When authors make real historical people into characters in their fiction, the results can be controversial. Even if the author adds a disclaimer that their work is imagined and does not claim to tell the whole truth about Vermeer or Cromwell or Henry James, a fictional image can be just as powerful as a biographical one and add to our collective impression of that historical figure. Personally, I think that a writer has a responsibility when they begin writing about people who actually lived, and the less famous their subject, the greater the responsibility. For example, with so many images and narratives of Virginia Woolf in existence, people will not take Michael Cunningham’s portrait of her in The Hours to be the definitive truth. I think most people piece together their ideas of historical figures from many different sources, rejecting fragments that don’t fit with the rest and threaten to disturb the whole. But what if the character imagined is not Virginia Woolf but an obscure young woman who in 1818 boarded a ship from the Scottish Highlands with her father and brothers to make a new life in North America? Someone who died nearly 200 years ago has no one to defend her and if an author happens to explore her life and make it into fiction, this is probably the only representation she will ever have for us in the 21st century.
In The View from Castle Rock, the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro turns her own life and the lives of her ancestors into fiction. She explains in the foreword that the book grew out of the research she carried out into her mother’s side of the family, who originally came from Scotland, and then became combined with a set of autobiographical stories she was also writing at the time, stories ‘in which I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.’ The stories in this volume move forwards through time (although always reminding us that they are being imagined or researched by Munro in the present), beginning with her visit to the Ettrick Valley in Scotland, the home of ancestors who themselves lived obscure lives but were connected to famous figures such as James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott, and ending with a story based on the author’s own life in the present but very much concerned with mortality, past generations and the history of her local area, from the geological history of the landscape to the recent history of churches and crypts.
Not everyone likes books that combine fact and fiction in this way, and I’m not completely sure what I think. Sometimes, while reading, I wondered how much was true and how much invented; sometimes I just became immersed in the stories, not caring whether they were true or not. This was especially the case in the title story, which was my favourite and to me the most memorable. This story is about the sea voyage of an elderly father and his sons and daughter, who are all emigrating together from Scotland to Canada in the early 1800s. One son, Andrew, is married and his wife, Agnes, gives birth on board ship; Mary, the daughter, is small, shy, plain and overlooked, and finds her greatest joy in looking after Agnes’ children; the younger son, Walter, begins writing a journal about the voyage and makes friends with a young consumptive girl who is travelling with her wealthy father.
In this story, Munro invents the thoughts, feelings and dialogue of these people, who all really lived and whose gravestones can still be found in a churchyard in Canada. That raises the question I mentioned earlier, whether there is something disturbing about giving made-up voices to people who may have been very different in reality. However, Munro does use facts discovered in her research too, along with, most interestingly, the real journal of the sea voyage that Walter kept and letters written by the father, James. There is a clear dividing line between fact and fiction, because at this distance in time the characters and their feelings cannot be known and must have been invented, but they are imagined, as Munro puts it, ‘always within the outlines of a true narrative’. In this story, history and fiction stay in their own categories, but their juxtaposition has a kind of magic power, truly managing to convey the immigrants’ vulnerability and the wonders of their journey, the risks they were taking by leaving their old lives behind.
In the later stories, the ones about Alice Munro’s own life, the line between fact and fiction is less clear and I found myself wondering more often which elements were autobiographical. The first-person narrator remained recognisable throughout, rebellious and unconventional, awkward, easily embarrassed but sometimes arrogant, not at home in the place she grew up. Her ambitious mother who found the happiest time of her life selling furs in a grand hotel, her quieter father who turned to writing later in life, and her brash and tactless stepmother are also essentially the same in all the stories, and I think this is where the truth of the book lies, so that it doesn’t matter so much if the other characters and incidents are invented. Writing honestly about people who were so close to the author is much more dangerous than writing about long-dead ancestors. In a way, I think it’s natural for the reader to want to know whether what is written is true, even if only one person’s subjective truth. But Munro insists that these stories are fiction: ‘I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.’
I believe a writer’s imagination cannot be constrained and although it might begin with facts, it soon travels far away into a world of fiction that has a different kind of truth. But I still feel that a writer has a responsibility to people who actually existed and had their own secret lives that nobody can ever know about. I wonder how much a writer can speak for others who lived long ago.