A Greater Truth: Biography or Bio-fiction

Girl in White Sue Hubbard

Girl in White Sue Hubbard

I have just read a beautiful novel about a real person. In The Girl in White, the English poet Sue Hubbard has written an imagined life of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker; it’s an art form with the unattractively scientific sounding handle ‘biofiction’. I already knew a little bit about Paula’s work, but from a historical perspective: after her premature death in 1907 her work was denounced by the Nazis as degenerate. What I did not know was how she was in fact just beginning to find her confidence as an artist after an intense inner struggle to balance her many roles as daughter, mother, wife – and, above all, painter. In trying to live independently and survive on her earnings in an intensely male dominated world, she was ahead of her time. This was little more than a century ago but in some ways the difficulties she faced appear medieval, in others merely variations on the same struggle many women still face today.

Does Paula’s life feel more real by telling it as fiction, with invented dialogue and use of other novelistic devices, or does it make some readers question: ‘is this what really happened?’ This is, of course, an apples and pears argument. There is room for both. A Girl in White is constructed in alternate chapters, using Paula’s story followed by that of Mathilde, Modersohn-Becker’s real life daughter apparently returning on a journey in 1933 to discover her mother. This gives Hubbard the freedom not only to comment about what it means to be an artist – ‘Sometimes I wonder if marriage is a state that’s possible between creative people” -  but also shows convincingly how the important sense of place, which inspired many of the artists she was writing about, later created a fertile ground for Nazi ideals to flourish.

Yet although I, as a biographer who deals in facts, cannot (or at least choose not to) invent dialogue, I can reveal the feelings of my subject either by quoting from diaries and letters or else by explaining that what my protagonist is doing indicates she must be feeling a particular emotion. There are myriad other ways of playing around with facts, starting with the selection of material in order to produce a volume of readable size. Non-fiction writers, just as much as novelists, need a strong narrative line, they need to find a pattern or shape in what might seem like random facts of a life or the work is in danger of becoming un-readable. At the same time I find the discipline of dates and fact checking oddly comforting, reassuring almost.

Most biographers struggle with the creative tension between a novelistic urge to tell a good story and scholarly drive to assemble facts and sources and stick to the chronology. The scholar and the storyteller are in permanent creative tension. It’s what Virginia Woolf famously called the granite and the rainbow. At one level it might appear that a novelist who can jettison the facts at will has the easier task. Nothing can block his powers or invention. Henry James may have burned his papers but that has not stopped Colm Toibin (The Master) and David Lodge (Author, Author,) brilliantly re-imagining James’s life in different ways. Not surprisingly perhaps, John Updike dismissed biographies as novels with an index.

And then there is the argument of the greater truth. The idea that even if an event didn’t happen, well it ought to have done. Is our view of Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning and even Dr Arnold of Rugby, who ‘perhaps’ had short legs, indelibly inked on our brains thanks to Lytton Strachey’s subtle interpretations in Eminent Victorians?

In trying to understand why biography has been so popular in England for the last century one reason, I believe, is in the satisfaction it offers. At its best it enables readers to grasp something of the complications not merely of interpreting facts but the frailty of the human condition. Part of the pleasure readers derive from the best biographies is that they have imaginatively entered another time, another place, another life. This is satisfying. After I finished Hubbard’s novel I looked again at the paintings of Modersohn-Becker and, of course, saw them differently. They too were her children, but brought into the world at what cost. I could imagine myself  there, in her bare Paris studio, as, starving, she fought for survival with nothing to eat for three days but a heel of stale baguette and a lump of old gruyere. In truth, she may have had more than this to eat but so what.  As I said, it’s apples and pears. Here’s a fact:  with her sudden death in 1907 the world lost a great talent. She was 31.

Florida Diary

Anne standing on the steps of the house which belonged to the lawyer for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

'Anne standing on the steps of the house which belonged to the lawyer for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Sitting in Orlando airport along with half of America’s school children (it is their ‘spring break’) I’m reminded of William Boyd’s observation that if you can’t see a six hour delay at an airport as an opportunity, don’t call yourself a writer.

I am in Florida, grandly billed as the English Speaking Union (ESU) 2012 Evelyn Wrench speaker, talking to a handful of American branches of the ESU. It’s all too easy to think of Florida simply as the sunshine state where elderly Britons go for winter warmth. Woken by mocking birds, fed breakfast of freshly picked and squeezed grapefruit and oranges while looking out on the tranquil St Johns River, I can see the charm of such a life. But, finding myself billeted at the House on Cherry Street, once the home of the lawyer advising Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author who achieved worldwide fame with her Pulitzer Prize-Winning novel, The Yearling, I realise there is also a lively literary and artistic tradition. I had loved The Yearling, a powerful right-of-passage book about Jody, a boy who grows up with a pet fawn in the harsh North Florida backwoods, fighting off bears and alligators in order to survive. The book was translated into thirteen languages and turned into a 1946 film starring Gregory Peck.  But Rawlings faced a devastating lawsuit over her subsequent book, the autobiographical Cross Creek, so she was often in this house.

Cross Creek, published in 1942, was also an enormous success and chosen for Book of the Month club. But Rawlings had taken a real character, Zelma Cason, a close friend, and written of her as having ‘violent characteristics of both man and mother,’ a woman not afraid to curse when angry. Zelma, furious at her portrayal, sued for invasion of her “right of privacy,” even though the work was autobiography. The State of Florida had not recognised the existence of such a right so this was test case in a variety of ways, not the least important of which was that the attorney for Zelma was Kate Walton, one of the first women to practise law in Florida at a time when women could not even serve on a jury. Rawlins felt deeply that she had to fight for the right of all writers to write truthfully about their own lives. Although she won the local court case, she lost on appeal at the state supreme court – with damages of one dollar. After five and a half years of tortuous legal proceedings, Rawlings was destroyed, never wrote another successful book and died in 1953.

*****

At lunch I hear about Jacksonville’s links to the musician Frederick Delius, who in 1887 wrote the Florida Suite, a highly impressionistic piece of music which drew upon the sights and sounds he had experienced during the almost two years he spent living in the shadow of the St Johns river, listening to negro spirituals sung by the dockhands as they worked, a sound not used in European music previously. It was his first major work and heavily influenced by Afro-American music. Delius, born in Bradford in 1862, had been sent to Florida by his prosperous wool merchant father hoping to turn his son into a businessman rather than a musician. The family owned orange groves and Delius lived on a plantation at Solano Grove where he fell in love with a black plantation worker and allegedly fathered a child with her. Delius returned to Britain, confirmed in his desire to be a musician, and soon married the artist, Jelka, an unconventional and largely unhappy marriage. His final composition in 1931 was Songs of Farewell, a magnificent choral and orchestral work based on the poetry of Walt Whitman. Delius died in 1934 but Jacksonville holds an annual Delius Festival dedicated to his memory.

*****

The ESU is also involved in perpetuating memories, not just of Sir Evelyn Wrench, a man who devoted his life to furthering international understanding, but by sponsoring a Shakespeare competition among schoolchildren and by honouring Winston Churchill. After Jacksonville I go to Naples, one of 72 American branches of the ESU, a beautiful town that has grown up from a fishing village on the west coast of the Gulf where I am speaking at the annual Churchill Dinner. My final stop is Miami. “Oh my dear, that’s the west coast. You won’t like that nearly as much,” the folk from Naples tell me. These nuances are important here. But in fact I love Coral Gables, a Miami suburb which grew in the 1920’s around the magnificent Biltmore Hotel. The hotel has finally been refurbished after a spell as a hospital during World War Two and various owners and is now a favourite destination for Bill Clinton among others. In the late 1930’s Wallis and Edward loved to stay at the Biltmore with its championship golf course and legendary dinner dances teeming with celebrities. And I love Palm Beach, where everyone has a “Dook and Duchess” story they are desperate to tell me – what she ate (or didn’t), what she said and what she wore. At one of the many Palm Beach beauty salons I meet the man who often styled Wallis’s hair when she dropped in to the eight-storey Elizabeth Arden salon on New York’s 5th Avenue. He tells me how staff there were instructed to address her always as ‘Your Highness’ and how the salon had a special robe for her with HRH – initials she did not own – embroidered on the pocket. After her treatments she would walk out without paying, dressed to the nines in an elegant Chanel suit, to continue shopping.

Anne Sebba is the author of THAT WOMAN  A Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor (Phoenix £7.99)

Handling history and handling crowns

King Edward VIII - Mary Evans Picture Library/ILN

Mary Evans Picture Library/ILN

I went to Spitalfields last week to see a lost edition of The Illustrated London News prepared for the May, 1937 Coronation of Edward Vlll which never happened.  After Edward abdicated, 75 years ago this month, intent on marrying the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, the blue leatherette souvenir magazine, price 5 shillings, with paintings of the uncrowned king in his coronation robes, was shelved. When Edward’s brother took his place as George V1 a new edition was quickly prepared with the faces painted over – presumably by the obliging royal painter, Albert Collings, who may only have had one brief sitting with Edward. New photographs were inserted and new stories written. Only the date stayed the same. The owners of The Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly magazine, kept the printer’s proof well hidden for fear of embarrassing the new King and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, since the magazine’s success depended on smooth relations and good access to the royal family. The magazine closed down in 2003, but a few months ago staff at the new ILN,  http://www.iln.co.uk/ now a digital media and publishing company, found the one remaining issue in a box while transporting the archive. The future of the surviving copy is uncertain – perhaps it will be sold to a museum. But in the meantime I found the most chilling part of the magazine was the artist’s impression of an event that never happened.  Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang dreaded the moment when he would have to place a crown on the head of a man who he did not believe took his religious duties seriously enough to be King of England. In the event he never had to do this. But there, in the pages of the magazine that was never published, you can see a painting of the Archbishop, poised with the magnificent crown in the air, waiting to place it on the head of the man who in the end became Duke of Windsor, and by May 1937 was effectively an exiled ex-monarch. It was a close call but here is the anticipated moment frozen in time.

For more information http://www.iln.co.uk/

That Woman CD

That Woman CD

Anne Sebba, read by Samantha Bond

Publication date: 24/11/2011
Unabridged, 11 CDs, 13 hours – 9781409143550, £25
Also available in unabridged download, 13 hours – 9781409143567 (Publication date 17/11/2011)

Download a free preview now!

The first serious yet sympathetic biography by a woman of the Duchess of Windsor, the former Mrs Simpson. Unabridged edition.

One of Britain’s most distinguished biographers turns her focus on one of the most vilified woman of the last century. Historian Anne Sebba has written the first full biography of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, by a woman which attempts to understand this fascinating and enigmatic American divorcee who nearly became Queen of England. ‘That woman’, as she was referred to by the Queen Mother, became a hate figure for allegedly ensnaring a British king. Born in 1895 in Baltimore, Bessiewallis Warfield endured an impoverished and comparatively obscure childhood which inflamed a burning desire to rise above her circumstances. Neither beautiful nor brilliant, and no longer young, she nevertheless became one of the most talked about women of her generation, and inspired such deep love and adoration in Edward VIII that even giving up a throne and an empire for her was not enough to prove his total devotion. Wallis lived by her wit and her wits, while both her apparent and alleged moral transgressions added to her aura and dazzle. Accused of Fascist sympathies, having Nazi lovers and learning bizarre sexual techniques in China, she was the subject of widespread gossip and fascination that has only increased with the years. In death, the Duchess became a symbol of empowerment and a style icon, a woman whose unequivocal aim was to win in the game of life. Based on new archives and material recently made available, this scrupulously researched biography re evaluates the role of politicians in the 1930s, sheds new light on the character and motivations of this powerful, charismatic and complex woman, and questions was this really the romantic love story of the century?

About the author: ANNE SEBBA read History at King’s College London then joined Reuters as a foreign correspondent based in London and Rome. She has written eight works of non-fiction, mostly about iconic women, presented BBC radio documentaries, and is an accredited Nadfas lecturer. She is married with three children.

About the reader: SAMANTHA BOND is best known for her role as Miss Moneypenny in the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films. She trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 2004 she starred opposite Peter Davison in the ITV drama-comedy Distant Shores and in 2006 she was nominated for an Olivier Award for her performance in Michael Frayn’s Donkey’s Years. Samantha also featured in ITV’s Downton Abbey as Lady Rosamund Painswick. She has read numerous audiobooks including those by Agatha Christie, Philippa Gregory and also Orion’s And Furthermore by Judi Dench.

That Dress Inspired by That Woman

That Dress Inspired by That Woman

Not every author is lucky enough to have a dress designed especially for their book launch, especially one designed by the magical Frenchman Roland Mouret, a man who really understands women’s body shapes, famous for his ability to drape fabric and make a woman feel wonderful, powerful and sensual. Last night I had all that and Roland was on hand, too, chatting about how Wallis Simpson was such an inspiration to any dress designer. I just know Wallis would have adored wearing this fabulous gold gown with its teasing slit up the front and origami folds across the front… what secrets might lurk inside the folds?

www.amazon.co.uk/That-Woman-Simpson-Duchess-Windsor
www.rolandmouret.com
www.net-a-porter.com