Tag Archives: Ghost Light

Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Older people, it is assumed, live lives defined by approaching death. And older women are often portrayed as eccentric and difficult. I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s book The Lady in a Van while I was reading Ghost Light. At the opening of the novel Molly Allgood appears to have a lot in common with Miss Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in the film.

However, Molly is 67, and very much concerned with the present, with living her life, and with pondering the life she once lived. While being almost penniless, grateful for some charity, she is not eccentric. She still finds occasional work as an actor. She started her career in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and was engaged to marry the playwright John Millington Synge. He died of Hodgkin’s Disease aged 37 in 1909. Molly was 24. She lived on for four decades.

This is the 25th in the series of reviews of older women in fiction. For others you can see the page ‘about the older women in fiction series’.

Molly Allgood

The older Molly in 1952 was 67 and living in London. London is in pretty bad shape, still full of bombsites, poverty and lodging houses. Molly is not in good health either. She has difficulty scraping together the means to live, and in the first scenes she evades a police officer who warns her against an old Irish vagrant who has been begging. She returns some empty bottles for the deposit and begs a loan and is given free food by those who look out for others.

Molly addresses herself in this self-description.

But you’re no beauty yourself any more. Be honest – the years aren’t kind. And you feel you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties with the troubled watchfulness of a child in an unfathomable world. And your old woman’s voice – how did that happen? Your wheezing, brittle croakiness, distracted, muted, and you gossiping to the teacups for company. There was a day many years ago in Connemara or Kerry, when you happened upon an old rowboat that had been dumped in a bog. Crossbench crushed and buckled, rotting tiller wrenched askew, it had sunk to its oarlocks in the oozing, black peat. Often, of late, when you become aware of your voice, the image has appeared in your thoughts. (59-60)

I love the Irish rhythms of Joseph O’Connor’s writing, especially when he is writing in Molly’s voice. And I like the way her references are from her past, from her home country, strong despite her travels and residence in America and London.

After her marriage she was known as Maire O’Neill, and she is sometimes referred to in this way in Ghost Light. She bemoans the lack of parts for older women actors.

But for a woman, once she has offended by outliving the age of childbirth, the roles disappear as honeybees in winter. A jealous auld hag. An irrepressible washerwoman. Some bitch to be bested in pantomime. (30)

It sometimes feels that these are the roles assigned to all older women in life, not just actors. I note again the film of The Lady in the Van. And in some ways Molly is pathetic, or at least draws out sympathy, like when she is warned by the policeman, or in the BBC studio when her health takes a turn for the worse. As the novel progresses we learn that she is not a person to whom life has been generous.

Young Molly

John Millington Synge

In the first decade of the 20th century, in Dublin, amid the growing nationalism of the Irish, Molly met John Millington Synge at the Abbey Theatre. Both Molly and her sister Sara were struggling to escape their impoverished Catholic childhoods and to make something of themselves on the stage. Synge was an esteemed Protestant playwright, favoured by Yeats and Lady Gregory.

Molly in 1912

There were so many contrasts between them: religion, age, health, profession, but they fell in love. When she found out about it, his mother objected to their relationship. Much of their courtship was spent walking out at the weekends in places where they were not known. They steal a month away in Wicklow. He becomes notorious as the author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots when it was first staged in 1907.

The story as fiction

Joseph O’Connor makes it clear that this is a work of fiction. For example, there are no surviving letters between the couple to draw on, probably no holiday in Wicklow. But the settings are authentic, and the characters of the novel are quite believable too.

The novel has an interesting structure, one that takes care to indicate that Molly did not end up as this lonely old woman because of her affair with Synge. Nor was the affair with Synge the only thing in her life as she lived for 43 years after his death – there was her acting career, her rivalry with her sister who went to Hollywood, a marriage, a son and a daughter.

Sara Allgood and Kerrigan in Playboy in 1911

The novel moves back and forth between young and old Molly, and is presented in a number of perspectives. At times Molly addresses herself, as in the extracts above. At other times we have a play script, a letter and the tenses are carefully handled, close to Molly in the present tense, using the past tense for more distance.

It is beautifully written, and its structure reflects life experienced not as a linear process, but revisiting episodes time and again.

Joseph O’Connor at Literaturhaus Cologne 2015. Hpschaefer www.reserv-art.de

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. Published by Vintage, 2010. 246pp

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