About The Author
Patricia Duncker's novels include Hallucinating Foucault, which won the Dillons First Fiction Award and the McKitterick Prize in 1996; James Miranda Barry, The Deadly Space Between, Miss Webster and Chérif, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2007; and The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge, shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger award for Best Crime Novel of the Year in 2010. She has written two books of short fiction, Monsieur Shoushana’s Lemon Trees, which was shortlisted for the Macmillan Silver Pen Award in 1997; and Seven Tales of Sex and Death, as well as a collection of essays on writing and contemporary literature, Writing on the Wall. She is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester, and lives in Wales.
Her latest book, Sophie and the Sibyl: a Victorian Romance, is both a compelling Victorian novel and a playful meditation on the creation of literature. It re-imagines George Eliot, the Sibyl, at the height of her fame, and holding in her thrall both her publisher's wayward brother Max Duncker and her biggest fan, the Countess Sophie von Hahn, whom Max's brother, Wolfgang hopes will marry Max and restore him to a life of respectability.
In her Afterword, Duncker pays tribute to the influence of John Fowles' 'powerfully awful tale', The French Lieutenant's Woman: like Fowles's, her narrator belongs firmly in the present day though she delivers a Neo-Victorian comedy of manners combining fact and fiction so that fiction and history, may 'shake hands across time.'
We caught up with Patricia Duncker exclusively for Foyles to discuss the challenges of blending historical characters with fictional ones, the publisher-author relationship and why the bottom line of every good marriage is sex.
Questions & Answers
You mention in your afterword the influence of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and its use of a more or less contemporary narrator who inserts himself into the Victorian narrative, a dual perspective that you adopt for Sophie and the Sibyl. What appealed to you about this technique?
I didn’t want to write a pastiche Victorian novel. The Victorians have already given us their tales. I wanted, as Fowles did, to think about the Victorians and to meditate on the questions that period in history raised for me, and to address the writers from whom I have learned so much. The narrator who guides you through the story is a crucial presence in Victorian fiction. I love being directly addressed, and wanted to give my readers that pleasure. But the Victorians are well over one hundred years behind us. The narrator is an interpreter, a contemporary voice, who also asks the hard questions.
You adore George Eliot as a writer, but less so as a person. Did your feelings for her change over the course of writing this book?
I usually separate a writer from their work in my imagination. So this book is a rare gesture that unites the two. I imagined the Sibyl. She is an imagined version of the novelist George Eliot who was, in real historical time, the woman known as Marian Evans, or Marian Evans Lewes, or Polly, Mutter, Madonna- she was a woman of many identities and many names. She was also described as ‘the Sibyl’. We can only guess, speculate – surmise wildly!- what a writer’s inner life is really like. I never entered the Sibyl’s mind. I cannot know her motives or her inner thoughts. But I think – when you read and re-read a writer’s work as often as I do her books, - your sense of the other writer’s achievement changes all the time. And yes, my feelings did change. I admired her even more.
Both Sophie and the Sibyl defy conventional expectations, but Sophie is more of a live-wire, though intelligent she is also more feminine and an heiress. Would she have been more to your liking than the more austere Sibyl?
Sophie was born in 1854; her expectations would have been radically different from those of the Sibyl who comes from an earlier generation. I could never choose between them! The Sibyl is as much a character in my fiction as Sophie is – and your characters are part of a pattern you create, a dynamic of conflict and contradictions which generate the action of the story. But they are both brave women – and at the end of their lives they can both say, triumphantly: I did it my way.
Max is a very contradictory character, on the one hand a gambler and philanderer, a ‘man without substance’, but on the other he is decent in many ways, strives to be honest and is not without intelligence. But could he ever really be a suitable match for Sophie? Deep down, does anything more than nostalgia and familial pressure underpin their relationship?
I think the bottom line of every good marriage is sex. Sexual desire draws them towards one another. Max is in love with Sophie, completely and utterly in love with her, but, as in real life, fear and desire lurk very closely together. He is afraid that he will not be up to the challenge and that she will always be a woman beyond his reach. Someone in love is always tortured by irrational fears. Sophie has never considered any man other than Max as her husband. And as one of my readers pointed out: “The Sibyl is the real seductress. Sophie hasn’t got a flirtatious bone in her body.” I laughed at that, but in fact, I agree.
What were the challenges of blending historical characters with fictional ones?
Well, I allowed several minor characters in George Eliot’s fiction to enter my own novel, and interact with my own fictional characters. So fiction is blended with fiction as well as biographical history. As a writer I admit to a mischievous, playful streak, and I enjoyed the justice of Herr Klesmer’s admiration of the Sibyl. She created him and he acknowledges her as the genius she is. The process of imagining the encounter between a writer and a character is comic, joyous, but somewhat fraught.Some of your characters are always going to be seriously scary – and some you hope never to meet. I wouldn’t have allowed Grandcourt, the hero- villain of Daniel Deronda to lounge around in my fiction. Or his creepy sidekick, Lush, for that matter.
Have you researched whether there is in fact a family connection between yours and the publishers Duncker Verlag of Berlin, who feature in the book?
I’m pretty sure there is no connection. The name is not unusual, and my family comes from the West Indies. But the fact that the firm, known as Duncker and Humblot, still exists generates a good deal of amusement. One of my present German editors at Berlin Verlag, part of Piper Verlag, used to work there. She got the job because the previous editor was eaten by a shark on his honeymoon. It’s true. You couldn’t make that up. And I do visit them and gloat over their stand at the Leipzig Book Fair. I enjoyed the coincidence.
Darwin, the great novelists, scientific and archaeological discoveries… your novel captures the excitement of the time, a period you have written about elsewhere. If you could go back in time would this be the period you would choose to live in?
Actually no! Middle class women didn’t have much room for manoeuvre in nineteenth-century England. And the capitalists who were busy making themselves wealthy at the expense of their workers had no problem working women to death in their factories. I’d have liked to live in the eighteenth century. But I’d wish to be educated and rich. Class and wealth contribute most to a woman’s comfort in any historical period. But the eighteenth-century horrors are obvious: smallpox, death in childbirth and the lack of decent dentistry.
Both the publisher-author and reader-author relationship have changed profoundly since George Eliot’s time. Authors were certainly treated with more reverence but do you think authors are actually, if anything, more respected than they were in George Eliot’s time?
One of George Eliot’s fans, Alexander Main, brought out a volume- with her permission of course- entitled and containing the Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings, in Prose and Verse, Selected from the Works of George Eliot (1873). I have a first edition at home. It is like reading a collection of sententious Tweets from the Great Lady. All the quotations, removed from their fictional contexts, seem pompous, distorted and peculiarly self-indulgent. The collection makes my skin crawl, but she gave the book her Imprimatur. George Eliot was indeed both respected and revered, a real celebrity, who towards the end of her life became very rich and famous. She was regarded as a Victorian monument of moral wisdom.
Are authors more respected now? Well, I think it depends on the country and the culture in which they live. Poets were murdered in Soviet Russia for thinking differently - they were a threat to the state. And Gunther Grass, the German Nobel laureate who has just died, was described as the conscience of his nation. I have lived for years in France and that really is a culture in which writers and the intellectual life are respected. They often have writers on TV to comment on politics and current affairs, and I am always thrilled and amazed at the astute intelligence of the visiting guests.
Can you tell us which are the authors or books you return to time and again?
I am lucky enough to have a university job that means I do re-read many of the books I first read as a very young woman. Apart from my adored Sister George, I re-read Dickens with joy. I have most recently re-read A Tale of Two Cities. The plot is wonderfully clever. I read poetry too, the language is concentrated and startling. At the moment I am re-reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I am delighted by the beauty of the voices he conjures out of the air. I have begun reading more in French and have just read Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder. It’s translated as The Search Warrant, which is a very clever title, as it’s a search for a lost Jewish girl who vanished into the camps during the Occupation of France. Among contemporary poets I particularly admire Alice Oswald, Vona Goarke and Michael Symmons Roberts. Among the novelists whose new work I never miss are Patrick Gale, Michele Roberts and Will Eaves.I’m also a big fan of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Next stop their Othello with two Black actors playing Iago and Othello. This transforms the racial meanings of the play. I can’t wait.
Do you have another novel on the go and if so, can you say anything about it?
I’m too superstitious to talk about work in progress, just in case I lose my grip on my narrative. But I can tell you that it’s an historical novel and that the germ of my idea is buried in Sophie and the Sibyl. Watch this space!