What responsibility has an author of historical fiction towards real people who they write as antiheroes in a novel? Should authors feel guilty about how they portray them? AJ West, whose debut novel, The Spirit Engineer, takes people who have living descendants as its close inspiration, considers this dilemma.
I don’t believe in ghosts, though I would love to see one. I suppose this cocktail of scepticism and fascination with the paranormal sets me up nicely as the author of The Spirit Engineer; a story based on the life of William Jackson Crawford and his psychic muse, the young Kathleen Goligher. It sets me up, but it also poses a troublesome question.
If I don’t believe that William, Kathleen and the remaining cast of my novel are looking down on me as I write – and I surely don’t – then why am I niggled by this sense of unease about portraying them as a cast of questionable characters? And questionable is putting it lightly.
My narrator is a deeply flawed man, intended to make the reader question his motives and morals; while others are variously dishonest, vindictive, parsimonious and simpering.
What is it, this prickling at the back of my neck, if not the scandalised spirit forms haunting me with their displeasure? My conscience I suppose, regardless of how accurate my portrayal may be, and my journalistic loyalty to the truth? A sense of honour to the deceased, bred into us all by our chiding parents who warn us never to speak ill of the dead.
I wonder, do all historical novelists feel a moral responsibility to their characters, or am I alone in worrying about the feelings and reputations of people long-since departed?
There’s little doubt that William Jackson Crawford was a troubled soul, but after a century passed, it’s less clear to me whether he was a kind yet gullible fool, a manipulative liar or – as some feminist scholars have suggested – a fanatical sexual deviant. Perhaps all three… perhaps none. I feel one thing is for sure; if he were alive today, he would surely be horrified by any of these characterisations, and by the hostility shown to him by readers who – I’m pleased to say – seem as fascinated by his descent into ghoulishness as they are disgusted.
Likewise, I am certain Kathleen was a proven hoodwinker, having been caught by another spiritualist investigator lifting furniture with her feet and spiriting twine through her clothes. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to say whether she was a brazen con artist, an involuntary ingénue forced into a family ritual, or a sincere believer with a talent for the dramatic.
Again, having spoken with her family, it seems clear to me that she was a kind mother and grandmother who leaves behind her a legacy of generosity and warmth. I may not be hurting the individuals concerned with my portrayal of their somewhat eccentric and grubby story, but is that enough to reassure the conscientious historical fiction author?
Perhaps it’s an easier balancing act for novelists writing about far-distant medieval queens or Roman emperors. It’s something I ought to ask my new author friends Frances Quinn, Liz Fremantle, Neil Blackmore or Annie Garthwaite. How do they feel about the characters they’ve portrayed, good and evil, venerable or dishonourable? After all, the source material is often relatively scant compared to more recent periods in history and historical figures are already dressed up in so much myth, legend and propaganda, it would be difficult to accuse authors of being unfaithful to sparse fact.
Empress Matilda’s admirers might take exception if I depicted her as an obnoxious, aloof autocrat for instance, yet that is, to my amateur historian’s eye, precisely how she was portrayed in contemporary – and yes of course, chauvinistic – accounts. Still, why shouldn’t the writer feel guilty for having her march about Nottingham Castle barking unreasonable orders at cowed courtiers? Equally, if I were to write a damning portrayal of the apparently very personable Leonardo da Vinci, should I feel remorseful or contrite? They existed so long ago that it’s easier, I think, to excuse a disparaging creative license, though I don’t doubt the author would cop a pretty harsh slapping from Empress Matilda and da Vinci fan forums.
I feel I should mention here that I didn’t set out to cast any of my characters in a particularly negative light. Rather, I came to understand William and Kathleen as people through more than two years of research, studying their lives and trying to see their world through their eyes: the patriarchal pressures on men to deform themselves into approximations of impossible manhood; the complete lack of agency for young, working-class women of talent and ingenuity.
It also posed a question which required a certain ugliness of character across the cast: who is abusing whom? Is it the privileged, middle-class man investigating a vulnerable teenaged girl? Or is it the guileful young woman and her family taking advantage of a mentally fragile and credulous man? I would suggest both; but to me, the question is more interesting than the answer but I think the question is a disquieting one, hardly designed to please anyone who cares a jot for their reputation beyond the grave.
Far from being scant on research materials, my characters exist in a relative wealth of letters, photographs, death certificates, contemporary accounts, self-authored books, employment records and, most onerously of all for the contemporary author, living memory. Kathleen’s beloved granddaughter has helped me with my research, as have the descendants of William Jackson Crawford. They are still alive to us in an immediate, documented reality, and that has heightened my feelings of responsibility towards them. It has been a constant pressure, trying to write a gripping plot, whilst simultaneously doing justice to people who feel present with me in the room.
In the end, my good conscience has sought reassurance from those relatives. Thankfully, William’s descendants have already confirmed that he was already considered a strange and troubled soul with a questionable legacy and Kathleen herself was apparently keen to hide her spiritualist past from her young family, packing her various spirit photographs and trinkets into a box which she deposited at the bottom of her wardrobe.
Both families have told me they understand that I’m a novelist not a biographer and my story will add new interest to an already beguiling story. The young Kathleen would, I suspect, be pleased to know her story has not been forgotten. I hope she would also be pleased that an author, writing many years after her death, has tried his best to give her true agency in a story about the strange and obsessive Dr Crawford.
He, in turn, might find pleasure in knowing that he lives through my book as a highly discomforting character, particularly to modern sensibilities, but I also see him as a sincere, earnest, vulnerable man, whose work will now be considered by a new audience.
“My psychic work was all done before the collapse, and is the most perfect work I have done in my life. Everything connected with it is absolutely correct, and will bear every scrutiny. It was done when my brain was working perfectly, and it could not be responsible for what has occurred.” He continued: “I wish to reaffirm my belief that the grave does not finish all.”
William, if you were indeed correct in your research, then I assume you’re watching me as I type. I hope you accept my sincere regret as a novelist that I will never be able to show my readers who you truly were. Kathleen too. I offer my gratitude for allowing me to tell your story in my own way. Your ‘perfect’ work will certainly bear fresh scrutiny, as will my novel, and in that, we are forever linked.
Read more about The Spirit Engineer.
You may also enjoy Essie Fox’s feature The Victorian theatrical world of mystery and illusion, which touches on conjuring spirits on stage, and Historia’s interview with 2020 Crown Awards shortlisted author Anita Frank, in which she discusses the rise of spiritualism after the First World War.
- Photograph of Kathleen Goligher from The Reality of Psychic Phenomena by William Jackson Crawford (John M Watkins, 1916): Wikimedia
- Photograph of William Jackson Crawford: supplied by the author
- Kathleen Goligher lifting a table: supplied by the author
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- Photograph showing the fake ectoplasm of Kathleen Goligher from The Psychic Structures at the Goligher Circle by William Jackson Crawford (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1921): Wikimedia