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.