctor, Charles Meryon, who immediately after her death in 1839 cobbled together six volumes of travel diaries and what purported to be her memoir. The good doctor claimed he was trying to rescue ‘His Ladyship’s’ reputation from the stain of scandal (in an age when for a woman, ambition, refusal to be dominated by male opinion and unmarried sex were all equal sins) but she would have considered his version of her – the only one likely to be palatable to his intended Victorian audience – to be the greatest of all betrayals.
My book reveals a very different woman. It’s important to point out the distinction, because it’s this version, not that found in earlier biographies, that makes the film. Hester, who was born into a family of brilliant politicians and thinkers, in fact made a rational and whole-hearted attempt to play an important political role during her time in the Middle East. She faced the greatest disappointment of her life when her government refused to give any credence to her influence with the Bedouin Arabs, and when the French recognised and offered her chance to capitalise on it for them, she plunged headfirst into the shadowy game of espionage and intelligence-gathering that took place between the great powers in Syria during and shortly after the Napoleonic wars.
She was a courageous, deeply ambitious and passionate woman, and she always lived - and loved – fully and on her own terms.
Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis is published by HarperPress