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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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The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Many novelists enjoy writing about writing and writers. I can think of a few novels where the main character is a writer. I guess its what they know about. However the main character in The Crime Writer is not Jill Dawson, but Patricia Highsmith.

So why write a novel about a real writer? Well, it allows Jill Dawson to do what she does so well, write fiction about real characters and events, eg Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover (2009) and the mystery of the Penge murder in the 1920s in Fred and Edie (2000). Her subject matter allows her to mix fiction and fact in a way that the reader cannot quite penetrate. Writing fiction about a writer allows her to explore the processes of writing and challenge us as readers. And it’s fiction so the author’s imagination is not bound by inconvenient truth.

303-cr-wr-cover

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, mostly psychological thrillers, and eight volumes of short stories. She was the originator of the stories behind such movies as Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley and, most recently, Carol. This last was published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

Her publisher described her as ‘mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving’, according to Wikipedia. These characteristics are evident in the main character in The Crime Writer.

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

The story

It’s the 1960s and Patricia Highsmith has come to a Suffolk village from Paris to escape a stalker, and to work on her novel and a book about writing thrillers. She is interested in what happens in the mind of someone who commits murder. This is what Jill Dawson examines in the novel.

Pat is distracted, first by a journalist, Ginny Smythson-Balby, and then by anticipating the arrival of her married lover, Sam. From time to time her reputation as a writer must be acknowledged. Ginny persuades her to do a radio interview with the cold and calculating Frances. She is awarded a Gold Dagger and must attend the award ceremony.

She mostly wants to be on her own, or with Sam. On her own she writes, draws, paints, and indulges her interest in snails. She also likes woodwork and keeps her tools to hand. One visitor she does welcome is the rather effete but steady Ronnie. He is a version of Ronald Blythe, who wrote Akenfield, portrait of an English village (1969), based on conversations he had with local people.

Patricia Highsmith has her demons. She is revisited by recollections of an unhappy and neglected childhood, and believes that she has been receiving letters from a stalker who may be her stepfather. She lives in fear of being discovered as a lesbian. She is alarmed to find that her stalker knows that she now lives in the village. She drinks and smokes excessively, and suffers something of a breakdown when Sam will no longer continue their affair.

These demons all come together in the climax, the crime at the novel’s centre is committed and hidden, the stalker is revealed, Pat drinks herself into a stupor, and her mother arrives. There is so much mess for Pat to clear up.

The story unsettled me, unnerved me. Perhaps things are not as they seem. Perhaps I just have an overactive imagination, living in a village as I do.

The writing

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

The writing deliberately unsettles the reader, I believe. Some of the text is narrated in the first person, the moments of high tension in particular. Other parts are in a more distant third person, but always from Patricia Highsmith‘s point of view.

The isolation and starkness of Suffolk, and especially of the shore at Aldeburgh at night is beautifully written.

Writing fiction in The Crime Writer

I have tried to be very careful in this review, to allow the fictional Patricia Highsmith to exist within the novel and not permit anything I read about her to intrude. And not to assume either that Jill Dawson is trying to speak through her fictional Patricia Highsmith.

There are some interesting discussions about writing fiction in this novel. Here Patricia Highsmith is rejecting the label ‘crime writer’, in a passage that also foreshadows the events of the novel.

She’d had to explain, for possibly the hundredth time in her career, that she didn’t write crime novels; she wasn’t a crime writer. The damn fool girl [Ginny] had protested by naming some of her best-known novels, as if Pat didn’t know her own work, to which she had patiently explained: ‘Would you call Dostoevsky a crime writer for writing Crime and Punishment? Edgar Allen Poe? Theodore Dreiser? I don’t happen to care for the label “crime writer”. There is not much detection in my novels. There’s rarely any police involvement at all . . .‘ (3)

She prefers to describe her work as suspense, ‘that is, stories where there is felt to be a threat of imminent danger’. (9)

And she is also adamant about the notion of messages in novels. Again she confronts Ginny:

‘Message? Holy crap, not really?’

Her bottom lip comes out then, a little stubbornly.

‘There clearly are messages in your work. You know, the ordinariness of evil lurking in domestic settings, the doppelganger theme, the bad guy and the good guy who change places, who are the same person. And there’s the murderer celebrated as ultimate rebel, an amoral or subversive hero, the forces of law and order as toothless against evil, the victim as repulsive or contemptible, or silly in some way and deserving of death …’

‘I wonder why reviewers and critics always put it like that? As if I’m writing in another language that they need to translate? Why should I go to the trouble to make up characters, plots and settings and all that? You talk as if a story is just a bottle to hide a message in. Ornamental words to hide a rational thought, which no doubt you think is the true thought.’ (134)

Again this works on different ways, as a provocation to those who speak of messages, as a description of the plot and suspense in the novel, and as a challenge to readers of fiction.

Some people will read it as a suspense novel, and I think they will find it works well. But the title, subject matter and the plot all require the reader to consider the art and skill of writing a novel.

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016. 242 pp

Over to you

I have been unable to find any reviews of this book on-line that add to my understanding or appreciation. Any thoughts?

 

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Poetry in Fiction

Does poetry have a place in novels? Far from wandering lonely as a cloud, poetry is a great connector, especially among those who have memorised poems. Its concentration works well to make reference to complex shared ideas. Novelists use poetry to heighten a moment, to say something about the characters and to point up a moment in the novel. They use it as they might imagery or flashback. It takes skill. Here are three examples.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I imagine that the Stephens household quoted poetry with their early morning muffins and throughout the day, and that the Bloomsbury Group prided itself on its knowledge of modern poetry.

209 To_the_LighthouseMrs Ramsay is reading to James, her youngest child, who is disappointed that they will not be going to the lighthouse. She reads the story of the Fisherman and his Wife.

‘And when he came to the sea, it was quite dark grey, and the water heaved up from below, and smelt putrid. Then he went and stood by it and said,

“Flounder, flounder, in the sea,

Come, I pray thee, here to me;

For my wife, good Isabil,

Wills not as I’d have her will.”

“Well, what does she want then?”said the Flounder.’ (65-66)

With this snippet of verse from a children’s story Mrs Ramsay’s resistance to her overbearing husband is revealed. Mr Ramsay has declared the trip to the lighthouse will not take place. It has been established that he is prone to quote a single line from Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade

Someone had blundered.

The line sets up resonances of war and campaigns commanded by blunderers. The poem is about the massacre of British troops in the Crimea war, mistakenly sent into the Valley of Death. Mr Ramsay appears to be at war with everything, including the elements and ready to blunder on himself unaware of the currents beneath the surface within his family. War will appear again, scything through the family in the passage called Time Passes.

Selecting these two points in the novel I see that flounder and blunder chime.

Later that evening the family and guests are seated at supper. Virginia Woolf writes the scene through Mrs Ramsay’s eyes.

Her husband spoke. He was repeating something, and she knew it was poetry from the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy in his voice:

Come out and climb the garden path,

Luriana Lurilee

The China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the yellow bee.

The words (she was looking at the window) sounded as if they were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all, as if no one had said them, but they had come into existence of themselves.

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be

Are full of trees and changing leaves.

She did not know what they meant, but, like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside herself, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she had said different things. She knew without looking round that everyone at the table was listening to the voice saying:

I wonder if it seems to you

Luriana Lurilee.

with the same sort of relief and pleasure that she had as if this were, at last the natural thing to say, this were their own voice speaking.

But the voice stopped. She looked round. She made herself get up. Augustus Carmichael had risen and, holding his table napkin so that it looked like a long white robe he stood chanting:

To see the King go riding by

Over lawn and daisy lea

With their palm leaves and cedar

Luriana Lurilee,

and as she passed him he turned slightly towards her repeating the last words

Luriana, Lurilee.

and bowed to her as if he did her homage. (127-8)

This is beautiful passage. Virginia Woolf wants us to hear the lines being quoted, hear ‘the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy’. The repetition of Luriana Lurilee adds to the intensity.

I notice her observation about the effects of poetry read aloud, how the words ‘were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all’. And how she was responding to the poem as if the words were hers. And when Augustus Carmichael takes over the recitation she reminds us of the pleasures of sharing poetry when it is read aloud.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Perhaps like me you thought that this poem, called A Garden Song, was well known at the time when Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse. The novel was published in 1927 but the complete poem was not published until 1945, when it was included in an anthology by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson. It was a poem known within the Bloomsbury group it seems.

A Garden Song (Luriana Lurilee) is by Charles Isaac Elton. You can find the complete text here. You can also finds lines from William Browne, William Cowper and William Shakespeare in To the Lighthouse.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

209 Crossing to S cover This is a beautiful American story about two couples who were friends for decades. The men are both connected to writing, one in the University the other in publishing. Larry Morgan narrates, and he is professor of English Literature and a novelist and frequently quotes lines of poetry. At the start of the novel five lines by Robert Frost appear, the source of the novel’s title.

I could give all to Time except – except

What I myself have held. But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There

And what I would not part with I have kept.

As with Virginia Woolf one gets the impression that poetry for Wallace Stegner and his circle was always present. On page 7 we get four lines of Swinburne, followed by Easter Hymn by AE Housman (p42-3). And poetry appears every now and again throughout the novel, along with money problems, tenure issues, marriage, children, arguments, disability, illness, holidays and the rest of life: WB Yeats, Bliss Carman, and several quotations I don’t recognise. Poetry is as everyday as friendship.

I was introduced to this novel by the enthusiasm with which BookSnob referred to it on her blog.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey greyMrs Palfrey is also revealed to have poetry as part of her life. Struggling to keep up her spirits she is going for a short walk.

Must keep going, she thought, as she so often thought. Every day for years she had memorised a few lines of poetry to train her mind against threatening forgetfulness. She now determined to train her limbs against similar uselessness.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste out powers.

Her lips moved gently as she tried to remember her lines for the day. By tomorrow she would have forgotten them. Only the poetry she had learned by heart as a girl remained.

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

She was stuck after the third line. That was the way it went with her these days. (108)

Unlike the first two novels I have considered where poetry connects people, Mrs Palfrey’s failing memory intensifies her separation from the world as she ages.

The poem is by Wordsworth. The first line is the title and the full text can be found here. The unrecovered fourth line is: We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! It is a poem about being out of kilter with the world. A nice touch by Elizabeth Taylor.

A recommended novel – about a poet

209 Great Lover cover The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published in 2009 by Sceptre about Rupert Brook and his Cambridge days.

Related posts

Andre’s Blog has much information about Virginia Woolf, and in Blog #129: Charles Elton’s “A Garden Song” and to the Lighthouse Brambles explores the use of the poem in To the Lighthouse.

Here is my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor And a post about her ageing here.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, poetry, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf