Monday 12 September 2016

Donald Rumsfeld and the Island of Women

Writers love a maxim. Twitter is full of them – little pods of wisdom that are supposed to help guide and inspire. Some are trite, some are tosh and a few are useful. “Get black on white,” said Guy de Maupassant; and there’s no arguing with that as a basis for a writing life.

But the quote that I return to again, and again, in the research and writing of my books is by Donald Rumsfeld. So he was US defence secretary at the time, and did not technically realise that he was providing writing advice to historical fiction authors – but maxims create their own currency once coined: Here’s what he said. 
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
He was much abused at the time for stating the obvious; as if the obvious is not sometimes worth stating well. He would, I’m sure, be delighted to know that I find it a hugely useful way of thinking about my work. (For him, unless he’s a History Girls fan, this will, alas, remain an unknown unknown.)

"Antonia who?"

Historical fiction writers operate on their own, special plane – where history and story-telling collide. Most of us take our responsibilities to both seriously. I would never insert a known lie in place of a known known.

The unknown unknowns are haunting. There are just so many of them. Or are there? I don’t know. How many mistakes have I unwittingly written? How many false steps have I taken?

It is, however, the known unknowns that are the most important part of what the historical novelist does. This is the central mystery of our art. Historians come up against a known unknown and, rightly, back away. We jump in where the footnoters fear to tread. Into the sticky morass of thoughts, and emotions and motives that make stories sing; as well as the more pedantic matters of bodily functions and fluids.

Here is an example, picked from thousands. I was on the ferry to Iona to research my second book, The Winter Isles. Set in twelfth century Scotland, it follows the story of the first Lord of the Isles.

The ferry is a short hop. The day was glorious; a Hebridean joy of blue sky and turquoise sea. In the Sound of Iona is a small, rocky island, which I noticed and looked up on my OS map. The map identified it as Eilean nam Ban.

Eilean Nam Ban: seen from Mull

On Iona, I was happily mooching around ruins, clambering up dunes. Gazing, awed at the stone crosses that spoke of a Celtic Christian tradition I was learning more about at the time. Then, in the official guide to the place, I came across a reference to Eilean nam Ban. The Island of Women.

First, a little on the man himself, the founding father of Iona, whose presence is in every carved stone….

St Columba came to Scotland from Ireland in the sixth century AD from Ireland, to proselytise to the Picts. This is as known as a known gets in the Medieval Gael lands. He established an abbey on Iona, which subsequently became the heart of Celtic Christianity. He inspired hymns and folktales, legends and stories.

Here is one: Columba heard a voice telling him that he would not succeed in building his abbey, unless a living man was buried in its foundations. His friend Oran nobly volunteered to sacrifice himself. Columba ordered that his friend’s face should remain uncovered, so that he could bid his friend farewell. On bending close to the dying man, who was being buried under tonnes of masonry, the saint-in-waiting found that Oran was blaspheming terribly about the existence - or otherwise - of the afterlife. Columba withdrew in horror, and ordered the face hole filled in with earth...

Oran: "There is no Hell as you suppose, nor heaven that people talk about."
Columba: "Jesus. Shh, will you? Oi, builder! More earth over here."

Columba liked a maxim. One of his most famous was: “where there’s a cow, there’s a woman and where there is a woman there is mischief.” Nice.

Women? Bah.

There is a tradition, then, that Columba banished women from Iona. And in the harbour is the Island of Women: Eilean nam Ban. The tradition further states that Eilean nam Ban was where the women associated with Iona had to live, while their menfolk were on the holy isle communing with God.

Such tales are catnip to any writer with an interest in women’s unsung roles in the past. Within seconds of reading about Eilean nam Ban, an entire plot came into my head. My heroine would be trapped there, forced to live a small life. The first time we meet Eimhear, she is living there.

“I looked behind to the hall. Dimly lit, a star-prick against the cavernous horizon. I felt the familiar press of hill and sea and sky, and thought that this time – this time – I would be crushed.
I found a hollow in the hill, curling myself into it, out of the wind. And I let myself think of Somerled, and when we were young.”
I rushed home to my books, and the journals, and the accumulated historical writings I was using for my research and found… nothing.

Not a single scrap of evidence about Eilean nam Ban. In fact, the only concrete fact I found was an archaeological probe that found no evidence, at all, of anyone – male or female – living on the island during the ascendency of Iona.

I thought I had a known known – and I had a known unknown.

This is where the fiction comes in. But where the fiction touches the history, I believe that we have a duty to make up stuff that is as truthful as possible. To deduce the probable based on the facts. There are sufficient unknown unknowns in our work without introducing known fallacies.

So a test. If I followed the tradition, and made Eilean nam Ban an island of banished women in the twelfth century – some 600 years after the arrival of Columba on Ionan shores – how misleading would that be, based on the known knowns about social tropes of the period?

I decided it was a justified leap. This was a gendered society. Much was expected of women – these were not the genteel misses of later, urban societies. But it is entirely feasible that on a Holy island like Iona, a celtic tradition which venerated isolated holy men – culdees – would prohibit women from its shores.

There is the remains of a nunnery on Iona – but it was built in the thirteenth century (my hero Somerled’s daughter Bethoc was its first prioress). This was in a period of decline for Iona. In addition, it was a time of increasing pressure on Celtic Christianity from the European traditions favoured by the Norman-centric Scottish Kings – which included the growth of convents.

The name of the island itself, the tradition surrounding it and the known mores of the period all allowed me to push the history to fit the fiction.

With thanks to Donald Rumsfeld.

Antonia Senior's novel, The Winter Isles is published by Corvus. It is £1.99 on Kindle this month, which makes it 0.002p a word. Antonia was once paid £1 a word to write about pensions, and can't work out which sum is more peculiar.



Joan Lennon said...

I really didn't have time to be reading blogs this morning, but yours made me MAKE the time - thanks for a fascinating post, Antonia!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Joan! I like the idea of MAKING people read me when they should be doing something more productive...

Brendan said...

I found this post years later thanks to the mysterium of Google. Iona's is, as my father put it, a land of myth and mystery: the story of Oran's burial in the footers of the abbey to propitiate a disturbed spirit is both pure wellwater from the depths of prehistory as well as a metaphor, I think for Christendom's founding on pagan rock. And the Island of the Women is that Otherworld destination in "The Voyage of Bran" where pre-Christian seekers found love immortal and later the purity of faith (a nunnery). It is figurative in name and may have more to do with spiritual geography than actual practice. At Iona history and mystery are one. Fiona MacLeod (pen name of William Sharp) was a great weaver of Iona stories in the late 19th century, and his tales of Bride (the Irish goddess who was Christianized as Brighid) in "St. Bride of the Isles" (Collected Writings of William Sharp, Vol 2) suggest much in the background of your Bethoc.