The other day C. J. Hall and I were talking about writing a piece of fiction about Margaret Thatcher once she’d died. We came up with two completely different ways of approaching it, each of which would be fun in different ways. The first approach involved doing careful research and portraying her sympathetically as a three-dimensional person with flaws, doubts and uncertainties, which would be fun because the sympathetic approach would annoy all the lefties who hate her and the flaws would annoy all the conservatives who idolise her. The second approach involved just making it all up, going completely over the top and presenting her as something she plainly wasn’t (like a wrestler or a drug addict or something), just for laughs.
This obviously raises some pertinent questions about using historical figures, living or dead, in fiction.
A real person’s life is not a fiction, and treating it – or at least some aspects of it – as such are fraught with complications. Several question spring immediately to mind. What about the feelings of the relatives, or the figure’s estate? Do writers owe a debt to accuracy, to authenticity, to tact or to taste? Or is it necessary for the motivation to be purely entertainment? For it to be fictional exploration?
In reality I think that the answer to all of those questions is “yes”, and that a writer must balance the competing motivations and obligations on a case-by-case basis. The issues surrounding a story about Plato, for example, will be very different to those surrounding a story about Margaret Thatcher (wrestler or not).
Part of this, of course, will be a function of the chronological distance of the subject: the further back into history one delves the more likely it is that any relatives will be far removed enough from the subject to enable the writer to approach it more or less freely, and the less likely it is that every aspect of the subject’s life is known.
It is this last element that is perhaps the most attractive to a writer: there will always be shadowy areas of a person’s life that are unknown to all but that person, and these shadows of biographical uncertainty are where fiction lies.
Two examples of how to do it right come to mind.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall imbues Thomas Cromwell with an extraordinarily deep humanity that brings a contemporary realism to the tribulations of managing first Cardinal Wolsey’s and then Henry VIII’s matters that I doubt any historical text could manage. Mantel’s Cromwell is highly believable, with realistic motivations and doubts fuelled by his experiences.
Similarly Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George, a fictional account of the time that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spent in a small village in an attempt to help the Indian solicitor George Edalji during his trial and imprisonment for animal mutilation, treats two real historical figures sensitively and with respect, and provides a fascinating insight into the thoughts of the two protagonists during a highly stressful series of events.
Of course, the personalities and minds (and, to a lesser extent, the actions) of the characters in these works are pure speculation, but the impression that I got on reading these novels was that the speculation is at least based on a firm foundation of research. The actions, reactions, thoughts and words of the characters come across as being absolutely plausible.
These books show that it is more than possible to write a story with a real historical figure at the centre of the narrative and to treat him or her sympathetically. At the same time, however, I’ve read other novels in which a historical figure has been treated…well, if not badly, then with a defecit of attention to detail, such that he or she appears flimsy and two-dimensional (I won’t name names…I’m far too nice, and in any case my opinion should have no bearing on what other people think of a book). This is the danger – in treating a historical figure as a character an author always runs the risk of presenting him or her as a cartoonish approximation of a real person, which is respectful neither to the historical figure nor the reader.
I am currently writing a short story about a certain aspect of Isaac Newton’s life (I won’t go into detail as to what it’s about as there’s every likelihood that as I write it will turn rubbish and I will abandon it in a childish huff) and I’m worried about misrepresenting him. I’m reading as much as I can about him and I’m trying to approach his character with a level of objectivity, but at the same time I am acutely aware that ultimately a large portion of the story is going to be fiction and that one way or another I will have to put words into his mouth and thoughts into his head.
It feels like a real responsibility, and it’s one for which I wasn’t really prepared when I first started toying with the idea.
I’m going to plough on regardless, but if and when it’s finished I’ll return to the subject to see whether I have managed to keep to my writerly obligations. Either way, writing historical fiction is turning out to be a fascinating learning experience.