Using Historical Figures in Fiction

Had a wonderful time doing bookstore events this week with C.M. Gleason and L.A. Chandlar,Nicolas both in Ann Arbor and Detroit. One reason I was excited to chat with them is that they both do something that up until now, I’ve hesitated to do—incorporate real historical figures into their books as characters. C.M. Gleason writes the Lincoln Whitehouse mysteries where Abraham Lincoln himself is a character—not the sleuth. Fiorello LaGuardia appears in L.A. Chandlar’s Art Deco Mysteries.

One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is learning about the people who lived in a specific era, and I love when a real person shows up in a work of fiction, but I never wanted to just create a role for someone unless they could truly be useful to the story. That opportunity arose when I began drafting book 4 in the Countess of Harleigh series, which takes place in November of 1899, when I learned that Russian Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich Romanov and his wife Sophie, Countess de Torby were visiting London.

Now if the first thought that comes to your mind is: Who? I think you’re in the majority. I studied a bit of Russian history way back when and I found these two quite interesting, but they’re not as well-known as I thought. I’ve really hit a wall when it comes to finding research material, at least about Sophie and she plays a larger role in the story. Here’s a little background on the couple:

Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich is the son of Michael Nikolaivich, who was a younger brother of Czar Alexander II, making my Michael the nephew of Alexander II and cousin of Alexander III. While most of the Grand Dukes of Russia were either brutes or womanizers, Michael was just a nice guy. Around 1890 he became infatuated with a Russian woman whom the family considered unacceptable and he was sent abroad to “cool off.” Somewhere in his travels, he met and fell in love with Countess Sophie von Merenberg the daughter of Prince Nicholas of Nassau and Natalia Alexandrovna Pushkin. Unfortunately, Sophie’s parents were married before her mother received a proper divorce from her first husband. Sophie wasn’t a commoner, but since she was illegitimate, she wasn’t royal either, and that was a requirement for a Grand Ducal marriage.


By James Lafayette

They married anyway and I’m just guessing here, but since the date and details of their meeting, and the date and details of their wedding seem to be shrouded in mystery, I think they knew they were asking for trouble. It’s now accepted that they married in San Remo, Italy in February of 1891. When the news leaked out in April of that year, the newlyweds felt the wrath of the Czar and Michael’s parents.

Alexander III informed the bride’s father that the marriage was not legal as it was unauthorized and without family approval. He stripped Michael of his military rank and banned him from Russia. The news didn’t go over much better within Michael’s immediate family. His mother died from a heart attack after hearing the news and his father blamed Michael for her death. He was not allowed back in Russia to attend her funeral. Michael was essentially disowned in every sense but financial—the Czar didn’t cut off his income, which came primarily from his estates in the Caucasus and a bottled water factory.

Though I’m sure they resented this treatment, the exiles managed to live in imperial style at their homes in France, Germany, and England. They were at the center of society at their home in Cannes, and great friends of the Prince and Princess of Wales. All this without being subject to the strict regulations of the Russian royal family. Living abroad, they also managed to avoid assassination in the Russian revolution. All things considered, I’d say they made the best decision.

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