Tuesday 20 February 2018

True-life crimes, tragedies and passions make for fascinating fictions

From the Tudors to JFK, our fascination with the famous pre-dates reality TV as the popularity of historical novels shows
Claire Foy and Damian Lewis as Ann Boleyn and Henry VIII in 'Wolf Hall'
Claire Foy and Damian Lewis as Ann Boleyn and Henry VIII in 'Wolf Hall'
Ann Boleyn
Henry VIII
JFK and Jackie Kennedy
Natalie Portman and Caspar Philipson as Jackie and JFK
The story of Diana - from marriage in 1981 to her death in 1997 - has been a gift to plot-hungry writers

Anne Marie Scanlon

Commentators have been calling time on Tudor historical novels for quite a while - but the public fascination with Henry VIII, his wives, his children, his courtiers and his era never seems to diminish.

For writers like Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory and CJ Sansom, the rich source material is a gift that keeps on giving. For readers, the era has everything a modern-day soap opera would have - sex, death, murder, intrigue, infidelity and political backstabbing, with the added bonus that, in historical fiction, it's mostly true.

While the Tudor historical novel juggernaut continues, the genre is not confined to codpieces and ruffs. Nor does the inclusion of a real-life character necessarily make a historical novel. George Saunders has just produced his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo and while Abraham Lincoln and his recently deceased son, 11-year-old Willie, (he is the Lincoln of the title) are both characters, this is a literary novel containing real characters rather than an historical novel.

What marks out a historical novel is not the inclusion of real-life figures, as there are plenty of books in the genre that are entirely fictional, but the setting. The author needs to be able to transport the reader to a completely different time and make that adjustment seemless. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Denise Mina's latest book The Long Drop, (reviewed on page 18), where blackened, sooty industrial 1950s Glasgow, the 'No Mean City' of legend, is as much a character as the two main protagonists Peter Manuel, the infamous 'Beast of Birkenshaw' and William Watt. Peter Manuel, a violent psychopath, is still notorious in Scotland where he was executed in 1958 having been convicted of the murders of eight people including a 10-year-old boy.

Natalie Portman and Caspar Philipson as Jackie and JFK
Natalie Portman and Caspar Philipson as Jackie and JFK

Trials, like Tudor monarchs, are juicy material for the historical novelist. Just over a century before OJ Simpson was tried for the murder of his estranged wife Nicole Brown Smith and her friend Ron Goldman, there was another 'Trial of the Century' in America. That of Lizzie Borden, who in June 1893, was tried for the murder of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby.

According to the famous nursery rhyme "Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41". (The rhyme is incorrect, Abby Borden suffered approximately 19 blows to the head while Andrew was struck 10-11 times with his eyeball being split in two). While the nursery rhyme presumed Lizzie's guilt, the jury felt different and she was acquitted on June 20, 1893.

Since then Borden has stuck in the public's imagination and has been the subject of countless dramas, films, books and even a musical. In Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done (out in May) the events of the murders and their aftermath are related from the perspective of Lizzie herself, her older sister Emma and the Irish maid Bridget, amongst others. Schmidt is especially good at the sweltering claustrophobia in which the distinctly odd Bordens lived. She is also great at portraying the pent-up frustration of the spinster Borden sisters.

Like Lizzie, OJ was acquitted and the verdict became a defining moment in time - one that people remember for where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

Princess Diana's death, two years later was another such defining moment, as was the assassination of JFK in Dallas, 1963. Both the Kennedy assassination and Diana's death have been the subject of a myriad of conspiracy theories.

In 12:23 Northern Irish novelist Eoin McNamee charts the events leading to the now infamous crash in the Paris tunnel. McNamee based The Blue Tango on events closer to home - the murder of 19-year-old Patricia Curran in 1952 in Belfast while Orchid Blue concerns the murder of another 19-year-old woman, Pearl Gambol, this time in Newry in 1961. While many authors have used the Kennedy assassination as material, including Stephen King's 11/23/63, the story of the wider Kennedy family has provided plenty of inspiration too.

The story of Diana - from marriage in 1981 to her death in 1997 - has been a gift to plot-hungry writers
The story of Diana - from marriage in 1981 to her death in 1997 - has been a gift to plot-hungry writers

In The Importance of Being Kennedy (2007) author Laurie Graham presents the family from the perspective of long-time fictional Irish employee Nora Brennan. Graham has written a series of historical novels about real people and events from the perspective of fictional minor characters.

Her 2005 book Gone With The Windsors about Edward and Mrs Simpson is a comic masterpiece that deserves a wider readership.

Jackie Kennedy, who has long fascinated the public, is a peripheral but important character in the 2014 novel The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby, the story of an Irish immigrant who is integral to making the outfit Mrs Kennedy wore on that fateful day in Dallas.

A Season in Purgatory (1993) by Dominick Dunne is based on the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley which 'Kennedy Cousin' Michael Skakel was eventually convicted of in 2002. In Dunne's novel the family are called Bradley but there is no doubt as to who they are.

Dunne wrote many successful novels that were fictionalised versions of real life 'scandals' - most famously The Two Mrs Grenvilles. Changing real-life characters into fictional facsimiles may seem redundant but this can leave the novelist free to construct fiction rather than be hamstrung by the facts, (although Dunne's books rarely deviate much from the events as they unfolded).

Dunne also 'fictionalised' the OJ Simpson trial in 1997's Another City, Not My Own but the novel was mostly a compilation of his monthly columns for Vanity Fair magazine, with one name changed - his own!

Last year's highly successful The Girls by Emma Cline featured a 1960s Californian cult with a charismatic leader not unlike Charlie Manson, while earlier this year Emma Flint's Little Deaths was based on (but not about) the 1965 trial of New Yorker Alice Crimmins for the murder of her two children.

Both of these stories concern events within living memory so fictionalising real characters provides some distance for people who were involved.

For the rest of us, historical fiction lets us briefly live in a different world.

Without consequences.

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