Opinion: Mary Burns on using multiple points of view in her novel about John Singer Sargent, Portraits of an Artist

Mary Burns

I have struggled with Point of View when I write. I admit it, and I’m not ashamed.

Each novel I have written has been subjected to the varieties of point of view. In early days, I didn’t think about it much, I just started writing, and it appeared that my “default” POV was third-person objective, where the characters are spoken of as “he” and “she”, the environment is described, and the character’s feelings are shown through dialogue or actions as much as possible. A lot of modern historical fiction and also mysteries are written in this POV. It’s also usually written in the immediate past tense, which nonetheless (through literary alchemy) reads as happening in the present. Examples:

“Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt—a portly gentleman with a turned-up mustache and world-weary expression—was standing on the sidewalk of a wide tree-lined road.” (Death and the Maiden, Frank Tallis)

“Henry James was drunk. The room where he was dining looked familiar, but he could not place it. There was an oak sideboard, elaborately carved, and a cupboard containing a collection of fine porcelains.” (What Alice Knew, Paula Marantz Cohen)

nad14My first draft of Portraits of an Artist, an historical novel about John Singer Sargent, was written in this style. It was solid writing, I thought, but as my initial readers/advisors and I too came to see, it was, frankly, a little boring. The story unfolded in a straight, chronological line, there were a lot of characters who seemed to melt together, and there was a sort of relentless forward motion that was rather tiresome. Other writers—more able than I—were more adept at this style, but although I felt I could improve it, it wasn’t right for the story I wanted to write.

So I re-wrote it. I briefly tried a First Person POV with one of the major characters, Violet Paget, who was a long-time friend of Sargent’s, but then the book became all about her, which was not what I wanted. Then I wrote it with Sargent as the teller of the tale. It didn’t take very long to realize that that was very restricting, although his First Person voice brought a great deal more vivacity and immediacy to the story. It was easier to care about Sargent and what he was going through—but he had to be in every scene! I couldn’t reveal what other people thought about him, or felt about him, and that—it became clear to me—was turning out to be the essence of my book: how to understand a mostly inscrutable, intensely private person who nonetheless was a huge success in the art world of the late 19th century. It wasn’t known, but it was rumored, that he was gay—or maybe not; that he had compromised a young woman of his acquaintance, and really should marry her—or maybe not; that he’d sold his soul (and body) for the chance to paint the most famous woman in Paris—or maybe not really…. What to do?

17276711Having written the whole book from Sargent’s POV, though, was a very fruitful exercise, as I now felt I was thoroughly in his head—I had mapped his motivations, his feelings, his responses, so I really, really knew him. I pondered the notion of having multiple First Person voices, and then it hit me: the portraits would be the characters! They would tell the story of Sargent, from their points of view—each with his or her own voice—reliable or unreliable—vain, sincere, spiteful, honest, blinded by love or lust—and from those “portraits” of Sargent by his own “portraits”, the reader would be able to hear and understand the impact that Sargent had on all those people—lovers, friends, teachers, clients, judges—and infer some sense of who the man himself had been.

And so I ended up with a novel that has fifteen first-person narrators, plus Sargent. Luckily, my publisher was as insistent as I was on using as illustrations a “headshot” of each of the portrait/characters at the beginning of the chapters in which they’re featured, along with their names. It was a challenge—but a wonderful one—to make each of their voices distinct, but I (humbly) think I met the challenge. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide.

The lesson through all this is, POV depends on the story you (or your characters) want to tell—who has the most at stake in telling the tale? With whom will the reader most sympathize? Do you want a reliable or unreliable narrator, or a little of both? How do you want to get the truth across? How much do you (as author/narrator) want to insert yourself into the story? Good questions, all—now we just have to find the answers!

13B-Mary-Burns-300x288About Mary Burns:
Mary Burns lives in San Francisco with her husband Stu. She is a member of and reviewer for the Historical Novel Society, and she is on the planning board for the North American HNS Conference to be held in St. Petersburg, Florida in mid-June. Read reviews of her novel Portraits of an Artist on goodreads. Please visit her blog about all things Sargent.

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