D. J. Taylor: The Art of Writing Revisionist History

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 a 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) and actual situations and emotional dilemmas which, if they are not straightforwardly filched from life, then 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, although I couldn’t for the life of me detect a resemblance in the character I was alleged to inhabit. Back in the late 1980s, on the other hand, I used to go to parties given by the late William Cooper, whose trail-blazing and autobiographical Scenes from Provincial Life (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 that ‘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 dines off 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 kind 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 half-a-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, let alone the moral, concerns that coil themselves around novels of this sort, I recently found several of them staring me square in the face. Last month, if you will pardon the self-advertisement, I published a novel called The Windsor Faction – an exercise in counter-factual history which, although 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 the deranged Tory MP, Captain Ramsay (1894-1955), Tyler Kent (1911-1988), a cipher clerk at the American Embassy, and Beverley Nichols (1898-1983), 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 J.M. Tambimuttu and the cabinet minister’s son John Amery, who later made propaganda broadcasts on Nazi radio and was hanged for treason in 1946.

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 in the period 1939-45 were worried by the Duke of Windsor’s political opinions, and each of the jobs found for him during the war years was accompanied by terrific behind the scenes manoeuvring lest he should 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 described, 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’ 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 only 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, although this declaration never stopped a percentage of George Macdonald Fraser’s American 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, and provided no one is being deceived by the labelling, very often creates 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 at the Charge seems just as convincing as the subject of Lytton Strachey’s biography. Who is to say which is the more contrived?

D. J. Taylor is a novelist, critic, and biographer whose Orwell won the Whitbread Prize for biography. His most recent books are Kept; Bright Young People; The Rise and Fall of a Generation; Ask Alice; and Derby Day, which was nominated for the Booker Prize and was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year.