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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

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit