Strange Beginnings – biographical novels

Sort of a half way stage between fiction and non-fiction, the biographical novel expands imaginatively, but hopefully realistically, the lives of the famous and their partners or something along those lines. With this in mind, I picked up two novels recently which do just that.

W&T Will and Tom, the new novel by Matthew Plampin, covers a very short period of about six months when J M W Turner, the painter stays with the Lascelles family in the country, at Harewood House. According to this novel, he is embroiled in a prank played on him by Beau Lascelles who has invited him and Tom Girton, also a painter to stay at the same time.

The established facts are that Turner did stay with the Lascelles in 1797, at a time when he was beginning to be noticed as a painter, but before he became a member of the establishment: The Royal Academy. Tom Girton, less well known now, and also a painter at the beginning of his career is also recorded as staying at Harewood House in the years both before and after 1797, there is no record of him having stayed then, except two figures in one of Turner’s watercolours, a painter and another lounging beside him on the grass, so this is where the licence of the novelist lies.

The relationship between Will and Tom is real, they are friends but also rivals. Getting noticed and better still commissioned by the rich and rising aristocracy was the bread and butter of painters at this time, exhibiting was one thing, but selling was even more essential. So many, if not all, painters clung to the coat tails of benefactors like the Lascelles and many others. We can see, from his many sketch books, that Turner did the rounds. His paintings of Harewood and its surroundings are there for all to see, similarly his paintings of the park at Petworth in Sussex and his tour of the Lake District and the North of England. Pages and pages of exquisite water colours. These were the skeletons of paintings that would be “worked up” into oils for the commission.

In the novel, all does not go well. Tom Girton, as portrayed here, is a delight – mischievous, handsome, debonair – and by contrast Will Turner appears uncouth and curmudgeonly and selfish. The sad truth is that genius does not always go hand in hand with physique and good manners. If there is any truth in Timothy Spaull‘s Turner in the Mike Leigh film about the eponymous painter, this novel has nailed Turner to a T.  Although I would prefer not to know that my heroes had clay feet.

I loved this novel. It is pacey and amusing, it rattles along with a good yarn and shows not two, but three people who are rising from obscurity. The Lascelles family were also aiming high – and looking at where they all are today, two out of the three made it to the pinnacle of their position.

Of Tom Girton less is known, he died young of asthma or consumption, but of him and his work Turner is known to have said “If Girton had lived, I should have starved”; Turner is now considered one of the best painters of the 18th century and the Lascelles have close relationships with the present Royal Family.

With Mrs Engels, we encounter a different sort of novel all together. Gavin McCrea has opted to tell the story of the common-law wife of Frederick Engels, the German mill owner who helped found the International with Karl Marx and who supported the Marx family financially and even, possibly accepted parenthood for an illegitimate boy that was actually Marx’s own “for the sake of the cause”.

The novel switches from the time when the Engels lived in Regents Park Road, Primrose Hill to the days before when the Burns sisters, Mary and Elizabeth lived in Manchester. Engels first took up with Mary Burns and when she died, took up with Lizzie. He married Lizzie on her deathbed, meanwhile she managed his household, accepted his ‘favours’ and secretly supported the Fenians. The novel is told from her point of view, so our picture of the beginnings of communism may be a little jaundiced. It is startling to discover that Engels lived with two illiterate mill workers, a situation that was considered scandalous in Manchester, such that both girls lost their jobs and became ‘kept’ women. Lizzie thought that it would change in London. It did not, much.

This is an interesting peek into the lives, both above and below stairs, of the middle classes. One, possibly two servants, and quite a lot of hardship.  Lizzie recognises that servants have to work but is not above giving a hand – she has known work herself.

Second generation Irish, Lizzie identifies with the Fenian cause of an independent Ireland and there are some grim details of the lives of the Irish poor living around St Giles-in-the-Fields; a rabbit warren of poor insalubrious streets. Equally the indigent French, escaping from the Commune, many of whom also relied on Engels for financial support, living in lodgings of dubious quality.

In this novel, we swing between Manchester and London and between the home of the Engels and that of Karl Marx in Hampstead. Only Mrs Jenny Marx and two daughters, Janey and Tussy (Eleanor) and the illegitimate son are mentioned in the Marx household, there were many more in fact – all living off Frederick Engels profits from the cotton mills!

UrquartFinally, and rather out on the left field, there is Jane Urquhart‘s new novel The Night Stages. This does not even pretend to be biographical, I only add it here because it contains fictionalised portraits of several real people, among them Kenneth Lochhead, also as it happens, a painter. Lochhead is not the central character, he painted a huge mural, Flight and its Allegories, at Gander International Airport, one of the most important refuelling places on the Transatlantic flights in the early days. The painting is in gesso, a method that uses egg yolk mixed with pigment rather than oil, which Kenny deemed more suitable for an allegory about flight.

Tamara is in Gander Airport, she has packed up and left Ireland, Niall and all his complications and is on a Transatlantic flight to America. But fog has grounded the plane; she knows all about planes and fog, having been a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain in the Second World War, and having lost many friends but one in particular, Elspeth, who had been flying a wounded Fairchild to Stirling for repair, she disappeared in the fog.

There are many marvellous scenes in this novel, among them the lives of the women who moved planes around, flying anything up to five or six quite different craft, we would do well to remember them.

On a typical day, Tam might have been required to taxi five other pilots in an Anson from Cosford to Prestwick, then to ferry a Dakota from Prestwick to Speke, then a Spitfire from Speke to Lynham, then a Mosquito from Lynham to Kemble and another Spit from Kemble to Lichfield, where an Anson would be waiting to taxi her and several others back to the base at Cosford.

Tamara has left Niall because he is married and the affair is over, during the months that it has gone on she has gradually learned more, dragged out tiny bit by tiny bit, about Niall and his missing brother Kieran. In other parts of the novel we learn first hand about Kieran, his awkwardness (which would now be called autism) and then his single-minded attempt to ride an independent race in The Rás Tailteann, the Irish equivalent of the Tour de France.  We also learn a bit more about Niall, his background in meteorology.

Like her other books, one of which, The Stone Carvers, was listed for the Man Booker Prize, Jane Urquhart writes in a plangent poetic style, the sense of place is there but even more, there is a sense of climate – rain, fog, cold, damp – and a sense of smell. This is not simply because one character is intimately concerned with weather, I think it has to do with being Canadian.  Weather conditions matter when they might be the difference between life and death.

I loved The Stone Carvers and I loved this novel, the title comes from the nights spent between the days of cycle racing whether The Rás or the Tour de France.


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