A voice to the voiceless: the challenges and rewards of writing fiction set in a distant place and time

Lesley Downer
Opinion - Books Tuesday, 25 July 2017

How to bring alive a story written out of history? Lesley Downer on the years of familiarisation and research that have gone into her novel The Shogun's Queen


In my novel The Shogun's Queen I tell the story of two groups of people who until recently haven't had a voice. One is women, Japanese women in particular; the other, the losing side in a civil war which the winners won so decisively that they actually wrote the war itself out of history.

I wanted to write a novel set in 19th-century Japan, a time of enormous upheaval when the ruling shogun was toppled and a new westernising government installed in power. I wanted to know how this revolution had looked to the losers, the shogun and his people, but could find almost nothing in the history books about them. Historians had recorded the exploits of the winners, turned them into icons whose names resound through Japanese history. But the losers and their stories were consigned to silence.

As I researched I began to read about the extraordinary power wielded by the women of the shogun's household despite the fact they were virtually imprisoned in the palace.

I discovered that they had lived in a sort of harem so secret that even in its day most outsiders didn't know it existed. Three thousand women lived there in the innermost sanctum of Edo Castle, at the heart of the city we now call Tokyo. They were separated from the men's palace by a solid wall with a single door through which only one man could pass - the shogun. The women were sworn to secrecy, never to reveal anything of what went on in the palace, and most preserved silence to their deaths.

I was particularly touched by the story of Princess Atsu. Like our Princess Diana or Princess Kate, she was a commoner, used to freedom, until her beauty and brilliance drew her to the attention of one of the most powerful lords of her time. He raised her through the ranks until she was grand enough to marry the shogun, and had her installed in the Women's Palace at the head of the harem - in effect a life sentence.

Atsu played a decisive role in the dramatic events of her time, but as a woman she was airbrushed out of history. I found a few tantalising snippets of information. She was outspoken, feisty, a brilliant horsewoman who could wield the naginata, the "long sword" - as long as a spear with a blade as sharp as a samurai sword - as skilfully as any soldier.

I wanted to bring her and her world to life while keeping faithful to the spirit of the place and time. But how to transport myself inside the palace, about which there was so little information? Sifting through the literature on the period I began to find papers and books by scholars who had tried to unearth the lives and fates of the losing side. Sometimes the most revealing bits of information were hidden in footnotes. One academic examined the popular broadsheets of the time, another looked into life in Edo Castle, including the all-powerful hierarchy of women. In the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University (SOAS), I found a single book written in old Japanese, derived partly from interviews with a couple of old ladies who had finally given up a few of their secrets and partly a compendium of gossip and supposition.

As one clue led to another I began to seek out books about people who had known my heroine, like the famous Last Samurai, Saigo Takamori.

I checked out everything that had happened around her, the great events that were shaping the world she lived in and in which she would have played a part - such as the American Commodore Perry's epoch-making arrival to "open" Japan, recorded in Perry's own memoirs and many other Japanese and American sources. I used this scant material to erect the framework in which she lived and then set about filling in the blank at the centre of the picture - Atsu's own life and character.

I wanted my novel to be authentic. I wanted my characters to talk and behave as they would have done in their time, not like modern western people. A person starts being formed from the moment they emerge from the womb. It's very difficult to imagine what it must have been like to be a 19th-century Japanese woman, what went on in her mind, what she would have felt. She would have had all sorts of assumptions that it's very hard for modern western people to get to grips with - routinely putting duty before one's own desires, opting for death over dishonour.

It was not an entirely alien world for me. I lived in Japan for decades and am steeped in Japanese culture and history - architecture, clothes, how to walk in a kimono, how to sit and stand up and open a door, how to carry oneself like a woman, behave demurely no matter what the provocation.

To research the book I visited places where Atsu had been - the seaside resort with its hot black sands where she grew up, the road she travelled to Edo. The Women's Palace is now the Imperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo. There is nothing left to see. But all the same I went there, breathed the air, saw the scale of the place. I visited lesser palaces which were not destroyed, walked through the women's quarters in Himeji Castle and Nagoya and Nijo Castles, wondered at the dazzling collections of treasures which had once been the property of the palace ladies. I could almost hear the hushed footsteps, the swish of silk, the voices whispering, see the endless smiling and bowing most particularly when murder was afoot...

How must it have been, living crowded together with 3,000 women, all of them hoping and praying to be the mother of the shogun's heir? And how must they have felt when Atsu arrived? How must they have treated her? She was an upstart, a nobody, an intruder - like Crown Princess Masako in our own time and the Japanese empress, both of whom have suffered hugely from the jealousy and snobbery of the court ladies.

And so my story began to come alive.

The Shogun's Queen will be out in Corgi paperback on 27 July.

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