Sometimes history throws me a bone

Roberta Rich, Special to National Post | 28/11/13

I am a truly inept plotter, not a good quality in a writer of historical fiction. But sometimes history smiles and throws me a bone. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, which I researched for my latest novel, I was thrown many bones.

The Harem Midwife is set in Constantinople in the 16th century. My heroine, Hannah, is midwife to the harem of Murat III. History tells us that Murat suffered from a rare and dangerous disorder: although he was surrounded by the most gorgeous girls of the Ottoman Empire, he was besotted with his wife, Safiye, and could only perform sexually with her. It was widely (and perhaps rightly) assumed that she had bewitched him.

It was a dangerous state of affairs. Murat’s only son and heir to the throne of the largest empire the world had ever known was sickly. In those days of high infant mortality, it was not enough to have one son, or even an ‘heir and a spare’ as the British say. Dozens of sons were required to ensure the continuation of the sultanate.

The Sultan’s mother, Valide Nurbanu, purchased a young shepherdess as a slave. The Sultan glimpsed the girl and she captured his fancy. She was the great Circassian hope for the Osman dynasty.

The strategy worked, unleashing a royal stud. Murad III promptly sired 20 surplus sons which all had to be strangled after Murad III’s death, one so abruptly that the poor boy was not permitted to finish his bowl of cherries.

Thus was born the opening chapter for my novel. I didn’t have to make up a thing.

The Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultan and his harem, was a magical place of eunuchs, exotic animals, steams baths, remarkable beauty treatments and lovely, bored young girls. Too much leisure time and too much money is always a recipe for lascivious behaviour.

I learned how eunuchs are made — a long and excruciating process. Apparently only one boy out of every nine survived the ordeal. Given what was involved, it is a wonder any survived. But in a society where men kept their wives, daughters and sisters secluded in a harem, eunuchs were vital as guards, confidants and occasionally lovers. As one eunuch famously said of his conquests:

“They yearn for my ‘tree’ because it cannot bear fruit.”

History even provided me with special effects. The Ottomans were fond—some would say excessively so—of theatrical contrivances. A hundred doves with orange pomanders around their necks were released from a golden cage to scent the air of the Valide’s private apartments. An army of slow-moving tortoises with candles affixed to their shells roamed about the palace gardens on moonless nights.

At Prince Mehmet’s Circumcision Parade — 53 days of rejoicing in the streets of Constantinople — the crowds were fed whole roasted oxen which when cut open were seen to be stuffed with live foxes and wolves, no doubt causing panic among the crowd.

And then there is the story of Gentile Bellini, the famous Venetian painter. Mehmet the Conqueror didn’t like the way Bellini portrayed the beheading of John the Baptist. To show him how it was done, Mehmet ordered a slave be executed on the spot.

The silver nose is not an Ottoman affectation but it is one easily appropriated in the interests of fiction. It was not uncommon for noblemen to have silver noses in those days. Many noses were sliced off in duals, as happened to the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1566. Other men lost their noses to syphilis. My villainess is on board a ship bound for Constantinople when she meets a man she fancies. Somehow before matters proceed further, she must determine whether he lost his nose in a dual or through disease.

Could any novelist fabricate such wonderful details without being criticized for shameless exaggeration? I think not.