This is how it happened. A PhD student at Oxford University was researching her thesis on war fiction. She discovered that McEwan had borrowed extensively from No Time For Romance, a memoir by Lucilla Andrews which describes her time as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital in London during the Second World War.
The student contacted Ms Andrews' agent Vanessa Holt, who said that she had found McEwan’s behaviour discourteous and disappointing, and let her client know. Andrews, the grand dame of romantic hospital fiction, was amused rather than angry about the borrowing, but planned to highlight it in an acceptance speech she was scheduled to give for a lifetime achievement award by the Romantic Novelists' Association at a lunch to be held at the Scottish parliament. Sadly, she passed away before she could have her fun at McEwan's expense.
But then the whole story came to light. Britain's Mail on Sunday picked it up, and raised the spectre of plagiarism as they invited readers to:
SPOT THE DIFFERENCEThe debate then bounced around on the pages of other newspapers, and McEwan hit back in the Times and said:
Excerpt from Atonement, by Ian McEwan...
"In the way of medical treatments, she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise. But mostly she was a maid."
Excerpt from No Time For Romance by Lucilla Andrews...
"Our 'nursing' seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains."
... his conscience was “absolutely clear”, and that it was almost impossible for a writer not to face accusations of copying at some point. He described Ms Andrews’ memoir, entitled No Time For Romance, and published in 1977, as a unique historical document that had helped him to recreate the atmosphere of a wartime hospital, but denied that Ms Andrews was the basis for one of his main characters. ... “When you write a historical novel you do depend on other writers. I have spoken about Lucilla Andrews countless times from a public plaftform. It has always been a very open matter.”In another article in the Guardian he talked more about his debt to Ms Andrews:
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.And he pointed out that he had acknowledged her in the author's note to Atonement.
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.
John Mullan on the Guardian blog sees it all as a bit of a non-issue:
Novelists have always borrowed from historical sources ...he says, naming Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott as borrowers of other people's material. And reminding us that:
Literary critics have long embraced TS Eliot's dictum that mediocre writers borrow, while great writers steal.Great or not, this won't be the first time that McEwan has stood accused. As D.J. Taylor points out in this fascinating account of literary borrowing in the Independent:
In the late 1970s several critics dutifully observed that Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden, in which a gang of suburban children conceal their mother's corpse, seemed to derive from Julian Gloag's Our Mother's House, which McEwan claimed never to have read.More on the story Ian McEwan's website.
Index: Rogues Gallery of Fakers and Plagiarisers
On Ian McEwan:
His Saturday, My Sunday (4/9/05)
Hello, Would You like a Free Book? (20/9/05)