I read a lot of historical fiction and something I’ve noticed lately is a lot of stories of famous people being written about from the perspective of someone close to them, an observer of their story. This keeps us out of the famous person’s head and shows us how they appear through the eyes of someone else. I’ve seen this device done very well, but I’ve also seen it done in ways that made the observer come off as too lackluster and boring. In the worst case, I went into a book expecting a prominent figure to play a central role only for them to be in less than half the book, for example as in The Wardrobe Mistress. The book was called a novel about Marie Antoinette, but she was more of a side character as the book followed the story of one of her undertirewomen. While reading my latest historical pick, I finally figured out what makes writing from an observer’s point of view work for my personal tastes and what doesn’t.
Let’s start with an example of a story of a famous person’s life playing out through an observer’s eyes that worked. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller did a wonderful job of showing us Achilles’s story through the eyes of his lover Patroclus. One of the reasons I enjoyed seeing the story from Patroclus’s point of view was because it shrouded bits of Achilles in mystery and gave us a view outside of Achilles’s own thoughts on himself, which is my experience seems to often be the reason why an observer’s point of view is used in the first place. However Patroclus played a large role in the story. Yes he observed Achilles’s rise to fame and his demise, but he didn’t just observe, he took part in that story and helped shape it. Ultimately that’s what sold me on Patroclus’s POV. I didn’t just get an outside perspective of Achilles, Patroclus’s character was fascinating enough in his own right for me to enjoy getting his story as well.
Now an example for where an observer’s story fell a little flat for me. I’m currently reading The Traitor’s Wife by Allison Pataki and as of writing this post I’m halfway through the book. In The Traitor’s Wife we get a look at Peggy, Benedict’s Arnold’s wife, through the eyes of her maid Clara. My issue with Clara’s POV has been that from the start it was clear that she only exists in the story to give us Peggy’s story. Peggy’s story is much more fascinating and overshadows Clara’s too much. Whenever I got a few pages of just Clara’s life, I found myself speeding through them to get back to Peggy’s story. The issue of Clara existing to give us an outside view of Peggy caused Clara at times to hold back and not take action. For example, at a party where Peggy was behaving scandalously Clara could do nothing but gasp, be shocked, and not bring herself to intervene, which is the problem. If she intervenes she interrupts the true story. Yet because Clara was there to keep an eye on Peggy, she has to explain why she isn’t intervening, which also interrupts the story to explain Clara’s lack of inaction. Clara’s role in the story was to play second fiddle to Peggy to give us Peggy’s story, which left her own story feeling lackluster while making her role glaringly obvious.
See the difference between how the observers were used? Patroclus played a leading role in Achilles’s story and helped drive his decisions, while Clara was mostly an observer who couldn’t interfere in the story. While I enjoyed learning more about Patroclus, whenever Clara’s story was explored or the book went into her thoughts, I felt like I was being taken out of the true story, which was Peggy’s story. Clara was more of an actual observer who didn’t play a role in the story. She could have been replaced with anyone else and the majority of the story would have played out the same way. That wouldn’t have been true for The Song of Achilles. Clara’s actions and presence didn’t affect her world enough to capture my interest. At times she felt too much like a paper doll to me when compared to Peggy’s fascinating story and beautifully fleshed out character.
When it comes to stories about prominent figures being explored through the eyes of someone close to them, I like for that person to play an important role of their own. If they could be replaced with almost anyone else then I have little reason to care about that specific character’s journey. I don’t want to see inaction and observation from the main character or they will be overshadowed by the famous person’s story too easily and make me wonder why the main character was included, which isn’t something I want to question in any book I read. I like for my observers to be more than observers. I want to care about their story and see how their actions shape the world around them.
Have a great historical read written from an observer’s perspective that worked well? Recommend it to me!