Creative, historical (non-)fiction

On Tuesday I just missed joining a twitter discussion/interview with Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, hosted by Misha Angrist, on the topic of creative non-fiction writing #creativenf. You can see how the discussion played out here, posted by Ruth Seeley, and in this post by Grant Jacobs. As well as being fascinating in terms of the amount of time, determination and persistence Skloot required to get the research, writing and publication completed, it gives an interesting insight into what is “creative” about creative non-fiction.

In this piece, for the Library Journal, Skloot described how it was the little things – details about location, shoe colour, patterns of speech – that librarians or archivists might have collected which helped her bring her history to life. A historian of the home or consumerism might well pay attention to such details, but the “creativity” comes, I suppose, with the decision to apply them to a history of something else and – more controversially to the historian – to a different time, place or person. Dr X may well have worn brown shoes on the one day that anyone thought to note them. What we might never know is that he wore black every other day of his life, including the one depicted in your book.

This brings me to think about historical fiction, a topic about which there is, I discover, a great deal of information on ‘tinterweb. I liked this on ‘The art of lying in historical fiction‘ from 2010 in the Guardian, note the Reading the Past blog, and many ‘how to’ sites. There are, evidently, a large number of people interested in trying their hand at historical fiction which, given the evident dangers, I find intriguing. There are, of course, historians who write historical fiction, but I feel particularly wary of the genre. I fictionalise and misrepresent the past badly enough every time I write ‘proper’ history; the idea of adding genuine fiction scares me silly – although, who knows, if I started, perhaps I would feel enormously liberated.

[I did have a hankering, while doing my PhD, to write something about my favourite subject, Augustus De Morgan and his intelligent and table-turning wife, Sophia. I would have plotted something around a séance in which they appear to come across the spirit of Newton and, of course, his niece Catherine Barton. Would De Morgan’s view of Newton as personally flawed but morally pure, and his thesis that Catherine had been privately married to the Earl of Halifax, stand up to this encounter, or would the spirits (his subconscious?) reveal something much more morally repugnant?]

Sensibly, I think, I decided that this was not for me and that I should, particularly, stay away from fictionalising real historical figures. To make an interesting story, I’d have had to say all sorts of things about Augustus and Sophia, and their relationship, for which there is little or no evidence. I would have blushed every time I looked into the eye (he had only one) of his bust at the catalogue terminals of Senate House Library.

Given these sensibilities, what of reading historical fiction? Do historians tend to enjoy it (if well done) or avoid it? Do they, perhaps, avoid tales set in their own period, while revelling in those set in another?  I have, in fact, loved much literary historical fiction, including that set in the 19th-century. AS Byatt’s Possession is a favourite, and I also enjoyed The Children’s Book. I am currently enjoying Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America and thought one of the shortlist Best of the Booker, J.G. Farrell’s 1973 The Siege of Krishnapur was brilliant. Several speak to themes of science, technology and their relationship to daily life, the experience of modernity and relationship with religion or with art. But what of novels that link very directly to history of science? Perhaps in another post I’ll start compiling a list of history of science novels, as I did with history of science on stage. (Byatt’s Angels and Insects comes to mind, Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost, not a few other novels in which Newton appears as a character.) I have not read that many, though, always wary that my knowledge and views will interfere with my straightforward enjoyment of the book.

Recently, though, I read a novel that hit my period and field. This was Christina Koning’s Variable Stars, “a story”, the blurb tells us, “of love and astronomy; music and silence; secrets and truth-telling; of world-changing discoveries, and unrequited desire”. It features the astronomers Caroline and William Herschel, Edward Pigott and John Goodricke. The title reflects the work that Pigott and Goodricke collaborated on, in observing the periodic variation of certain stars, and nods to the idea of the vagaries of the human heart. As it turns out, while some of the stars are indeed variable in their brightness, the characters are extraordinarily (and, for me, unrealistically) tenacious in their sentiments.

The novel fantises unrequited love affairs among these characters, and the existence of a Pigott sibling (a MathurinaPigott was born, presumably dying young, as nothing else is known of her), but there is much that is close to the historical record. Indeed, there are letters and papers that are quoted directly – mainly this is how Koning deals with “the science bit” and I was not convinced that she had a very clear sense of the context of and motivations behind the various astronomical projects included in the book.

As Koning writes in an afterword, “I have speculated least where most is known, an allowed myself the license of invention where little or no documentary evidence exists”. Sensible, perhaps, but it means that those familiar with the William and Caroline story get a strong sense of deja vu. I read Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder recently, and was struck by the similarity of the characters that emerged and the episodes recorded (probably, in both cases, relying on the work of Michael Hoskin). I did enjoy the child’s-eye view of Hanover, presumably also deriving from Caroline’s own accounts, but less familiar to me.

The treatment of the childhood of John Goodricke (left), and the onset of his deafness, also appealed to me. Koning can write vividly and affectingly, but I think these sections worked for me because they avoided the rather over-blown emotions that are the constant theme of the adult lives (you can probably tell that I am not a reader or Romance fiction).

Koning has worked hard with her research: there are relatively few errors of fact, although I picked up a few mistakes (e.g. there is some inconsistency about when the Herschels started working with the 20-foot telescope – it certainly wasn’t planned in 1774 as suggested on p. 29 – and it is wrong to say the transit telescope at Greenwich was in the Octagon Room, as on p. 153). There are occasionally rather clunky bits of exposition, working on quite a different register to the moments of passion that the historical record did not (could not) have recorded. However, these undoubtedly leap out at me in a way they would not with another reader. It was good to be introduced to Pigott and Goodricke, who I hadn’t previously come across, although I had heard of Edward’s father Nathaniel Pigott, who had a large private observatory and was a correspondent of Nevil Maskelyne’s colleague, Robert Waddington.

Caroline Herschel has clear appeal to novelists as well as historians. Goodricke – brilliant, deaf and died young – has the elements of a tantalising romantic figure, too good for a creative writer to resist. For me, of course, so much of this history is too good to mess with. Write me a new character, please, and don’t make me worry about how the real Goodricke might have felt about being portrayed as lover and beloved first, and astronomer second.

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12 thoughts on “Creative, historical (non-)fiction

  1. I detect an interesting line being drawn here between historical fiction that dramatizes an event or milieu versus doing the same to a known historical personage. It poses a tantalizing question: what is the difference, really, between (say) one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin novels and a hypothetical novel about Lord Nelson? Or between the administrators of Farrell’s Krishnapur and the real players involved in the Indian Rebellion? In the former cases, it’s not as if the author’s inventions sit back and merely typify their surrounding context as generic signifiers of the order of the day; O’Brian’s characters, for instance, command roles in engagements that were steered by real-life counterparts. Why should a historian’s comfort level differ between one kind of fiction and the other?

    One answer, I suspect, is that the risks of inaccuracy differ considerably. Perhaps we don’t mind so much when the actions of fictional characters overlap with (or even overwrite) those of their historical counterparts because even if the author bungles the facts, it isn’t as libellous as assigning thoughts to real actors and doing it horribly wrong. There’s something intangibly less… ethical, I suppose, about taking possession of people who existed as opposed to events that happened— although it’s also a salacious attraction to do so, especially in theatre and film, where you have not only writers but also actors exploring the desire to inhabit a character. I’m not sure what the difference is, but it’s there, and I don’t think it’s a simple matter of plausibility or believability (though that certainly plays a part; it’s not to the author’s credit if a book repels everyone who is knowledgeable about its subject and throws them out of any immersion in the narrative).

    For my part, I actually don’t much mind fiction that is explicitly cavalier about distorting history to the extent that nobody reads it as history, because from the get-go the contract the book makes with the reader is to entertain rather than serve a duty to accuracy. It’s clear to everyone, hopefully clear, that they should come in expecting liberties. Which, I think, speaks to why people get up in arms when they see fictions marketed and sold as memoirs, as in the James Frey controversy some years ago, or why someone like Dan Brown deservedly draws so much fire for fabricating the most ghastly conspiracies under the guise of telling his more gullible readers that he’s giving them access to a Secret Deleted History that’s been stomped out by the proverbial winners. As fiction and history have diverged as separate publishing categories, I think they’ve begun to come stickered with their own particular sets of expectations. I can see why a reader/writer accustomed to the values of one would find jarring the values of the other.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think that there are at least a couple of things going on, one relating, as you say, so some sort of ethical sense of duty to the dead (which really makes little sense, but is often present nonetheless). The other is to do with familiarity with the subject. It is hard to read a novel when you are so familiar with some of the source material that you know what comes next and are very aware of areas of ‘invention’ and ‘reality’. The link between the two can be the knowledge of how little of a real individual’s private life, for example, is known.

      In the end much of it comes down to how skilful the writer is and how much they can pull you into the story and persuaded you with their character. If it’s a pleasure to read, and internally consistent, I don’t much mind, too, if liberties are taken with history. The queasiness comes, I think, when parts strive hard to be as accurate as possible, including real texts and quotations, while others are pure fiction. A novelist would have to be very, very skilful to convince you that such dual figure is a whole character.

  2. The thought crossed my mind some years back that instead of doing history and ethnology I had the material to write a 17th century science fiction horror play. It was looking at Edward Llwyd and John Ray on reproduction. Llwyd thought that fossils were formed by “preternatural reproduction” in sea mist ,when sperm mixed with other substances and created “monstrous production” which turned to stone and were hurled from the sky deep in to the earth.

    I imagined what must of gone through the mind of this fearless monster hunter as he was out walking at night looking at the stars. Was not thinking of attempting to write something historical accurate but presenting the hope, fears and dreams of Edward Llwyd, John Aubrey, John Bulwer, Ray et al. and their notions on reproduction and presenting what they were speculating on in the margins of their thought as reality. Making words flesh and giving dreams, hope, fear, a form of real life in fiction.

    It is in effect what they were partly doing. Dreams of monsters or Bulwer’s vision of hybrid humanity were formed partly or in entirety from popular narrative that sat well with the theoretical constraints and issues of the 17th century .

    Science certainly has a historical relationship with fiction and fiction is a valid way of exploring it I think. Not sure I want to do it, but I may attempt to set it on the stage at some-point. But I am a hybrid creature and was far better trained at the Bristol Old Vic than at University. Would be nice to mix both forms of learning.

    I would not attempt to present it as historical accurate. But I would not attempt to make that claim writing straight history either.

    • This sounds great stuff – let me know if you take the project any further! I absolutely agree that fiction is a valid way of exploring ideas and issues, and that those ideas must inevitably include the concerns of today as well as those of the past.

  3. Certainly standing it up on it’s feet as an academic project next year. Being lazy I may approach a few art collectives at some point see if I can sell the idea as a collaborative instillation based around a museum theme; juxtaposing physical scientific proof with the legendary proof of oral narrative and a few other areas. Both forms place an emphasis on the importance of physical objects and the subject has a massive history in visual arts, the museum and the stage. I had a chance to do this some years back but life got in the way. But the subject has interested artists for centuries so its not a hard thing to sell.

    A play would be far more complex and demanding than any other form of communication and demands expertise in all the many aspects of the subject. One for old age and hopefully more wisdom.

    The potential and range of what you can do with these things is limited only by imagination.

    • Ah – I haven’t read Stuart’s book yet, I’m afraid. I am slightly worried that I wouldn’t be able to relax and get into the story for worrying about accuracy. This, of course, shouldn’t stop you enjoying good writing, but it’s difficult when it crosses over with your day job! But should I take the plunge?!

      • Ah – I haven’t read Stuart’s book yet, I’m afraid. I am slightly worried that I wouldn’t be able to relax and get into the story for worrying about accuracy. This, of course, shouldn’t stop you enjoying good writing, but it’s difficult when it crosses over with your day job! But should I take the plunge?!

        Ditto

      • Well I’m biased of course, having it read twice, once in ms form and then after it was edited. There is only one invented character (one of the priests, I believe). One of the reviews that made me giggle said it suffered at some points from ‘historical novelitis’ – creating dialogue to explain important concepts – that wasn’t a term I’d ever heard before. But then in an interview he explained that he’d used this technique (it’s when Kepler is trying to explain his work to his mother) because he remembered his joy at coming home from school and excitedly telling his own mother what he’d learned that day, which was incredibly sweet.

        As a non-scientist, non-astronomer, I thought he did an amazing job of explaining complicated concepts without the use of a single mathematical formula (which does tend to make non-scientists’ eyes glaze over). But then he’s a singularly gifted science communicator, so….

        It seems to have been received well both within and without the scientific community, so by all means yes, take the plunge.

      • As well as “historical novelitis” (which I recognise well!) I suppose my other fear is that this is, indeed, the book of a science communicator rather than an historian of science, although I know he’s done plenty of historical work. I should not pre-judge, of course, and it might at least be an interesting way of testing various ideas about approaches to this material. Keep an eye on this space…

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