Smoke & Mirrors
by Karen Howlett
Clare Clark on making fiction out of fact
Clare Clark’s new novel Beautiful Lies is a book rich in texture. Beginning in London in Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year of 1887 – a time of celebration but also of civil unrest, of high unemployment and poverty, strikes, riots and bomb plots – its events take place during a period of political upheaval and social change, but at its heart is a compelling story about an unusual and fascinating woman.
Maribel Campbell Lowe is the wife of a maverick politician and landowner. She is a complex character, beautiful, outspoken, determined, but she has a past and secrets which she cannot afford to have revealed for the damage that would inevitably do to her own reputation and to her husband’s career. A skilled amateur photographer, Maribel is moved to make her mark on the world, using her camera to present a true picture of subjects both personal and public. But as her acquaintance with the ruthless newspaper editor Alfred Webster becomes ever more complicated and dangerous, the line between truth and lies is blurred and what appears to be fact may yet be illusion or even fabrication.
Choosing to set the book in late 1880s London meant Clare had a wealth of material to draw on; from spiritualism to the rise of the tabloid press, the position of women in society, the Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde to William Morris and, almost at the other extreme, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West – the huge and ambitious show which was then taking London by storm – all play their part in Maribel’s and her husband Edward’s story. I asked Clare about managing context and content in both background and foreground, something she has done to great effect in what is a satisfyingly lengthy and beautifully detailed narrative.
“It sounds absurd in a book that is 500 pages long, but there was heaps I had to leave out. You probably only get to put about 5% of what you know into a novel, otherwise it would quickly become unbearably dense and unwieldy. As a novelist, you are telling a story, and it is the drive of the story that must prevail, the development of characters rather than the sharing of facts, that draws readers in and makes them want to turn the pages. What I have tried to do in Beautiful Lies is to take what was happening in 1887 and see how it affected the lives of a very few people in a very specific way.”
The novel’s central character, the exotic, chain-smoking Maribel Campbell Lowe, is inspired by a real person, Gabriela Cunninghame Graham, the wife of a Radical Liberal MP. This colourful personality must have been a gift to a novelist, but did Clare have to tone her down in any way to make Maribel a more believable or sympathetic fictional heroine?
“I took some of the facts of Gabriela’s life, mostly the more fantastic ones that might have seemed unlikely if I had made them up! After that, I allowed myself to create my own person. Maribel is therefore an entirely imaginary character, who rapidly became, in my mind, at least as real as anyone I know in my own life; she is very much a product of her time, and is, I hope, both sympathetic and credible.”
Maribel is so vivid and has such presence in the book that I wondered whether Clare had any plans to bring her back in a future novel.
“I have never wanted to return to my characters, but Maribel remains very real to me – I still dream about her,” Clare tells me. “The novel ends at an interesting time, at the beginning of a new phase of life for her. So perhaps I will go back and find out what happens next.”
In addition to Beautiful Lies, Clare Clark is the author of three highly acclaimed historical novels: The Great Stink and Savage Lands, both of which were longlisted for the Orange Prize, and The Nature of Monsters.
About the contributor: Karen Howlett writes about books for various periodicals and at www.cornflowerbooks.co.uk.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 61, August 2012