Historical novelists (unless they're the late George MacDonald Fraser) usually get around the problem of fictional characters interacting with historical ones by making them effectively "invisible": the fictional characters are private folk, the sort who normally don't appear in the historical record. They're servants, subordinate officers, low-level functionaries, random passers-by. Or, alternately, they're "important" but necessarily erased from history--secret agents, spies, and behind-the-scenes "fixers," for example. Or, again, they inhabit the halfway point between fictional and historical: we know that they're probably historical (e.g., Girl with a Pearl Earring), but we also know so little about them that they might as well be fictional.
Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which at first glance appears to be an entirely conventional biofiction about Joseph R. "Joey" Smallwood, charges the problem head on--and gets around it by ignoring it entirely. Half of the novel is given over to Smallwood and his first-person autobiographical narrative; the other half to Sheilagh Fielding, Smallwood's lifelong obsession, a flamboyantly ironic journalist and op-ed writer who publishes under a series of pseudonyms ("Field Day"). Fielding's output includes her diary, her unpublished Condensed History of Newfoundland (complete with a forged preface), and her op-eds. Fielding turns out to be integral to Smallwood's life, career, and sense of self; her personal traumas eventually prompt him to what appears to be the only truly selfless, loving act of his life. And yet, she is entirely fictional. (As is David Prowse, Smallwood's nemesis.) In a notorious review, Rex Murphy complained that Fielding "just doesn't belong."1 Where, then, does this leave Smallwood?
Fielding's Condensed History unwrites D. W. Prowse's History of Newfoundland (both Prowse and his book haunt the novel) and Robert Hayman's Quodlibets, both of which it sets alongside fake folk ballads and a "lost" version of the national anthem. By contrast, Smallwood's narrative appears to be a model of thick-skulled narrative respectability. But forgery infects Smallwood's life as well: the forged letter that impels him to drop out of Bishop Feild College, the forged signature on his father's copy of Prowse's History, and, ultimately, his forged public persona. "But I never stopped believing, deep down, that these men were my betters, my true superiors," Smallwood says of the men he dominated during his life in politics, "nor, I now realize, did they" (85-86). Smallwood's non-meteoric but eventual rise to power comes accompanied by so many metaphorical pratfalls, not to mention real-life disasters, that at times the novel reads like a more realistic version of Robert Coover's The Public Burning. In fact, as Stan Dragland bluntly noted a few years ago, Johnston does not attempt to recreate Smallwood's life with any particular accuracy: "Well, Johnston didn't get it right. He didn't get Smallwood right, and he committed many other errors and distortions of Newfoundland history and geography."2 Given how important forgery and parody turns out to be, it's hardly surprising that Smallwood isn't "right." Still, that doesn't altogether account for Fielding.
Fielding, I would suggest, writes Smallwood. That is, whether or not Fielding "actually" writes Smallwood's autobiography, Smallwood's voice exists within Fielding's ironic worldview and not outside it. In terms of the novel's structure, this is actually the case: the first and last character we hear from is Fielding, not Smallwood. (Even then, we first have to get through two epigraphs from Prowse and a prefatory note from the author.) For that matter, Fielding remains at the center even when she is purportedly offstage, jibing at Smallwood in her op-eds. Under the circumstances, it is not too much to say that Fielding creates him. (This is practically a parody of bad fanfiction...) Dragland points out that Smallwood is a "pretender" (195), just like everyone else in the Condensed History. But we can go further: Smallwood's regime appears here as the logical sequel to the Condensed History. Herb Wyile comments that the Condensed History is Fielding's "revenge on a history that has cramped her style."3 Smallwood's--or "Smallwood's"--career appears to be more of the same. If Smallwood didn't exist, Fielding would have had to invent him.
1 Rex Murphy, rev. of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, rpt. in Points of View (New York: Random House, 2004), 49.
2 Stan Dragland, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams: Romancing History?", Essays on Canadian Writing #182 (Spring 2004): 189 <web.ebscohost.com>. That being said, Dragland is mostly very positive about the novel's success as a fiction.
3 Herb Wyile, Speculative Fictions: Contemporary Canadian Novelists and the Writing of History (Montreal, Quebec and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002), 132.