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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 5 > The Facts that Engender: Using Virginia Woolf’s ideas of truth and character to articulate my creative process as a historical novelist
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The Facts that Engender: Using Virginia Woolf’s ideas of truth and character to articulate my creative process as a historical novelist
Author: Kim Sherwood
Kim Sherwood re-examines the influence of Virginia Woolf in relation to the writing of her own novel about the Holocaust.

Abstract

In “The Fact That Engenders”, I outline how Virginia Woolf’s conception of “the fact that suggests and engenders” in biography, and her focus on unfixed selfhood in fiction, help me better understand and articulate my creative process as a historical novelist. I contextualize Woolf’s ideas, and explore why these ideas are – for me – more helpful than Georg Lukács’ argument that the realist form alone can capture historical truth, and that characters are best positioned as historical-types. In this, I draw on Dame Hilary Mantel’s articulation of her own creative process. I discuss how understanding the power of facts that engender, and the power of absence that engenders, is central to my creative process, reflecting on the role of archival and site-based research in my approach to truth and character. My debut novel, Testament, explores the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family. Building on Julia Briggs (2005) and Hussey et al (1991), I examine Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the context of the Holocaust. Finally, I suggest how the relationship between creative writing and historiography might empower both forms of writing to be fully alert to the potential of facts that engender today.

 

Keywords: Historical fiction, archival research, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, Georg Lukács, truth, character, Holocaust, archive theory and art, writing process.

  

On a Wednesday in mid-June, Mrs Dalloway stepped out to buy the flowers herself, and we followed. It is Dalloway Day, and I am limping after a Virginia Woolf walking tour, my young, arthritic feet swollen. As I take notes, I negotiate with what Virginia Woolf called “this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain” (2009: 102): let me walk a little further. We gaze up at a blue plaque on a university building, erected on the bombed site of Woolf’s first Bloomsbury home, and take photographs of it for no reason. On the street corner, we talk about her depression and her sex life. We pursue Woolf across Tavistock Square, where she pursued ideas for Mrs Dalloway, and stop at a hotel built on the bombed site of her house with Leonard. The hotel bar is called The Woolf and Whistle. A plane with the silhouette of a Wellington bomber drones overhead, and we gasp, for on that mid-June day “[t]he sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd”, too (Woolf, 2000a: 21). The tour finishes at Dalloway Terrace, one of the most instagrammed restaurants in London, which began life as a YWCA designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, intimate of Lady Victoria Sackville-West (Ridley 2002: 315-316), mother of Vita, Woolf’s intimate and muse for Orlando (Woolf, 2008). The building went up after a public fundraising campaign: “London, stand by your girls.” I can no longer stand: have walked into the kind of pain that takes possession, leaving me hunched and flinching and blinkered.

In “On Being Ill”, Woolf writes that we are always, ultimately, alone in our bodies: “Here we go alone, and like it better so.” (2009: 104) Alone, and like it better so – Woolf escaped our attempts to track her down on Dalloway Day, giving us feints and shadows. Later that summer, I visit Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ home in Sussex, and am struck by the same evasion. Here is Virginia’s father’s armchair, here are Virginia’s tennis rackets, here is Virginia’s desk. But when the guide tells us: “Virginia is buried somewhere in the garden,” and we ask where, she can only shrug. Two elm trees, named for Virginia and Leonard, marked where Virginia was buried. But thirty years ago a storm struck the trees, and nobody knows where she rests beneath our intrusive wanderings. I like the idea of her hiding from the tourists, researchers, day-trippers, devotees. An entirely private peace. Something she was owed, perhaps.

When Gisèle Freund, the German-Jewish photographer who fled the Nazis in 1933, surprised Virginia in Tavistock Square to take her portrait, Virginia wrote: “No getting out of it… So my afternoon is gone in the way to me most detestable and upsetting of all.” Woolf hated becoming a “life-sized life coloured animated photograph.” (Spalding 2014: 15) The contradictory “animated photograph” reveals, perhaps, a fear of becoming fixed, flattened, and so, subject to simple puppeteering. “Who was I then?” Woolf asks in “A Sketch of the Past” (2002: 79). In her garden, we are kept from her body, in a way the body can never be kept from the mind, for the mind “cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife” (Woolf, 2009: 101). For all the portraits, diaries, novels, essays, and anecdotes, we are kept from a final answer to that question: who was Virginia, then? In our bodies, in our minds, we go alone: unfixed, even to ourselves.

In this essay, I will outline how Virginia Woolf’s conception of “the fact that suggests and engenders” (2009: 123) in biography, and her focus on unfixed selfhood in fiction, help me better understand and articulate my creative process as a historical novelist. I will contextualise Woolf’s ideas, and explore why these ideas are – for me – more helpful than Georg Lukács’ argument that the realist form alone can capture historical truth, and that characters are best positioned as historical-types. In this, I will draw on Dame Hilary Mantel’s articulation of her own creative process. I will discuss how understanding the power of facts that engender, and the power of absence that engenders, is central to my creative process, reflecting on the role of Holocaust archives and site-based research in my approach to truth and character. My debut novel, Testament (2018), explores the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family. I will, finally, look at Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the context of the Holocaust, and suggest how the relationship between creative writing and historiography might empower both forms of writing to be fully alert to the potential of facts that engender today.

Writing about “the new biography”, Woolf argued that

[b]y telling us the true facts, by sifting the little from the big, and shaping the whole so that we perceive the outline, the biographer does more to stimulate the imagination than any poet or novelist save the very greatest. (2009: 122)

Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a founding editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and a biographer himself. In his 1878 Johnson, Stephen follows in “Boswell’s steps” in more ways than one; arguing as Boswell did that Boswell created “a new literary type” (1900: 92-94). (In this, Stephen, like Boswell, leaves Hester Thrale’s

biography of Johnson, which similarly offers a “whole” rather than hagiographic portrait, in the cold; an injustice Woolf would avoid repeating in her essay “Mrs Thrale” (1969) and A Room of One’s Own (1957). Stephen writes that Boswell’s genius lies in his capacity to “bring out the beauty of a character by means of its external oddities”, conveying “the whole character” (93). But in praising “the new biography”, Woolf is not writing of her father’s generation and their taxonomic attachment to the external – perhaps inevitable in the earthquake of Darwin’s ideas – but rather the writing of her contemporaries: Lytton Strachey’s skewering of those parental Eminent Victorians (2009).

For Strachey, “uninterrupted truth is as useless as unburned gold; and art is the great interpreter, the melting point at which truth becomes malleable. Art “alone can unify a vast multitude of facts into a significant whole” (1909). Significant is a striking word from an iconoclast, suggesting that art has the power to gather disparate and diffuse facts and burn, break and re-cast them into something meaningful and important. In the metaphor of burning gold, we have motion and dimensionality: in giving truth significance, art transforms a fact into a sign or symbol with the scope and depth of the referent. There is more to truth in art than there is outside of art, according to this line of thinking. Woolf argues: “almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.” (2009: 123)

Engender is a potent word. In Middle English, it referred to a man begetting offspring, and to a woman conceiving and bearing it. Later, it meant, “to generate, develop, give rise” (OED print, 2007). Dr Johnson, in his dictionary, added: “to excite”, when excite meant “to rouse; to animate, to awaken” (1834: 186). These combinations put me in mind of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (2008), as they should, for at the root of the word “engender” is the word “genus”, connected not just to Latin “genitor” (parent) and “progeny” (offspring), but also “genius”, meaning inborn spirit, and “genuine”, meaning “of the true genus or stock” (Skeat, 1993). Within this one word, we have a sense of animating life in such a way that is “true” and “genuine” – or, perhaps more usefully, in such a way that feels true in spirit to some internal self, and some wider world. Put another way, the word engender suggests the construction of a convincing character, whether autobiographical or fictional.

In calling on the biographer to tell us “true facts” by sifting the little from the big, and shaping the whole into a significant cast, Woolf writes that the biographer’s “sense of truth must be alive and on tiptoe” in order to navigate “an age when a thousand cameras are pointed, by newspapers, letters and diaries, at every character from every angle” (2009: 121). The biographer “must be prepared to admit contradictory versions of the same face.” (2009: 121) Today, the cameras pointed at us, from selfies to CCTV, are only growing. We live, as Cãlin Dan and Josif Kiraly write, “under the sign of the archive” (2006: 113), with archiving on a state and personal level almost limitless in the light of changing understanding of technology, heritage, identity and privacy, only encouraging contradictory versions of the same face.

In understanding the difference between the internal world, with “whatever…complexity it may display”, and “the alien and external” (2009: 9), as Woolf wrote in her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction”, Woolf and her generation rejected the traditional realist notion of a direct correlation between outside and inside. In this, they threw off any belief that, as Nicholas Royle and Andrew Bennett write, “physical appearance (outside) works as a sign of character (inside)”: that “there is an inside and an outside to a person, that these are separate, but that one may be understood to have a crucial influence on the other” (2004: 64-65). Rather, Woolf advanced a complex selfhood, influenced by Freud and others. In this approach, a writer faces the “incessant shower of innumerable atoms” that “an ordinary mind” receives “on an ordinary day”, with the task of bringing “from all this diversity…not a riot of confusion, but a richer unity”. (Woolf 2009: 9) This “richer unity” is similar to the biographer’s task of “shaping the whole”, but, crucially, not a whole that is hermetically sealed, even within the text itself.

Stephen wrote in Johnson: “it is unscientific to consider a man as a bundle of separate good and bad qualities”. Instead, they “must be unsparingly revealed by a biographer, because they are in fact expressions of a whole character.” (93) Woolf and her contemporaries would interrogate both the notion of the scientific, and the “whole” character. Woolf often turns to the century before hers for literary foremothers, arguing that “we think back through our mothers if we are women” writers (1957: 79). As Woolf looks back to Jane Austen, so I look back to Woolf. Musing on how Austen might have developed had she lived longer, Woolf suggests Austen would set aside the “[t]hose marvellous little speeches which sum up, in a few minutes’ chatter, all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft”. Gone would be her “shorthand”, and in its place: “a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is.” This method would surpass her comedy, for the shorthand that creates such comedy would “become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature.” (Woolf 1925: 182)

This mature Austen, Woolf writes, would be “the forerunner to Henry James and of Proust” (Woolf 1925: 183). Indeed, such an Austen would be, as David Daiches observes, the forerunner to Woolf (in Booth 1968: 54). The idea of conveying a complex self that points to something larger, to “what life is”, can be linked directly to the “richer unity” Woolf calls for in biography, and to the “significant whole” Strachey identifies. It is the idea of a truth that gestures beyond itself – the fact that engenders. It is an idea that sits at the heart of my creative process, and, I believe, at the heart of creative writing and historiography, two disciplines I see as fundamentally connected.

 It is also an idea that sits at the heart of Woolf’s own historical fiction, as Jerome de Groot writes of Orlando (1928): “The novel quite consciously fractures historicity, attacking patriarchal modes of knowing and being in order to suggest alternative, fluid knowledges and identities.” (de Groot 2010: 43). Where her father attacked flattery as “unscientific”, Woolf and her generation attack the very notion of “scientific”, troubling the constructed rationality prized by those eminent Victorians, used to justify oppression in providing a basis for hierarchies. Julia Briggs suggests we can read Woolf’s final novel, Between the Acts (1941), as postmodern (2006: 394), and so it is perhaps unsurprising that I am reminded here of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, another work of historiographic fracturing: “definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined” (Morrison 1987: 190).

How to approach the notion of truth marks a dividing moment in the evolution of the historical novel, and persists as a question today. In The Historical Novel – one of the most significant theoretical turning points for the form – the Marxist and Realist critic Georg Lukács argues that “the historical novel was able to emerge” only from a particular “social and ideological basis” (1962: 20). For Lukács, the eighteenth and nineteenth century revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and the capitalist system produced by the Enlightenment, resulted in the realist novel. When this confluence

drew the attention of writers to the concrete (i.e. historical) significance of time and place, to social conditions, and so on, it created the realistic, literary means of expression for portraying this spatio-temporal (i.e. historical) character of people and places (21).

As de Groot writes, Lukács seeks “to prove that economic and social tumult created a dynamic sense of progress, and most of all, of history as process.” (25) To this line of thinking, prior to this unique cultural moment, history did not exist. After it, social understanding developed from a static concept of the self, to “a new humanism, a new concept of progress” (29). With progress, comes history.

Lukács posits moreover that the French revolution and subsequent wars “for the first time made history a mass experience, and moreover on a European scale” (1962: 23). This sets up “the concrete possibilities for men to comprehend their own existence as something historically conditioned, for them to see in history something which deeply affects their daily lives and immediately concerns them.” (24) Seen through this lens, the only appropriate form for the historical novel for Lukács is realism, in which character is “simultaneously the historical necessity of this particular individual personality and the individual role which he plays in history” (47). Personality and role are inextricably linked: while possessing “purely individual traits of character”, these traits “are brought into a very complex, very live relationship with the age in which they live” (47). Characters become “historical-social types” (35), their external and internal selves fixed and determined.

The ultimate aim of historical fiction then, for Lukács, is “the representation of reality” (35); characters are born from types, in order to illustrate history as process, and, within this, the ‘true reality’ of history over time, “that historical circumstances and characters existed in precisely such-and-such a way” (43). This argument is problematic for me, firstly because it chains characters to a fixed, historicized self, leaving little room for a creative process that hopes to yield to a character’s developing ‘will’. Secondly, because it disrupts the evolution of the historical novel in such a way as to discount novelists preceding and contemporaneous to Sir Walter Scott, who Lukács claims as his first realist, dismissing not only Scott’s echo chamber – to borrow a phrase from E.M. Forster (1957: 154) – with its population of significant women writers, but Scott’s own generic experiments, all of which foreshadow Woolf’s Orlando.

Northrop Frye, in his study of romance, argues that “[w]hen the novel developed, [medieval] romance continued…in the “Gothic” (1976: 4). The Gothic, as Diana Wallace writes, uses the past “as a fantasy space” (2005: 2) – not the realist representational mode Lukács advocates. Frye sees fiction as operating in a “reversible shuttle” governed by the Platonic division of realism, as representing “reality” and romance as “antirepresentational” (37) – leading to a distinction between “serious” literature “and the trifling and fantastic”, in Lukács’ words (17). Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – often seen as codifying the modern historical novel by moving away from its romantic antecedents, a position cemented by Lukács’ influential reading – operates self-consciously within this system. Waverley realizes: “the romance of his life was ended, and…its real history had now commenced” (1814: 283). Lukács dismisses “a long list of second and third-rate writers” – he names Ann Radcliffe as an example, suggesting the tired debate surrounding “true reality” in historical fiction is also a gendered one, as many tired debates are – “who were supposed to be important literary forerunners”. Lukács argues that rather than existing in relation to writers such as Radcliffe, “Scott’s historical novel is the direct continuation of the great realistic social novel of the eighteenth century.” (30-31) We can see in Lukács’ bid to excise Scott from “Radcliffe etc.” (30) that debates surrounding historical fiction are bound by a perceived hierarchy of gender and genres, and within that a hierarchy of mimesis – of a sense of truth.

A perception of historical fiction as a genre with roots in the fabricated and frivolous continued through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, as Duncan Sprott notes in Writing Historical Fiction: despite commercial and critical success, the genre has still got “a very bad name.” (2014: 17). This can be seen in Dame Hilary Mantel’s huge success reigniting the same old moral, aesthetic (and gendered) debates surrounding historical fiction. In 2012, double Booker Prize winner Mantel was to The Guardian “the woman who made historical fiction respectable again, who had freed it from bodice-ripping romps, making a derided genre safe…for those who consider themselves properly literary and serious.” (Jeffries 2012). A further example of this is James Forrester’s “The Lying Art of Historical Fiction”, which, prompted by Mantel’s success, explores how historical accuracy, “telling the truth”, adds to the value of a novel (2010). This anxiety is not new – it can be seen in Scott’s promise to provide the “historical facts which have formed the ground-work of these Novels” (348), or Alexandre Dumas’ converse contention, that “you may rape history as long as you give it beautiful children.” (in Anderson 2011)

As Mantel writes, the term historical fiction “is beginning to look like an accusation, a stick to beat writers with: you're historical, you weaselly good-for-nothing, you luxury, you parasite.” (2009). These luxurious parasites, unlike P.G. Wodehouse’s performing flea (1961), or flea-ridden-bedsit-realists, can have nothing to offer society. Mantel argues that “literary fiction set in the past…is accused of being, by its nature, escapist”, and therefore removed from reality – from a sense of truth (2009).

In this anxiety, the question of truth becomes central. Mantel embraces this debate in Wolf Hall (2009). In revising our cultural understanding of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel makes use of the influence of new understandings of historiography within history studies, and historiographic metafiction within historical fiction, in which, as Keith Jenkins argues, “texts are not cognitive, empirical, epistemological entities, but speculative, propositioned invitations to imagine the past ad infinitum” (in de Groot 2010: 112). Mantel signals that she is breaking free of traditional history by similarly breaking free of a traditional controlling omniscient narrator, a causally linear narrative, and what Barthes calls the unreal time of the simple past tense, the time of novels and histories, which suppress the trembling of existence (2006).

Mantel uses present-tense third-person limited, cleaving away from what Hayden White terms the “completed diachronic process” of past-tense transitional narrative (1990: 342), and cleaving instead to Cromwell’s subjectivity. We are no longer in the past as we know it told, history planed smooth, but in the present moment, the trembling of existence released. Cromwell reflects: “In retrospect, it’s easy to see…but at the time it is not easy. Look back, you remember being at sea. The horizon dipped giddily, and the shoreline was lost in mist.” (120) Mantel places us in the giddy moment of the dip. We are reminded of the intertwined relationship between art and the world. History, Hayden White argues, is a matter of “emplotment” (343).

Cromwell thinks of More’s silence: “It was fear of plain words, or the assertion that plain words pervert themselves; More’s dictionary, against our dictionary” (643). A dictionary prescribes and codifies meaning, and it is printed, generational meaning that is at stake between Cromwell and More: the terminating point of the transitional past tense, here suspended into the shuddering present. Cromwell reflects on this in 1534-1535, but the first “lexical convenience” to be called “a dictionary” was produced in 1538 (Winchester 2003: 30). Mantel notes in Writing Historical Fiction: “I check the first usage of my vocabulary, but sometimes I let words from 20 years later sneak under the wire; the first written usage may not reflect the first spoken usage” (136). In this, we are reminded that definitions are never fixed – the text always gestures beyond itself.

It is revealing that in 2017, Mantel chose to address all of these concerns in her BBC Reith lectures. Mantel says:

No other sort of writer has to explain their trade so often [as the historical novelist]. The reader asks, is this story true? Now that sounds like a simple question, but we have to unwrap it. Often the reader is asking, can I check this out in a history book? Does it agree with other accounts? ... For a person who seeks safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look. Any worthwhile history is in a constant state of self-question, just as any worthwhile fiction is. (2017a).

Mantel points out that the novelist is very often not casting their story from liquid truth, original source materials, but source materials that have been shaped already by a historian into secondary material (2017b). The novelist then re-casts them. Elsewhere, Mantel links this recasting – the fact that in contemporary popular fiction you usually “have to have a story” – to “the resurrection of the time-worn debate about the value of historical fiction” (2009). Mantel’s exploration of these issues reflects the on-going Platonic concern that “telling stories is telling lies” (Waugh, 1984: 89).

This lingering cultural and critical suspicion towards historical fiction’s relationship with the truth forces characters of historical fiction to pass the Litmus test and be accepted as “true to the record”, or be dismissed as fantasist irrelevancies, and, worse, lies. As Mantel observes: “I have been taken to task … for my portrait of Thomas More – Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, an astute politician who, 400 years after his execution, was made a saint. While still hale and hearty, More wrote his epitaph, telling us what to think about him. I have taken his instructions, and my portrait is defensible.” (2017c) In using the word “defensible”, Mantel – who studied law – reminds us of a courtroom, in which there is little understanding or space for the fact that engenders: for the multiplicities and suggestiveness of truth in historical fiction, and indeed in historiography, in which, as White argued throughout his career, history is plotted by the historian.

In “This Fictitious Life: Virginia Woolf on Biography and Reality”, Ray Monk writes that Woolf’s “The New Biography” is “mentioned, discussed and quoted from” more than “any other piece of writing on the subject” in “the growing body of academic literature on biography” (2007). Monk notes that Woolf’s views on biography are closely linked to her views on fiction, as I have acknowledged in linking Woolf’s writing on biography to her essay “Modern Fiction”. Monk contends that across Woolf’s oeuvre we see “a particular and particularly strongly held-conviction about the unique importance of fiction, and the relative unimportance of fact, in the understanding of people and the true representation of life.” In representing life as it really is, Monk argues that Woolf suggests “we must conjure up phantoms; in order to capture the truth about reality, we must write fiction.”

Monk laments this, seeing Woolf’s views on biography as a condemnation of biography itself. He writes:

… one has to see Orlando as an expression of – or, at the very least, consistent with – the view she advances in ‘The New Biography’ that the truths of fact and fiction have to be kept apart. The key to this, I think, lies in Woolf's conviction … that biography could not solve its own central problem. At the heart of her reason for believing this (and, in my opinion, her most pernicious legacy for the theory of biography) is her view that the self can be truthfully described only in fiction. It follows from this view that biography can never adequately capture the people it attempts to describe, and that the only way of writing an adequate biography … was not to write biography at all, but a novel. …. Only in fiction could she capture the truth about Vita, because the truth about a person is ‘truth of fiction’ rather than ‘truth of fact.’

To me, this attack on Woolf’s legacy mistakes what Woolf means by “the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders” – and the power of what this framing has to offer historiographers, biographers, and novelists: an understanding of the dynamism, fertility, and begetting power of the truth. As a writer of biography also, Woolf is not dismissing the form, but rather advancing an understanding in both fiction and biography that fact is always more than the fact itself, and that narrative is always present. This position helps me articulate my own process as a novelist.

Woolf and Strachey’s conception of a “richer unity” is useful for historical fiction, because it gives us a way to view what happens to truth in art (including biography, which, after all, has a writer behind it). What goes into the making of fiction set in the past – what are these facts that engender, that gesture to some further truth, and how as writers do we identify them? Dr Frankenstein has remains at his disposal for the creation of life, both human and animal. In the archive, we deal with other kinds of remains: letters, wills, the leathery creak of long-closed photo albums; and, beyond, the material, treasured bequests or forgotten pawn shop relics: medals, furniture, tea sets. Hal Foster describes what he terms “the archival impulse” as a recurrent, but evolving, trend in twentieth and twenty-first century art, in which artists turn to archives as source material, “seek[ing] to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.” (2004: 4) Where did my archival impulse come from – and what were the facts that engendered my debut novel, Testament? Of course, Freud has an answer for this, and so does Derrida, but before I read Freud or Derrida, before I knew what an archive was, where did my archival impulse come from? The answer to this is also the answer to where Testament began, and the answer to how, for this novel, I approached the historical record, or truth, to give rise to my fictional characters.  

I was fourteen when my grandmother – a historian – took me to Senate House Library. She said I could take out any book I wanted on her card, as long as I returned it on time. The book I chose was on book burning. I remember a grey spine with silver lettering. I remember a black-and-white photograph of a fire, books at its gorged base, and Nazi officers standing in relaxed poses. The photograph made me feel very cold, and my chest still tightens when I recall it. I told my grandmother I wanted this book, with its erasures, its charred traces. I don’t remember her having any particular reaction. My grandmother is Hungarian Jewish and a Holocaust survivor. Testament, written many years later, is about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a (fictional) family, and the power of the archive to reveal that impact – the power of facts that engender to shape and change the identities of my characters, who guard and maintain their identities as matters of survival.

Michel Foucault (1972) writes:

The archive is not that which, despite its immediate escape, safeguards the event of the statement, and preserves, for future memories, its status as an escape; it is that which, at the very root of the statement-event, and in that which embodies it, defines at the outset the system of its enunciability. (2002: 146)

In the archives I utilized to write Testament, the systems of enunciability are based on gaps and silences, collecting statements and remnants from a people being erased. The artist Christian Boltanski writes of his extensive personal archive: “preserving oneself whole, keeping a trace of all the moments of our lives, all the objects that have surrounded us, everything we’ve said, what’s been said around us, that’s my goal.” What you preserve, and don’t, is a way of curating what from the past and present will make up your future self. These items, Boltanski writes, will be “carefully arranged and labelled in a safe place – secure against theft, fire and nuclear war – from whence it will be possible to take it out and assemble it at any point. Then, being thus assured of never dying, I may finally rest” (2006: 126). Holocaust archives can never finally rest, because there was no hope of preserving people whole, of saving their lives. As the novelist Anne Michaels writes in the preface to Fugitive Pieces (1997):

During the Second World War, countless manuscripts – diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts – were lost or destroyed. Some of these narratives were deliberately hidden – buried in back gardens, tucked into walls and under floors – by those who did not live to retrieve them.

Other stories are concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken.

In responding to archives whose systems of enunciability are punctured by voids, I was responding to the notion of the void itself. I had the original idea for Testament in the Jewish Museum Berlin, where “voids” (Beeck: 42) – largely inaccessible concrete shafts – cut through the museum. Visitors can traverse these voids through enclosed bridges, or peer down into them through narrow windows, until, finally, the Memory Void allows entrance onto its floor of steel, punctured faces: faces of people who wail silently, for whom “stories are concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken”. In the year after visiting the Jewish Museum, my maternal grandfather died, and I found myself unmoored, my identity so bound up with his that without him I lost my compass: became lost in my own void. At the same time, my paternal grandmother began to tell me about her childhood in Budapest for the first time, and I started to research the Holocaust in Hungary, in an attempt to comprehend all she was telling me. The more I learnt, the more I felt swallowed by a larger void, and the more desperate I became to find words to articulate it. These were my facts that engendered.

David Albahari returns to the image of the void repeatedly throughout Götz and Meyer, his novel about the SS officers who operated the first mobile gas truck in Serbia:

The void that was Götz and Meyer so contrasted with the fullness of my relatives, if not of their real beings at least of their deaths, that my every attempt to reach fullness required that first I had to pass through void. (2004: 65)

The void is the archive in Belgrade, in which the protagonist attempts to recover Götz and Meyer, and his family. The rise of the archive corresponds with the rise of witness testimony, international war crime cases, and the collecting of war crime evidence. As such, it is not surprising that alongside the prevalence of the void in Holocaust literature, the image of the archive in critical and creative considerations very quickly turns to the image of the camp. For example, the artist Ilya Kabakov describes a

dump … full of twinkling stars, reflections and fragments of culture: either some kind of book, or a sea of magazines with photographs and texts, or things once used by someone … An enormous past rises up behind these crates … [a] feeling of a unity of all of the past life, and at the same time this feeling of the separateness of its components, give birth to an image … It’s hard to say what kind of image this is … maybe an image of some sort of camp where everything is doomed to perish but still struggles to live… (2006: 100)

The Holocaust is a shadow to and over the archive, its taxonomy and human cataloguing problematising the same taxonomy that seeks to “preserve the past”. Dragan Kujundzic, in his 2004 “Archigraphia: On the Future of Testimony and the Archive to Come”, grounds this haunting in a specific historical instance:

As is well-known, the first computer, the IBM-owned Hollerith machine, was first put to use on a grand scale for the systematic archivisation of European Jewry in rounding it up for the concentration camps. And Freud understood, perhaps better than anyone, why such an event, while multiplying an archive, could at the same time produce, in an equally infinite capacity, its complete erasure. Leaving only the ashes to speak in the absence of the catastrophic event. The catastrophe that produced them remains, but as ashes, gone up in smoke and forever erased. (178)

Of course, the ashes cannot speak – the true witnesses, as Primo Levi writes, are silenced by the death they were witness to: the drowned rather than the saved (1986). Giorgio Agamben argues that the archive “presupposed the bracketing of the subject, who was reduced to a simple function or an empty position”, ensuring “the subject’s disappearance into the anonymous murmur of statements”. By contrast, “because testimony is the relation between a possibility of speech and its taking place”, it depends on “the subject’s capacity to have or not have language.” This “contingency” is possible “because the human being is the speaking being…capable of not having language, because it is capable of its own infancy” (2012: 145). We can add to this that a human being is also capable of dying: a capacity not to be.

Witness testimony in the archive is contingent on survival, existing always on the cusp. Agamben locates this contingency further in the role of witness testimony as a substitute for the voices of those who cannot speak, the drowned. Testimony in the archive 

demands subjectivity as that which, in its very possibility of speech, bears witness to an impossibility of speech. This is why subjectivity appears as witness; this is why it can speak for those who cannot speak. Testimony is a potentiality that becomes actual through impotentiality of speech. (146)

Renée Green, considering Agamben’s framing, writes that 

each term (processes of subjectification and desubjectification) in the process of moving toward the place of a remnant – that “small remaining quantity” after so much has been used or sold – is engaged in an ongoing mobile process, whereby the subject can bear witness. This suggests dynamism, something never settled, but continuous. (2006: 55)

This dynamism exists in the “in-between spaces, which can appear as holes, aporias, absences” (49) in fiction after the Holocaust. These holes are tunnels, into which as a writer I disappeared, and in which the facts that engender wait.

While writing Testament, it was important to me to place my characters in events and places that were as true to the historical record as my research could achieve – partly out of respect to the subject, and partly because my creative process necessarily involves such research. As Laurent Binet writes in HHHH, to go beyond the evidence would be “like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence” (2012: 192). Characters are a slightly different matter, for me, not positioned so strictly in relationship to the research as historical-types, but rather engendered by research, with all of the complexity of a life. My characters were shaped by archival and site-based research. Split between 1944-1951 and the present day, the novel follows Silk, a Jewish survivor of the Hungarian forced labour service, who has gone on to become one of Britain’s foremost abstract artists, and his granddaughter, Eva, as she learns after his death about his suppressed past, revealed in witness testimony. Testament also follows Silk’s brother, László, and Zuzka, a Czech survivor, as they are liberated from Theresienstadt, and the battle for identity that follows among the three, as they seek to either foreground or forget their pasts. Without archival and site-based research, I would have lacked the necessary details to write the novel and to shape my characters – the facts that engender.

This process is akin to Woolf’s call to sift the facts, and to Strachey’s melting gold. I do not know, as I sift, as I mix and pour, what will emerge, for it is in the experiential action of investigation that characters are engendered. As Mantel says:

Research is not a separate phase from writing. There is no point where the writer can say, “I know enough.” ... The activity is immersive. The novelist is after a type of knowledge that goes beyond the academic. She is entering into a dramatic process with her characters, and until she plunges into a particular scene, she hardly knows what she needs to know. (2017b)

How does this process of engendering work in the archive? Let me illustrate this by describing a hot summer’s week moving between the Whitechapel Art Gallery Archive, the Wiener Library, and the British Library newspaper room, constructing how my characters felt arriving in London in 1945 as refugees.

In the Wiener Library, I read advice pamphlets exhorting refugees to be less European. “Do not grumble because English household customs are different from Continental ones. Adapt yourself as quickly as possible to your new surroundings.” (Central Office for Refugees, 1940a) “Read English books and newspapers and learn as much as you can about English history and literature, so that you may understand English ways of living and thinking.” “DON’T talk German in the streets, in public places or any places where others may hear you. You will learn English more quickly by talking it constantly. And there is nothing to show the man in the street that you are a refugee and not a Nazi.” (Central Office for Refugees, 1940b) As I read these through the eyes of my character Silk, anger builds inside me, culminating in this realisation – that to those around me (those around him), I am (he is) indistinguishable from my persecutors. Point of view is not just a technique – it’s real, for a writer. We are overtaken, the fertile fact giving birth to something that feels so lifelike, we talk of characters taking over from us.

Dorothy Spencer, a refugee to England, realizes, “No one says thank you to you anymore, you are always thanking them.” She is desperately lonely, and longs for a friend of her own, from her own life, torn between hating the word courage, and crying in a telephone box as she receives another “no” in her search for paid work. She writes: “I was unable to cultivate a human heart.” (1945) This erosion of a rounded and rooted self after losing so much already – Silk’s anger turned to rage inside me, Silk who cuts off the past in order to find a new identity. I understood his self-excision, in that moment. The facts that engender.

Over lunch that week, my grandmother tells me, “We are all children of history. Children of our own histories, and therefore children of wider histories.” In the British Library newspaper room, I read The Jewish Chronicle for 1945, following children of history attempting to find new histories to belong to amongst the Anglo-Jewish communities of London, while looking out at the ruins of their wider world. I come across a review of the Autumn Exhibition at Ben Uri gallery, in which the critic remarks, “Several of the Landscapes, particularly B. Feigi’s ‘Derwentwater’ and Frida Salvandy’s ‘Beach at Penzance’ suffer from what I can only call ‘mistranslation’. Their treatment is far too heated – they are just not England.” (1945a) Just not England – I see Silk try to find his own England: try to belong while also inhabiting his own vision, both symbolically and literally, a blow to the head from an SS officer having damaged his eyesight so that the world is left drenched in blue. I see this through Silk’s eyes – see the Danube soaking his London streets, stalking him for the rest of his life.

A different kind of engendering emerges from site-based research. It is walking the vacant streets of Theresienstadt that helps me imagine the former ghetto and concentration camp through my character’s bodies– a kind of Stanislavski-esque act, a kind of possession. Theresienstadt is the last site I visit in research for the novel, which I have been writing by this point for five years. I get the bus to Theresienstadt, an hour’s drive from Prague through sad and empty fields.

I write in my notebook: “I have been to sites of mass graves in pursuit of this novel. I went to Samijste [a former camp outside of Belgrade], now corrugated houses and peeling buildings, but this is the first time I have been to a place like Theresienstadt. People back home repeatedly tell me, you know you don’t have to go, their worry filling my stomach with concrete, making my head hurt when I look this way or that. Because it compounds my own fear. I tell them I want to go out of respect, or to make sure my descriptions are accurate. I tell them I’ll go with my writer’s brain, as if I have two selves, and one can protect the other. None of that true. At first, I was planning to go because I felt that if I went to Prague, and didn’t go to Theresienstadt – well, there was no excuse. No get out. So it was shame. Or: putting myself in a position where I couldn’t get away from going. Where I couldn’t escape. And so: making myself do it. I realised why I have to go last night, looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. It’s because I’ve been afraid, ever since descending into the Void of the Jewish Museum. I’ve been afraid of touching this nerve of horror, this live wire lacing my central nervous system. Afraid of being dumped in the black. Afraid of going there. Afraid of what I’d find there. But I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I want to face it, and tell it, tell them, these people that would have destroyed my entire family, who tried to destroy us – to tell them something. You don’t get my fear anymore. I don’t know if that’s true – but I want to try. I want to be a person who stands up. Audre Lorde: Your silence will not protect you.”

So what truth did going to Theresienstadt give me that I couldn’t get from books, from witness testimonials? The fortress town could be beautiful. That is true. The lines of the Austro-Hungarian barracks and villas are symmetrical and vain. But they are ruins now, most of the buildings unoccupied, the empty houses – whose attics at one time housed six thousand people, the ghetto overflowing, if only it were allowed to break its banks – being slowly bought, one by one, and turned into museums. The whole town was the camp, and until you walk its streets it is hard to comprehend what this really means. Climbing the grassy earth walls of the fortification, I realise I have never stood anywhere like this. Monumental – abandoned. For a moment, birdsong drops away. The walls around me are silent. The sabotaged crematorium is smashed windows and locked doors. A chimney pokes through the weed-eaten roof. There was no birdsong in Theresienstadt, no chirrup of insects. Life kept away from the smell of death, and the starving people inside ate what did approach. I listen to the low rattle of distant cars, and the movement of trees, and, beyond that, silence.

Theresienstadt is almost unoccupied now. In its time as a ghetto and camp, over a hundred thousand people were squeezed into a town I walk across in thirty minutes. The force of life – the sheer amount of it. I know, standing there, that the silence of liberation, – as, slowly, people were moved on by the Soviets and the Red Cross – would have struck my character Zuzka most of all. The square, empty of propaganda football games, empty of subterfuge music and art, empty of the Danes with their black-market packages, empty of the people who had been being emptied for so long, would have haunted.

I know fear, too. Walking alongside the sidings terminus to Auschwitz, which prisoners dragged into the centre of Theresienstadt, I feel like I can’t breathe: that there is something in the air. I drop my pen, and can’t find it in the grass, or amongst the sap-cracked sleepers bleeding black. I tell myself sternly not to indulge in symbolism. Losing your pen by the railway tracks to Auschwitz doesn’t mean anything. But – the relief when I find it. My handwriting disintegrates as I cross the bridge to the Small Fortress where the SS tortured saboteurs. The cells face each other across an orange and dusty street, in the shadow of a sign: Arbeit Macht Frei. I tell myself: a pen is a shield. Against falling apart. In other words: writing is a shield. Next to me, an old man looks up at the sign too, his arms crossed over his heart: another kind of shield. There is birdsong. My body is slowing down, inside and out, telling me: get out.

These moments would find their way into Testament, not simply the descriptions, the colour of brick or the texture of cobbles, but the emotionally experiential. That is the truth of site-based research – not that I can experience, in my body, what the victims of Theresienstadt did, but that I can, standing in what has become a site, know my characters’ bodies. I can walk with them. I can find the truth of my fiction, beyond the facts that make it up – not surpassing facts, but supplementing them, an attempt at empathy, which is, after all, so much of what fiction has to offer: what it can engender.

It might surprise some that, as a novelist writing about the Holocaust, it is Virginia Woolf’s ideas that in many ways have become talismanic for me. Julia Briggs notes that much of the existing writing on Woolf pays more attention to her “social life” than her literary and ideological development (2006: x). Joanna Russ attributes this to the intense de-politicisation of Woolf at the hands of her male peers and male critics, giving Herbert Merder’s reading of Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as just one example. Merder observes that both novels include “vivid pictures of …domestic tyranny”, and yet claims they “do not converge on a central problem” – as Russ writes, “it is surely uncomfortable for a patriarch to see patriarchy as the central problem” (1983: 73). The essays collected in Virginia Woolf and War: Fiction, Reality, and Myth (Hussey et al. 1992) – the first volume to explore how war influenced Woolf’s writing – fight this. Hussey frames Virginia Woolf and War as part of a general “redressing of Woolf’s image and status”, in congruence with a growing understanding “of the wider movement of women’s liberation that has marked a Copernican revolution in epistemology and social practice” (2). In this redressing, Woolf, keenly aware of a writer’s relationship with society, is rightfully re-politicized and re-historicized – becoming once more a writer in history.

In “Woolf’s Keen Sensitivity to War” (1991), Nancy Toppin Bazin and Jane Hamovit Lauter illustrate the omnipresence of war and conflict throughout Woolf’s writing. The Woolfs were directly affected by World War Two and lived in the shadow of the Holocaust. In the British Library newspaper room, I halt the whirring microfilm on an article from 21 September 1945. The Jewish Chronicle has published the Gestapo “Blacklist”: the names of the people Hitler planned to have arrested and killed when he conquered England. I scan to the bottom, and there, neatly, is “L. Woolf”: Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, her “penniless Jew”, as she called him. Virginia Woolf was also on the Nazis’ lists (Bazin and Lauter 1991: 23).

When Woolf moved to Bloomsbury, she commissioned Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to decorate her house in the style of their Omega Workshop. As Spalding writes, the Woolfs’ willingness to let photographs of their home accompany a Vogue article entitled “Modern Interior Decoration” reflects Virginia Woolf’s understanding of this move as a break with the past: “Modern is what Virginia now wanted to be.” (2014: 116) But with modernity came militarised and mechanised death, in two world wars that bracket Woolf’s life. As bombs fell in 1940 and 1941, and Virginia “wandered in the desolate ruins of my old squares: gashed, dismantled … all that completeness ravished & demolished” (in Briggs, 2006: 396). Both knew what awaited them in the case of Nazi invasion. Chased out to Sussex, where they could hear the fighting in France, both Virginia and Leonard kept lethal doses of morphia (Bell 1972: 216). Leonard wrote: “here in 1939 were… ordinary intelligent people in England, coolly and prudently supplying themselves with means for committing suicide in order to avoid the tortures which almost certainly awaited them if the Germans ever got hold of them” (1969: 15).

Leonard felt the approach to World War Two was different to anything they had previously experienced: “[i]t was this feeling of hopelessness and helplessness, the foreknowledge of catastrophe with the forces of history completely out of control, which made the road downhill to war… so different in 1939” (Woolf, L. 1969: 11). This difference was charged by the Woolfs’ awareness of the Holocaust (first used in this sense in 1942, OED Online 2018). Leonard wrote his polemic against Nazism, Barbarians at the Gate, in 1939 in collaboration with the Left Book Club – who would later come under attack from anti-refugee and anti-Semitic protestors (1945b) – and Sir Victor Gollancz, publisher and prominent Anglo-Jewish thinker. As a lobbyist, Gollancz was deeply involved in the Anglo-Jewish community, serving on the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror (see Bolchover’s British Jewry and the Holocaust and Somplinsky’s Britain and the Holocaust). In 1933, the Board of Deputies and the Anglo-Jewish Association requested Dr Alfred Weiner – who had fled Nazi Germany – set up the Jewish Central Information Office, the first Holocaust archive. It is likely that the Woolfs knew of this archive and had an understanding of what it might contain, especially given their acquaintance with some of the earliest Jewish refugees to England, including the conductor Bruno Walter and the playwright Ernst Toller (in Briggs 2006: 315).

That both Leonard and Virginia began at this time to write essays in the form of describing news stories and photographs (Briggs 2006: 323) also reveals an archival influence. In Barbarians at the Gate, Leonard describes opening up his newspaper to “read of the wholesale torture, persecution, expropriation, imprisonment or liquidation of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, classified or labelled for destruction” (in Woolf, L. 1969: 12). In The Journey not the Arrival Matters, Leonard also remembers seeing photographs of “Jews … hunted down, beaten up and humiliated”. He describes these, and later photographs revealed after the war, as “horrible and haunting” (14).

This sense of a unique and haunting moment is also present in Virginia Woolf’s writing of the period. Virginia and Leonard’s earlier writings both betray the anti-Semitism common to their class and writing community – in Leonard’s case, also common to other assimilated Anglo-Jews, as shown in London and Bolsover. After driving through Germany in 1935 – all the while, as Woolf writes, “concealing Leonard’s nose” (in Briggs 2006: 313) – a different (though fluctuating) consciousness appears in their writing. In Virginia Woolf, this is particularly pronounced in Three Guineas, her polemic against Fascism and patriarchal militarism, in which she links the oppression of women with the oppression of Jews:

Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews… It is not a photograph that you look upon any longer; there you go, trapesing along in the procession yourself. The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing Street, against Jews or against women, in England, or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain is now apparent to you. (1993: 228) 

Woolf writes that in the days leading to the Second World War she has a “feeling … different from any before” (1984: 235). Her final novel, Between the Acts, was written in the shadow of the war and the Holocaust. Woolf envisions the novel as exploring “‘We’ … composed of many different things… we all life, all art, all waifs & strays– a rambling capricious but somehow unified whole – the present state of my mind?” (in Briggs 2006: 372). This sense of absence and wandering made physical – evoking the refugee experience – and the rambling speaking to a buried, unified whole, is present throughout Between the Acts. This is particularly marked, for me, in the elliptical dialogue:

And what about the Jews? The refugees … the Jews … People like ourselves, beginning life again … But it’s always been the same … My old mother, who’s over eighty, can remember … Yes, she still reads without glasses … How amazing! Well, don’t they say, after eighty … Now they’re coming … No, that’s nothing … I’d make it penal, leaving litter. (2000b: 109).

 

To me, the slide from crisis to mundanity reveals how crisis lingers just beneath the surface of the everyday, poured into the voids of the ellipsis, much like how Deborah Levy repeatedly uses “etc.” in Swimming Home to contain the death of the protagonist’s family in the Holocaust (2011). Etcetera means “[a]nd the rest, and so forth, and so on”, “indicating that the statement refers not only to the things enumerated, but to others which may be inferred from analogy” (OED Online 2018). The ellipses contain all the rest and so forth, too, all the unsaid, unspoken, and unspeakable, all that is engendered by the question: “And what about the Jews?”

Miss La Trobe, the playwright in Between the Acts who attempts to stage all of England’s history, feels the play is a failure because she cannot “shut out” “present time”. “Panic seized her”, Woolf writes: “Blood seemed to pour from her shoes. This is death, death, death, she noted in the margin of her mind; when illusion fails.” (2000b: 161) As an act of representation, art is in some ways illusion, both separate from the reality it attempts to represent, interrupt and interpret, and intertwined with it, so that when a puncture such as this occurs we are rudely reminded of our own textuality, of reality’s layers. For me, this moment in Between the Acts encapsulates what happens when my realities coincide, when illusion fails and I see what lies beneath, when I comprehend the facts that engender, and they come to haunt everyday life. When I cannot keep to present time. When I glance out of a train window and the tracks make me suddenly cold. When I step over a yellow leaf, trodden into the mud, and see, just briefly, the Yellow Stars worn by men and women on death marches, and captured in black-and-white home video I watch in archives – the exact yellow my own illusion – the stars looking so like innocent leaves strewn about and briefly settled on a woman’s chest. When I dream of blindfolds.

This perhaps all sounds rather melodramatic – it is hard to describe how very much one’s fictional reality becomes one’s reality outside of fiction, especially, I think, in regards to the research I have been carrying out. It is hard to describe the effect of writing about the Holocaust for so many years: writing death, reading death, dreaming death, imagining death, inheriting death. But, for me, Woolf understands the power of facts that engender, that take life, take root inside.

Briggs writes that “Woolf’s life, like that of Sylvia Plath, is too often read in terms of her death, as if that was the most interesting or significant thing that happened to her” (2006: 395). Woolf’s suicide is also often seen only in the light of her mental health issues. But between 1935 and 1941, when Woolf committed suicide, the satirist Tucholsky, the playwright Ernst Toller, the dramatist and poet Walter Hasenclever, the critic Walter Benjamin, the poet Stefan Zweig, and the philosopher Simone Weil, all killed themselves or died of self-neglect. As Briggs writes, “[f]or those who had set out to study or change society or culture, to think or to write, whatever they had believed in, worked for and celebrated seemed to have vanished: human ideas had been emptied, and abandoned” (ibid.: 398-9).

In January 2018, I attended a roundtable discussion on the relationship between creative writers and historians with Creative Histories at the University of Bristol. There, I became all the more struck by how historians are similarly alert to this waiting spark of life, to the facts that engender, in archival research. Continued dialogue between these forms might encourage, as Dr Catherine Fletcher identified during our discussion, a holistic and integrated view of individuals and their lives in history. Acknowledging the complex and shifting internal lives that fiction attempts to represent, could usefully also bring nuance to the familiar technique of drawing a line between individual and social norms in history. Lukács’ vision of realist historical fiction as offering representative individuals can give us a way to view the spectrum of War and Peace, and offer a narrative way in to history, but it also relies on notions of fixed identity. For me, Woolf’s century- and gender-spanning Orlando – the kind of writing Lukács railed against – is a more exciting example of what writing can do to push against the rigidity of accepted histories, as well as the shifting and complex nature of characters – and, by extension, our own complex natures. History can become flattened, identity constrained, especially in our national narratives. Writers – whether novelists or historians – can disrupt this by animating what has become settled or sedentary. As Dr Johnson has it: it can excite, rouse, awake. It can disturb. A prime example of this is Mantel’s Wolf Hall: Mantel transformed Thomas Cromwell in our national memory from zealot, to a hero of the people.

The role of narrative has been recognized in historiography for decades, and so I am aware that my observation that the creative writer and historian share a genealogy of fertile facts is not new. But in this time of “alternative facts”, in this time of science, art and humanities under siege, I believe it is worth remembering that we have the power to create life, and to change lives, living and dead, as well as to raise what lingers beneath the surface, to stop it becoming invisible. When we talk about how we stitch the remains together, how facts come alive for us, we are really talking about how we understand and interpret the world. How we discern and understand truths.

Zadie Smith, in her essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons” (2018: 18), imagines explaining to her future granddaughter that we in this young millennium had

just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simply wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes – and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.

I remember attending a writing workshop with the novelist, historian and biographer Professor Rebecca Stott, in which she explained postmodernism to me for the first time. I asked, naively, “But if we all know there’s no such thing as reality, why isn’t there mass panic in the streets?” I was thinking of Truman waking up to his own show. Rebecca smiled at me: “Because, a) most people don’t realise it, and b) it doesn’t change much.” On one level, getting out of bed in the morning is of course irrevocably altered by mistrust in the very understanding of beds and mornings; on another, there are still deadlines and school runs and daily news. The potent fact, the fact that engenders, reminds us: this might all be narrative, but there is little as powerful as that, and by calling battling frames of understanding alternative facts, we invite a world it would be lazy to label Orwellian. As historians and novelists, we have the facts that engender – the understanding that one small fact can gesture to larger histories and realities, and that our identities are neither narrow nor determined. Disturb. Excite. Awake.

 

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Mantel, H. (2017c) ‘The Iron Maiden’, BBC Reith Lectures. Available from: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2017/reith_2017_hilary_mantel_lecture2.pdf [Accessed 1 July 2018].

Michaels, A. (1997) Fugitive Pieces. London: Bloomsbury.

Monk, R. (2007) ‘This Fictitious Life: Virginia Woolf on Biography, Reality, and Character’. Philosophy and Literature, 31 (1), 1-40. Available from: https://muse.jhu.edu/ [Accessed 1 July 2018].

Morrison, T. (1997) Beloved. London: Chatto & Windus.

Ridley, J. (2002) The Architect and His Wife: A Life of Edward Lutyens. London: Chatto & Windus.

Russ, J. (1983) How to Suppress Women’s Writing. London: The Women’s Press.

Scott, W. (1998) Waverley. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Shelley, M. (2008) Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skeat, W. (1993) The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology. Ware: Wordsworth Editions.

Smith, Z. (2018) ‘Elegy for a Country’s Seasons’, in Feel Free. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Sompolinsky, M. (1999) Britain and the Holocaust: The Failure of Anglo-Jewish Leadership? Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Spalding, F. (2014) Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications.

Spencer, D. (1945), ‘Where is tomorrow?’, unpublished memoirs, Weiner Library.

Strachey, L. (1909) Review of The Greatness and Decline of Rome. The Spectator. 1909.

Wallace, D. (2005) The Women’s Historical Novel. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Weiner Library.

Waugh, P. (1984) Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. London: Routledge.

White, H. (1990) ‘Introduction to Metahistory’, in Walder, D. (ed.) Literature in the Modern World. Oxford: OUP.

Winchester, S. (2003) The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wodehouse, P.G. (1961) Performing Flea. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Woolf, L. (1969) The Journey not the Arrival Matters: An autobiography of the years 1939-1969. London: Hogarth Press.

Woolf, V. (1925) ‘Jane Austen’, in The Common Reader 1. London: Hogarth Press.

Woolf, V. (1957) A Room of One’s Own. New York, NY: Harbinger.

Woolf, V. (1969) ‘Mrs Thrale’, in Collected Essays Volume III. London: Chatto and Windus.

Woolf, V. (1984) The Diary of Virginia Woolf 5. London: Hogarth Press.

Woolf, V. (2000a) Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin.

Woolf, V. (2000b) Between the Acts. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Woolf, V. Moments of Being (ed. H. Lee). London: Pimlico.

Woolf, V. (2008) Orlando: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Woolf, V. (2009) Selected Essays (ed. D. Bradshaw). Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

 

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Morrison, T. (1997) Beloved. London: Chatto & Windus.

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Sompolinsky, M. (1999) Britain and the Holocaust: The Failure of Anglo-Jewish Leadership? Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Spalding, F. (2014) Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications.

Spencer, D. (1945), ‘Where is tomorrow?’, unpublished memoirs, Weiner Library.

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Waugh, P. (1984) Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. London: Routledge.

White, H. (1990) ‘Introduction to Metahistory’, in Walder, D. (ed.) Literature in the Modern World. Oxford: OUP.

Winchester, S. (2003) The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wodehouse, P.G. (1961) Performing Flea. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Woolf, L. (1969) The Journey not the Arrival Matters: An autobiography of the years 1939-1969. London: Hogarth Press.

Woolf, V. (1925) ‘Jane Austen’, in The Common Reader 1. London: Hogarth Press.

Woolf, V. (1957) A Room of One’s Own. New York, NY: Harbinger.

Woolf, V. (1969) Collected Essays Volumes I-III. London: Chatto and Windus.

Woolf, V. (1984) The Diary of Virginia Woolf 5. London: Hogarth Press.

Woolf, V. (2000a) Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin.

Woolf, V. (2000b) Between the Acts. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Woolf, V. Moments of Being (ed. H. Lee). London: Pimlico.

Woolf, V. (2008) Orlando: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Woolf, V. (2009) Selected Essays (ed. D. Bradshaw). Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

 

Kim Sherwood was born in Camden in 1989 and lives in Bath. She studied Creative Writing at UEA, is now Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England, and teaches creative writing in prisons. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Mslexia, Lighthouse, Going Down Swinging, Hotel, The Letters Page, and elsewhere. Kim began researching and writing Testament, her first novel, after her grandfather, the actor George Baker, passed away, and her grandmother began to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust Survivor for the first time. Testament won the 2016 Bath Novel Award, and was published in July 2018 as the lead literary debut for Quercus, and Hachette international. Her second novel will explore the literary, maritime and landscape history of Devon. She has presented at conferences and symposiums, including “The Nonesuch? Georgette Heyer and Her Contemporaries” at the University of London, and “Creative Histories” at the University of Bristol.

 

 

 

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