Wednesday 15 April 2020

Truth, art & a bit of politics - by Rowena House

In a bid to escape the stresses of Covid19, which are making writing impossible, I’m exploring a practical and philosophical problem common to all writers who weave their tales around real people: how truthful can and should I be about my protagonist?

Luckily, the publication last month of The Mirror and the Light re-ignited debate on the subject as novelists and historians weighed in with their opinions about Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of Thomas Cromwell, the bloody yet in her version beguiling chief minister to Henry VIII.

I plan to plunder this debate shamelessly when I can make time (and find the headspace) to read as many contributions as possible. Meanwhile I’m framing questions about the balance to strike between the demands of art (AKA story craft in this case) and the recorded evidence.

Unlike Mantel, I have scant evidence to work with. My protagonist was poor, hers rich; mine left one pamphlet behind for posterity, hers years’ worth of state documents. My protagonist’s biographical record includes two years in which he ‘flourished’, as the historians put it, but not the year of his birth nor when he died.

What I do know is his name, and that he either wrote the pamphlet bearing his name or allowed someone else to edit it and leave him to carry the can.

I’ve found a few footnotes about his earlier life and later career, and perhaps more will emerge as I delve deeper into the period. But the essence of the man - a young man, I think, at the time of my story - will likely remain a mystery. 

Such unknowns could be seen as a blessing: empty spaces in which to conjure whatever character best suits the story. But my starting point for this work-in-progress is essentially political, though since we’re talking about fiction here let’s call it a theme, the theme being disempowerment and its, at times, horrific ramifications.

And since my protagonist was disempowered in life (by virtue of his low social status) it seems to me to be a disservice to him (and to my broader purpose of telling some kind of ‘truth’) to deprive him in fiction of what little agency he had in reality. In other words, I don’t want to make stuff up if it’s possible instead to uncover plausible explanations for what he did and didn’t do.

Fortunately, at this point in my writing life, I have faith in the process of writing to provide solutions to this conundrum, particularly the iterative phase of research and creation, investigation and insight.

Having spotted one tantalizing mismatch between his version of events and an established fact, which opened up the possibility of a falling out among conspirators, I’m aiming to hunt for more clues about my protagonist’s motivation and intent within disparities in whatever records have survived. 

Where that fails, I’ll research parallel situations for authentic hints and suggestions about 'my' man. Most of all, though, I’m hoping insight will spring from unexpected quarters, a telling detail of its time that still speaks to us, a lost pathway between his world and ours.

What I suspect will be the hardest part of this process is trying to imagine that I believe what he believed, or at least what he would have been expected to believe, given his status. I don’t just mean superstitions and religious orthodoxies, I also want to understand how he might have felt about his place in the world and the way society was ordered. Did he, for example, genuinely believe in the divine right of kings or suspect that it was a self-serving and dangerous royal delusion?

When the lockdown is over, I aim to visit places my protagonist saw, and stand in an ancient court house where he witnessed what I believe was a dreadful injustice, and then go from there to a field where (probably) the local gallows once stood and innocent people died.

I’ll make the best story I can out of it, not lecture or preach, though naturally one’s tempted to rage against the cruel stupidity of all ages. But in stating from the outset that my intention is to explore the ramifications of disempowerment as I perceive them, using an historical lens but with an eye very much on the present, then I have to accept that I’m engaged in a polemic, politics, propaganda even, and not creating some neutral, abstract, objective thing.

And that’s fine; art is political. And yet…

How far should I make my protagonist political, too, with sensibilities capable of recognising the oppressive nature of the society around him? How far can I allow him moral qualms about his complicity in its injustices? What if the evidence suggests he willingly participated in the lethal plots of powerful masters? Will I ignore that for the sake of creating a hero? Would Wolf Hall have ‘worked’ if Mantel’s Cromwell was remorseless?

I don’t know the answers yet, but that's fine. There’s a long way to go. Meanwhile, thank goodness for storytelling. Lockdown without it would be a lot, lot tougher.

@HouseRowena on Twitter
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Susan Price said...

Mention of 'divine right of kings' makes me think of the English Civil War, though perhaps your story is set earlier. In reading about the Civil War, though, I've been forcibly struck by how breath-takingly radical many political ideas were then, especially when we're usually led to believe that the majority of people in the past obediently tugged their forelocks to their betters and believed whatever was preached at them.
Writing from the Civil War gives the lie to that. Many people were always able to see how self-serving were the tales told to them from throne and pulpit -- it's just that their opinions weren't recorded.

Rowena House said...

Hi Susan. It is set a bit earlier than the Civil War - under James 1/VI. And yes! I've only just begun to read into the ideas of some of these radical groups. It's amazing how forward-thinking they were. I'm guessing their relative obscurity now is another example of history being hijacked by a ruling elite, whose self-interest was served by the forelock-tugging myth. There is a tentative link with one such groups and the trial I'm using as the inspiration for this story. Now that you've reminded me of them, it would be perfectly plausible that my my protagonist's assumptions about society would be blown out of the water when he encountered such revolutionary ideas. Thank you so very much! I think you've just opened a door that had been firmly shut, and given me an excuse to follow this very intereting research avenue.

Hope you're doing OK, and that your loved ones are all safe and well.