I’ve been deeply intrigued by the concept of Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People ever since I first heard about it. Eight authors wrote fictional character sketches, based off portraits whose original identities have been lost. Many were at some point thought to be someone famous from history, which is how the portraits ended up at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Later scholarship has overturned their supposed identities, and now the Portrait Gallery (which, by the way, is my favorite museum, ever) has put together a collection of stories around these anonymous portraits.
I almost bought a copy in the gift shop when I was at the museum…but I have trouble buying books I haven’t read, so I resisted. I hit the library instead, and I think that was the right decision. I enjoyed the book, but I’m glad I didn’t spend however many pounds they would have charged me.
There are eight authors and fourteen character sketches, and while I liked the book overall, the quality does vary. The style also varies, which contributes to the changing quality. I liked best the ones that were more like stories. There’s a mix of letters, personal reflections, and fictional encyclopedia entries, all of them only two to three pages long.
The encyclopedia entries read like, well, encyclopedia entries. Some of the more elaborate ones have some intriguing elements to them, but ultimately…well, how fascinating is an encyclopedia entry, really? Especially a very brief, overview biography of someone. Some of these would be wonderful as novels, but in such a compressed format, they fall a little flat. Not all–but some.
For the letters and the reflections, I liked the shortness. Because of their style, they’re much more intimate, much more detailed, and give us this tiny, very personal glimpse into the individual’s life. I especially liked it when the glimpse is very closely tied into the portrait–as in a woman writing to her sister about her husband’s rash investment in commissioning a portrait they can’t afford, or a young noblewoman whose painting has been done with the interest of attracting a suitor, and she fears a husband who would choose his wife in such a way. That was one of my favorites. We also get the other side of a similar story, a woman writing to her mother about her indecision on whether she should accept a suitor who has sent her his portrait.
My favorite, though, is actually one of the encyclopedia entries, which will make more sense when I tell you that it was written by the delightful Terry Pratchett. It tells the tale of the very unfortunate Joshua Easement, who dreamed of being a great explorer but whose “navigational method mainly consisted of variations on the theme of bumping into things.”
The portraits all seem to be from loosely around the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and many are tied very closely into history. As is frequently true with much longer works of historical fiction, some of the fun of the stories is weaving the fictional characters into the lives of real people.
The book concludes with an essay on how scholars identify portraits, and how portraits like the ones in the book can lose their original identities. It’s a very accessible essay, and an interesting look at the stories behind the portraits in museums.
If you have an interest in portraits or British history, I recommend this intriguing (and very quick) read. I didn’t enjoy all the character sketches, but in the midst are several gems.
Museum Site: http://www.npg.org.uk/
Buy it here: Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People