Book review: “Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People” — Fictional character sketches by John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters

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Book review: “Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People” — Fictional character sketches by John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters

Now, let’s take these characters and make a novel!

Ooops! I’m afraid I’m jumping the gun a bit here. I should tell you first what I’m talking about — “Imagined Lives,” a wonderful hybrid of a book newly published by the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Since 1856, the Gallery has been collecting portraits. In some cases, though, a portrait of, say, Mary Queen of Scots has turned out to be, well, not her. So the Gallery has a bunch of paintings once thought to be of famous or semi-famous people, now more honestly described as being of unknown people.

Or as Tarnya Cooper says in an essay, “lost souls whose quest for immortality has proved only partially successful.”

In other words, their portraits were striking enough or beautiful enough or quirky enough that they’ve survived centuries, even if the names of the sitters have been forgotten.

Imagined bios

Last December, Cooper brought together 14 such paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries for a six-month exhibit at the Gallery — with an added twist.

Eight prominent writers — John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters — took one or two of the artworks and imagined a short (300 to 600 words) life story for each.

The made-up bios accompanied the art in the Gallery exhibit, and, now, in this book, the two are brought together again. Each work is lushly reproduced in full and in detail along with the character studies which range from touching to funny to mysterious.

Let’s write a novel!

That’s where my idea for a novel comes in. Someone, probably one of those eight great writers, should take these 14 “people” and create a story that draws them all together.

Consider the cast of characters:

• Blanche Vavasour (1497-1558) who forged her Catholic husband’s signature on a Protestant oath of allegiance to Henry VIII. When he learned of it, the husband said, “False King, false Church and now false wife.” He was duly executed, and it is a sorrowful Blanche in her portrait. [Fellowes]
• Edmund Audley (1522-1580), a minor court official who left behind a “collection of elegant, intelligent but passionate poetry,” apparently not about his wife. [Singleton]
• Mary Peebles (painted around 1570), a body double for Mary Queen of Scots who was sexually assaulted by Mary’s husband and who, after the husband was killed in an explosion, devised a courtly dance, performed to the words, “Darnley is gone skywards, sing hurrah.” [Smith]
• Nicholas Colthurst (1560-1629), a musician, composer, adventurer, privateer and spice merchant whose portrait shows a piece of music that, in fact, translates as: “I saw her, I love her, and I will love her.” (Singleton)
• Edmund Newton (painted around 1587) who sent his portrait and a marriage proposal to Catherine Harshorn who then sent a letter to her mother describing the painting and saying, “I believe this to be a good likeness. But — do I like the likeness?” (Trollope)
• A man known only as Rosy (painted around 1590) who was given the name by his boyhood friend George who, after Rosy’s marriage to Caroline, “never used my nickname again.” (Chevalier)
• Mary Douglas (painted around 1595), an heiress who was to be married off by her family and who said, “I fear loneliness, whether I marry or not.” (Walters)
• A haggard woman whose husband Henry and son Harry recently died and whose likeness was being rendered by her friend William (around 1595) and who thought, “It is just as well William has almost finished the drawing, for Death is impatient to visit again. At least my daughter is healthy.” (Chevalier)
• Joachim Muller (1576-1612), a German scientist and alchemist and, very possibly, a spy who, on a visit to London, was “stabbed in the throat by an unknown assailant.” (Banville)
• Joshua Easement (painted around 1620), a doofus who somehow directed a ship to America and back, presenting Elizabeth I with a skunk (with the not-surprising complications that arose, so to speak, from that) and who was assigned, given his lack of a sense of smell, to oversee the royal latrines. (Pratchett)
• Jan de Groot (painted around 1627), a Dutch fortune-hunter who bankrupted his family to have his painting done and who is likely to find himself — a non-swimmer — pushed into one of Amsterdam’s waterways by his overwrought wife. (Walters)
• William Wrightson (1594-1659) who fought for the king and survived a brutal battle in the English Civil War in which his brother-in-law, fighting for Parliament, yelled to his companions, “Kill him now, I beg you, for I may not. Methinks my wife would mislike it.” Wrightson survived the battle. (Fellowes)
• Paxton Whitfield (painted around 1636) who disliked his painting because “my nose has about it a shine and a hint of colour which would indicate a propensity to being fuddled [i.e., intoxicated]. I am, in truth, seldom fuddled, and never without sever provocation.” (Trollope)
• Launcelot Northbrook (1621-1649), “one of the most handsome men of his generation” who died on the battlefield and was painted on his deathbed. (Banville)

Ah, what a collection of compelling souls, even if lost.

Who will write their common story?

We already know what they look like.

Patrick T. Reardon
7.20.12

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