This is the third of Historia’s interviews with writers shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Crown awards. Matthew Plampin is the author of Mrs Whistler, which is shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown. It tells the story of Maud Franklin, model, muse and madame of James McNeill Whistler and would-be artist in her own right.
How did the idea of Mrs Whistler come about?
I was getting started on what I thought was going to be a much more Whistler-focused novel, covering the period between 1876 and 1880, when he went from being an artist on the rise to a homeless bankrupt, forced to flee London for Venice.
Early on in my research, I read the first biography of Whistler, which was written by Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell not long after the artist’s death in 1903. The Pennells had made a point of tracking down all of Whistler’s friends and collaborators who were still alive, in order to write the most comprehensive and immediate account that they could.
I knew already that Maud Franklin was going to be an important character in my novel. She’d been Whistler’s madame throughout the period I was planning to write about: living under his roof, posing for countless pictures and bearing him two daughters, both of whom were put immediately into foster care.
The Pennells approached Maud for an interview, travelling to her home in the South of France (she’d parted ways with Whistler many years before) – but she refused even to come to the door, sending them a brief note explaining that she did not like to talk about the past. Her presence in that first biography – and in all the many Whistler biographies written since – is accordingly slight. “Maud could tell the whole story,” the Pennells observed icily, “but she will not.”
Reading this, the emphasis of the novel began to shift in my mind. There seemed to be a far more interesting and profound story to be told about someone who had chosen to be forgotten – about a young woman who has become little more than a footnote in the history of an older, famous man. Maud moved to the forefront, and Mrs Whistler was begun.
Whistler’s life is well documented, while Maud Franklin’s is almost unrecorded. Did this make your research a pleasure or a chore?
An enormous pleasure. I love the research stage and always end up with far more material than I can use. Only about a third of what I discovered for Mrs Whistler actually made it in.
There was some detective work involved in this book as well. It became clear while I was combing through Whistler’s voluminous correspondence that there were unanswered questions hanging over this period of his life. Something was going on – a plot of sorts – that had escaped the historical record.
And this of course is the real joy of writing historical fiction. Having discovered what is known, what can be factually established, you can set about supplying the absences, deepening the sense of character, knitting it together – and hopefully making it all come to life.
Did your research for Mrs Whistler turn up anything unexpected?
Whistler’s correspondence, along with the collection of bills and bankruptcy papers it includes, was an astonishing discovery for me, and absolutely invaluable to the development of the book. These papers are packed with intriguing details about Whistler’s professional vicissitudes, his hectic social life, and his everyday expenditures – how much he spent on shoes, say, or portrait photographs, or cheese (rather more than you might expect, in all three cases).
His personality is preserved in the many hundreds of letters with almost disturbing vividness – the strut and the swagger, the sentimental kindness and the petty, egotistical spite, the supreme arrogance and the aching insecurity.
And there was a flipside. In all the innumerable pages of banter, gossip, grandstanding and recrimination, Maud Franklin is mentioned on only a handful of occasions, and usually in passing. By the standards of his time, Whistler was actually quite progressive – he was a prominent supporter of women artists, for example – but Maud barely features in his letters at all. Although a constant presence in his household, in every other area of his life she was next to invisible.
Were you conscious of any modern-day parallels when writing the book?
I’d like to think that many of the book’s themes still resonate today. It explores a number of universal questions about artists and money. How is the value of their work determined? Who decides on their right to call themselves artists at all? Should they compromise their vision to meet the demands and expectations of their market?
And at its heart, the story concerns a woman living in the shadow of a man, her own ambitions and wishes subjugated entirely to his, with everything about her seen as secondary. Much may have changed since the 1870s in terms of gender inequality, but much remains depressingly the same.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
There’s already a lot of good advice out there about persistence, industriousness, passion, managing expectations et cetera, so I’ll go with Muriel Spark’s top tip: if you possibly can, get a cat. Something about a cat sleeping in the room while you write has an amazingly calming effect and really focuses your thoughts. Also, let’s face it, writing is a lonely business. A cat can help with that.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
This is a fascinating question. Obviously, fiction is a completely different discipline to history; in the end, a novel is responsible only to itself and its readers. If it is involving and convincing, then everything else can be forgiven.
However, a good historical novel can create a truly immersive account of the past. It can make credible attempts to fill in gaps in the historical record; flesh out well-known figures, adding depth and complexity; give a voice and an identity to the unrecorded. And histories are themselves constructions, in which facts and opinions have been formed into a narrative, often to suit a particular agenda. They cannot claim to be unvarnished, objective truth. I’d certainly trust Hilary Mantel at least as much as David Starkey.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
After five novels set in the long nineteenth century, I’ve gone back two hundred years to the mid seventeenth. A vague idea connected to the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez has led me to a story that I was unable to resist. It’s a very different experience, from the whole approach to research to the basics of characterisation. I’m finding it an inspiring change.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Bold art, bad decisions, heartbreak.
Photo of Matthew Plampin: supplied by author
Detail from Whistler’s Arrangement in White and Black; model: Maud Franklin: via the Smithsonian Institution
Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter by Whistler: via Wikimedia
The Peacock Room by Whistler: Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries photostream on Flickr