I took part in a talk, along with Anna Kennedy, at the Portobello Book Festival on October 8th. The talk was entitled
The Castaway, and it looked at the gradual isolation of Hugh Miller, his sense of abandonment and the social
and cultural context for it (me) and the psychological and human factors, (Anna). We had a lively conversation and
the sixty or more people there seemed to enjoy it. I received quite a few emails from audience members. One of
these has sparked this post and also will form the basis for a talk I am giving at the Edinburgh Bookshop on November 2nd.
My book is a fictional history and I refer to it as a fabricated fiction. A fiction does not mean something that is
false, rather it is a structure we impose on life to make sense of it, whether it be a wedding ceremony, a temple, a
novel or a symphony! But we should be clear when we are talking about an invention by an author or even
a fabrication of several facts. I have tried to be clear about that in my Afterwords at the end of the Second Part and
by the posting of the standard biographies and lists of sources on this website.
In my talk I discussed several real characters who appear in the novel. I mentioned a woman I greatly admire, a
feminist and socialist called Emma Martin (information on her appears in this website). She anticipated Nan
Shepherd’s idea of the female view, which sees the interior, contrasted with the male view of the outline. In
Shepherd’s case, this was in reference mountains, where, she says it is the interior that constitutes the mountain, not
its exterior. Martin said that the original symbols of the womb- a cave, had been substituted by the male phallic
cross. (She of course explains it in more detail and better in her pamphlet, Baptism, A Pagan Rite). For Martin,
when men look at a cathedral, they see the spire. A woman would see the cave, the interior. Likewise with
So far, so true. My novel looks at other “triangular fictions”, such as Prof. Goodsir’s view that human anatomy is
based on the triangle. And in the chapter, They Become Water, I describe a meeting of Emma Martin’s where I
have the female members of the audience stand up and form a triangle with their thumbs and forefingers. In
the context of my fiction and in consonance with Martin’s views, I think that is a justified fancy. But I have no
evidence that this in fact happened, and I was wrong to say so in my Portobello talk. I did not wish to mislead
people, - it is three years since I wrote that chapter, but I evidently did. I want to say thank you to Gaby Porter,
who wrote a nice email to me asking for the source of my claim. I was happy to answer and indeed found that
Martin did empathise the shape of the womb and the vaginal opening as the essential human forms (she was
a midwife and spoke from deep experience). But, to my surprise, I found no reference to the feminist triangle. I
would be delighted if anyone can tell me when that first started.
So thank you, Gaby. This has got me thinking about other crossovers, intentional and unintentional, between fact
and fiction in my novel and elsewhere, and will form the basis for my talk and readings from the novel, on
November 2. Brian
I gave my first talk about the book, on Tuesday night, to about 60 people at a meeting of the Grange Association. I focussed on some of the real personalities who figure in An Edinburgh Suicide and discussed the challenges and choices to be made in incorporating real figures into a fictional work. The audience were receptive- and not just the several friends who were kind enough to attend!
The novel in fact sprang from my sense of injustice of how Hugh Miller used versions of the lives of his workingmen mates on the building site to further his views on the unsuitability of the vote for the working man. He especially focussed on a fellow named Cha, who he portrays as an intelligent brute. I discovered that Cha had in fact taken Hugh to the theatre and lent him books. This led to my portrayal of what happens in the First Part of the novel, The Unenlightened.
I would be happy to hear about what people think of my treatment of the characters, real and unreal in the novel. Please be kind!
Can you make poetry or other forms of literature from stones? At this year’s Portobello Book Festival, an event entitled, SPEAKING TO US FROM THE PAST, chaired by Jim Gilchrist and featuring poet and science writer, Larissa Reid and palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli, demonstrated that indeed you can- if you are Hugh Miller or someone with the technical knowledge and linguistic deftness of the two speakers. I really enjoyed the session and meeting people from the Friends of Hugh Miller, and other attendees such as Anna, who like me, has been captivated by Hugh, and is writing her own novel concerning him.
When people talk about Hugh Miller they often compare him to David Attenborough. There is a great deal of truth in this in terms of his contemporary reach and the way both appeal to our intelligence and our heart. But unlike other “nature writers” or even botanists or zoologists, Hugh Miller was often writing about stones. And he made them come alive!
Brian McLaughlin, firstname.lastname@example.org
I am fascinated by fiction and fictions, and not just literary ones but all the stories we are told or tell ourselves to make sense of the world and our place in it, by the songs we sing, the poems we recite, the paintings we admire. My novel mixes historical events and personalities with imagined scenes, motives and acts. It also interweaves a web of allusions which I hope people have fun untangling but which suggest just how much of what we see and how we feel is the result of others’ fabrications. In recent years, especially in France and in Spain, several magnificent novels have appeared merging history with fiction. I worry sometimes that this is dangerous and leads to the defence of phrases such as 'MY truth’. This debate is as least as old as Plato. So in this blog, while I invite everyone to ask questions about the book, to make comments about its subjects, I also hope we can widen the discussion to other works and to whether, as one of the chapter titles says, fiction can be “truer than truth”.