Speculative biographies may stir controversy but they can also reveal how real lives are often uncertain, contradictory and confusing.
That’s according to CQUniversity Professor Donna Lee Brien, co-editor of a new Cambridge Scholars publication entitled Recovering History Through Fact and Fiction: Forgotten Lives.
“In 1901, Henry James noted the importance of speculation in attempting to imagine past lives for literary characters,” she says.
“While James was writing about representing characters in fiction, these remarks are applicable … in terms of how to incorporate this sense of an individual’s consciousness and identity into the biographical text,” she says.
“By basing their subjective conjecture, empathy and imaginings on the documented facts (and making clear when any conjecture is not thus grounded), biographers can speculate but still ensure their texts are classified as non-fiction biographies.
“A recognition of such speculation can contribute to making a case for biography to be considered as a valid form of creative writing rather than merely a mechanistic presentation of historical facts.”
Noosa-based Professor Brien cites a recent book, The Convict’s Daughter by Kiera Lindsey, which provides an openly speculative biography of 19th-century character Mary Ann Gill.
“This is biography pushing the boundaries of speculation, but always pulling back before the volume becomes an historical novel,” she says.
“Speculative writing strategies can produce biographies that are rich, appealing and thought-provoking, historically-informed narratives of real lives and experience.”
Recovering History Through Fact and Fiction: Forgotten Lives brings together research focusing on historic figures who have been largely neglected by history or forgotten over time.
The volume includes chapters on a diverse array of topics, including semi-biographical fiction, digital and visual biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs, among others.
The book also provides fresh perspectives on historical figures whose biographies are distorted by their fame or limited by public perception.
The subjects explored include, among others, a child author, a Finnish grandmother, a cold war émigré, an Elizabethan era playwright, a castaway, a celebrated female artist, and the lauded personalities Mary Shelley, Judy Garland and J.R.R. Tolkien.