Michael Dean's I, Hogarth, a biographical novel about the inventor of "moral" storytelling, is both pleasurable and historically informative--not an easy combination to pull off. Dean shared his secrets for composing historical novels.
People think there is a lot of information publicly known about William Hogarth, the eighteenth-century English painter, and compared to say, Rembrandt, who I wrote about in my previous novel, THORN, there is. When I was researching I, Hogarth, I found plenty about his life and his best-known paintings, The Rake’s Progress and The Harlot’s Progress, narrative sequences which were forerunners of the strip cartoon.
But that’s history. And history follows the paper. It tells part of the story of a person’s life, mainly the public part, based on what is provable by the paper left behind. It is incomplete and partial, always from the point of view of the person who wrote the document. Historical novelists tell an emotional truth. They do this by selecting from, adapting or adding to the known facts in any way. In so doing, they create an account of the people and events of the past which moves readers to re-live them in their own minds.
For this mind-to-mind process to work, all the action has to be mediated through character. An account of the facts is not moving or vivid to read because it is depersonalised. So choose only action which illuminates the characters you, the writer, have created.
For example, towards the end of Hogarth’s life there were some derisively satirical attacks on one of his paintings, Sigismunda. As a writer, what fascinated me was that Hogarth had used his beloved wife, Jane, as a model for Sigismunda. And one of the attacks mocked Jane – they said he had painted Jane in sexual ecstasy, coming. This was the angle for my novel. The personal story. I invented incidents round it – an unplanned visit to the author of the attack sees Hogarth thrown out by his footmen. I imagined Hogarth’s anguish and described it, so hopefully the reader feels it, too.
Counter examples of what I did not include are legion. Hogarth’s theories on art history were out because they are not dramatic. More complex was the excision of two fascinating episodes, Hogarth’s father opening a café where everybody had to speak Latin and Hogarth’s probable affair with one of his sitters, Mary Edwards. Both were cut at the editing stage (by me, not the editors) because they bent the narrative arc.
The narrative arc is the even curve of the story. It’s always important, but to me it was vital because I, Hogarth tells Hogarth’s life from birth-bed to death-bed and the curve must be perfect or the reader will perceive the lack of balance. Of all the terminology novel-writing has attracted, “narrative arc”, in my view, is the one to hang onto. (The much-quoted “show don’t tell” seems pretty meaningless to me. You can show or tell, just do it vividly and movingly.)
But my selection and use of the facts of Hogarth’s life is literally only half the story, because I always add an element completely extraneous to the facts. In I, Hogarth I blended Hogarth’s life with his art into one narrative. So some of what happens to Hogarth in the novel didn’t happen to Hogarth in his life, it happened in his pictures, in Rake, in Harlot.
There are “quotations” from Hogarth’s pictures and etchings throughout the novel. Will the reader spot the “quotations?” Probably not. Hopefully not! The relationship between writer and reader, mediated by the text, is a subliminal one which – I’m pleased to say – remains a mystery. I immersed myself in Hogarth’s work and in his time and let the etchings and paintings emerge onto the text. I believe that the reading experience will be enriched by them, also subliminally.
I’ve used this technique of “quoting” from paintings before, in my first novel, The Crooked Cross, in which the German resistors to Hitler’s rise were identified with German Expressionist painting. I do it because I love art and it is part of the subconscious being and emotional truth I offer up to a reader when I write a novel.If I was musical (which I am not) I would maybe find a way to use music in the same way. Take what is deepest in you and offer it up, but don’t think about it too much while you are doing it.
For me, novels are the happy union of content, form and style. I’ve talked about content and mentioned form (that’s birth-bed to death-bed, a linear structure). Here’s a thought on style: I try not to have my own style in my novels. I want to mediate style, as well as content, though the characters. So it is My Hogarth speaking to the reader: his exuberance, his bounce, in the language.
I believe there are only two stages to writing a historical novel. The research and the writing are actually one stage because while you are reading you release the subconscious creative processes – in other words you don’t read, as such; you sift, shape and create. I bought books on Hogarth and his time, many of them. Then I skim-read them with the novel simultaneously shaping. Having the books still to hand while I was writing was useful, too, for instant reference.
The second stage to writing a novel is editing. This is radically different because here you use your conscious mind, your judgement and your ruthlessness - I have already given two examples of children slaughtered in this Herod of a process.
And the other reason the second stage is so different is, of course, that somebody else is involved – the editor. I, Hogarth was originally over a third too long. And I hadn’t taken my own advice about the narrative arc – as I have confessed! You should use what an editor says as a spur to your own judgement. Treat editors as (valued) colleagues and interact with them on the manuscript as if you’ve never seen it before.
Then you have a novel.
MICHAEL DEAN is an English novelist. His previous novels are The Crooked Cross, about German resistance to Hitler and German Expressionist art; Hirschfeld’s Friends about the Amsterdam ghetto uprising in 1941; Magic City, a comic Bildungsroman set in Germany in 1971; and Thorn, a comedy about Spinoza and Rembrandt.
I, Hogarth is out now from Overlook in the USA and Duckworth in the UK.