For a writer, memories, dreams and chance encounters may sometimes spark a work of fiction. But so can pictures and relics of the past. Despite Berlin’s recent architectural innovation and artistic renaissance, its troubled history still offers a rich source of the latter for stories. It has proved so for me.
Over twenty years ago, in Berlin, I acquired two 18th-century paintings. One was a portrait of Frederick the Great of Prussia, painted when he was comparatively young by a known artist. The other was a picture of an unknown, well-dressed, good-looking, middle-aged man, painted by an unknown artist – apparently in 1765, according to a faded label on the back. Around the same time, in the city’s well-known flea market, I found (amongst some 1938 German army call-up papers) an original British passport personally issued, in London in October 1853, by the then Foreign Secretary to Robert Whitfield, his wife and son to travel on the European mainland. On the back are stamps of some of the German states the family visited.
Together, these three items persuaded me, much later, to write a novel: the passport – a tangible, organic link to a real person in the past about whom I knew nothing but which provided a canvas on which to paint a fictional ancestor; a portrait of an enlightened 18th-century king but who had an acknowledged dark side that could be exposed in fictional circumstances; and a picture of a man without a name appealing to me for an identity. By so doing he helped me to develop the primary female character, whose image is only visible in my imagination but which I have sought to describe in the book. The result is the creation of two principal fictional figures – a young English woman, Arabella Whitfield, and a retired Prussian army officer, Carl Manfred von Deppe (based on the unknown man in the picture) – mingling with real historical personalities, such as King Frederick and King Louis of France, set in the period 1764–1765.
A passionate believer in a woman’s right not to be treated as a chattel, Arabella runs away from home to avoid an arranged marriage. Accompanied by a mysterious stranger, von Deppe has undisclosed business in England on behalf of King Frederick. The two come face to face in London’s demi-monde. Their fates become intertwined in a story of intrigue, revenge, death and redemption. The young woman’s music book – one of her few treasured possessions – is the thread in the game of deception, which crosses to aristocratic Paris, continues in a bleak German winter landscape and plays out in the royal palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam.
Diplomats like me are used to solving difficult problems. Yet despite many efforts over the years I had been unable to find out who the man in the picture was. By writing The Music Book I finally unlocked his identity and that of his painter. So two pictures and a passport not only inspired a story; they resolved a separate mystery.