I’ve never been a huge fan of “historical fiction,” especially by those authors who “novelize” events in the lives of well-known people. Guess my philosophy has always been—if you want to learn about someone’s life, read a biography. Why go for flights of imagined fancy when you can experience real FACTS?
But recently, I took a chance on two such novels, both with “famous” narrators supposedly describing pivotal experiences in their lives. While I will still always prefer biographies, the time I spent with these particular books was not wasted.
In Rosie Sultan’s HELEN KELLER IN LOVE, the legendary blind/deaf humanitarian describes her first love affair at age 37. The man was Peter Fagan, hired as Helen’s private secretary due to the illness of her beloved “Teacher” Anne Sullivan. The couple’s relationship was brief, intense and life-altering for Helen, who was far from asexual, as her contemporaries may have assumed.
The couple kept secret their mutual passion and desire to marry, though Helen eventually suspected that Peter was conflicted about becoming “Mr. Helen Keller” to the world. Their affair ended abruptly, but later evidence indicated that Helen would always be the great love of Fagan’s life, and vice versa.
Sultan is excellent as Helen’s “voice,” and supports her fast-paced narrative with facts about Keller’s childhood and public adult life. The imagined dialogues among Helen, Peter, Anne, and Helen’s mother are by turns dramatic, whimsical, and realistic. I felt comfortable with Sultan’s re-imagination of events. HELEN KELLER IN LOVE could be a starting point for “anti-historical novel” readers everywhere.
Elegantly written, though somewhat less successful, in my opinion, is THE MASTER’S MUSE by Varley O’Connor. In this work, we hear the voice of Tanaquil LeClercq, famed American prima ballerina of the 1940s/1950s and Wife #4 of choreographer George Balanchine.
In 1956, at age 27, LeClercq contracted polio, ending her own career as a dancer, though she would coach others until her death in 2001. Since, unlike Keller, LeClercq never wrote an autobiography, O’Connor relied on other sources as background for her journey into the psyches of both the ballerina and, more indirectly, her flamboyant husband.
O’Connor’s “Tanaquil” describes her life and career, particularly her tumultuous relationship with the mercurial genius Balanchine, who tended to cherish women mainly as vehicles for his dances rather than as life partners. While this author’s prose is eloquent and evocative, I felt little real warmth from LeClercq’s fictionalized personality, and thus the tale she wove left me colder than I would have wished. However, this book might nevertheless appeal to historical novel skeptics, especially those with interest in the performing arts.
So what’s my verdict on historical fiction? Good biographies still rock, but there’s always room for new “voices”.