Rewriting History

To create a believable world in which a reader can immerse themselves is one of the many challenges that face a writer.  The advantage for authors of historical fiction, of course, is that numerous such worlds exist ready-made.  The one that we chose was that of Casanova, as a consequence of reading Ian Kelly’s tremendous biography, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’.  So rich and complex was the man and his times that it offered endless narrative possibilities.  We focused on a six-month period of his life, January to June 1757.  Ironically, it took us eight years.

In creating ‘Casanova in Paris’, we decided to be lead very much by the history, weaving our fictional story into a real timeline of historical events.  We’ve tried as far as possible not to contradict what is known although we have indulged here and there in a bit of re-imagining.  For example, we suggest that aspects of the recorded life of Marquise d’Urfé were fabricated by Casanova and herself to shield d’Urfé from too much public scrutiny. It makes our story, if you like, a sort of secret history.

Our historical starting point is Casanova’s arrival in Paris on 5th January, 1757, following upon his celebrated escape from the prison of the Venetian Inquisition and on the day of Robert Damiens attempted assassination of Louis XV.  There he met his protector Abbé de Bernis, a friend and fellow libertine from his days as the French ambassador to Venice.  In 1757 he was now an influential member of the King’s council.  Through Abbé de Bernis, Casanova met Joseph Paris-Duverney, a financier under Louis XV and from 1736 to 1758 the Administrator General of Provisions.  Duverney was heavily involved in the founding in 1750 of the École Militaire, an academic college for cadet officers from poor noble families.  By 1757, however, the École Militaire was in financial difficulty and, France being engaged in the ruinously expensive Seven Years War, Paris-Duverney and Madame de Pompadour were searching around for ways to raise funds.  This was when Casanova appeared on the scene and promoted the idea of a Genoese style lottery.  They went with Casanova’s ideas and consequently the Paris lottery became the most successful lottery that Europe had ever seen.  Almost overnight, Casanova became a wealthy man.

It is on to these true events that we graft our own narrative.  The core element underpinning the structure of ‘Casanova in Paris’ is pretty simple – a crime to be solved.  While being enormously flexible, at the same time it generates a strong sense of forward progress: you can meander off on to interesting by-ways confident in the knowledge that the underlying sense of purpose and direction will be retained.  The crime which we introduce is an attempt to destroy Paris-Duverney, which has been underway for some time prior to Casanova’s arrival in Paris.   Abbé de Bernis recruits the Venetian to discover who is behind it.  In exchange, de Bernis has come to an agreement with Duverney that they will support Casanova’s lottery idea. This is our main plotline.  The process of tracking down the villain allows us to move easily along different past and present timelines while simultaneously travelling into the future.  It also allows us to hide and reveal information in a way which is both natural to the subject matter and which maximises the interest and curiosity of the audience.

To that central core we’ve added three sub-plots, two of which relate directly to the main plot and a third which runs parallel to it.  Of the two sub-plots which are tied to the main plot, one is visible and one is left in the shadows.  The visible sub-plot centres around Duverney’s granddaughter Gabrielle and her unwanted pregnancy which we introduce in chapter five.  The basis for this idea lies in a piece of real life intrigue.  During Casanova’s three-year sojourn in Paris, a half-English, half-Venetian adventuress turned up.  She was Giustiniana Wynne and pregnant with the child of Andrea Memmo, a Venetian aristocrat.  She was, however, also engaged to an old, wealthy man.  It’s a complicated tale but needless to say Casanova threw himself into the middle of it with gusto, promising Giustiniana that he would help her terminate the pregnancy.  All attempts failed, however, so Casanova arranged for her to enter a convent where she was able to give birth in secret.  As our narrative progresses we merge the Gabrielle sub-plot with the main plot, giving that main plot added power and urgency as we drive towards the climax.

The sub-plot which is left in the shadows is that of the rivalry between Bechard (our fictional villain of the piece) and de Bernis, when only at the end is it revealed what has actually been going on.  The conflict has been touched on in different places here and there but its full significance only becomes apparent with the first part of a staggered resolution to the main plot.  Once again, although it’s an invention, it is based upon the realities of the time.  Louis XV was notorious for secrecy and duplicity.  He maintained his own spy network, le Secret du Roi, whose activities he kept hidden from his ministers.  Consequently, ministers such as de Bernis would employ their own spies to gather information and, in fact, the real life de Bernis engaged Casanova in just such a capacity.  In the paranoid environment of Louis XV’s court the idea that there should exist competing spy networks is not at all far-fetched.

The parallel plot is that of the Venetian authorities’ ambition to capture Casanova and take him back to prison in Venice, a plot which is to be picked up and developed in part 2 of ‘Casanova in Paris’.  This stretches back before our main plot is introduced, to the Prologue, and carries on beyond it.  During the course of the narrative this parallel plot adds uncertainty and tension, a suggestion of other complicating events to come, but it is unclear to the audience how and what its relationship will be with the other plots.  As far as part 1 is concerned, it takes on the quality of a false trail.  Again, this plot is based upon historical fact.  Casanova was acutely aware of the dangers of being captured and sent back to prison in Venice (as had happened to Father Balbi, his fellow escapee) and went to great lengths to placate the Venetian authorities in his attempts to be allowed to return from exile (he eventually received permission to return in 1774).

Unlike most fictional representations of Casanova, which have got rather carried away by his womanising, we’ve tried to be a bit more balanced.  We don’t ignore it but we didn’t want it to bog down our storyline.  For this reason, we give a nod to it early in the narrative and then move on.  We also touch on some other aspects of his character such as his mastery of the cabbala and the fact that he was a skilled mathematician.  Of course, his accomplishments went far beyond that (as a historian, philosopher, novelist, autobiographer and translator) but, in 1757, much of this was to lie in the future.

We have tried with our Casanova to project a personality which seems to us reasonably consistent with the historical record.  We pay particular attention to his relationship with his mother, Zanetta Farussi.  At 16, she eloped with, and married, a penniless actor-dancer called Gaetan-Joseph-Jacques Casanova (her shoe-maker father subsequently dying of a broken heart).  By the age of 26, Zanetta was a widow with 6 children and a mother to support – so you did not have to look far to see the motivation underlying her pursuit of a ‘dual career’: “Though not all actresses were whores and courtesans,” notes Ian Kelly, “it was certainly assumed that women willing to subject themselves to voyeuristic regard onstage would favour their public in more intimate spaces, for the right terms and billing”.   In a battle between clear-sighted pragmatism and moral niceties there was only ever going to be one winner.  From the perspective of a young boy, however, this needs-must world wasn’t a particularly warm and welcoming one.  He was a sickly, reserved child whose parents had little to do with him.  They were, apparently, of the view that he was an imbecile and at the age of 9-years-old Zanetta packed him off to a miserable lodging house near Padua (she was shortly to pursue her stage career abroad).  ‘In this way did my mother get rid of me’, Casanova notes in his memoirs in old age.

This Zanetta Farussi, then, is very much the same Zanetta that we have depicted in ‘Casanova in Paris’ and, although the audience encounters her directly only through flashbacks and a monologue, she is clearly an important figure in the shaping of Casanova’s outlook, personality and relationship with women such as Gabrielle, Marie and d’Urfé.  Our Casanova demonstrates a troubled insecurity as he veers from bravado and supreme self-confidence the one moment to self-doubt and depression the next.  His mother’s betrayal and rejection of him have left him with conflicting emotions.  On the one hand, he yearns for a stable and loving relationship, the kind of relationship his mother failed to provide for him, yet on the other, deep down, he fears a repetition of the betrayal and rejection that commitment to such a relationship might expose him to.  ‘Love’, for Casanova, thus becomes a sort of chimerical quest.  As Marie says to Giuseppe: ‘…it’s the idea of love, and the idea of being in love, which transfixes him’.  At the same time, Zanetta’s promiscuity breached the conventional moral norms and ‘prejudices’ (as Casanova would refer to them) of the time, explaining to some extent his own less constrained attitude towards sexuality, the place of men and women in society, and what constitutes right and wrong.  Of course, the complexity of Casanova’s personality, ours and the real Casanova, was shaped by many things and it would be trite to try to explain everything about him by reference to his relationship with his mother.  Zanetta played (and plays) an important part in the formation of who he was and, in ‘Casanova in Paris’, who he is, but only a part.

In other aspects of the novel too we have tried to remain faithful to the past.  We have, for example, highlighted the intrinsic significance of religion to the society of the time.  Eighteenth-century Europe was an intensely religious place, at least compared to modern Europe. Casanova himself was a believer in God and defended the Catholic Church in his conversations with Voltaire.  Its power was not as great as it had once been because of the challenge of the Enlightenment but, nonetheless, it was important to reflect this aspect of society in ‘Casanova in Paris’.  We have done this in several ways.  Part 1 includes at least four churches and a convent as settings, in addition to various city-scape, architectural references.  There are various religious practices such as the communal worship we see in the opening of chapter 1 (‘The Southerner’), the funeral service in chapter 4 (‘Place des Fleurs’), Bechard’s scourging in chapter 3 (‘The Recruit’) and his going to confession in chapter 12 (‘The Damned’).  Four of the characters have official spiritual responsibilities: Stefano, Abbé de Bernis, Abbess Catherine and Louis XV himself (an absolute monarch as of divine right and possessor of the royal touch).  There’s also Bechard’s priest Brother Isaac.  Casanova’s dreams are populated by devils, demons and a crucifixion.  In addition, the religious dimension is underscored by several of the quotes that we have placed on each chapter title page.

Within the religious world of the eighteenth-century issues such as those related to gender and sexuality acquire an altogether different complexion.  The penalties for not conforming to the religious laws, norms and expectations of such a society could be very great.  Our judgement of characters in terms of their courage, honesty, morality, hypocrisy, selfishness and cynicism has to take into account the complexities of a world infused by beliefs in God and the supernatural.  From the point of view of a writer, this creates different opportunities to add tension and interest.  Compared to a woman in a modern western-style culture, the position of a character such as Gabrielle is far more perilous in a place where both the act of conceiving a child out of wedlock and the act of terminating that pregnancy are not only illegal but sins against God.  Continuously people are having to navigate their lives between religious and spiritual demands on the one side and temporal and worldly demands on the other.  Some use blind faith and self-sacrifice to navigate their way, such as Gabrielle’s mother, others use cynicism and self-interest, such as de Bernis.  Neither approach guarantees a happy outcome.

Dave Thompson (writer) and Kev Butters (artist) (2018)