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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

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.