Many writers use real people as characters – just think of Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James), Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (German poet and philosopher Novalis) or Mary Hamer’s Kipling & Trix (Rudyard Kipling and his sister). There are many other examples and this isn’t a new trend – after all, Shakespeare used ‘real’ characters too, from Cleopatra to English kings.
There are some people, including writers and historians, who dislike this fictionalising tendency, fearing that it muddies the water of historical scholarship. But no biography consists of nothing but objective facts. However much a biographer aims at for accuracy, the telling of a life is only a partial story, an edited version – otherwise it would be unthinkably long.
So how does a writer go about researching the life of a real person and then fictionalising them? I’m working on a novel about the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and I imagine my research process is fairly typical: I’m reading Ruskin’s own writings, including his published works, letters and diaries, as well as just about every biography I can get my hands on, and also a certain amount of academic material. I intend to visit his house in the Lake District to get a feel for his surroundings and see some of his belongings. But beyond that, my imagination has a significant role to play.
I’m not interested in writing another biography – there are plenty of good ones about Ruskin already. Rather, I think fiction can add another dimension to our understanding of this brilliant but unhappy man. I want to show how his writing is the result of his character, and that he has something of interest to say to a twenty-first century readership: I hope to bring Ruskin to a new audience. Much has been made of the scandal of his failed marriage but what often seems to be forgotten is that he’s a hugely significant thinker. His ideas form the basis for much of what we still consider important, including the universal right to education, the welfare state, and the protection of the natural environment.
One of the strengths of fiction is that it’s a way of imagining what it’s like to be another person. The character featured in my writing is very much my Ruskin – I’m not claiming it’s a definitive portrait (partly because surely there’s no such thing). Nevertheless, it is the life and work of a real man that is inspiring my fiction, so I’m anxious to avoid major errors. If I write about him tucking into roast goose at Christmas, and a Ruskin scholar later tells me that Ruskin hated goose, I won’t be too worried – it’s not fundamental to his character. But if I depict him being cruel to his servants, when in fact Ruskin was known for his empathy and kindness – well, then I will feel that my novel is a failure.
Are there any ethical considerations? My portrait of Ruskin will be largely sympathetic, which I think makes some difference to any ethical qualms. But what right do I have to write a novel about him at all? I don’t know Ruskin and I’m not making any claims for special insight into him. Although my novel is written in third person, the narrator has access to his thoughts – is it a breach of Ruskin’s privacy for me to be imagining an interior life for him? The truth is that I can’t know what it’s like to be my husband, let alone John Ruskin, a man who moved in very different circles from me, and who died in 1900. But imagining the lives of others is nonetheless an important part of literature; indeed, it’s an important part of being an empathetic human being.
Perhaps I’d feel differently about approaching Ruskin as my subject matter if he was still alive: John Mullan discusses novels about celebrities and suggests using real people is a necessary part of writing fiction. But ultimately each writer has to make these decisions for themselves. What do you think – is fictionalising a real person a breach of their privacy or a unique way of re-imagining their life?
This is the first post by Creative Writing tutor Vicky MacKenzie
Image Credit: ‘Ruskin Self-Portrait, in Blue Neckcloth’ (1873)