Show Hide image

Why novelists have a duty of care to the past

As a novelist working from facts, you have a problem. History is suspect, as are the motives and methods of those who write it. Nevertheless, the sources are the same as those of a biographer.

Artistic licence: Dan Stevens (Gilbert) and Emily Browning (Florence) star in Summer in February

How true are “true stories”? How accurate are the historical events in a novel? How far can a writer “go” with the facts? And, anyway, don’t great writers make it all up from scratch?

These questions, which have long interested and troubled me, are brought sharply into focus in Christopher Nicholson’s fine recent novel Winter. The story is set in the mid-1920s, in the last years of Thomas Hardy’s life. While the old man is infatuated with Gertrude – a young actress 60 years his junior (and the model for Tess) – his neglected second wife, Florence, a mere 40 years younger than Hardy, lives in his shadow in their cold home.

It is a bitter life for Florence in which one of her duties is to deal with her famous husband’s daily postbag. One reader of The Return of the Native, a literal-minded lepidopterist, writes to ask which particular amber-coloured butterfly on Egdon Heath the novelist was describing, because the reader has often been on such Wessex heaths and has never spotted this species.

It is the kind of question – understandable if tiresome – that I sometimes get asked after giving a talk. Someone holds up a hand. “On page 197 you say so and so. How do you know this? Where did you get that?” Fair enough, I suppose, as I have based a number of my stories on what you might call the footnotes of history – forgotten or unearthed episodes in the lives of such figures as Rodin, Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson, W E Henley, Reinhard Heydrich and Alfred Munnings. What the questioner really wants to know is if I am playing fast and loose.

In truth, of course, there was no amber-coloured butterfly, as Hardy (or Nicholson) reflects:

Doubtless the letter-writer would be disappointed by such information; well, but it was the truth. Just like the butterflies, Egdon itself, that vast expanse of heath described at the start of the novel, did not exist and probably never had; it was a piece of fiction that stood at a certain remove from reality. He hated these literary detectives, who failed to grasp the nature of art: that it was a shaping of reality, not reality itself.

Like the lepidopterist, but in a much more damaging way, Florence reads every word her husband writes as a realistic account of his inner self. She cannot begin to understand, though he has often tried to explain, that he is not the “I” and that the I is not the “he”: “The relationship between he and I was close; they were blood brothers, but brothers often differ greatly.”

In his own shaping of reality Nicholson has Hardy at his desk fantasising about eloping with the young actress. For the dry and defensive Hardy, his marriage to Florence is dead. Her neuroses bore him. Caring more for his pen than for his wife, he has settled for domestic silence. However, cover his tracks as Hardy might, “he”, Nicholson suggests, is the “I” of the poems. The “I” is “he”. Usurped and disturbed Florence may be, but she senses what is happening. She knows the fires that burn in her distant and offhand husband.

I was immediately absorbed in Winter. And I stayed in it. I was back at Max Gate in the 1920s. There was pain on all sides and it felt true in the most important sense. I cared for all three central characters, not to mention the dog Wessex. Although I admired Thomas Hardy: the Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin – she dealt with the Gertrude Bugler episode in four pages – I was more lost in the world of Nicholson’s short novel than I was in her substantial biography. Fiction had brought things to life for me as only fiction can. Sticking to the facts does not necessarily take you to the heart of the matter, to the truth beyond events. Shakespeare did not stick to the facts when he recast history, nor did T S Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral.

Two of my novels – Wilfred and Eileen (1976) and Summer in February (1995) – were based on real events, and both were “given” to me. They came directly from conversations I had as a teacher, one with a pupil, one with a colleague. Both are set in 1913 and 1914. When I started on the first I felt a little apologetic about writing what could be classed as historical fiction (let alone a true story). I had left university in the early 1960s with the snobbish view that fiction set in the past was insufficiently imaginative. It fed off facts and dead bodies: second-division stuff. All you had to do was mention Sir Walter Scott and roll your eyes. No need to read him, naturally, just look bored.

Because of my friendship with members of the family and the access they had given me, Wilfred and Eileen was delicate terri­tory. Eileen Stenhouse, having married Wilfred Willett in secret, travels to France, alone, to find her dreadfully injured husband and bring him home: a story of almost unbelievable courage on both sides, which had been entrusted to me by their daughter and grandson. In fusing the freedom to invent with a reliance on hard facts, I had to decide where exactly to play it straight, and where I could reasonably embellish. My responsibility to the real Wilfred Willett and the real Eileen Stenhouse at times conflicted with my concern to make the novel as strong as possible.

Twenty years later, when Summer in February came out, I was no longer defensively concerned with categories, and whether the book was historical fiction or a biographical novel or a hybrid genre. I thought then (and still think) that novels should be judged by the quality of their writing, the authenticity of their world, their narrative control and the intensity of the caring you feel for the characters. No one suggests that Colm Tóibín’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author are the poorer for being based on incidents in the life of Henry James. Like Winter, they are creative novels about a creative novelist.

Even so, however urgently the dead call to us, there lingers in the literary world a barely concealed contempt for historical fiction. Hilary Mantel’s first Man Booker Prize win in 2009 prompted grumblings about its literary merit – as if, she wrote, “the past is some feathered sanctuary, a nest muffled from contention and the noise of debate, its events suffused by a pink, romantic glow”. This contempt extends to fiction based on real events. As Hazlitt said, “. . . there is no romance like the romance of real life”, but for many the phrase “a true story” remains as much a turn-off as a turn-on.

As a novelist working from facts, you have a problem straight away. History is suspect, as are the motives and methods of those who write it. Nevertheless, the sources are exactly the same as those of a biographer – that “post-mortem exploiter”, in Henry James’s phrase – would use: diaries, biographies, interviews, letters, looking at old photographs and taking new photographs. If you are going to write about real people as they actually lived, or as your imagination tells you they did, the least you can do is put in the legwork.

The further back in time you go the easier it is. You can write just about anything you like about the Romans and the Elizabethans, and people do. It is much trickier if there is close family still living. A father’s or mother’s real life is more than a “story” to a living son or daughter; it is far more important, more problematic and far more touchy than mere historical material.

When writing Summer in February, I faced the same questions. This novel (released as a film last year) is set in a bohemian artistic community in Cornwall just before the First World War. My challenge was to re-create the tragic love triangle of the painter Alfred Munnings, the soldier Gilbert Evans and Florence Carter-Wood. I read everything I could find but in his three-volume autobiography Munnings did not once mention Florence, let alone their marriage. He had airbrushed her out. Furthermore, there was the problem of how I should interpret some entries in Evans’s diaries, which were kindly shown to me by his son. I was pretty sure where joining the dots would lead: that when she died Florence was pregnant with his child. But proving it was another matter.

There is in most writers something of the secret agent and something of the subversive, too. It is invigorating being on the scent, a stalker of the past, stealing up on something from an oblique angle. Then there are the quiet hours of sitting and waiting, staring and feeling: of being imaginatively with your characters. Both approaches are essential. I try to let things unfold, to leave myself open to surprises. I try not to push.

To return to Hardy: in The Return of the Native he made up the butterflies and he made up Egdon Heath. Similarly, Christopher Nicholson made up the scenes in Winter where Florence and Hardy are reading a letter from a fan asking about the amber-coloured butterflies on Egdon Heath. Hardy and Nicholson, with their historical imagination, have both shaped reality.

The novelist and the dramatist can reach where the historian and the biographer very rarely do. “A work of art,” as Auden said, “is not about this or that kind of life; it has life.”

A new edition of Jonathan Smith’s “Wilfred and Eileen” is published by Persephone Books (£14)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Photo: Prime Images
Show Hide image

The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder