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The Historical Hunch

Credibility and conjecture in writing about the past

Historical hunch

A radio producer abridging a book once rebuked me for over-tentative writing about a cast of characters. Rebuked is not quite the right word, but sure enough, the text was peppered with ‘perhaps’, ‘possibly’ and ‘may have’ in order, as I saw it, to distinguish fact from inference. Ever since, when reading my chapters aloud for sound as well as substance, I have been vigilant to curb this tendency, which suggests only doubt in the reader’s mind. At the same time I have resolved never ever to write that someone ‘would have’ done or felt something, let alone that something ‘must have’ happened. Really no one can know.

Yet in writing about past events, even those that oneself experienced, not every detail can be known. As with a jigsaw missing a great many pieces, one makes a coherent script from fragments that hold together only when interpreted. ‘Possibly’ and ‘maybe’ are often essential. So too are hunches — those intuitions about events that leave a historical trace more shadowy than ripples but that still indicate something below the surface, and are still somehow apprehended by the biographer or historian.

I’ve recently been writing about the Victorian artist Marie Spartali Stillman, who I believe served as a role model for Vanessa Stephen Bell, and whose step-daughter Lisa I want to claim as the inspiration for the character Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The claim that she was an artistic role model can be postulated without documentary proof, but a literary means is required to persuade the reader that this is reasonable, even probable speculation.

Lay out the jigsaw pieces and see which interlock. The families were acquainted, Marie’s husband and Vanessa’s father being friends, and their mothers both having been sitters to the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Though resident for much of the time in Italy, Marie exhibited annually in London throughout the years of Vanessa’s youth. Did she also support Vanessa’s career choice in her student years, when social pressures to treat art as a pastime were strongest? Vanessa records only discouragement from her male tutors.

The negative evidence – or absence of evidence – is considerable, however. Despite the large Stephen/Bell archive, no mention of Marie’s art exists there, nor indeed of any female forerunners, unless a half-joking admiration for Cameron’s work be admitted. Vanessa’s art vigorously rejected the modes and exhibition spaces favoured by Marie. Nothing definite links the two painters; the jigsaw narratives do not fit. Yet I sense an invisible, submerged link. Which can only be registered in this indirect manner and may well lead readers to protest ‘where’s the evidence?’ and reject the conjecture. If there are no firmer facts, how can the idea be conveyed?

Maybe the real role model was Lisa Stillman, Marie Spartali’s step-daughter, who was roughly the same generation as Vanessa and seems to have acted as an unofficial tutor — or at least companion in drawing and sketching sessions. She spent weeks with the Stephen family at St Ives in 1892, when Vanessa was thirteen and Virginia was ten. Lisa was there as a friend of the family, but also to produce a portrait of the girls’ step-sister Stella. Hence, I infer, Lisa was the inspiration for the artist Lily Briscoe — who is painting Mrs Ramsay’s portrait in To the Lighthouse, the novel that evokes that summer, and also articulates a key theme, that of becoming a professional woman artist or writer. One link – quite fanciful, I confess, yet suggestive – runs through the names: Lisa versus Lily. ‘Still’ versus ‘Brisk’ (or Briscoe).

That’s inadmissible evidence, of course. So the challenge is how to make it persuasive, even compelling, for the reader. One strategy is to lay the pieces alongside each other, to imply a connection. Then gently echo until the underlying correspondence becomes obligatory, if still unproven. The skill is in the structure, the clauses, the textual tone, so that the author’s prose is trustworthy in itself. Another technique is upfront transparency, setting out the hypothesis plainly and marshalling the evidence for and against, or rather in reverse order, against and for, so that the positive outweighs or at least outlasts the negative. Textual tone matters here too, for claims and assertions often provoke readerly resistance, as in an argument, whereas the goal is at least tolerance, if not full acquiescence.

A third device, which I have sometimes used, is to remain rhetorically almost silent in regard to the hunch, but drop quiet hints, about other aspects, missing elements, another story, which are eventually gathered together, like the subsidiary boat or building in a puzzle, which now fit the larger picture and with luck will appear obvious, inevitable. This mode avoids over-determination, but has pitfalls: until the revelation, the writer is essentially telling a false narrative. Moreover, readers may simply reject the inference — it’s just a hunch, no evidence there.

In fact, all biographical or historical prose is fiction in disguise. All the formal citations and footnotes are part of the camouflage, a patterned cover for storytelling, a defensive wall against the reader’s indifference. Listen, they say, this tale may not be compelling, but it is true. It really happened, and this is how it happened. (And by implication, actual events are more interesting, more significant, than invented ones.) Historians and biographers – and autobiographers – craft their facts into stories in line with their interpretations, their inferences, their insights and their literary choices. They may not have an axe to grind but they have verbal tools with which to shape, carve, decorate the material. Part of the toolkit is the credible conjecture, or plausible hunch. What if this is how it happened? Imagine the sequence that led to this event. Z is surely explained by an encounter between X and Y.

Indeed, this writerly understanding – intuition if you will – about how things happen is a major pleasure of factual composition. The materials are there, the tools are to hand, the task is to discover what forms they wish to take. At its best, such writing feels simply enabling, assisting the narratives to tell their own story, following their lead, revealing their causes and effects. Much satisfaction comes from composing such prose and awaiting the outcome.

Evidence, in the form of documents, first-hand testimony, archive items and the like are the clay – or granite, in Virginia Woolf’s formulation – or perhaps the straight edges and jigsaw corners that anchor the composition to manageable shape, filled in with interpretation, or guesswork, where evidence is lacking, as when a damaged painting is ‘restored’. Pure guesswork, or hunch, also has its place, if it is illuminating. The process of writing accommodates all elements.

Jan Marsh is a biographer and curator who has written extensively on the Pre-Raphaelite circle.

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