Whether or not the reader would be just as intrigued if the character was entirely fictional is an interesting question and probably depends on the skill of the writer. In this case the skill is such that the reader is drawn completely into the story and the fact that this is a woman from history, whose contemporaries were real people is almost peripheral.
Admittedly the depictions of such people seen through the foggy mind of this fictional Wallis Simpson, are diverting. For example there’s an exaggeratedly campy Cecil Beaton, who in a visit to the sick bed, remarks, “I was about to say ‘dying’s a bugger’ but ah, if only it were.” Then there’s the photo at Wallis’s bedside of someone she can’t quite make out... a pale, dull little man, looking woebegone. Now who could that be? Or “Cookie”, another blast from the past with eyes too small, breasts too big, a big ridiculous hat and a fluffy veil. Could that be …yes …even in her dotage a girl can always recognise the Enemy.
The story of course is fictional, but the circumstances and the characters align closely to the history, as we are told it.
History however is shaped by who tells it, how, from what perspective and on whose authority. It is, one could say, a fashioning of the facts, where truth and fiction mingle in a (hopefully) mutually complimentary relationship. Truth in any case is, as politicians consistently teach us, subject to interpretation.
In my own writing, I tend to be driven to frenzied Internet searches almost every second sentence to unearth such obscure facts as what was a popular dog’s name in the 1930s. Some writers say they are able to deal with this problem by sailing along regardless, leaving dots for the bits to be verified later, thereby not interrupting the flow. This seems to be a far more sensible approach and could well explain why such writers are well into their third or fourth novels while I’m currently wrestling with a short story now into its fourth month and fortieth incarnation. My problem is I am overly inquisitive and once posed a question cannot rest until I ferret out an answer. Perhaps I should accept that any answer will do, it doesn’t have to be right, true, historically accurate or even necessarily credible. And it may be precisely the question mark that’s needed; the not knowing, that ignites the mind of the reader to the extent they are thinking about that story long after they’ve closed the book.
Objects of curiosity are objects of fascination, and Rose Tremain employs this strategy well in her story. In one instance, in what amounts to an aside, the increasingly dotty Wallis Simpson has a moment of lucidity, in which she fondly remembers the glory of her tresses in younger years. This she attributed to the regular drinking of blood as a child (animal not human she hastens to add). As a nutrient for the hair, this has not had a lot of exposure to my knowledge. Vegetarians may prefer to give it a miss and I for one will not be taking it up. What fascinates me is where did this come from? Was it true? Did it happen? And how did it work – the high iron content possibly? Or did Rose Tremain just make it up? And if she did, how good a case is this for messing with history?
Unreliable narrators (such as Wallis Simpson in this story) are those deemed to be slipshod with the truth and they abound in literature. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/17/henry-sutton-top-10-unreliable-narratorsThey attract this label by having obvious credibility problems, by virtue of being for instance, deranged, sadistic, disturbed, immature or otherwise deviating from the norm. The obvious question is whose norm? That of the author, the narrator or the reader?
This brings me to another question. Can there be such a thing as a reliable narrator? Can there be a distinction between history and story? I don’t know but it’s an interesting question to ponder, as a writer and as a reader.
A final word from an essay by the Science Fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, which is likely to be of interest to writers who write historical fiction.
“A totally factual narrative were there such a thing, would be passive: a mirror reflecting all without distortion. The historian manipulates, arranges and connects, and the storyteller does all that as well as intervening and inventing.” Only the imagination can get us out of the bind of the eternal present.”