Thursday, 15 May 2008

Blurring the lines between fiction and biography

This evening, I went to a talk at St Anne's with Justine Picardie and Professor Kathryn Sutherland (who wrote, amongst other things, the introduction and notes to A Memoir of Jane Austen by James Austen-Leigh) who were in discussion on some of the bigger themes and ideas that have developed from Justine's novel.

I took a vast amount of notes, and I'll try to write it up as best I can - and I make no apologies for length! I will most probably have missed a few things, having been so interested in what I heard - if Justine is reading this, then perhaps she'll put me right, or even add some more thoughts! Some of the threads are particularly interesting to me, which I will write about in more detail, as they pertain to me, in future posts. For now, I wish to focus on Justine and Daphne.

Introductions are, I think, hard to get right. Not many people can strike the right tone, mainly because the speaker often senses that the audience wish them to finish as quickly as possible. This was not the case with Kathryn. Speaking eloquently, and calmly, she covered the usual biographical details, but also spoke on how there is a fault line between truth and fiction, and that sometimes it blurs. This is often the terms with which an imaginative writer constructs lives.

Justine started by reading the third epigram from the start of her novel, that came from Du Maurier's Second Thoughts on Branwell, where she says "It is impossible, with the Brontes, as with many other writers, to say when fiction ends and fact begins, or how often the imagination will project an imaginary image upon a living personality." She followed with the opening pages of her novel, which set the scene for the rest of the narrative.

As anyone can see (Kathryn said) from looking at the front cover, there is a constructed 1950s materiality to the book. We see a woman who is trying to write herself out of a personal crisis by writing Branwell's biography - although as Justine pointed out, he might not have been the best choice for writing out of crisis! Kathryn outlined the first three chapters, each of which deals with one part of the triumvirate narrative, which, she said, were studies in delusion, obsession and longing.

On being asked by Kathryn whether there was a particular point that had started her on the path to writing this novel, Justine spoke about her long love of both Daphne and the Brontes, and discovering during her time at University that neither was considered worthy to be studied, or even read very much. When asked by Virago to write an introduction to The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte Justine read a letter describing, in detail, Daphne's feelings that were the impetus for the starting point of the novel.

The idea of fact and fiction being mixed together was a major part of the discussion; Kathryn asked why Justine thought that the reviews she had received had been so mixed, if whether some people just didn't 'get' what the novel was trying to portray. Was Justine actually taking a big risk in fictionalising fact, in creating a novel that was strongly factual?
For Justine, she had never considered writing the story as anything other than fiction, that in writing, it was simply her point of view and in researching and talking to various family members and friends, there were at least ten versions of who Daphne was, so in reality, it seemed to be truer to write as fiction. Daphne's upbringing had already blurred the lines between pretence and reality, for she had said herself that she 'was born into a world of make belief and pretence'. She was at ease in a world that encompassed both (as her work shows) and it makes sense that Justine's novel would make use of this point also.

Even biography as we know it, Kathryn pointed out, cannot rely on fact alone. Using the original biography of Jane Austen by her family as an example, she suggested that there are few facts on Austen that we really know. Biographers who wrote after the family memoir cannot stick to the facts alone, and therefore use their imagination to fill in the gaps. The truth is difficult to hold.

From this subject, we moved to the theme of manuscripts, and how the idea of them had been weaved into the novel; how important they were to all three of the main characters. Both Daphne and Symington are drawn into a dark world of trade in manuscripts and it mirrors the world of fact and fantasy in which Daphne moved so comfortably (at least some of the time). Nowadays very few of those who write on works written long ago use the original to refer to. As Justine pointed out, those who now edit editions of Emily Bronte's poetry admit that they use transcripts - transcripts which were, in fact, copied by J.A. Symington, who - by his own admission - couldn't read the handwriting!

We moved on to audience questions, over which, for the most part, I will skim not wishing to try the patience of my readers. The confusion that had been highlighted by Kathryn earlier in the evening, was, I think, evident amongst a couple of those who asked questions, and Justine reiterated her view that she had not intended to write a biography. Lyndall Gordon (who wrote the biography of Charlotte Bronte, amongst others) was in the audience and remarked that there are often gaps in important places of a person's life, and the writer - biographer or not - is therefore able (and indeed required) to use
imaginative truth.

The most intriguing question - for me - came when someone asked whether it would be possible for someone to read the novel with no prior acquaintance with Daphne or her work. Justine couldn't imagine the possibility of someone reading the book without having even heard of Daphne. They may not know her work well, but the myth of the author herself is growing (helped indeed by Justine's novel) and it would be quite unusual, if not impossible, for someone to read Daphne without knowing who she was.

These jottings are, of course, merely my own views on what I heard. I hope I have been able to give an accurate picture of the thoughts and views as expressed by Justine and Kathryn, which were both insightful and interesting.


Juxtabook said...

Thanks for the excellent write up - I missed Justine when she was up here in Haworth and I am glad to share in other people's evenings on the subject. Daphne is a very interesting book. It is obviously a novel and I see no harm in that. I think that it would stand alone even you haven't heard of Daphne. I came to the book knowing much more about the Brontes than Daphne, and much more about Daphne's grandfather than Daphne herself. But inevitably I had seen the film of Rebecca and I think that helps more than anything else. It has made me want to read Daphne's work, and as a result of reading Justine's novel I have bought myself Daphne's biography of Branwell. When a book leads you on to wanting to read other books then, fiction or biography, I think it has done its job.

oxford-reader said...

You are so right! I've been caught in a whirlwind of wanting to read Daphne and Justine's work ... the secondhand bookshops of Oxford are quite bare of either author now!

Juxtabook said...

It occurred to me after I had written this comment that Arthur & George by Julian Barnes is a fictionalized version of true events, and of the life of a real author but I have heard much less critical comment about that, than about Daphne. Weird.

oxford-reader said...

True - it reminds me of 2004 when 'Author, Author', 'The Master' and 'Felony' came out and the only thing people really commented on was the fact that three novels about Henry James came out in the same year.

dovegreyreader said...

This sounds fascinating and Lyndall Gordon there too! I am in mid read of all Daphne's books and it's proving so compelling that I can't drag myself away from them. As I finish one I open the next but it's also a fantastic way to notice recurring themes and devices. Nina Auerbach's book DdM The Haunted Heiress is very readable and Letters From Menabilly a must read. I've just finished The Parasites, excellent read.If your shelves are Daphne-light you can't go wrong with that umpteen Virago editions for £9.99 offer from The Book People.

oxford-reader said...

Ah yes, the book people offer looks fantastic, although I own four of them, so it might not be worth the money!
At the moment I'm making a plea on my other blog that if anyone comes across either 'My Cousin Rachel' or 'My Mother's Wedding Dress' then they should snap them up and I'll pay them back!
Yesterday I was browsing second hand shops and found every other Justine Picardie book apart from the one above! It's almost as if Oxford knew what I was looking for!

The event itself was wonderful - and so good to see Justine again!