p u l p i t d j tay l or

Stranger than Fiction

Most works of fiction are, on one level or another, about real people. Such are the depths to which the aesthetic imagination is occasionally reduced in its search for raw material that nearly every novelist ends up introducing some kind of roman à clef element into his or her books: many of the great English novels of the past century or so can be followed home to a creative rumpus-room consisting of the author’s friends (and enemies), actual situations and emotional dilemmas which, if they are not straightforwardly filched from life, have at least some vestigial grounding in a past reality.

The identifications that this authorial sleight-of-hand encourages can work in a variety of ways, ranging from a libel writ to the self-congratulatory awareness that one has ‘been put into a book’. I was once supposed to have featured in a novel by Sebastian Faulks, though I couldn’t for the life of me detect a likeness in the character I was alleged to resemble. Back in the late 1980s, on the other hand, I used to go to parties given by the late William Cooper, whose trailblazing and autobiographical Scenes from Provincial Life (first published in 1950) had involved much discreet covering-up of tracks, if only because one of its themes was homosexuality, at that point illegal in the UK. Predictably, these gatherings echoed to the sound of somewhat roguish-looking middle-aged men leaping forward to proclaim, ‘Of course, I’m Steve.’

All this, naturally, is by the way: a routine creative device disdained, embraced or satirically conceded depending on the individual writer’s point of view. Evelyn Waugh, taxed with introducing Nancy Mitford’s husband Peter Rodd into his early novels as Basil Seal (who, among other exploits, devours his own mistress at a cannibal banquet), used to say that you could write anything you liked about any man provided you made him attractive to women. But there is another kind of novelist wedded to this type of subterfuge, who specialises in populating his work not with largely anonymous figures – only a tiny fraction of Black Mischief ’s readers would have heard of Peter Rodd – but with celebrated historical personalities. At least halfa-dozen writers, for example, have produced fictional treatments of Charles Dickens. George Macdonald Fraser, alternatively, operated a curious kind of double bluff: a series of precisely rendered historical novels about a character borrowed from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but featuring walk-ons from, among others, Queen Victoria, George Custer and Abraham Lincoln.

Never having taken much interest in the practical concerns, let alone the moral ones, that coil themselves around novels of this sort, I recently found several of them staring me square in the face. Next month, if you will pardon the self-advertisement, I am publishing a novel called The Windsor Faction – an exercise in counterfactual history which, though set in the winter of 1939–40, finds King Edward VIII still on the throne, Mrs Simpson three years in her grave and a pacifist ‘King’s Party’ hard at work to derail the war effort. Quite apart from Edward VIII, the book is awash with real people. These include Captain Ramsay (1894–1955), the deranged Tory MP, Tyler Kent (1911–88), a cipher clerk at the American embassy, and Beverley Nichols (1898–1983), a novelist and newspaper columnist, a faked volume of whose journals offers several chapters’ worth of material. There are also cameos from Sir John Betjeman, the Sinhalese poet M J T Tambimuttu and John Amery, son of a cabinet minister, who later made propaganda broadcasts on Nazi radio and was hanged for treason in 1945.

The ethical issues at stake here are rather serious ones. Is it ‘fair’ to send figures from history spinning around the pages of a novel while attributing to them statements they almost certainly did not make and opinions they may very well not have held, and, in particular, to establish an entire plot hinging on the possibility that Edward VIII might have displayed a rather more equivocal attitude towards continental dictators than his younger brother?

My own view, naturally enough, is that it is. Plenty of people during the Second World War were worried by the Duke of Windsor’s political opinions; each of the jobs found for him in the war years was accompanied by terrific behind-the-scenes manoeuvring lest he make a fool of himself, or worse. Tyler Kent – an isolationist who deplored the prospect of US involvement in European wars – did indeed pilfer presidential telegrams in the manner I describe, and Captain Ramsay, founder of an immensely sinister anti-war ginger group called the Right Club, really did believe that most of the world’s problems were the fault of an international Jewish conspiracy. Similarly, the reader who enters the hot-house world of Beverley Nichols’s diaries – samples may be inspected in the late Bryan Connon’s wonderful Beverley Nichols: A Life (1991) – may conclude that he gets off rather lightly.

In other words, the real people on display here may, at certain points, find themselves being mocked or satirised (or at times simply naturalistically drawn), but, on the existing evidence of their behaviour, they are not being traduced. I cannot prove that they would have behaved in the manner set out, but it seems perfectly plausible that they might have done. And besides, this is a work of fiction with the word ‘novel’ stamped on it in large letters, though this declaration never stopped a percentage of Macdonald Fraser’s readers from believing that Harry Flashman was a bona fide historical personality and the conversations he conducted with Lord Palmerston pieces of genuine reportage.

There is a wider theoretical point here, for the boundary between fact and fiction (never very reliably established) has been blurring for decades. It can be seen in everything from that minor vogue for ‘experimental biography’, in which fiction takes over once the fact runs out, to televisual love romps at the Tudor court. Provided no one is being deceived by the labelling, it very often produces an intriguing creative landscape in which make-believe, imaginative truth and hard fact do battle for supremacy. The Queen Victoria who chatters her way through Balmoral tea parties in Flashman and the Great Game seems just as convincing as the subject of Lytton Strachey’s biography. Who is to say which is the more contrived? r a u g u s t 2 0 1 3 | Literary Review 1