Source: The GuardianAn inspiration, yes. Did I copy from another author? No
Ian McEwan has a reputation for the thorough research he undertakes before writing his novels. But yesterday, a Sunday newspaper claimed he had "copied" the work of another author for his Booker-nominated novel, Atonement. Here, McEwan refutes the claim, and explains how he drew on research and reminiscences for one of his most celebrated books
Ian McEwan: 'I have been talking about Lucilla Andrews for five years'.
Many ex-servicemen have found it difficult or impossible to talk about their experiences of war. My father never had any such problems. He never tired of telling me, a bored adolescent, and later, an attentive middle-aged son, how his legs were shot up by a machine gun mounted on a German tank; how he teamed up with a fellow who had been wounded in both arms, and how between them they had managed the controls of a motorbike to drive to the beaches of Dunkirk and eventual evacuation.
Even less interesting to a teenager was the repeated account of his subsequent six-month stay in Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool; how the burn victims were the unluckiest, always thirsty, always in agony, their limbs wrapped in "Bunyan bags" for protection; how tough soldiers quailed at the sound of the ward sister's voice, and how he had been severely ticked off by her for swearing in pain when a nurse attempted to remove the first of scores of pieces of shrapnel from his thigh. Author Ian McEwan
"Stop me if I've told you this before," was a sentence my father never uttered. He needed to relive his experiences, especially in the last year of his life. Perhaps after a sedentary postwar office job in the army, he sensed that the Dunkirk episode and his slow recovery from it was the most intense period of his life, the time when he felt most truly alive.
When I came to write Atonement, my father's stories, with automatic ease, dictated the structure; after I finished the opening section, set in 1935, Dunkirk would have to be followed by the reconstruction of a 1940 London hospital. It is an eerie, intrusive matter, inserting imaginary characters into actual historical events. A certain freedom is suddenly compromised; as one crosses and re-crosses the lines between fantasy and the historical record, one feels a weighty obligation to strict accuracy. In writing about wartime especially, it seems like a form of respect for the suffering of a generation wrenched from their ordinary lives to be conscripted into a nightmare.
The writer of a historical novel may resent his dependence on the written record, on memoirs and eyewitness accounts, in other words on other writers, but there is no escape: Dunkirk or a wartime hospital can be novelistically realised, but they cannot be re-invented. I was particularly fascinated by the telling detail, or the visually rich episode that projected unspoken emotion. In the Dunkirk histories I found an account of a French cavalry officer walking down a line of horses, shooting each one in turn through the head. The idea was to prevent anything useful falling into the hands of the advancing Germans. Strangely, and for exactly the same reason, near Dunkirk beach, a padre helped by a few soldiers burned a pile of King James bibles. I included my father's story of the near-lynching of an RAF clerk, blamed by furious soldiers for the lack of air support during the retreat. Though I placed my imagined characters in front of these scenes, it was enormously important to me that they actually happened.
Finding out about the Nightingale nurses based at St Thomas's, London, was far more difficult. Most of the history of war is military and political. The home front is a small subsection, and of this, nursing is a negligible fraction. Surely, historians have neglected their duty. I started in the Imperial War Museum library where I read a dry, official account of the order of nurses founded by Florence Nightingale. Then the Keeper of the Archives handed me a folder of old letters. Many of the Nightingale girls were from rather posh homes - just like my heroine, Briony Tallis. A good few of these trainee nurses had never been away from home before. One letter was blotched with what I imagined was a tear of homesickness.
I began to see snatches of a reality I was looking for: the familiar, tyrannical ward sister, the military insistence on "bull" - blankets folded just so, castors on beds lined up the same way, the constant cleaning of floors and above all, the emptying of bedpans - the medical orthodoxy then was that even patients who could walk must submit to "bed rest". There were a few affectionate mentions of the figure of "George", a large doll that the trainees learned to dress and feed.
But mostly, the reality lay half obscured by a fog of enquiries about pets, or horses, or requests for gossip from the Old Rectory. When the first serious cases began to arrive at the hospital from Dunkirk, the letters ceased - either lost to the record, or the nurses were suddenly too busy.
I know well from researching Saturday, a novel about a neurosurgeon, that patient traumas, medical procedures, hospital routines or details of training demand the strictest factual accuracy. When all these elements are 60 years in the past, the quest for truth becomes all the more difficult and important.
It was extraordinary, then, to find in the Wellcome Trust medical library, in Oxford, No Time for Romance, the autobiography of Lucilla Andrews, a well-known writer of hospital romances - my mother used to read her novels with great pleasure. Contained within this book was a factual account of the rigours of Nightingale training, the daily routines and crucially, of the arrival of wounded soldiers from the Dunkirk evacuation and their treatment. As far as I know, no other such factual account exists. Andrews even recounted an episode that paralleled my father's experience of being told off for swearing.
What Andrews described was not an imaginary world - it was not a fiction. It was the world of a shared reality, of those War Museum letters and of my father's prolonged hospital stay. Within the pages of a conventional life story, she created an important and unique historical document. With painstaking accuracy, so it seemed to me, she rendered in the form of superb reportage, an experience of the war that has been almost entirely neglected, and which I too wanted to bring to life through the eyes of my heroine. As with the Dunkirk section, I drew on the scenes she described. Again, it was important to me that these events actually occurred. For certain long-outdated medical practices, she was my sole source and I have always been grateful to her.
I have openly acknowledged my debt to her in the author's note at the end of Atonement, and ever since on public platforms, where questions about research are almost as frequent as "where do you get your ideas from?". I have spoken about her in numerous interviews and in a Radio 4 tribute. My one regret is not meeting her. But if people are now talking about Lucilla Andrews, I am glad. I have been talking about her for five years.