The borderline between fact and fiction becomes ever hazier, I find. Last February, Daisy Goodwin — the author of the brilliant new Victoria drama on ITV — took me to an aircraft hangar near Leeds. Cold fog hugged the tarmac and grass outside. We stepped over cables and squeezed past screens. A ringletted woman in a severe dress of the 1830s passed us and said, ‘Guten Morgen!’ As we spoke, our breath made clouds in the freezing Yorkshire air. Wasn’t that the Baroness Lehzen, Queen Victoria’s governess, whom we just passed? A moment later, as the dream continued, we saw the Queen’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, another German lady. Pushing aside some flaps, we found ourselves in a corridor of Buckingham Palace, ablaze with candles, and I was introduced to Prince Albert and his brother Ernst, over on a visit to woo our young monarch, the enchanting Jenna Coleman. I was astounded by the recreation of an illusory Buckingham Palace in that hangar by Michael Howells, the production designer.
Queen Victoria and her entourage have been dancing inside my head for years — ever since, as a child, I read Laurence Housman’s short plays, Happy and Glorious, with their illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Later, when a boy at Rugby School, I read the book which made me realise that I, too, wanted to become a writer, Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. In the fullness of time, I wrote a biography of Victoria myself. Daisy Goodwin and Mammoth productions have used my work as a source, and I have been acting as historical adviser to the series.
Malcolm Muggeridge’s joke about the evidence given at Stalinist show-trials — everything is true except the facts — has a universal application. Watching Daisy at work made me realise there are moments when, in order to tell a truth, it is necessary to alter a fact.
The most obvious example of this has been the inclusion of Sir John Conroy, the Duchess of Kent’s villainous companion. In real life, this crazy and unpleasant man was banished as soon as Victoria ascended the throne. But you could not have a drama about the young Victoria which did not include her complicated relationship with her mother, and Victoria’s detestation of Conroy. Had Shakespeare been writing this story, he would have seen that Conroy was a villain too good to lose, and he would have done as Daisy did — postdated the troubles which in fact took place before the accession, when Victoria was in her teens.
Fictionalising ‘real life’, though, is a natural thing to do, not only for novelists. Indeed, what we call English ‘history’ began in the age of the novel, the 18th century. This week, I publish a novel called Resolution about George Forster, the boy who sailed with Captain Cook on their heroic voyage in search of Antarctica. You can see the 17-year-old’s exquisite drawings of fish, birds and plants, made on that voyage, in the British Museum, to which he donated them. People ask why I wrote George’s story as a novel. What’s wrong with reality? He did have a truly remarkable life, as a bestselling author in his early twenties — James Boswell was a great fan, Dr Johnson not — then a career as an academic in Germany. Finally, his life as a revolutionary, when the forces of General Custine invaded Mainz (where George worked as university librarian), and George became a député in the Assemblée nationale in Paris. I suppose the reason I fictionalised his story was that he had been doing so himself even as he lived it. His wife, Therese, who deserted him for their boring lodger, wrote novels about the voyager under her second married name, Therese Huber. Hers, indeed, is the first ever novel set in Australia.
Some people — the Forsters were good examples — simply inhabit a borderline between fact and fiction. Brendan King’s biography of my friend Beryl Bainbridge has received blanket coverage. Brendan knew Beryl extremely well and worked as her secretary in her latter years. He brings out the fact that she was incapable of having experiences without shaping or changing them into some sort of fiction. Very few of her friends, for example, retained their own names in her company. I was always ‘Anselm’ for some reason. What the book reveals, paradoxically, is that many of the things in her narratives which Beryl’s friends — certainly I — always regarded as pure fantasy turn out to have been true. Central to this is the peculiar relationship she had with Alice Thomas Ellis, who was her editor and (twice — this is what makes the story so novelistic) rival in love. I first met Beryl at a Spectator lunch. I’d asked my friend Caroline Blackwood, and she brought (uninvited) Beryl and Alice Thomas Ellis. The three arrived, well-oiled, half an hour late, flicked ash over uneaten food, and we all parted somewhere around 11 o’clock that evening, Beryl hotly claiming that my name was really Anselm and that I owed her alimony.