‘Double Vision’ is my private term for the point at which research and imagination merge in writing historical fiction. Perhaps because I’m a very urban person, landscapes don’t usually do this for me: the countryside is more timeless. When I am walking around a city I know well and thinking about a novel I’m writing, or want to write, there is sometimes an exciting moment when reality quivers and solid buildings appear to dissolve for a few seconds to allow me to glimpse the past.
For example, I recently spent two years as an RLF Fellow at the Courtauld Institute, based in the garrets of Somerset House. While I was there I planned my next novel, which will be set in eighteenth-century Rome and London and will be about the art world. Just on the other side of the wall from where I was sitting, the Royal Academy was housed from 1780 until 1837, when it moved to the east wing of the National Gallery. The artists I want to write about took part in the first Summer Exhibitions in the rooms that now house the Courtauld Gallery. The staircase you walk up to reach the wonderful paintings in the Courtauld collection is the same one that appears in the Thomas Rowlandson caricature, ‘The Exhibition Stare Case, Somerset House’ (about 1811). The dreadful pun in the title is of course based on the idea that fashionable men in Georgian London were less interested in looking at art than at ogling the women who fell down the awkward spiral stairs which lead to the Great Room where the Summer Exhibition was held.
These were some of the facts that intrigued me but there were also moments when the building felt more mysterious. In the early morning, for instance, when I entered the building from the deserted terrace, it was possible to imagine the river crowded with sailing ships, from the days before the embankment was built, when Somerset House was directly on the river; or on a winter evening, when I stepped out into the vast dark courtyard and seemed to see it lit by flares and haunted by shadowy people; and again, when I was alone in my tiny room with a stone sphinx outside my window, it was easy to feel close to that earlier world.
In the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, near where I lived in my twenties, those same eighteenth-century artists discovered Italian light and colour and hired their models. When I returned to Rome a few years ago, knowing that I wanted to write about it, I looked at the city in a different way. In the eighteenth century, before the Roman ruins were fully excavated and tidied up, they were crumbling and wildly overgrown with flowers and ivy. The Forum was known as the campo vaccino – field of cows – where animals grazed, there was a weekly cattle market and people built huts out of ancient rubble, as can be seen in a 1772 etching by Piranesi and in works by the French artist Hubert Robert (1733-1808). The denizens who populate Robert’s scenes vary, but they are primarily commoners doing common tasks (hanging laundry from an equestrian Marcus Aurelius statue; leading the family cow over Rome’s Ponte Salario bridge).
Inside the Colosseum, the banker Thomas Jenkins ran a factory producing ‘antiques’ to sell to unsuspecting Grand Tourists: ‘Jenkins […] followed the trade of supplying the foreign visitors with intaglios and cameos made by his own people, that he kept in a part of the ruins of the Coliseum [sic], fitted up for ’em to work in slyly by themselves […]. Bless your heart! he sold ’em as fast as they made ’em.’
In Frances Towne’s watercolour of 1780, you can see the rotting walls of the Colosseum.
As I learned more about Rome’s past – the recent past, really, in such an ancient city – it was possible to superimpose the eighteenth century onto the twenty-first.
Similarly, the building that is now the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth once housed Bedlam, or the Royal Bethlem Hospital, where some of the real and imagined characters in my Bedlam Trilogy were incarcerated in the nineteenth century. With the help of a plan, it was possible to mentally reconstruct the older, much bigger building that housed the hospital. I got to know the wards and the little house just inside the portico where Dr Hood, the resident medical superintendent from 1852–62, lived with his family. At the back of the hospital there was a separate block, the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum, built and controlled by the Home Office. The gifted painter and parricide Richard Dadd, who appears in two of my novels, was imprisoned there in horrible conditions. There was a tunnel leading from the main hospital to the darker, grimmer Home Office building. This tunnel to the underworld caught my imagination and appears in all three novels. Standing outside the Imperial War Museum one evening, I looked up at a window and thought I saw – or wanted to see? – a pale desperate face staring down at me.
Such moments only happen in solitude and in the lyrically deceptive light of early morning or evening. Although they begin with facts they are closer to poetry than to prose and remind me of a poem I learned as a child, ‘The Listeners’ by Walter de la Mare:
No head from the leaf-fringed sill Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes, Where he stood perplexed and still. But only a host of phantom listeners [...]
For me, however, this double vision is not melancholy or frightening but helpful. I am fortunate that London and Rome, the two cities I know and love best, have not changed beyond recognition in the last two centuries. I once knew an old man who had grown up in the centre of Manchester. He couldn’t return there without weeping because all the landmarks of his youth had been torn down and he got lost in his own city. How much harder it would be to imagine a city that has been destroyed by war or brutal planning. W.G. Sebald, in Austerlitz, writes movingly via the eponymous character about these confusing moments:
I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead.
Double vision, or diplopia, is also a medical term, when you see two images of a single object either some or all of the time. I have experienced this too, after an operation for a detached retina, and it may be that my peculiar eyesight predisposes me to see the world in curious ways.
Of course a film can communicate in seconds what writers need paragraphs to describe and as a novelist I often feel I’m competing with film in a race that was lost decades ago. Two of my favourite films, which brilliantly dissolve time, are Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Cocteau’s Orphée (1950). The Russian film is an adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s philosophical 1961 science-fiction novel which explores the idea that a man who travels to a space station in an outlying star system becomes haunted by memories of his dead wife who appears to him exactly as she was, as a three-dimensional ghost. Cocteau’s Orphée is a beat poet in postwar Paris, played by the staggeringly handsome Jean Marais, who walks through a mirror to search for his Eurydice in the underworld. Old photographs can also invoke past lives with mysterious power; old family photographs sometimes do this but I particularly love the unknown anonymous faces that stare out of sepia images of buildings that were demolished long ago.
It is these moments, when I feel a strong connection with physical places, that make it possible to write about that past. Writing historical fiction is a strange mixture of precise research and nebulous imagination. For me, the writing process is most enjoyable when the two coincide.
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