When famous people appear in your novel

The first real person to appear in a novel of mine was Noel Coward. He wasn’t planned, or strictly speaking invited, he just appeared at a party given by my protagonist Claudia’s daughter and her husband in The Awakening of Claudia Faraday. He and Claudia formed a warm relationship and she even gave him the title for his first play, The Vortex, and the idea for his film Brief Encounter. (Both these events needless to say were fictional.)

Noel Coward 1925 (Wikipedia)

In my second novel The Purpose of Prudence de Ville Prue found herself working as the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell’s dresser and confidante, until she was sacked. She went on to hobnob with the likes of Mrs Millicent Fawcett, founder of the suffragist movement, Lady Ottoline Morrell, the well-known socialite, and through Mrs Morrell, members of the Bloomsbury Group such as John Maynard Keynes – to whom she was briefly engaged. (That too was fictional.)

Violet in The Makings of Violet Frogg worked for the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who built Her Majesty’s Theatre and founded RADA – then ADA – in the Dome. She also rubbed shoulders with Bernard Shaw and attended suffragette meetings presided over by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Cristobel, the latter of whom also makes a guest appearance in my novel-in-progress The Humbling of Meredith Martin, as does the theatre director Harley Granville Barker and the actress Edith Wynne Matthison.

Other celebrities also appear in my books under thin disguises: Claudia Faraday is Clarissa Dalloway, from Virginia Woolf’s novel, her gardener Sellers is a reference to Lady Chatterley’s Mellors. Mrs Morphett in my third novel Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons, first name Phillicent, is a Spooner version of Millicent Fawcett.

Statue of Millicent Fawcett in Westminster Square

Am I breaking any rules here? I hope not. I went to a lot of effort to research these people and they are represented in my books as accurately as I could make them. In this I believe I am breaking fewer rules than writers who write biopics that knowingly distort the facts. (I could name some but I won’t.)

Featuring real people is not just fun, they add substance and context to a book that is set in the past. Anyone who is familiar with Coward or Mrs Pat or Tree or Barker will I hope recognise this and appreciate that by featuring them in my made-up stories I am in a sense acting as their publicist, with the best motives.

Coward had an uncanny understanding of older women, so it makes sense that this might have come from his meeting with Claudia Faraday. Mrs Patrick Campbell overcame huge odds and the almost permanent absence of a husband whose name she used even after his death, to become one of the West End’s most celebrated actresses, and by portraying her through the doting Prudence’s eyes I have tried to convey some of the hardships she underwent.

John Maynard Keynes was happily bisexual before he became happily married, though not to Prudence of course, so why shouldn’t he have enjoyed an eleventh hour flirtation with her? Herbert Tree was a genial genius, a philanderer, unfaithful to his wife yet loyal to everyone else and seemingly loved by everyone, including his wife. So why shouldn’t he invite young and green Violet to lunch and flirt with her? (That’s all he did.)

Mrs Pat and Herbert Tree, the original Eliza and Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion. The slipper-throwing is part of the script but apparently Tree objected to the force of Mrs Pat’s bowling arm so she was told to tone it down, thus effectively defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Millicent Fawcett was a well-bred woman who stayed true to her belief that women’s suffrage could be achieved through peaceful means, and Harley Granville Barker, actor, writer and manager of the Court Theatre (now the Royal Court) was in his unassuming way instrumental in revolutionising theatre in the early twentieth century and introducing the notion of the theatre director.

So if nothing else, by including these luminaries in my books I hope I am introducing the readers to fascinating characters they might not otherwise have been aware of. Call it homage from an ordinary writer to extraordinary personalities, call it the writer’s aid, they are portrayed as authentically as possible (within the bounds of fiction), and with great respect, admiration and a lot of affection.

© Patsy Trench

The Gunpowder Plot


First, we are led into a room with a table map of 1605 London, where we are given a bit of background on a video screen to the events we are about to witness and instructions on how to work the virtual reality headsets. Next we are taken into the dungeons of the Tower of London itself (actually the Tower Vaults next door) where it is cold and dark and there is the sound of shrieking from tortured Catholics. We are in a prison and greeted by a sick-looking prisoner. It appears we are Catholics, so why is the Officer of the Crown treating us – if not exactly politely – at least as fellow human beings? Is it a trick? I ask him. (He ignores me.) Donning black hooded capes we proceed through the still dimly-lit rooms where we are greeted by Lady Cecil, who explains she is recruiting us as spies to infiltrate the group of conspirators planning to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the day of the Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the King, his family and untold numbers of parliamentarians and bystanders. A little later, in the Duck and Drake tavern (where the real conspirators met) we decide if we will obey Lady Cecil and become spies or remain true to the Catholic faith and become terrorists. We choose the latter.

That’s just the first half. It continues much the same, as we are led by often mysterious figures from room to room in this cold, dark dungeon, trying our best not to trip over the scenery or – horrible thought – to get left behind in the gloom. Now and again we pause to sit down and place the VR headsets on our heads and allow ourselves to be taken into the heart of 1605 London, now flying on a tripwire high above the City streets, now on a boat being rowed across the Thames by Guy Fawkes himself. (This last was nothing less than thrilling.) When the events we all know about come to a head we find ourselves trapped in a cage and only finally let out to end up in a room where we are told what happened after the gunpowder plot was discovered and then to have our photos taken and be led out through the shop (of course).

The Thames1605 (gunpowderimmersive.com)

Time Out described these goings-on as a ‘theme park ride’ but they could not be less so. This is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s not just the darkness. It is an experience quite unlike anything I’ve ever known, a miracle of logistics – there are several casts and audiences are admitted in groups of no more than 16 every ten minutes – creativity and technical prowess.

I can’t say I enjoyed it. I did admire it, I was even at times quite frightened by it, and once I’d managed to find out how to put the headset on properly (I missed most of the tripwire business due to my ineptness) the VR sequences absolutely took my breath away. It is the nearest to being transported in toto back to 1605, and it was worth the visit for those sequences alone.

Had it been up to me I would have allowed to practise with the headset before the event began. I would also, I think, have included a real live opening scene between Catesby, Fawkes and the other conspirators as they explained what they were plotting and why, rather than have the ‘backstory’ told us by a voice from a screen. After all nothing, not even VR, can replace the oddly thrilling experience of having real live flesh-and-blood actors ordering you around peremptorily in a cold dark dungeon right next to the Tower.

Ten Pound Poms

Ten Pound Poms poster (bbc.co.uk)

Aussies won’t like this series, I guarantee it. A six-parter about hopeful British migrants promised a better life in Australia in the 1950s, it depicts Aussies as racist misogynists and the British newcomers as enlightened and classless.

We are halfway through this Sunday night series here in the UK on BBC1 and its reception has been shall we say luke-warm. ‘A hilariously watchable drama in which no Australian cliché was left unturned’ said The Times; ‘. . . a burst of sun-soaked schmaltz’, The Independent.

Written by a Brit, it looks fantastic, and it touches on some familiar themes, in particular the contrast between the almost aggressive informality of the Aussies and their mockery of the ‘stuck-up’ poms. But as many people have pointed out some of the attitudes, of the British migrants in particular, are more 2023 than 1955. That a British woman should be shocked to see an Aboriginal woman shoved to the end of a queue in a department store, and then respond to a (hyper-) racist Aussie’s comment that ‘Abos’ were not humans with ‘they were here long before you were’ is frankly pretty unconvincing, as is the fact that the only white man who is prepared to talk to the Aboriginal worker is a British migrant. And all this in the time of Windrush, when it was not unusual in England to see signs saying ‘No blacks, no Irish’ on the windows of boarding houses.

Then there are the anachronisms: being able to pick a phone and call England at the drop of a hat (I remember having to book a long-distance phone call days ahead); use of words and phrases such as ‘the UK’, ‘I was like’, ‘Oh my days’ and I think I heard one of them refer to ‘Brits’.

There’s some excellent acting in Ten Pound Poms, particularly from Warren Brown as the conflicted Terry, David Field as the foul-mouthed, but utterly believable Dean and Faye Marsay as Terry’s wife Annie. But all in all, to quote The Spectator ‘ . . . it also left you wondering if Ten Pound Poms has fully decided what kind of show it wants to be: a thoughtful and well-researched microcosmic portrait of what happened to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary postwar British people who moved to Australia, or an incident-packed Sunday-night melodrama.’

I was a ten pound pom, back in 1968, albeit in very different circumstances. As the daughter of an Australian mother half my family was there – not that I met many of them until much later – including and in particular my brother, who was also a ten pound pom. I lived in Sydney mostly and I was not aware of the racism, not until I ventured inland. That’s not to say people living in the bush are more racist, just that I never came across Aboriginal people in Sydney and nobody ever talked about them. (It’s very different now.) I was aware of the term ‘whingeing pom’ and a certain defensiveness that defied the newcomer to cast any kind of aspersions on their new home, but otherwise I encountered very little resentment. In fact as an actress arriving from the Old Country I found it remarkably easy to find work (like so many other things, that changed as time went on, both the attitude and the availability of work) and I found Australians the friendliest people on earth.

So the comment that echoes my own thoughts are from The Evening Standard: ‘I couldn’t help feeling there would be enough drama in the events as they happened – the culture shock, the separation from home, friends and family – without the addition of the big secrets, lies and shocking events forced on the characters.’

It is much harder to do the first than the second of course. The soap opera elements of Ten Pound Poms are annoying distractions from the much more complex, harder-to-define issue of migration and the subtle yet colossal differences between our two countries. It has taken me three books to begin to describe this from my own point of view.

All that said, it seems the ten pound pom story comes as a surprise to a lot of folk over here, so on the whole it’s good to see it on prime-time television.


The secret to successful protest

The more I research the past the more I find parallels with the present.

The women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain comprised several different organisations, each of them with slightly different aims and with very different approaches. The  two largest, the NUWSS (The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), founded by Millicent Fawcett, was a peaceful movement whose members were referred to as suffragists. The WSPU (The Women’s Social and Political Union), founded and run on authoritarian grounds by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, espoused ‘direct action’ which included on occasion storming the Houses of Parliament and vandalising buildings. This in turn spawned a breakaway group called the Women’s Freedom League, who disapproved of the dictatorial way the WSPU was run.

Confused? I certainly am. Although the different organisations did cooperate on occasion it can’t have helped their cause to be so split in their aims and their methods.


Reading about the the suffragettes I am reminded of Extinction Rebellion, aka XR, a British-founded global environmental organisation, well-known for their disruptive tactics such as blocking bridges and roads in central London and on one occasion gluing themselves to underground trains in order to draw attention to our climate emergency.

In both cases their more extreme methods, whatever you may think of them, were a direct result of years of neglect. Mrs Fawcett’s suffragists had been lobbying parliament for decades, with very little result. XR came to the fore a few years ago when they imported a boat into Oxford Circus and reminded us of the urgency of climate change. Both attracted the attention of the media, not always positively. Both divided public opinion. Both had MPs effectively demolishing their arguments by condemning their methods.

XR and The Boat (The Telegraph)

(Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade, like a more recent MP and Prime Minister, seemed to change his mind about women’s suffrage according to who he was talking to at the time. At one point he told the suffragettes he was their ‘friend’, and then declared women would never get the vote until they ceased their militant tactics; to which those women might have responded ‘If you really were our friend you’d have done something to help us and we wouldn’t have needed to resort to those tactics’.)

So how do we, the protesting general public, achieve our aims? Public opinion, led by the media, is one thing; a peaceful demonstration is unlikely to attract media attention unless someone metaphorically or physically throws the odd stone. In 1908 a quarter of a million suffragettes and supporters held a peaceful rally in Hyde Park, to no avail. In 2003 a million people, including yours truly, marched through central London protesting against the impending war in Iraq, to no avail.

Contemporary historians on the whole tend to believe the suffragette movement was hampered rather than helped by their militancy, but just maybe they are basing their beliefs on statements from the likes of Winston Churchill at the time. ‘We will never give way to violence!’ (Not a direct quote by the way.) By refusing to allow women the vote because they were a nuisance meant they were condemning the tactics rather than their aims.

Setting aside the odd Violent Fringe that has hijacked many otherwise peaceful protests in the past, if peacefulness doesn’t get us what we want, what will?

All this is in the course of my research for my latest novel, working title The Humbling of Meredith Martin. It concerns an actress – who has already appeared in my previous books – struggling to make her way in the unpredictable and radically changing world of Edwardian theatre. Which reminds me of yet another organisation, the Actress’ Franchise League. They produced hundreds of propaganda plays satirising the anti-franchise movement, performed, one assumes, almost entirely to already-converted audiences.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Coming soon:

The Humbling of Meredith Martin (working title). Book five in the
‘Modern Women: breaking the mould’ series

© Patsy Trench
March 2023

Australia and How To Find It updated

So much has changed since I first published this book in 2016, both in Australia and the UK. Australia has experienced horrendous bushfires followed by disastrous floods. They’ve also had a change of government, from Liberal under the right-wing, rambunctious Scott Morrison (ScoMo) to Labor under the quieter, more thoughtful Anthony Albanese (Albo). Here in the UK meanwhile we’ve gone through Conservative Prime Ministers like hot cakes, ending up with Rishi Sunak, who at the time of writing has at least outlasted a lettuce but is still having to cope with Brexit, the cost of living crisis and not least a fractured government.

So I’ve brought out a slightly amended version of the original book and for good measure I’ve added a few sketches, drawn by my talented friend Anna de Polnay, whose wonderful silhouettes adorn the covers of my novels. Here’s a selection from the chapter called Sydney’s Beach Wars:

By the way the e-version of this book is still FREE on all platforms.

Valentine’s Day

As we all know Valentine’s Day is an invention created by commercial enterprises to sell cards, flowers, champagne and exorbitantly expensive nights out.

All that said, it’s good to celebrate love – not necessarily just romantic love, but love of any kind. Here for instance is a poem I just constructed about my grandson. I am not – as is blindingly obvious – a poet. But there is something about watching a small person grow that brings out the McGonagall* in me. So here goes:


I’m looking at you.
Yes, I’m looking at you, kid,
In a way I never did with my own.
(My own kids, that is:
Not enough time, too much anxiety,
Too much of everything.)
But you I can watch without judgement
Or criticism or anxiety,
With time, and simple fascination and wonder,
As you grow and learn and become
Your very own person.
But there is one thing you both have,
Both you my children and you my grandson,
You have my total, undivided, unconditional love.

As anyone who knows me will confirm that is about as sentimental as I am likely to get. For a different take, or series of takes, on the thorny business of love, have a look at my collection of short stories about love in adversity.

Available on Amazon, Nook, Kobo & Apple Books

*William McGonagall was a Scottish poet in the ‘doggerel’ style. He was widely regarded as ‘the worst poet in British history’ (to quote Wikipedia). His life, incidentally, was fascinating, and he was remarkable for his total belief in himself and whatever he chose to write or to do, no matter how weird and unlikely.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.

Patsy Trench
14 February 2023

The history of theatre

What’s the history of theatre doing on my website?

I just closed down my theatre tours website. I’ve been organising tours and teaching theatre here in London on and off for around thirty years. I have been steeped in theatre all my life from the age of 17 when I went to work for the Company Manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company, then based at the Aldwych Theatre, after which I found a job in repertory theatre in Harrogate, initially as an Assistant Stage Manager and then as an actress, in which profession I remained for nearly 20 years before I began to have a family and turned to writing instead.

Theatre plays a major role in my later novelsViolet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons in particular – and indeed in my work in progress, provisionally titled The Humbling of Meredith Martin (out later this year, with a bit of luck). Violet, like me, finds herself working for what was in Edwardian times called the Acting Manager in a company run by Herbert Beerbohm Tree before going on – not like me – to become a theatre producer. Meredith is a working actress who, like me, experiences intermittent success but is yet to become a leading light in the West End, or of anywhere else.

The marvel of theatre is that it still exists

In fact it thrives, despite growing competition from first radio and then film, television and now streaming services and social media. To do so it has reinvented itself, found new forms of material and staging, incorporating new technology such as sophisticated projection and motion capture. Yet the fundamental premise of ‘Two planks and a passion’, now purloined by skiers apparently but which originated with the Mystery Plays of the late Middle Ages, still survives, as often as not in a grungy room above a pub in a London suburb.

So I have now incorporated my theatre tour activities into this website here, because my involvement in and my love of theatre are now very much a part of my writing activities. I welcome comments or questions about theatre and its history, and for what it’s worth here is a list of some of the best books I have come across in my researches, beginning with the five most useful books about Edwardian theatre that I posted on another site.

© Patsy Trench
January 2023

What is the purpose of historical fiction?

When I asked this question on a social media forum recently the most common response from readers was, ‘Knowing about what happened in the past can help to make sense of what’s happening today.’ Writers responded with comments such as, ‘I have always had a fascination with . . . [the Roman period, Medieval Britain, the history of the woman’s movement, the colonising of the USA, etc etc].’

My own response comes from my experiences of researching for my non-fiction books about the history of colonial Australia as experienced by my Australian ancestors. Among the books I read were a smattering of novels, because while non-fiction doesn’t necessarily focus on people’s emotions or reactions to events, a well-written and –researched historical novel can bring to life the people behind those events.


As the late writer Hilary Mantel said, history can tell us what characters did, but not what they thought and felt – “the interior of my characters’ lives,” as she put it. And in response to the criticism that historical novels often falsify the past she asserted that readers of historical fiction are “actively requesting a subjective interpretation” of the evidence, and that the writer’s job is “to recreate the texture of lived experience: to activate the senses, and to deepen the reader’s engagement through feeling.” (I’ve written about the hazards of playing around with history here.)
Click here for the full text of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture.

In my case if there is a particular event or period in the past that interests me that’s a good enough reason to want to write a book set in that period. A case in point was the Bloomsbury Set between the World Wars, which features in my second novel The Purpose of Prudence de Vere. The battle in the theatre world between the Old Order of the actor-manager and the New Idea of plays that challenged the status quo through the likes of Ibsen and & Shaw, plus a fascination with the suffrage movement, were the inspirations behind my Edwardian novels The Makings of Violet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons.

When writing about her own family history at much the same place and time as mine, the writer Kate Grenville decided to turn her book The Secret River into a novel. As she says on her website: “Solomon Wiseman [her real-life ancestor] emerged from the documents as a vivid, strongly-present individual man, but he was also a representative of his class, time and place. I realised that I could use what I knew of his life, but turn his story into fiction so that I could tell the silent part of his story as well. The story of one man could stand for a much bigger story, about the often-violent reality of white settlement in Australia.”

The image is the programme of the play of The Secret River staged in a quarry outside Adelaide as part of the 2017 Festival. I wrote about this amazing experience here.

If anyone is reading this I would love to hear of any particular historical novels you’ve read and enjoyed, and why!

Patsy Trench
London 2022

Colin Farrell’s eyebrows

They spend around two-thirds of the film in an inverted ‘V’, indicating bafflement leading to anxiety leading to total incomprehension. Why has Padraic’s pub friend suddenly turned against him? If it’s nothing he has done, then what is going on? Why does his friend suddenly think his own legacy (as a not-particularly-distinguished writer of songs) more important than their friendship?

Colin Farrell’s eyebrows (standard.co.uk)

When Farrell’s/Padraic’s eyebrows go from the upside-down V to a hard straight line it signals a distinct change in direction from pathetic loser to arch avenger. It is of credit to the actor and his director-screenwriter (Martin McDonagh) that Padraic turns out not to be quite such the hapless victim he first appears. But most of the plaudits belong to the eyebrows. They alone are worth an Oscar.

Brendon Gleeson on the other hand, whose eyebrows are fairly noncommittal, has an uncanny talent for making the fierce, apparently stone-hearted Colm – pronounced ‘Collum’ in the fillum – not just believable but (almost) sympathetic, if not empathetic.

It’s a masterly dissection of male friendship, brilliantly written and performed, that resonates deep and wide, even if does present these 1920s Irish characters as marginally stereotypical ‘Irish’, with their quaint manners of speech – ‘You’ll be off to the pub now, isn’t it?’ (not a direct quote) – and their endearing Irish manners. But that’s Martin McDonagh for you.

I would love to know what a true Irish person thinks of the film.

Oh, and the film is called The Banshees of Inisherin. I really recommend it, and not just for Colin Farrell’s eyebrows.

Prudence is free!

Free-spirited, anarchic, rule-bending, Prudence’s purpose in life is to have fun, sometimes in unusual ways. Hobnobbing with the likes of actress *Mrs Patrick Campbell, *Lady Ottoline Morrell and *Millicent Fawcett, pioneer suffragist, Prue is happy to dip her toe into anything that catches her fancy.

And she is now FREE in ebook form from 13 to 17 August. Find her here: https://viewbook.at/PrudencedeV

*All real people of course, though please be aware my book is a novel.