History, herstory, or whose story?

Wednesday May 2, 2012

Whatever Wallis Simpson‘s sins, and according to a host of films, documentaries, books, speculative articles and more, they were many, not being newsworthy wasn’t one of them.  From the moment she captured the heart of Prince, later King Edward, she captured the world’s media in a grip that despite her death has never weakened.

Madonna, who has recently directed another film about her, is quoted as saying “I found that whenever I brought up the topic of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, it was like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the conversation”.

Not long ago I read Rose Tremain’s short story, “The Darkness of Wallis Simpson”, a bleak glimpse into her final decline.

Even from the vicarious viewpoint of a reader, there is something uncomfortably intrusive in peering into the bedroom of a senile old woman as she lives out her remaining days, but the fascination of the story is such that you can’t look away. Even as she is exhorted to “fais pipi ma Duchesse” while having a pan unceremoniously shoved beneath her bum.

Whether or not the reader would be just as intrigued if the characters were entirely fictional is debatable.  It partly depends on the skill of the writer, which in this case is such that the reader is drawn completely into the story.  The fact that this is a character from history, whose contemporaries were real people, is almost peripheral.

Almost, but not quite.  Knowing that the foggy faces who drift in and out of the ageing Wallis’s brain were real, adds a special deliciousness.  For example there’s an exaggeratedly campy Cecil Beaton, who in a visit to the sick bed, remarks, “I was about to say ‘dying’s a bugger’ but ah, if only it were.”  Then there’s the photo at Wallis’s bedside of someone she struggles to make out … a pale, dull little man, looking woebegone.   Now who could that be?   Or “Cookie”, another figure shrouded in the mists of memory, with eyes too small, breasts too big, in a ridiculous hat with a fluffy veil.   Even in her dotage a girl can always recognise the Enemy.

The story is fictional, but the circumstances and the characters align closely to the history, as we are told it. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1367933/Wallis-Simpson-Robbed-abused-Duchess-Windsors-days.html

History however is shaped by who tells it, how, from what perspective and on whose authority. It is at best a fashioning of the facts, where truth and fiction mingle in a mutually complimentary relationship.  Truth in any case is, as politicians consistently teach us, subject to interpretation.

In my own writing, I tend to be driven to frenzied Internet searches almost every second sentence to unearth such obscure facts as what was a popular dog’s name in the 1930s. Some writers say they become too enraptured by the Muse to interrupt the flow for prosaic fact gathering.  They simply leave a few dots, for later verification.  This seems to be a far more sensible approach and could well explain why such writers are well into their third or fourth novels while I’m currently wrestling with a short story now into its fourth month and fortieth incarnation.

Perhaps I’m overly inquisitive (my mother would have said so) but once posed a question I cannot rest until I ferret out an answer.  Should I adapt to the idea that any answer will do?  Does it have to be right, true, historically accurate, or even necessarily credible?

It may be that it’s precisely that uncertainty that’s needed, the not knowing.  Often it’s just that question mark, the need to ferret out whether it truly happened or not, that ignites the mind of the reader to the extent they are thinking about that story long after they’ve closed the book.

Objects of curiosity are objects of fascination, and Rose Tremain employs this strategy well in her story.  In one instance, in what amounts to an aside, the increasingly dotty Wallis has a moment of semi-lucidity, in which she fondly remembers the glossiness of her youthful tresses, which she attributed to the regular drinking of blood as a child.  As a nutrient for the hair, this hasn’t had a lot of exposure to my knowledge. Vegetarians may prefer to give it a miss and I for one will not be taking it up, but what fascinates me is where did this come from?  Was it true?  Did it happen?  And how did it work – the high iron content possibly?  Or did Rose Tremain just make it up?  And if she did, how good a case is this for messing with history?

Unreliable narrators (such as Wallis Simpson in this story) are those deemed to be slipshod with the truth and they abound in literature.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/17/henry-sutton-top-10-unreliable-narrators

Their credibility problems are usually because they are, for instance, deranged, sadistic, disturbed, immature or otherwise deviants from the norm. The obvious question is whose norm?  That of the author, the narrator or the reader?

Given the slippery benchmark of the “norm”, can there however be such a thing as a reliable narrator?  Can there be a line in the sand between history and story?

As a writer and a reader, this seems to me one of those unanswerable questions which however impossible to resolve, is a constant delight to ponder.  Tom Holland and Tom Keneally will be presenting on exactly this question in their panel “The Art of History” at the forthcoming Adelaide Writers Week, a session not to be missed.

A final word from an essay by the Science Fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin.

“A totally factual narrative were there such a thing, would be passive:  a mirror reflecting all without distortion.  The historian manipulates, arranges and connects, and the storyteller does all that as well as intervening and inventing.” Only the imagination can get us out of the bind of the eternal present.”

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