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Photographs, Ghosts And The Past In ‘The Mathematics Of Love’, by Emma Darwin

If you’ve ever stood in a church where your historical character stood (as I did with Elizabeth Woodville in A Secret Alchemy) or read a notice that said ‘George Washington slept here’, you’ll know what I mean by that shiver you get when you realise that but for the thinnest possible veil of time the past is here with you… or is it that you’ve stepped into the past?

Photographs do that for me. Most especially the photographs which are the actual, physical object that was in the camera: a film or paper or glass plate negative, a daguerreotype, or one of its descendants such as the tin-type beloved of fairground photographers in the 19th century.

It’s not just the sense that this is what these long-dead people, this long-gone building, this moment of the first Diamond Jubilee or the Crimean War, actually looked like. It comes down to physics. The controlled tarnishing from transparent to brown-black of silver halides is all that actually records the image in the camera, even with colour photographs. Photons of light touched that real, actual person, and were reflected away to touch the photographic emulsion on the film or glass plate, and blacken it in proportion. That plate, that film, is the photograph, there in your hands.

Late in The Mathematics of Love veteran photographer Theo – who I modelled on Robert Capa – says this:

‘…all photographs are about death, really, and time: about preserving a moment in silver and chemicals, when life itself is never preserved, when every cell of everything is already decaying, and being replaced, and decaying again. The subject and the image co-exist for the moment that the shutter opens and closes. And then the subject decays but the image lives on unchanged.’

The Mathematics of Love is all about ghosts, without really being a ghost story. The more I thought about light and where it falls, the more places I found in the story where it’s part of how we experience time and our selves: the pale mark of straps on a sun-burnt shoulder, or dark where the insignia have been cut from a war-bleached uniform or a picture taken down from a wall.

I don’t believe in ghosts – hence my ‘not really’. I think what ghosts embody and express about our sense of the past is endlessly fascinating – not just the past but the dead and the still-living and the might-have-been. In that way, a photograph is like a historical novel as much as it’s a historical record; it embodies the dead quite literally, in silver halides, in a way which lives absolutely in our moment. It therefore embodies the might-have-been, just outside the frame. It’s more like holding a letter written by that person, than it’s like looking at a portrait painted of them. Writing historical fiction is all about using imagination (rooted in research, of course) to cross over from the present into the past. With a photograph, the past crosses over into our present.

***Write with Emma Darwin near Hobart, Australia with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in September 2014

Emma Darwin’s author website:

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The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     Shadow of the PastThe Medici SecretSektion 20

Writing Historical Novels


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