May 15, 2005

Life Writing and Fiction

I often feel that writing that claims to be about the author, the telling of a life story, can be very self-involved, and “fake”, begging the reader for sympathy, making this the last thing the reader feels inclined to do. I find that reading fiction often feels much more real, much more convincing, simply because, the author is not directly asking for my sympathy. As for my own writing, I have yet to find a way in which I can write about myself, without it sounding pretentious or self-involved. I enjoy life writing greatly, although I tend to write about my relatives, and only through them, explore myself. To write a piece that is directly about myself, and my opinions, thoughts, and experiences, seems like an impossible thing to do with success. The only biographies that I find convincing and readable are ones that deal with events such as war, for example, Primo Levi, Anne Frank, Marie ‘Missie’ Vassiltchikov, and Vera Britton. The detached tone that is often adopted in these war diaries, especially those of Primo Levi, begs for the reader’s sympathy and understanding, without being too obvious about it. It is these kinds of autobiographies that I find hold the most truth, and that, if I ever were to write one, is what I would be seeking to do.

You ask where I would draw the line between autobiography and fiction, and this too, is a complicated question, that I believe only the author can answer. If a book is claimed to be autobiography, than the reader will trust what it says, and yet, as I have already said, truth can never be truly attained, even in autobiography. To strip away all the masks, deceptions, and little white lies that everyone tells throughout their lives is impossible, especially if something is being written to be published. “Fiction”, “autobiography” are simply labels, and there aspects of both in the other.

Nevertheless, there are differences, differences that cannot be ignored, between fiction and autobiography. The world, characters and situations of fiction come, originally, from the author’s imagination. Their personal experiences may become a very large part of what they write, but at the start, the root of the writing comes from the author’s mind. Fiction is developed from the dreams, thoughts, imagination of the author, whereas autobiography, always has to have a certain amount of fact in it.

This paradox is something I came across in my own life writing, and at first struggled with. For my two major pieces of life writing, “A perfect marriage”, and “Bert Wyer” (which is included in this portfolio), were both based on the history of some of my older relatives. Therefore, in order to write these, I had to do a significant amount of research into their lives, in order to write an accurate account. However, to write everything, exactly as it happened, as people remembered it, is an impossible task, and so I found myself editing sections, and using only the sections that served my purpose. There were times, also, when the order of events, or the perspective from which I had been told them, did not suit the piece, and so I would twist the facts, once again, to create a more coherent, dramatic piece of writing. Therefore, although my life writing is exactly that, writing about somebody’s life and the effect that has on me, it is also fiction in the sense that it cannot be said to be based on one hundred percent fact. In investigating the bounds between fiction and life writing, I wrote “Princess Margaret”, which is also included in this portfolio. Here, I was writing about a real person, and about a real event in her life, whilst actually knowing very little about it. I would defiantly classify this piece as fiction, or is it fictional life writing? The line between these two is often very blurred, and the only way to make it clearer, in my mind at least, is to accept that no life writing can ever be wholly based on truth.

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  1. Beryl Singleton Bissell

    I have heard that Vera Britton wrote about life during World War I but am having no luck in finding anything by her in out of print book sales web sites. Would you be able to tell me the title of that book?

    01 Jul 2005, 15:30

  2. nicola thompson

    I have just finished reading her diary, chronicle of youth, great war diary 1913 – 1917 its amazing and well worth a read. she later used this diary to write Testament of youth i havent read this. hope this helps..

    13 Jan 2006, 20:08

  3. Steve Birks

    I've not read any of her work but have herd her name in connection with the research I have been doing into a communist trade- unionist Tom Mann. He moved in the leftwing lit, set in the 20s 30s and 40s. Through this, I've come across a novelist and playwright of that period Lionel Brittain or sometimes Britton but I'm not able to find out any more he seems to me lost to history. Have you any ideas on him? Vera's daughter Shirley Williams is on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 today.

    All the best Steve

    29 Jan 2006, 09:13

  4. I haven't heard of Lionel Brittain before at all, I'm afraid, but keep checking this blog every now and then – people seem to know quite a lot about Vera Britton, so you never know… :)

    29 Jan 2006, 11:22

  5. Georgina Hutber

    Vera Britton wrote Testament of Youth about her first world war experiences, followed by Testament of Experience and Testament of Friendship. You should find her in print, not out of print!

    07 May 2006, 21:56

  6. Tony Shaw

    This is over a year since the last posting on him, but if anyone is still interested, try googling “Lionel Britton”. Most of the information on the internet is a little out of date, but I can willing supply it to anyone who is interested.

    09 Feb 2007, 09:51

  7. Robert Eckley

    A reference is maded to a Lional Brittain, in George Orwells essay, “The Proletarian Writer”.
    This essay can be found in his collected essays or online.

    15 Aug 2007, 06:10

  8. Robert Hughes

    About Lionel Britton.
    I am trying to find out about the Brittons, because my grandfather was a Britton and Lionel was his brother; therefore my great-uncle. He was generally regarded as eccentric and never married as far as anyone knew.
    One of the books which my mother possessed until fairly recently was “Batu Khan” translated from the Russian by Uncle Lionel.
    Sadly, my mother has almost lost her memory, but I think Lionel was an obscure figure about whom people knew little, even when memories were keener.
    My understanding is that my great-grandfather was an embassy official in Paris at the time, (1889) when my grandfather was born, and indeed, my grandfather was born in the embassy.
    Their mother was from the Thomas family, who were associated with the needle-making industry in Redditch. None of this points to a proletarian background.
    I would be most interested if anyone knows any more, but perhaps the embassy connection could offer a line of research. There was also another brother called Cyril, and the father appears also to have been called Cyril.
    Robert Hughes.

    01 Oct 2007, 03:08

  9. Tony Shaw

    I can’t understand this embassy business, as I have a copy of J. W. R. Mourilyan’s letter of reference, written out by Richard Britton himself long before photocopiers, in which Mourilyan – a solicitor – writes in great praise of Richard, who worked for him for two years as a managing clerk at the rue St Honoré, Paris. I know of no work that Richard did for any embassy. There are, though, a few other possibilities:

    1. Richard did some work for the British Embassy in Paris either while working for Mourilyan or for himself.

    2. The story has become distorted over the course of time.

    I think I prefer the second explanation – Richard’s son Lionel, for instance, was given to distorting his own history, as we all are – but I may of course be wrong.

    No, this certainly doesn’t indicate anything working class: Lionel Britton was born into a strong middle-class background. But the death of his father when he was seven meant to a certain extent that he had to fend for himself, and for most of his life he had to survive on a pittance, often initially taking up menial jobs.

    A small point of interest: the British Library catalogue lists Lionel Britton’s translation of V. Yan’s book: Batu-Khan (1945); however, it doesn’t mention another edition of this book which I have: Jenghiz-Khan,also published under the same imprint, Hutchinson International Authors.

    Tony Shaw

    08 Oct 2007, 09:15

  10. Robert Hughes

    A week is a long time in genealogical research!
    I fully accept that the embassy thing was a distortion.
    However, Bob Britton, my grandfather, always said he was born on British soil in Paris, which I understood to mean the Embassy or somewhere which was officially recognised as British soil. This does not, of course mean that Richard worked there, but what would it actually mean?
    Robert Hughes.

    08 Oct 2007, 20:49

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  • Just in response to Gareth. I think in your quote from Matthew 19, one of the people Jesus was refer… by Richard on this entry
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