Priya Parmar is a former freelance editor whose first novel, Exit the Actress, was based on the 17th-century actress (and royal mistress) Ellen "Nell" Gwyn. Her second novel, Vanessa and Her Sister, is based on the life of the artist Vanessa Bell. In this behind-the-book essay, Parmar explains how important—and how personal—choosing a historical fiction subject can be.
For me, choosing a subject for a historical novel is a tricky thing. Historical fiction is a guess, a hat tossed into the ring. But it is a guess that is based upon a real life. Choosing the historical figure is a bit like choosing a roommate for my brain. I have to want to see this person first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I have to not mind if she does things that might irritate me. Things like leaving dishes in the sink or singing in the shower. I have to feel an immediate kinship, a recognition that this is a person I could spend an enormous amount of time with. Because it can take years to write the novel.
"Choosing the historical figure is a bit like choosing a roommate for my brain."
First comes the research. After the initial honeymoon period, the wrong historical figure could start to grate. If her choices feel illogical or her decisions poor, or her laughter shrill, she can quickly fall off her pedestal. But the right person from history will only grow more dear, more beloved and more real.
After the honeymoon, comes the immersion, the falling down a rabbit hole period. It is the part where I become completely absorbed in a character’s life and time. This is the fun part. This is when I am committed, devoted and off and running. This is also the time when the history blurs and fiction gallops in. The facts are cemented in truth, but the moral, emotional reasoning is an educated guess. The figure becomes a character and the engine of the novel turns over.
My research for Vanessa and Her Sister began with a letter. In the summer of 1906, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa Stephen. No. She would not marry him. But she strayed from the usual, demure sort of letter a young woman of her social class was expected to write. She told the truth. She told the whole truth. She sort of liked him but was not truly mad about him and had no idea if this would change in the future. She began this letter at home but finished the postscript in pencil at the dentist’s office. She apologized and explained that she was in a hurry and was off on holiday the next day. The letter reads like an email written circa last week.
Reading this letter roughly a century later, I was astonished by her frank, self-deprecating tone and her modern, uncompromising words. She was absolutely the person I wanted to write about. The character stepped off the page fully formed, like a woman alighting from a railway carriage. But Vanessa Bell came as a package deal with her better-known sister, the writer who would eventually become Virginia Woolf. And their collection of eccentric, intellectual, artistic friends would also tag along into the story: the bohemian crowd who would be remembered as The Bloomsbury Group. They are quirky and brilliant and difficult and gifted and daunting but I loved them all, and so I fell down the rabbit hole.
I began to read their letters. I started with their volumes of collected and selected published letters: Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf and Roger Fry. After the published works, I moved on to the unpublished. I got to know Vanessa’s sloping uphill handwriting and Virginia’s outsized Vs in her signature. I read about Roger Fry’s exhibitions and Leonard Woolf’s cattle problems. Then the circle widened. Like a complicated spider web, the correspondence took me round and round in larger and larger circles. Vanessa’s art world, E.M. Forster’s publishers, Virginia’s teeth and Roger Fry’s building projects. I spent time in archives and museums. I moved back to London and lived in Bloomsbury. I walked their bus routes and photographed train stations. And at each turn along the way, Vanessa Bell did not disappoint. She was exactly the person I hoped she was and more. It was wonderful to have her in my brain. She was such a lovely roommate and I miss her dreadfully now that she has gone.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Vanessa and Her Sister.