Authors Philippa Gregory and Wayne Johnston can tell you that historical novelists have to deal with some odd complaints, most of which stem from the fact that everyone from the living descendents of their fictional characters to the fans of medieval monarchs will cheerfully ignore the words “a novel” blazoned on the cover.
Gregory has written numerous novels about Tudor and Plantagenet women, including her latest, The Lady of the Rivers, about Jacquetta of Luxembourg, a figure from the War of the Roses. She has also co-authored a history book, The Women of the Cousins’ War, that includes a biography of Jacquetta.
Johnston’s bestselling 1998 novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams controversially gave Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood an unrequited love. Now, Johnston has published A World Elsewhere, which introduces fictional Newfoundlanders into a psychopathic household inspired by Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s palace in North Carolina.
Globe and Mail arts writer Kate Taylor, herself the author of a novel based on the Dreyfus Affair, titled A Man in Uniform, asks Gregory and Johnston just how much a historical novelist is allowed to make up.
Kate Taylor: Philippa, in The Women of the Cousins’ War, you have this lovely line. “Too many critics think of historical fiction as flawed and unreliable history, written by authors too lazy to check the facts. Others condemn it for being insufficiently imaginative, written by authors too lazy to invent.”
Philippa Gregory: I think it’s really funny how the genre is despised.
KT: But it’s so popular.
PG: Despised by the critics. I’ve seen it transformed from being something which was regarded as the provenance of rather stupid women writers and readers to becoming much more mainstream, regarded with much more respect. But even so, you know, these traditional views [persist]
For me, it’s actually one of the most interesting ways to work as a novelist and, incidentally, the most lively way to work as an historian. I really love the task of enlivening the research. I know I’m writing fiction, but it feels like doing a reconstruction, as if you were the police doing a crime scene. We know that person was here, we know they end up over there. Why would they do that? Who would have been with them? What were they feeling?
I was writing a non-fiction book based on the same character, Jacquetta, who is the heroine of my novel. When I was writing the historical record I would say to the reader, we don’t know what she does in these years but, given her position, her gender and her age, she was probably doing this. As a novelist, you can’t tell the reader you don’t know anything. You have to be absolutely in control of all the material. You have to get hold of the reader and not let them go.
Wayne Johnston: Yes, absolutely. I was going to say that you have to be literally authoritative when you’re writing a novel.
Through The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, I do introduce a character who, to the best that anyone knows, did not exist in the life of Smallwood: Sheila Fielding. In the book, she never changes the historical record at all, never appears in political events. She lives in the offstage life of Smallwood. I wrote a draft of the novel without her, before I even conceived of her. The book didn’t work because it was so lopsided with this larger-than-life charismatic character, and so I inserted Fielding.
But I have gotten a lot of flak for that. Completely unknowingly, I had stumbled into a historical rumour that there had been such a woman. I was believed to being jumping on that rumour and putting it forward as fact.
But I don’t know, Philippa, what you would think of a book [like]E.L. Doctorow’s novel [ Ragtime]in which Freud and Jung go to Atlantic City and take a ride through the Tunnel of Love together which is done for fun, but they are never known to have been at Atlantic City together.
PG: But if they had been, undoubtedly they would have gone to the Tunnel of Love.
What’s really interesting about your Newfoundland book [is]that when you came to write you found an unbalance so profound that the novel wouldn’t work. What you picked up there was an absence, and, in fact, in life it had been there. It’s that the history missed out something and I’m not surprised that it was a woman because history traditionally misses out women.