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Truth, History and the Historical Novel

How “true to history” is an historical novel – or a scholarly history for that matter? There is the question of egregious license, where the writer for the purposes of art deliberately fictionalizes an event, as when Dorothy Dunnett credits her fictitious character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, with France’s conquest of Callais from England in the reign of Henri II. But what of the historical novelist who is using her medium as an exploration of what might have happened in the past?

The historical novelist, like the academic historian, must (if he or she is earnest) work from a very few categories of information: legal documents, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, chronicles, diaries, journals and books by historians and biographers.  Let’s have a look at them.

Legal Documents:

Courts generate masses of documents every month and have been doing so for seven to eight hundred years in much of Europe, longer in Rome and in China. How much can these documents be taken at face value? I’ve received notice of a class action suit against AT&T for an event that took place so long ago that it’s about to tip over the Statute of Limitations. Where there aren’t Statutes of Limitations, court documents may churn along their slow way for decades and longer – and are not to be trusted as indicators of current events. Similarly with letters – which display not only a lag in time but may contain as much misinformation as gossip over the garden fence.

Some documents, such as medieval charters, tell a few reliable “truths” — the attached seals tell us who actually was present to witness at the time. But the purpose of a charter? It’s timeliness? What the surrounding circumstances were in its being granted? These issues usually are unmentioned, and if they are they tell us nothing of the influences, favors or punishments that lie behind the document’s issuance.

 So much for unquestioning reliance on legal documents and their dates. 

A vast amount of collateral material of the period is necessary to give some indication of the back ground and significance of a document, but the document itself may tell no more than an oyster’s shell tells whether there’s a pearl inside.

Reports from eyewitness accounts:

We know how two people viewing the same event will give different reports. But when there are many witnesses, all in agreement…?

I was serving on a Murder Grand Jury. It was an open and shut case for indictment for attempted murder of a uniformed Transit Police officer. There were eyewitnesses: the two plain-clothes policemen who tackled, subdued and arrested the accused with smoking gun in hand, the nurse standing beside the victim, the numerous doctors, nurses and patients who rushed to look out the windows as six shots blasted the hospital quiet zone. And the victim himself, who showed up in court with his arm in a sling – not the result of this incident.

It was a remark from the nurse witness that prompted the jury to ask for further evidence, to seek the job record of the accused and to hear his own account of the event – an unusual proceeding for a New York City Grand Jury. The nurse, describing how the accused stood while firing, struck a pose, feet apart, both of her hands as if on a gun held directly in front of her “in standard police” posture, as she said. Really? How did she know this was “standard?” (This was before police procedurals on TV.) It soon came out that she was the accused’s wife and he was a police officer in New Jersey.

It’s not required by law for a wife to testify against her husband. What was going on? We dug deeper – and heard from the accused. He told us he suspected his wife was having an affair and had gone to the hospital where she worked to ask her about it. As he left his parked car he saw her coming out of the hospital with a Transit Police officer and kissing him on the lips. At which the accused said he shouted “Hey! You!”

The Transit Patrolman could read his accoster’s name on his volunteer fireman’s jacket and immediately reached for his gun. At which the New Jersey policeman began shouting for help while firing – in an attempt, he said, to keep the Transit Policeman from being able to reach his gun. (Shouts for help were verified by the policemen who tackled him.)

This seemed implausible. Then the accused’s work records showed he was the top marksman in New Jersey and one of the top marksmen in the United States. There was no indictment for attempted murder. Only for his carrying his service revolver (required in NJ) into New York.

So much for the reliability of eyewitnesses. And of court documents, if an investigation is less fortunate than this one was.

Newspapers, diaries, journals and chronicles:

Some people read The New York Times, some read The New York Post and some read the Daily News: some like Fox News and some like CNN. It’s a commonplace that the media all have spin. The reader chooses what he or she prefers. And so it is with the material available to the historian. And the historian chooses according to disposition, philosophy, politics, and considerations of the marketplace.

From delvings into these sources, deeply or shallowly, written histories are fashioned.

Every historian is a scholar very much steeped in the ideas of his or her own time – which will skew choices and interpretations. A post-Hegelian/Marxist view has informed much of late 20th-21st century scholarship with an aversion to the “great man” theory and a need to demonstrate that great movements evolve out of the people over extended lengths of time. The impressive works of J.R. Maddicott are a prime example.

Royalist sympathies have informed much of English historians’ works. Yet there are individuals who express the divergence of feeling in their time. The foremost 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris was fiercely anti-Vatican and critical of monarchy. His contemporaries, Walter of Guisborough and John of Oxford, were committedly royalist.

An historian chooses which sources to follow or give greater weight depending upon the point of view he or she intends to support.

There is the feminist bias. What girl, growing up just a few years ago, wasn’t dismayed to find that men seemed to have done everything? There’s been a concerted effort to rectify that imbalance. Many women who were significant in history have been discovered. Many writers have enlarged the activities and effects of certain women of the past – out of a sensitive perception of their contributions or, on occasion, out of a desire to fit the policies of a publisher. In the world of trade publishing since the last quarter of the 20th century feminism has been a strong influence in both histories and historical novels. And rightly so – the imbalance was intolerable for a world in which women have achieved so much freedom from the domestic limits that bound most women’s lives in the past.

Much the same may be said of the flow of writings on topics of the Third World and Minorities. It’s a wholesome restoration of balance if readers are to have some scope of understanding of a rapidly uniting world.

But no writing is free of the slant – indeed of the needs – of its time.  “Truth” is not the issue. Objective truth is never a possibility in delineating the complex actions of mankind. Nor even, reliably, in describing the small, everyday occurrences that leave a paper trace.

As for the historical novel: the novelist attempts to bring to life from the written page to the imagination of the reader an idea of how events may have happened. The choice of those events is selective at the outset. The novelist marshals the sources: histories, biographies, journals, chronicles, documents. Each of those sources has its own “spin.” And the novelist makes choices among them for the shape of the story she or he is moved to tell. On this always shifting sand the novelist imposes a form, and gives it life.

If the reader finds that form congenial, convincing as a story, and with some insight of worth that the reader can embrace, then the novelist’s purpose is served. The “truth” of what happened in the lives of people who actually lived in the past can never be captured, and to suppose that it can is naïve. To complain that a writer has not followed the path of another writer and therefor is in error is to fail to understand the process by which “histories” are made.