The Art of Literary Conversation: Biographers vs. novelists

[With acknowledgment to the creators of this ‘card game’ Keith Lamb and Louise Howland.]

Q: ‘Where biographers fear to tread, novelists can rush right in.’ Example?

A: I certainly do have an example. I have just finished reading a novel called Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold and it answers this prompt perfectly.

It is the fictionalized account of the private life of one of the world’s most revered authors – Charles Dickens – told from the point of view of his estranged wife living in what amounted to solitary confinement for the twenty years after he decided to publicly take up with his mistress. The names have been changed and, I am sure some of the facts of the affair, but it remains rather a sordid and sad account. The reader has no difficulty in becoming very angry on the wife’s behalf since she, sad creature, still loves her husband and remains in her apartment so that he is not embarrassed or annoyed by her ineptitude in dealing with his increasingly public life and fame.

I am sure that there are several biographers of Dickens who have lionized his triumphs and literary successes – indeed it would never have occurred to me that there could be anything else to be said about such a great writer – and quietly ignored the despicable manner in which he cast off his wife and the mother of his ten children, convincing them to cut off all ties with her as well. Apparently, if the book is to be believed, he forced them to choose between living with him or their mother, a very usual situation in the Victorian Era; there could be no compromises.

Very often we tend to idolize public and successful people, we want to have someone to look up to, to dream about becoming, but as is so often the case, the saying ‘look how the mighty have fallen’ can be applied. For some of them, being so adored inflates their view of themselves and they begin to believe the hype and adoration that surrounds them everyday; and so it was with Dickens, evidently. He did not wish to be lumbered with a fat, boring, lazy, stupid wife anymore (his opinion of her; not her actual character), and decided that he deserved better and more interesting company in the form  of a beautiful young actress who would make him feel young again whilst hanging on his every word.

The fictionalized biography begins on the day of Dickens’ funeral, the day that his wife feels able to break her self-imposed solitary lifestyle and leave her apartment to face her demons, and in very short order she discovers that her children still love her, and that the actress is also living an enforced solitary lifestyle in a house in the country with her mother. The actress’s whole life revolves around wondering if today would be the day that Dickens would honor her with his company. The wife discovers, as is often the case, that her imaginings have been far worse than the actual fact, and ends up feelings quite sorry for her old nemesis.

The aspect of this novel that makes it so interesting and allows the writer to tread very heavily over Dickens’ good name and flawless reputation is its foundation in truth, based as it is on the man’s actual behavior as displayed through his and his wife’s letters, but it is an aspect that few biographers would want to dwell upon. It is not in their interest to reduce their subject’s worth in the reader’s eye.

Which makes me very glad that novelists are not as bound to the truth as are biographers, because they are expected to, and do, tell a damn fine tale around thinly-veiled truth without repercussions.

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Filed under Book review, General Thoughts, Writing Progress

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