I enjoy fiction that tries to fill in the gaps of history’s mysteries, and London’s National Portrait Gallery did just that with an anthology of narrated stories penned by writers you may recognize. In each podcast, writers selected a portrait and made a tale out of their anonymous faces. Some funny, some tragic, you will find something interesting here. While writers use the portrait as a source of inspiration, sometimes the portrait will barely figure at all in the plot.
The first podcast goes to Alexander McCall Smith and his story False Mary. There, he gives the history of Mary Peoples and Mary, Queen of Scots who used the woman as a “body double”. It felt very Bubba-Ho-Tep when Smith characterized the Queen as hating portraits and False Mary loving them and the glamorous life of royalty. Tying up the story in mystery, the author implies her participation in Lord Darnley’s murder and her unexplained end.
Julian Fellowes has his own story of fatigue under political upheaval entitled Biography of William Wrightson, 2nd Viscount of Dorchester. It goes into a grim area, but still retains a dry sense of humor about a royalist biologist living under the reigns of King James, King Charles, and Oliver Cromwell.
Other stories belong to the genre of domestic dramas and sweeping romances. A letter from Catherine Hartshorn, 1587, February 2nd by Joanna Trollope revolves around Catherine analyzing a portrait from a potential suitor and wanting advice from her mother. This story stands out the most subdued in comparison to the other stories with their themes of juicy gossip, misadventures, and lies. The life of Nicholas Colthurst by Sarah Singleton goes to the Elizabethan era with a dashing, educated war veteran (navy man who fought the Spanish) and musician who traveled to the Americas and Azores. Mathilda’s Letter by Minette Walters devotes her plot to another dysfunctional marriage story. Set in the King Charles era, the story explores the themes of portraits and the deceptions they create through manipulation. Turning a domestic drama into a story of secret love, Tracy Chevalier’s Rosy narration switches between a portrait’s description and a relationship between two men.
The last story (and my favorite) comes The tale of Joshua Easement by Terry Pratchett. Here, the author weaves a tale of a drunk Elizabethan seamen incompetent at navigation. If you enjoy dry humor, you will love this. Especially with the hilarious scene of Easement giving a skunk to Queen Elizabeth.
Do I recommend it? Very much so. I love the idea of stories inspired by portraits of anonymous people.