Why should we trust biographical fiction?

Biographical fiction is all the rage but is it only peddling lies, or is it the lie through which truth can emerge? asks Annabel Abbs

The novelist can  probe in a way the biographer can’t, something envied by historian Sheila Fitzpatrick who, in her review of Julian Barnes’s fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich (pictured here receiving an honorary degree in Trinity College Dublin in 1972), The Noise of Time, wrote: “How I would have liked to invent a few interior monologues in my recent book.” As a historian, she lamented, you can “only quote texts that can be footnoted”

The novelist can probe in a way the biographer can’t, something envied by historian Sheila Fitzpatrick who, in her review of Julian Barnes’s fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich (pictured here receiving an honorary degree in Trinity College Dublin in 1972), The Noise of Time, wrote: “How I would have liked to invent a few interior monologues in my recent book.” As a historian, she lamented, you can “only quote texts that can be footnoted”

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In 1907, a 42-year-old woman named Minna Bernays confessed she was having an affair with Sigmund Freud. Normally this would have been of little consequence. After all, men routinely had (and still have) extramarital affairs. But this affair was different. Minna was the sister of Freud’s wife, Martha. She lived with Sigmund and Martha, helping out with their six children. She admitted the affair was weighing on her conscience, implying her sister had no knowledge of it.

Her whispered confession was ignored by biographers and historians. The man she made her confession to was Freud’s rival, Carl Jung, and with no evidence to substantiate her words, it was agreed that Jung was suffering from sour grapes. Jung made his revelation in 1957, by which time Freud, Martha and Minna were long dead. For many years nothing happened. But four years after the death of Freud’s daughter, Anna, a cache of personal letters was released by the Freud Museum. The letters had been meticulously numbered, but 69 of them were missing. Oddly, they covered the years when Sigmund and Minna were rumoured to have had their affair.

It wasn’t until 2006, when a German sociologist found an old leather-bound ledger at a Swiss hotel that the evidence became substantial enough to change the position of Freud scholars and biographers. The ledger showed that Freud and Minna checked into Room 11 as “Dr Sigm. Freud u Frau”. Experts now think Minna may have been Freud’s closest confidante during his most significant years of discovery. But almost nothing is known about Minna. And of course nothing is known about the affair. These gaping speculative holes are anathema to the scholar or biographer. But they beckon enticingly to the novelist. They are the shadowlands where biographical fiction lives and breathes.

In the last five years, the genre of biographical fiction has surged in popularity – from Philippa Gregory’s imagined lives of Tudor queens to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, on to Kevin Barry’s John Lennon and Marlon James’s (never named) Bob Marley. The appetite for fictional imaginings of the famous and the infamous shows no sign of abating. Hardly surprising. Which of us doesn’t want to inhabit the minds of the great and the good? Which of us doesn’t want a glimpse into the darkest corners of our heroes and heroines?

Some biographers and historians have reacted with alarm, accusing novelists of manipulating history or inaccurately portraying historical characters. But others have welcomed the genre, recognising that novelists can wriggle into the spaces closed to biographers – the omissions, repressions and evasions of history, those tantalising gaps that potentially reveal so much more than a string of facts. The novelist can also delve and probe in a way the biographer can’t, something envied by historian Sheila Fitzpatrick who, in her review of Julian Barnes’s fictional account of Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, wrote: “How I would have liked to invent a few interior monologues in my recent book.” As a historian, she lamented, you can “only quote texts that can be footnoted”.

But does all this imagining and the lack of footnotes mean that biographical fiction can’t be trusted? Louisa Treger, author of The Lodger, a fictional biography of Dorothy Richardson, says the reverse is true: “Who’s to say what is truth and what is untruth? All facts are open to interpretation. And few sources are truly independent. Biography is only as reliable as its sources: it can be made up from letters and friends’ reminiscences which are less than objective. For this reason biographical fiction may be more honest.” She suggests that biographical fiction be viewed as “a lie through which the truth can emerge”.

Biographical fiction does this by letting readers explore more fully a subject’s interior life, what Virginia Woolf called the “thoughts and emotions which meander darkly and obscurely through the hidden channels of the soul”. Biographical fiction also gives us the chance to view major events and significant personalities through the eyes of a narrator displaced from history. It can give a voice to the marginal, the disempowered and the supressed. There are many of them, from Minna in Karen Mack’s Freud’s Mistress to Lizzie in Gavin McCrea’s acclaimed Mrs Engels.

Novels like these dislodge the iconic male, giving centre stage to someone with a very different viewpoint. They also give us the opportunity to explore the experience of someone rarely included in historical accounts or biographies. Through them we experience historical change or personalities in a new way, perhaps in a more nuanced or complex way. In Naomi Woods’ best-selling Mrs Hemingway, we see an under-exposed aspect of Ernest Hemingway. Instead of appearing as the usual hunting, boxing bullfighter, we see him through the imagined eyes of his four wives. We see a domestic Hemingway. “It had to be a novel,” explains Woods. “Fiction gave me the opportunity to lean on the empirical evidence but to discuss experience – sensation, feeling, subtext, depression, love-as-new, love-as-old.”

But trying to create a credible life from limited material brings its own challenges. It’s one thing to create a portrait of someone who leaves a trail of letters, diaries and photographs. It’s quite another thing to capture the life of someone who leaves little or no trace of themselves. McCrea spent well over a year conducting intensive research before he embarked on “creating” Lizzie Burns, an uneducated Irish-Mancunian mill worker who became Friedrich Engels’ lover. I was luckier in that my subject, Lucia Joyce, had her own biography, and yet the loss and destruction of all her letters, diaries and medical notes meant that I too was forced to imagine much of her life. Like McCrea, I spent over a year researching, but that time paled in comparison to the time I spent imagining my way into Lucia’s elusive, shifting mind.

Recently, biographical novelists have taken more extreme liberties. When Liza Klaussmann was writing about F Scott Fitzgerald and the Murphys in her novel, Villa America, she added an entirely fictitious thread of narrative and an entirely fictitious character. She argued that this act of inventive licence helped her explore an aspect of Gerald Murphy’s sexuality, something that biographers could only hint at, despite agreeing his sexuality was ambiguous. Purists may have balked but she explained her rationale in an Afterword, which biographer, James Hanning, says is critical: “Some readers can be unsettled by huge departures from the truth, while others rather enjoy it. The key is to have some ancillary source that allows readers to unpick fact from fiction without feeling they must read the biographies that the novelist has inevitably relied on. In short it helps to know what’s been made up.”

Sometimes facts have to be rearranged, of necessity. Both biographers and novelists need to shape the lives of their subjects. Unlike plots, lives are messy things. Again, the novelist has more freedom to shape the life of her character or to withhold information for the sake of pace and tension. Novelists can play with chronology too – I interspersed Lucia’s story with imagined sessions of psychoanalysis with Jung, while Treger condensed a 10-year affair between Dorothy Richardson and HG Wells into a few months. There’s also less requirement for precision and more need to create atmosphere or a sense of place in a biographical novel.

I’ll give the last word to Hanning: “Biographical fiction brings a new dimension to history, making it perhaps more accessible and exciting. If that encourages more people to engage with history and to read the original biographies, that must surely be a good thing.”

Annabel Abbs is the author of The Joyce Girl, which tells the fictionalised story of Lucia Joyce. It won the Impress Prize for New Writers, was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award and the Bath Novel Award, and is being published in multiple countries

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