Friday, 29 March 2013

The problem of the missing papers

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.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Fact, fiction and interpretation

Accuracy has been bugging me a lot with respect to the telling of Isabella's story. How can I link the facts together to tell the story without allowing error to creep in? But sticking solely to the 'facts' results in a turgid list, losing the essence of whatever story there is.

Katherine Angel expressed the dilemma beautifully in an article in Aeon magazine:

I want to understand the past — the past of others, and of myself: what has shaped us, why we feel and think and do the things we do. But I don’t want to fossilise it, to preserve it in aspic. I don’t want to tell a solid, stolid story. And the reason I don’t want to do that is because it’s a way of killing the past, immobilising it: pinning its arms down, and saying, ‘I understand you now. Don’t move. Don’t you dare elude me again.’

But I do want to understand, and to tell a story even if that story is never closed, never complete, never conclusive. The writing of history — whether that of past epochs, people, events, or that of ourselves — has been profoundly challenged in recent decades. Access to the past is woefully indirect and unreliable, goes the argument. The evidence we have is incomplete and our own investments — theoretical, political, personal — shape what we find in it.

That excavatory urge vies in me with something else: a feeling that there is something absurd and impossible about attempting to know — definitively, once and for all, truthfully — about the past, any past, even if that search must always be pursued. There is no control experiment; we have nothing against which to test our speculations. All we have is our own life, our own singularity. And in both realms — in things outside ourselves, and in things within — all we have are hypotheses, some good, and some less so. Which is, I think, perfectly fine.

Simultaneously, I came across two instances of 'facts' which were less than 100% accurate. 

My first find was on a website documenting the CVs of the women who went out to Malta with the army in 1916. Isabella is listed, as she should be.  Stenhouse Isabella

I was excited to discover that she had been awarded the Wellcome Medal, (gold medal), in the History of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh graduation ceremony. I knew she had won one prize. Had she won two?

A spot of internet research and careful sifting through the hundreds of files on my computer told me what had happened. The published list of prize winners was not tabulated, it ran straight from one line to the next. Did the name of the prize come first, or the name of the graduate who had won it? The website creator had read the list one way, and given Isabella a prize for History of Medicine. I read the list the other way, and awarded her the Dorothy Gilfillan Prize for most distinguished woman medical student. Thankfully for my confidence in my research, a second source corroborated my reading of the list rather than the website's interpretation, but for posterity, the information on the website will be regarded as true, and Isabella has won a new prize with no effort, but been deprived of her true trophy.

My second discovery concerned an error from a century ago. A letter described her as 'Sister Isobel Stenhouse' instead of 'Dr. Isabella Stenhouse'. The context of the letter confirmed other things I knew about her, and the name error seemed like a mistake that anyone could make when meeting face to face. The writer would have met her socially in France, but simply hearing her name didn't tell him how it was spelt. He would have sensed that she had greater authority than the other women, so concluded that she was a senior nurse, not imagining she could be a doctor. The sort of mistake that happens every day.

Those ideas combine to release me into attempting to convey Isabella's story vividly, seeking its essence without losing its truth. Has accuracy several meanings?

Now what about that picture at the top? How do you interpret that? 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Arts Council of Wales

Thanks to the Arts Council of Wales, Isabella is on the march again.

They have awarded a research grant to develop a mode of telling her story. Watch this space as the research progresses.