I've been pondering Isabella's story for months and have kept coming up against a dilemma - she left no diaries or letters. Her only texts are a few words on the back of a couple of post cards.
If you read it carefully, you'll see that she signs herself 'B', which brings me to another source about her - people who knew her. But very few of those remain. One of them told me off the other day, "You must stop calling her Isabella," she scolded, "She was never called that. It was always Belle or Isabel." To which I had to reply, "That's precisely why I call her that. If I get it wrong it doesn't matter."
It's getting it wrong that I've been afraid of. A good story needs a strong character. Without her own voice from personal papers or people who knew her, I have to invent the dialogue, reactions to events, motivations. It's a question of looking at the documentation I have discovered and saying, "Who do you think she was?" I may have posted about that before - it's a question that has haunted me for the last couple of years.
But a set of facts/choices/actions do not reveal the character of the woman who went through them. Amongst a group of people working in the same job in the same place, there will be diverse motivations, diverse personalities and diverse skills. I can look at my research and invent all sorts of different scenarios. And I don't want to impose my ideas onto her story. That would be fiction. Let alone that it would be impossible to write dialogue in a Scottish accent.
But hearing Alan Bennett being interviewed on the radio the other day helped.
The interviewer asked him if his parents had liked the way they were portrayed in his work, and followed up by asking him if he liked the way he himself was portrayed when people acted him in the plays he himself had written.
The answer didn't matter, what mattered was that it made me realise that, like with photos, people are quite likely not to like or recognise the way they are portrayed. Each person is so multi-layered and many faceted that a single portrayal cannot encompass the whole.
Let alone that people are mutable. Their minds and thinking shift and alter, even within short spaces of time. Think about decision making - how hard it can be to work out what to do, let alone why, and how the 'why' can depend on the person we are telling. "Oh, I wouldn't tell her that, but really...." It even alters with how honest or not we are with ourselves. With time, particular versions of stories we tell about our experiences develop, 'truth' becomes fixed, a sort of authorised version. But Isabella told no-one about her experiences; she chose not to make any version public. Susan Sontag is quoted as saying:
‘Beware,’ wrote Susan Sontag in her notebook in 1961, ‘of anything that you hear yourself saying often.’
I doubt if Isabella could ever have been happy with the picture it might have been possible to build up from any papers she had left behind. It makes me ponder the difference between an 'authorised' biographies, and one that is not. I read a biography of Gertrude Bell recently. It was littered with quotes from her letters and diaries. They gave an accurate picture of where she went, and when, but how accurate were the expressions of motivation and the more mutable aspects of a person that build up that indefinable thing, character? Maybe she changed her mind after penning the words. They can only reflect what she felt at the moment the ink trailed onto the page.
Coming up with an accurate portrayal of a character seems a big task, doomed to failure. To quote some lines from 'The Sound of Music':
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
I can only tell my version of the story, and recognise that someone else would see it differently, tell it differently. Which is very liberating.