Fionnuala Brennan: I studied Art History at Trinity College Dublin, so I was of course aware of the importance of Goya in European art history. Years after I graduated, I saw an exhibition of his Disasters of War etchings (Los desastres de la guerra) and that is when my fascination grew.
Here was a Court Painter in late 18th and early 19th century Spain who had painted formal portraits of Wellington, as well as of King Charles IV and Queen Maria Luisa on horseback, and yet who saw nothing glorious or triumphant in war, who depicted the cruelty and inhumanity so movingly in these small etchings. To my mind, he is one of the first and certainly one of the most influential anti-war artists. Picasso followed in these footsteps.
I went to the Prado and was struck again by his “Black Paintings”; the ones he made for himself on the walls of his country house, Quinta del Sordo, manifesting his despair of human nature. Before that, he had published his wonderfully satirical Caprichos. I went to the British Museum to see some of the originals. The society artist who mocks the hypocrisy and superstition in Spanish society – what a fascinating and enigmatic character!
JM: Why did you choose the point of view of the women in the painter’s life to reveal his character?
FB: I did not want to write a straight biography, however fictionalised, of Goya. I decided that one can learn more from slanted observation than from full frontal, as it were. And who better to have witnessed Goya’s career than the women closest to him? They can show us how he worked, what personal matters troubled or elated him, and what he thought about some of his patrons.
JM: Following on from the previous question, there seems to be an endless desire for historical novels like yours, which are often called biographical fiction, in which a fictional story is woven around illustrious figures from the past in the worlds of literature or art. I’m thinking of Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring to 2011’s bestselling The Paris Wife by Paula McLain or 2014’s Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood. Why do you think we like to read these types of stories?
FB: I think we enjoy biographical fiction because it is less dense and certainly less restricted than non-fiction biographies. Because it has poetic license to look behind the bald facts. Because it is the work of the informed imagination.
JM: How did you approach the historical research that is so important to your novel? I’m interested in how you strike the balance between fact and fiction: How much of the story is based around actual events and how much is the product of your imagination? Likewise the personalities you’ve given the women.
FB: Of course, I read and consulted widely to be sure of the historical events and of the dates and circumstances of Goya’s artistic output. I was always interested in trying to look as deeply as one could into the enigmatic nature of the man. I was also interested in his techniques, how he painted and etched. His letters to his lifelong friend, Martin Zapater, told me a lot. The actual events of his life, such as his commissions, his role as Court Painter, the dates of his works, his marriage, the names of five of the six women in the novel, his residences, as well as the historical events in Spain at that time are all factual.
Five of the painter’s women existed. Apart from the Duchess of Alba, however, we know very little apart from their names about the other four women. I invented Dolores, the sixth woman, in order to place her as the face of The Naked Maja and also to link Goya’s time with the Duchess of Alba in Andalusia in 1796-1797 with his fictional re-appearance in her life during the period of her illness and death in 1802.
Regarding the personalities of the women… I imagined a great deal, but based some of my characterisation on real life events. In the case of his wife Josefa, five of whose children died in infancy, such events must have greatly distressed her, as indeed they did Goya. The row he had with her brother, his first mentor, must also have been a source of distress. His reputed affairs may have disturbed her, as well as his long absence in Andalusia with the Duchess of Alba.
His mistress Leocadia was reputedly sharp-tongued. I imagined what it must have been like to have lived with a much older, difficult, deaf man and not to be accepted as his wife, nor her daughter Rosario recognised as his. According to the date she left her husband and went to live with Goya, it would certainly seem that the child was most likely his.
The character of his daughter-in-law Gumersinda is a work of my imagination. I looked at Goya’s picture of her and concluded that she was, as we say in Ireland, some piece of work. Greedy, jealous, ambitious for her husband Javier and son Mariano.
JM: The novel opens and closes with the voice of Goya’s alleged illegitimate daughter, Rosario, also a painter although lesser known. Why did you decide to bookend the story with her?
FB: Although Goya seemed to have been a courageous man, unafraid to satirize Spanish society and unflattering of his royal patrons, who mixed with the men of the Enlightenment and who was brought before the Inquisition because of his painting The Naked Maja, he had feet of clay with regard to his second family. He did not seem to have made provision for the welfare of Leocadia or of Rosario after his death, leaving everything, as far as I could ascertain, to his son Javier and grandson Mariano. I wanted to open the book with his final illness and death during which his daughter Rosario and his mistress Leocadia were his constant companions and support and to finish it with the subsequent fate of these two women, especially Rosario. This exemplifies the statement which ends the novel: “This world is a masquerade… Everyone wants to appear what he is not, each deluding the other and not even knowing himself.”
It is not possible to fully know anyone else, as we do not even fully know ourselves. So biographies, whether fictionalised or not, while casting some light on their subjects, still look through a dark or misty glass.
JM: I read somewhere that it can be difficult to put into prose the sensations that art evokes without sounding, on one hand, too precious or, on the other, too textbook. Paintings are meant to be seen to be appreciated, not read about. But your descriptions of the masterpieces he created as a result of knowing these women, or sometimes in spite of knowing them, are engaging. Did you have any concerns about this going in?
FB: This question is a bit more difficult to answer. I believe firmly that ideally paintings are meant to be seen, not read about. However, not everyone can see the paintings in the place for which they were painted, as in churches, or can go to the art galleries where they hang, so the only way they can experience the works is in art books and in the words of art critics. Also, in my novel Goya’s works are described by the women who saw them being made, so that the methods he used and the atmosphere in which he worked show us a good deal about the works themselves.
JM: Are you working on something new at the moment and, if so, can you reveal anything about it?
FB: I have just finished a book of short stories entitled Islanders, and I am writing another novel, not biographical fiction this time. It’s set more or less in the present and is in the first draft stage.