History Girls: Giving the Past a Presence in Fiction

June 15, 2018

 

'Well-behaved women rarely make history ...' having studied History in its various guises for a total of seven years at university (Art History was my favourite, as Glasgow Gallerina regulars could probably guess!) I've had time to think about how history and creativity may - and may not - coalesce. To paraphrase the new Duchess of Sussex (the artist formerly known as Meghan Markle, don't cha know?!) 'I am proud to be a feminist', and that has also drawn me to be particularly passionate about the voices in history we often don't get the chance to hear. How many everyday women, for example, lived and died without receiving acknowledgement or even respect from traditional academia? It's time for more 'Herstory' if you ask me!

 

 

My soon-to-be-published short story 'MMM' (coming to a bookshop near you in August!) is inspired by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, a woman who - despite being a talented artist and designer in her own right - is most frequently remembered for being Charles Rennie Mackintosh's wife. For too long, Macdonald's reputation has been eclipsed by that of her well-known husband, yet both she and her sister Frances were highly trained, skilled and dynamic artists who engaged with the most avant-garde forces in 1900s Europe. It didn't take me long to realise that we have here a tale of love, creativity, sexism and sisterhood. But how to translate that fun into fiction?

 

 

When I think of the historical fiction that I enjoy reading - and I'm happy to say there are quite a few titles on the list! - what strikes me is how the best writers often focus on the perspectives of minor, indeed sometimes unknown, figures from the past. Take The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory: most of us have already heard of Anne Boleyn (and her 'sore throat', to misquote The Greatest Showman!) But Mary Boleyn? Not so much! A similar effect is also achieved within one of my favourite novels: Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, which humanizes Winston Churchill by animating his infamous 'black dog' of depression. Even my most recent read, Madeline Miller's Circe, adopts this modern and thoughtful attitude towards its historical subject. Circe is not necessarily a 'big hitter' of Greek mythology, but I found that this allowed the reader to better understand her as a woman, rather than only as a witch or a goddess.

 

In many ways, perhaps the skills we need when writing from history are the same as those for general fiction. Above all, it seems to me that we must strive to empathise with all our characters: whoever they are and whatever they've done. This helps us to recognise that history is not simply the sum of its 'heavyweights' (I'm looking at you, Henry VIII!) and neither did those heavyweights escape their own humanity. In fact, although the full-length book I'm currently writing has a contemporary setting, human history plays an important part there too. In Ellen and Arbor (or sometimes Pentimenti - I still can't commit to a title!) my central character Ellen has spent her life being a 'good girl' and faced severe anxiety as a result. After the death of her controlling father, we find her slowly learning how to live on her own terms, and flashbacks are vital to communicating this personal renaissance. Ellen's mum Evie passed away when she was an infant, and part of enhancing Ellen's sense of self involves getting back in touch with those memories. Tactile, immersive and visceral, I want Ellen's history to feel real - to her and to the reader - so we gain a powerful impression of her life finally filling with colour. By empathising with any character whose fate is at our fingertips, perhaps their personal history can come to life. 

 

 

Line of the Month (my favourite line I've written this month - although whether it makes the final cut is a different story!)

 

'The building appears backlit by a strange, ghoulish glow ...' Uh oh, it looks like Ellen and Arbor might be in trouble! 

 

 

Bookmark (what I'm reading when I need a break from writing - otherwise known as often!)

 

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson. Funnily enough, this is not a fiction book at all but rather a biography written 'for the common reader’ (if you're a fan of Peep Show I hope you'll appreciate that joke!) In all honesty, I often find academic-style biographies too dry to be genuinely enjoyable, yet this one kept me engaged from start to finish. Frustratingly, although Sampson highlights the fact that Mary Shelley's life must not be overshadowed by either her famous husband or her famous monster, there seems to be relatively little source material for her to work with after (spoiler alert) Percy Shelley’s death. I hit a similar brick wall when researching the Macdonald sisters: especially Frances, whose husband destroyed a large quantity of her artwork after her death. Whether we choose to write fact or fiction, or something in between, there is still work to do in making sure every woman's voice is heard!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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