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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 3 > The paradox of writing the dead: Voice, empathy and authenticity in historical biofictions
The paradox of writing the dead: Voice, empathy and authenticity in historical biofictions
Author: Catherine Padmore
Catherine Padmore explores the challenges of writing historical fiction, addressing concepts of authenticity and voice and discussing the relationships between the historical figure and its (non)fictional construction, the author, and the reader.


In the 1980s, Stephen Greenblatt wrote his famous phrase, “I began with the desire to speak with the dead” (1988: 1). While Greenblatt’s motives and methods are different to my own, the same desire inspires my work-in-progress: a novel about the life and death of Amy Dudley (1532-1560). Her husband was Robert Dudley, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and widely rumoured to have been her lover. Amy was found dead at the base of a stairwell, with speculations including murder, suicide, illness or accident. Writing this dead woman is an attempt to raise her up and let her speak, all the while knowing this is an impossible task. It requires the dangerous assumption of empathy between bodies dislocated in time and place, and it risks inserting my voice into the space where Amy’s used to be. Contextualizing this example alongside other fiction, biography and wider scholarship, I assert that it is both possible and impossible to write the dead, that to write historical biofiction is to hold opposing ideas together, to let the impossible be. Despite risks and paradoxes, this paper argues that we can write the dead and, further, that we should, for who else will speak for them now?


Keywords: biofiction; biographical fiction; historical fiction; Amy Dudley; Amy Robsart; voice; authenticity; empathy; writing women.


In 1550 Amy Robsart married Robert Dudley, who later became the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1560 Amy’s body was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs. A great scandal erupted, with gossip raging in England and on the continent about how she met her end. Had she taken her own life? Was she murdered to clear Dudley’s path to the throne? Was it a terrible accident? When Amy appears in fictional works, this dramatic death is often her narrative reason-for-being; either that, or she is the inconvenient obstacle preventing a relationship between Dudley and the queen.[1] Very few portrayals seem interested in rendering the mysteries or textures of her inner world. The lacuna is for me the most compelling aspect of this historical moment, which I am addressing in a novel based on the last months of Amy’s life.

Throughout the writing process, Amy’s two extant letters have been frequent touchstones.[2]  In one comes a plaintive statement of her feelings after her husband’s departure: “I not beyng all to gether in quyet for his soden departyng” (transcribed in Jackson 1878: 57). When elsewhere Amy writes “undarstand”, “fryndshyppe” and “trobelyng”, historian Chris Skidmore wonders if her spelling is phonetic, giving readers an echo of her regional Norfolk accent (Skidmore 2010: 53). This is a likely conclusion, given the lack of standardized spelling at the time, but when I first read the letters, abstract understanding transformed into something entirely different. Without thought, my mind found the phonetic resonance that Skidmore describes. I heard the words spoken in the rhythms and vowels of my grandmother’s voice, clear as if she was sitting beside me and not long-dead herself. My grandmother was brought up in Norfolk only a few miles from where Amy lived, and her family had dwelled there for generations. Bootiful, she used to say. Moosic. A pressure on the vowels, distinct to the region. In that moment—reading Amy’s written words but hearing my grandmother’s voice speak them—I felt closer than ever before to the narrating subject of my novel, and at the same time, the furthest away. From then on, Amy’s voice and my nana’s were inextricably linked—I held both in my mind at the same time. It was Nana. It was Amy. It was neither. It was both.

I will argue that this flickering movement between irresolvable opposites is one of many paradoxes that characterize the experience of writing and reading historical fiction. The Oxford English Dictionary (2016) defines a “paradox” as: “An argument, based on (apparently) acceptable premises and using (apparently) valid reasoning, which leads to a conclusion that is against sense, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory”. Discussing some of the multiple paradoxes of voice, empathy and authenticity in my own and others’ historical fiction, I assert that it is both possible and impossible to write the dead, that to do so is to hold opposing ideas together, to let the impossible be.

My manuscript began with a necrodialogistical desire—to hear the dead speak. I wanted answers to the many questions I had about Amy’s life and I wanted Amy to tell me them in her own voice. The concept of “voice” as used here functions both as the actual spoken or written voice, with its unique timbre and phrasing, and as a synecdoche for the “self” of the other, a communication of the textures and tones of another’s body and mind: “that elusive, ever-present stamp of ‘self’ on a text” (Mulvaney and Jolliffe 2005: 18). I was seeking what Roland Barthes calls the “grain” of the voice: “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue” (1978: 182) and “the body in the voice as it sings” (188). Of course this desire was impossible. Over the centuries between us, Amy’s voice and persona have been lost in the gaps between scant archival evidence. Nonetheless I resolved to create a credible and compelling sense of them through fiction, taking what Janet Burroway describes as “an imaginative leap into the mind and diction of another person” (2007: 42).

Clearly I am not alone in this undertaking. Ann Heilman and Mark Llewellyn (2004) remark on the recent numbers of women choosing to write about historical figures, reinserting into narrative those lost to or silenced by history. For Jerome de Groot, “the desire to somehow raise the dead is what brings us to historical fiction” (2015: 20), seeking what he calls the “sense of the material and the resurrectionary” (de Groot 2015: 21). Margaret Atwood suggests the desire is broader, common to fiction in general: “All writing is motivated […] to bring something or someone back from the dead” (2002: 159). But how would this desire play out in the mechanics of one word after another? How might I come to know this woman from four centuries past, let alone write her voice in a convincing and emotive way? In what follows I recount some of the creative processes used to establish a sense of the material reality of this dead woman. These will be contextualized within larger debates about historical or biographical fiction, examining the desire to create narrative empathy and authenticity.

The first process, of course, was reading. Beyond Amy’s letters, I read other writers from my subject’s era, listening for their voices in diaries, correspondence and plays, for the flow of language and choice phrases that evoke a sense of time and place. Novelist Geraldine Brooks documents her joy at discovering words like “jorum” (a word used to describe a vessel for coffee during the American Civil War) and “siling” (a Derbyshire term for heavy rain) (Brooks 2006: 8-9). She “used such words as seasoning” and “loved finding ones that were more euphonious or onomatopoeic than their contemporary equivalents” (2006: 9). Supplementing the primary texts, I read about the larger structures of Amy’s milieu to consider the turbulence of the Reformation and the intrigues at court that formed the backdrop to her life. Through reading I amassed a sense of what it might feel like to inhabit Amy’s world but I craved a more personal connection. When my novel opens, Amy hasn’t seen her husband in months. She lives in a stranger’s house near Oxford while her husband attends the queen, with rumours circulating that the pair are lovers. According to one source, “Lord Robert dyd swyve the queen” (Rye 1885: 31). How did Amy occupy her days through all this? How did she feel?

To answer such questions I began to write a diary from Amy’s perspective, with a nib dipped in ink and dipped again every few words (since it felt wrong to do this on a computer). I wrote to hear the impossible voice of the dead woman. It was an act of hopeful ventriloquism, a projection of her voice through my text, but etymology reminds me that it is never just about words on a page. In Latin, “venter” means belly and “loqui” means to speak (OED 2016): this “speaking from the belly” binds Amy’s fictional voice to a body long buried and rotted and (re)turned to earth. A body now absent—she was supposedly buried beneath the floor of an Oxford church, which has since been excavated, yet no trace of her skeleton was found (Aird 1956: 78). In the diary I wrote to recover this body—what it had known and felt. Out of necessity I used the experiences of my own body to stand in for Amy’s, translated in time and space. Into Amy’s world I wrote memories of childhood walks in England, running through summer bracken and catching dusty spores in my throat. I wrote of the fog that wreathed past my room at a writers’ retreat in the Australian Blue Mountains and budburst in the hills north-east of Melbourne. The sad cheep of a dying chick cupped in a friend’s palms. An orphaned lamb, hand-reared by another friend, which followed her like a dog. Such small daily occurrences I gave to Amy, to see what she might make of them, what they might mean to her. These were conscious inclusions in the manuscript. Others were unintentional and surprising. Reading it back after the birth of my first child I heard within it the unspoken voice of my own body in the preceding years—Amy had my yearning to feel the weight of a child within her belly. Like me she longed to hold the hand of my father, now dead; to stride again in crisp air through fields near her birthplace.

When I travelled back to England to research the novel, I was drawn to my subject’s places, like the biographer Richard Holmes retracing the footsteps of Stevenson and Shelley: “My urge was to go directly to the original materials – and most especially to the places – for myself” (Holmes 2005: 136, original italics). He writes of this process as “a continuous living dialogue between the two [biographer and subject] as they move over the same historical ground […] It is fictional, imaginary, because of course the subject cannot really, literally talk back; but the biographer must come to act and think of his subject as if he can” (Holmes 2005: 66). So I walked where I suspected Amy had. I paced the graveyard of Cumnor church, measuring out the dimensions of the long-demolished house where she spent her last months. Which way would the sun rise? What might she have seen from her upstairs window? I sat on a cold pew in the village church, hearing the vicar’s frail voice and trying to imagine a world where God was in everything. My fingers traced graffiti etched four centuries ago. I walked up Cumnor Hurst, feeling the hillcrest in my thighs. I was especially careful descending stairs. For Preeta Samarasan, such places and objects function as writers’ “tools to carry them across vast chronological or geographical distance” (2007: 214). In this way, writers seek an impossible proximity with the dead subject. At one stage in his journey, Holmes has the “feeling that Stevenson was actually waiting” for him “in person. It was almost like a hallucination” (2005: 26). At times in England I too felt Amy was beside me, that if I turned my head quickly enough I would see her and she would start to speak.

Novelist Arnold Zable describes a further step taken during his research for the novel Scraps of Heaven, when he merges with his characters:

No matter how much detail the writer accumulates, there comes a point when he must enter the time and place he is depicting, and into the minds and shoes of the characters, and allow them to take him into the unknown (Zable 2005: 10).

According to Gillian Polack this internalization of characters and their historical context is necessary so that these might provide “the emotional pathway for the writer herself to enter into the world of the novel” as well as offering a “pathway to the readers into the foreign world” (Polack 2014: 526). Elsewhere she calls these “bridges into history for the reader” (Polack 2014: 529). I was using the material processes described to inhabit Amy’s inner world and try to render it convincingly for readers. Through them I hoped to build bridges between my self, the dead woman and future readers, to create that “credible and compelling” version of Amy’s life so desired at the project’s outset.

These processes are familiar to many writers, attempts to establish what Suzanne Keen calls the “triangulated empathetic bond”, where “authors’ empathy contributes to the creation of textual beings designed to elicit empathetic responses from readers” (Keen 2006: 221-2). In this way fiction, through an act of “empathetic imagination” (Pavel 2000: 536, original italics), attempts to answer those questions unanswerable upon the death of the other. The concept of narrative empathy is used frequently by fiction writers and literary scholars, so it is useful to pause and explore its nuances in this context. The term “empathy” was coined at the turn of the twentieth century, drawn from the German term Einfühlung (Hayward 2005: 1071). Mary-Catherine Harrison highlights the early sense of the word that concerned how humans relate to an object: “empathy is a concept born of the union between psychology and aesthetics” (2008: 256). Eva-Maria Engelen and Birgitt Röttger-Rössler define it as “a social feeling that consists in feelingly grasping or retracing the present, future, or past emotional state of the other” (2012: 3-4). They also see it as “the embodied (or bodily grounded) capacity to feel one’s way into others, to take part in the other’s affective situation, and adopt the other’s perspective” (Engelen and Röttger-Rössler 2012: 5). For Suzanne Keen: “empathy describes a projective fusing with an object—which may be another person or an animal, but may also be a fictional character made of words” (2006: 213). Through the processes described I was striving for such a “projective fusing”, trying to put myself in Amy’s shoes, to see the world through her eyes, so that readers might as well.

Writers’ accounts of their enthusiasm for empathetic imagination are generally treated with suspicion. Keen summarizes the criticisms: “I impose my feelings on you and call them your feelings. Your feelings, whatever they were, undergo erasure” (2006: 222). Samarasan (2007: 225) echoes the warning:

To put yourself in another’s shoes is only the first step toward fulfilling Forster’s exhortation to connect, and a dangerous step at that, for once you stand in those shoes, the other person disappears for a moment. How easy it is to forget to stop and wait and listen in that moment: inside your own head so much else is going on, so much of it is louder than what you’re waiting for.

Colin Davis issues a similar caution about attempts to write the dead: “[T]he danger, of course, is that what the dead say may only be the projections of what we want to hear” (2004: 78). Inga Clendinnen fears that fiction writers might be “misled by their confidence in their novelist’s gift of empathetic imagination”, suggesting that we might “sometimes project back into that carefully constructed material setting contemporary assumptions and current obsessions” (2006: 27-28). Importantly, it is not just novelists who need to be cautious here. Historian Keith Jenkins applies the same wariness to his own discipline, suggesting the impossibility of anyone gaining true insight and access to minds from the past (2003: 47-57). Common to these warnings is a concern about the act of projection: that through it, the intruding writerly self overwrites the actual experience of the dead, negating any possibility of hearing the other’s voice or truly understanding his or her feelings.

Returning to Keen’s definition, however, it is clear that all empathy, in life or in fiction, is indeed “projective” (2006: 213), rather than a transmission or true understanding of what another feels. Actual empathy, by definition, is impossible. Whether we are trying to imagine the inner lives of the long dead or a stranger beside us on a train, all we can hope for is an approximation, filtered through the self. Despite this impossibility, Keen notes the studies of “empathy accuracy” demonstrating that, within the boundaries of our own cultures, our empathetic projections are often remarkably close (2006: 222). The question she asks is the same one reverberating through the earlier-described anxieties about writers projecting themselves into the space of their subjects: “can narrative empathy call to us across boundaries of difference?” (Keen 2006: 223). Can we accurately imagine what it feels like to be someone born into a world alien to our own, or do we simply overwrite this otherness with a disguised representation of the self? The study results cited by Keen suggest our projections are not so accurate for those far removed from the self (2006: 213-14). How then might we come to empathize more accurately with those beyond our immediate and familiar groups? Some say this is where work is most needed. For Samarasan, we “don’t need fiction to learn to empathize with those who resemble us; the real challenge is to see ourselves—to find those sometimes comforting, sometimes terrifying shared kernels of humanity—in those who are nothing like us on the surface” (2007: 217). Others feel that while the desire for empathetic connection might be impossible, the quest for it may be valuable in itself. Geraldine Brooks (2006: 11) writes powerfully about her sense of the importance of empathy work:

The effort to empathize and imagine and put ourselves in other shoes is always worthwhile, whether it is engaged when watching the evening news or when reading about someone dead for more than a hundred years.

A recent study showed that fiction writers were “likely to be among these high empathy individuals” (Keen 2006: 207), especially in the categories of the “tendency to fantasize, to feel empathic concern for others, to experience personal distress in the face of others’ suffering, and to engage in perspective-taking” (Keen 2006: 221). Another result was the speculation that “the activity of fiction writing may cultivate novelists’ role-taking skills and make them more habitually empathetic” (Keen 2006: 221, original italics). This speculation suggests that doing the work of fiction (which resonates with Brooks’ “effort”) means fiction writers frequently exercise “the mind’s muscles” of empathy (OED 2016) in our practices of fantasy and perspective-taking, much as the body’s muscles are exercised by a brisk walk or yoga. The act of narrative projection is significant, then, even if it is not an accurate representation of the other. It is important whether the projective voice makes us believe we are someone else for a moment or if it does not convince, forcing us to consider the failures of empathy, or the challenges of forging empathetic links with those different to ourselves. It matters because of the work it makes each of us do, the emotional and cognitive experience of trying to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes. In this way we might consider the inner life of a stranger and, for the first time, recognize something there.

The creative processes undertaken while working to bring Amy Dudley to life on the page were also attempts at establishing another closely related (and equally scrutinized) narrative quality: authenticity. According to Bryony Stocker, this is a key criterion by which the success of a work in this genre is judged: “Authenticity has been central to debates around historical fiction since the genre’s inception” (2012: 308). It is demanded by “literary critics, reviewers and readers of the genre” (Stocker 2012: 311). Authenticity has many components, but one of the most relevant to this discussion is language, often manifested through narrative voice. A voice that is perceived to be authentic is one way to establish a reader’s belief in the character and events portrayed. If readers do not believe in these, then it is unlikely they will make the empathetic leap described above. When developing her voices from the past, Geraldine Brooks strives for “a sense of authenticity in language”, which she sees as “an essential ingredient in creating a convincing fictional world” (Brooks 2006: 9). Brooks makes a distinction between “true authenticity” in language and this “sense of authenticity” (2006: 9). She suggests that “true authenticity would have been a burdensome distraction to the reader, who could not be expected to toil through pages of archaic Derbyshire dialect” (2006: 9). Stocker describes such an approach as “immersive”, “where vocabulary, sentence structure and spelling are all faithfully reproduced” (Stocker 2012: 311). For Stocker this approach is “only possible for periods within living memory” (2012: 312) and so is not suited to the “majority of historical fiction” (2012: 312), which is set at a greater distance.

Instead, many writers use techniques to create a hybrid voice, what novelist David Mitchell describes as “‘Bygonese’ – which is inaccurate but plausible” (cited in Stocker 2012: 313). This kind of voice is not wholly authentic, but its aim is “effect rather than accuracy” (ibid.). The authenticity “effect” is, of course, felt and judged by readers. If the voice is deemed inauthentic it can disrupt their engagements with character and story. As an example of this, Jerome de Groot cites criticisms of novelist Suzannah Dunn for using language in dialogue that readers felt was too modern (de Groot 2009: 221; also cited in Stocker 2012: 310). The assurance and vehemence of such criticisms is intriguing, given that we don’t have any real idea of how people actually spoke in the long-distant past. For Stocker (2012: 310):

In the place of recorded speech, historians have used documents such as letters, and this more formal deployment of language has been accepted as indicative of everyday speech, inevitably giving a misleading impression.

These documents might hint at accents and speech rhythms, as Amy’s letters did for me, but they show nothing of how formal or informal spoken language was, whether people used contractions, or how they addressed each other. Gillian Polack notes a tendency in recent portrayals of the Middle Ages which can be applied more generally to fictional writing about the past: “The popular understanding of the Middle Ages rests far more on modern Medievalism than on modern historical narratives. […] In effect, matching preconceptions of the Middle Ages is more important than exploring the historical past for most fiction writers” (Polack 2014: 535). What we have, then, is an aspect of the past that cannot be retrieved (how people spoke), in tension with surviving archival material that has set up a series of prevailing and often steadfastly lodged assumptions about that past. These are used by readers to judge the authenticity of a work.

There is more at stake here than whether a character, her voice and her world seem authentic to the chosen period. Quibbling in these ways about the authenticity of language in historical fictions demonstrates a broader anxiety in this genre: the closeness (actual or perceived) of fictional representations to the past. If writers are thought to be taking liberties with voice, what else might they be playing fast and loose with? How do real and fictive, history and fiction, sit together? Often uneasily, it seems—as awkward as the term “historical fiction”, already itself a cumbersome hybrid. Concerns about this issue have long been present. After the publication of Kenilworth, Walter Scott’s famous version of Amy Dudley’s tale which strays far from the historical record, Alfred Bartlett wrote that:

As long as the tale is regarded as purely fictitious, it would be literary prudery to make objections to it. But when there is danger of its being regarded as grounded on facts, the student of truth will desire to see due discrimination made between fiction grounded on the superstitious traditions of the ignorant peasantry, and the incontrovertible records of history (Bartlett 1850: 130).

The same anxiety still pulses, almost two hundred years later. Historian Michael Cathcart, interviewing Elizabeth Gilbert for the 2015 Perth Writers’ Festival, states that he is often disoriented when reading historical fiction because he isn’t sure what the “truth claims” are (Cathcart 2015). His disorientation powerfully captures an embodied reaction to the blurred lines in these genres. Like Bartlett’s “student of truth” (1850: 130), Cathcart is concerned about how readers differentiate between what is true and what is fabricated. How can we draw the line between the actual past and our representation of it? This is especially felt when the work is based on “real” people, what has lately been called “biofiction”: “literature that names its protagonist after an actual biographical figure” (Lackey 2016: 3). Theorizing this genre, Michael Lackey (2016: 8-9) asks a number of questions for future investigation. One of these is: “What truth contract do authors of biofiction tacitly make with their readers?” (Lackey 2016: 9). Despite recent historiographical work questioning assumptions about “the incontrovertible records of history” (Bartlett 1850: 130), some readers of historical fiction are made decidedly uneasy by its slippage between “fact” and fiction.

It makes writers anxious too. According to de Groot: “as a genre the historical novel provokes a certain anxiety and disquiet on the part of the writer” (2010: 9). A symptom of this anxiety is the paratext—rarely are readers of this genre given the novel’s text unaccompanied by explanatory material such as author notes, timelines, character lists and sources (de Groot 2010: 67). Authors create this complex apparatus to help readers understand how they have approached the “real” in their stories. Many will document their sources or note where they have strayed from the historical record. Stocker suggests the purpose of these paratexts is “as much to aid verisimilitude as fill in gaps of understanding” (2012: 315). They do this by establishing or clarifying the work’s “truth claims” alongside the fiction, perhaps in part as preemptive strikes against readerly criticisms.

Despite the strivings of such apparatus, the distinction between real and imagined in the historical or biographical novel is not clear nor easily resolved. We might learn that one character has been blended with another or multiple events collapsed into one, but it does not settle the question of the relationship between fact and invention. The immersive experience of realist historical fiction exists in parallel with readers’ awareness that this is a constructed world which perhaps goes against the historical record. We might consider this a quality of all fiction, but it seems amplified in historical fiction. Readers must either oscillate between belief and doubt in the construction or somehow let both exist at the same time. The peculiar doubleness of the genre is compelling for Jerome de Groot, featuring heavily in his most recent work (2015). For him, “The ‘double effect’ is an uncanny, almost uncomfortable, moment, as the ‘real’ and the ‘wrought’ stand together in the same room” (de Groot 2015: 24). This is the “authentic fallacy” of the genre (de Groot 2010: 183) or “the paradox of authenticity” (182): that “the historical novel must look like it is the original” (de Groot 2015: 16), but of course it cannot be. He calls this “[t]he central paradox of historical fiction, the consciously false realist representation of something that can never be known” (de Groot 2010: 113). Richard Holmes writes of a similar paradox of biography: “Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact” (2005: 27). The challenge of this was made painfully real for Holmes when following in the footsteps of Stevenson. As described earlier, he almost expected his subject to appear in person (2005: 26). Waiting on the bridge into a small town through which Stevenson had travelled, Holmes felt that at any minute his subject would arrive. A devastating epiphany then came: the bridge he stood on was modern. The old one that Stevenson would have crossed was further up-river, broken and crumbling: “You could not cross such bridges any more, just as one could not cross literally into the past” (Holmes 2005: 27; also discussed by Carroll 2015). He realized then that we can never inhabit or truly represent the past. In these accounts, true authenticity is like true empathy—impossible. To achieve the impossible double effect of perceived authenticity, writers develop something qualified, a compromise, which can be related to Brooks’ “sense of authenticity” in language (2006: 9). For Stocker (2012: 310):

Authenticity is a negotiation between the evidence available to the writer, the reader’s existing understanding of the period and the imaginative power of the author, which combined, can only present the spirit of an era, rather than its actuality.

Authenticity is thus an effect of the text on a reader’s perceptions, rather than an unqualified attribute of the text itself. It is a “spectral projection on to the past” (de Groot 2015: 21) conjuring a “spirit of an era” (Stocker 2012: 310), which intrudes into the space of a lost past neither writers nor readers can ever reach.

What then of my quest to create a “credible and compelling sense” of Amy Dudley’s life and voice? Is my manuscript a case of what Martha Tuck Rozett calls “the modern people in fancy dress one often finds in even the best of much popular historical fiction” (1995: 163)? Of course it is. I’m a fiction writer. I’m as fraudulent as a nineteenth-century spiritualist, standing draped in muslin and gelatine once the gaslights are relit. A pinch of early modern spice doesn’t change the fact that the pottage is cooking four and a half centuries later. The body that walked through Amy’s landscape and wrote about it is one born in the twentieth century. All my tactile and cognitive sensibilities are inscribed with and by this world which will, of course, affect my attempts to empathize with and create an authentic sense of a body born centuries earlier, despite sitting in the same church and walking the same hills, despite reading letters and journals of the time. According to Michael Lackey, “What we get in a biographical novel, then, is the novelist’s vision of life and the world, and not an accurate representation of an actual person’s life” (Lackey 2016: 7). As novelist Lion Feuchtwanger claimed in 1935, “I have come to the conclusion that the artist had no other intention than to give expression to his own (contemporary) attitudes and a subjective (but in no sense historical) view of the world” (2015: para. 4). Coming to this realization, I understand that Amy’s voice is silenced, that her body is gone, and that my manuscript reveals more about my world than hers despite the work’s early modern setting.

So if my aim is to hear Amy’s voice but all I hear is my own, then the desire which drives the work is clearly impossible. I will never hear her voice. For Holmes, such recognition comes painfully. It changes how he engages with the people and places of the past, forcing him to re-work his understanding of his own motivations and processes. This “moment of personal disillusion is the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation” (Holmes 2005: 67). His experience at the wrong bridge brought on a new stage in his development as a biographer, where he could understand the role of his own interest in and identification with his subject: “the true biographic process begins precisely at the moment, at the places, where this naïve form of love and identification breaks down” (ibid.). Writers of historical fiction stand at a similar crossroads: do we recognize the futility of the original quest and stop, or do we go on? Hilary Mantel advises writers to “[r]elax” and “accept that you will never be authentic” (2012: para. 4). Somehow we continue, despite the impossibility (or perhaps to spite it). And so do readers of such works. According to de Groot, “Readers enjoy historical novels: that is why they sell” (2015: 21). These are “often read within a nexus of entertainment, imaginative journeying, and pedagogy” (14). At this nexus, different readerly motivations and interests intersect to influence how each reader engages with the peculiar doubleness of the genre. For de Groot, the “fundamental strangeness” of the genre is “one of the most important attributes of the historical novel” (2010: 6). It catalyzes a sophisticated movement within readers (and perhaps writers) of this genre, where two contradictory or opposing views can be held—an awareness of the “trick” of the genre and also a felt response, a sense of the story and characters coming to life within a reader, despite the impossibility. For de Groot: “[I]t seems to me that the historical novel, whilst happily hoodwinking its audience, does so with their collusion” and that “this complicity is […] self-conscious and self-aware” (ibid.). Readers somehow allow the contradiction to exist. Might some of the pleasure of reading and writing historical fiction then come from this complex and “inherently contradictory” relationship between the real and the imagined (de Groot 2010: 31), by holding these opposites in delicious and uncomfortable tension and allowing the real and the fictive to (impossibly) exist together, rather than in opposition?

To allow themselves to be “happily” hoodwinked (de Groot 2010: 6) in this way, readers and writers of historical fiction must use a paradoxical logic that allows for “both/and” rather than “either/or” responses. It is not the only aspect of reading that requires the same logic, within the genre and beyond. Discussions of divisions between “self” and “other” in empathy studies blur the binary in similar ways. Engelen & Röttger-Rössler (2012: 5) describe the “self-other overlap”—a place where the edges of the self and the other are not as separate as we might assume. Pavel writes about the plasticity of the “I” when reading fiction, but his ideas are equally apt for the writing of it: “At the individual level, the predisposition towards fiction depends on the plasticity of the I” (2000: 527), which makes the distinction between “our own I and their I” (536) impossible to maintain. Novelist Gail Jones (2006: 17-18) describes a similar concept, the “fictive memory” evoked by Georges Perec in his work on migration:

Of course, the term sounds oxymoronic, perhaps slightly fraudulent, a fancy term merely for the art of fiction. But Perec insisted there was a zone in which we enter history as a floating ghost might, looking around, absorbing details, affections and experiences, yet not wholly actualised. Neither subject nor object, this is a position, one might say, of ethical transitivity. In phenomenological terms both reading and writing operate in this way. We engage in spooky projections, we read and write across thresholds of actuality, even plausibility; we detach and attach with spirited mobility, gratuitous and energetic.

The “ethical transitivity” Jones describes opens a space between subject and object, a porous “I” that coalesces somewhere between historical figure, author and reader. This resonates with Keen’s “triangulated empathetic bond” (2006: 221-2) described earlier. Writers attempt impossible empathetic imagination to represent the inner lives of their characters, and readers use a similar ability to feel for the people portrayed. It is always a projection, an intrusion, and yet, paradoxically, it opens a space where we are encouraged to inhabit the lives of those different from ourselves. For Paul de Man, such a speculative space “posits the possibility of the latter’s reply” (1979: 926). In the silence after death, it reminds us that long-dead person once had a voice. It encourages us to imagine that voice or that self, even if we know it is our own self that blunders in, even if we know these are just projections. Projective: the might have been. This ethical transitivity or self-other overlap reminds me that my “self” and the “other” are never discrete entities, static and closed and hermetically sealed. Rather the “I” of the self contains fictive fragments, projections of those others who live around us: in life, in memory, in fiction. Attempts to write the dead function like this too. I’ll never truly know how Amy felt and I’ll never hear her voice, but in trying to imagine, I’m opening a space for the consideration of a woman’s experiences lived on the margins of history, within myself and hopefully within readers. A woman who can no longer tell her own story.



In my son’s early life, when he was revelling in the echolalia that comes before proper speech, I found myself listening for words and sense. Of course I wanted to hear “mama” and “dada”, but every word was a revelation. A magic trick, pulling language from the air. The way he pronounced some words surprised me. Moosic, he would say. Bootiful. Again came that peculiar and chiming familiarity. That’s just how my nana would have said it. I’m Portsmouth-born and my words are south-coast meets BBC meets thirty-plus years in Australia, so his pronunciation was a shock. Impossible that my son might speak with the vowels of my dead grandmother, but there it was. And of course Amy was there too, linked irrevocably with my nana’s voice after reading her letters. Three voices in one, the dead speaking through the living. In a different context, Stephen Greenblatt (1988: 1) emphasizes the role of language in preserving the voice of the other:

It was true that I could hear only my own voice, but my own voice was the voice of the dead, for the dead had contrived to leave textual traces of themselves, and those traces make themselves heard in the voices of the living.

Early in my research I discovered that Amy had been born only a few miles from where my nana grew up. Despite the years between them, might they be connected by Greenblatt’s “textual traces”? How clearly I can imagine Amy walking the boundaries of the estate with her father. One of my agricultural-labourer ancestors stills his hands to greet the squire and his daughter. Words are exchanged—an enquiry about my ancestor’s children, an observation about the sheep. Amy’s words enter him, to be passed down through my family from mouth to mouth: shared, disputed, repeated, inherited. This web of Norfolk-speaking stretches across centuries and continents, somehow connecting Amy’s letters and my nana’s voice and my son’s early words. I think then about my manuscript. Without a doubt it is written in my voice and represents my world. But within my voice is my nana’s, nested like epigenetic memory (Powering the Mind, Catalyst 2015). Nested even deeper might be the voice of Amy Dudley. Perhaps, impossibly, she is closer than I thought.



[1] See Padmore (2009) for an exploration of this issue.

[2] Dudley, A. (n.d.), Letter to Mr Flowerdew, Harl. MS 4712, British Library, London;  Dudley, A. 1560, Letter to Mr Edney, Dudley Papers, DU/VOL. IV, Longleat House, Wiltshire. I have written elsewhere about other aspects of these letters. See Padmore (2010).



An early draft of this paper was presented at the 2015 conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (Swinburne University, 28 November to 1 December). I am grateful to colleagues there for commentary and suggestions, as well as to the members of the Creative Arts and English academic writing group at La Trobe University, and to this journal’s anonymous reviewers. 



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Dr Catherine Padmore has taught literary studies and creative writing at La Trobe University since 2005. Her first novel, Sibyl’s Cave (Allen and Unwin, 2004) was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel Award and commended in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (first-book category). Catherine has been awarded two retreat fellowships at Varuna, the Writers’ House, for novels-in-progress about the Tudor women Amy Dudley and Levina Teerlinc. Her short creative works have been published in Island, The Journal of Australian Writers and Writing, The Big Issue, The Australian, Dotlit and Antithesis, and in the anthologies Reflecting on Melbourne (Poetica Christi, 2009) and Grieve (Newcastle Writers’ Centre, 2015). Catherine’s scholarly work has been published in Australian Literary Studies, TEXT, JASAL, Life Writing and Lateral, with chapters in Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012 (MUP, 2013) and Expanding the Canon of Early Modern Women’s Writing (CSP, 2010).