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.