Blog, Cromwell Trilogy

Novels and History

I’ve been thinking a lot about this alleged distinction between novels and history. (I’ve actually been thinking a lot about distinctions in general.)

A thesis that I carry to everything I read is this: all writing — literally ::all:: writing — has an agenda. Whether it’s a novel, a historical account, a shopping list, or an essay.

Semantically, “history” often reads as “truth.” If you read the history of something, you likely want to gain a better understanding of it, and you approach with the assumption that this has facts, rather than conjecture, or if conjecture, supported conjecture, or if not supported, it just feels right.

History maybe doesn’t exist. Not that the past doesn’t exist (though a lot of freshmen philosophy students will bore you to tears at a dinner party about how maybe everything we experience is a construct and nothing exists, truly, outside of us, and that’s when I recommend remembering a quick call you have to make so you can excuse yourself from the table, grab your coat, walk home, and never leave it again); it does. The past happens all the time. But history is simply an organizing tool, and not an objective thing unto itself.

History is clean and orderly and linear, with an index. Life is none of those things unless you’re my mom, and then it is at least clean because that lady liked to scrub under the stove and refrigerator once a week. History is a collection of items: here, a letter, here a diary; these are maps, contracts, and a lawsuit; a dress, a tincture bottle, a skeleton with a slight hunch to its back. But that’s really all history is. It’s the items.

Interpretation of these items also gets called history — but it’s about as reliable as scrying. (If you’re very good at scrying, this paragraph isn’t for you.) Because not only is every written thing a document with an agenda (sometimes political; sometimes ideological); it turns out, people are also ideological things with agendas. So to suggest that novels aren’t a kind of history seems to be a misreading of both literature and history; an Anxiety of Influence, as the great sexual harasser Harold Bloom would write, in a thesis stolen from, and never attributed to, Keats.

People lie. They lie out loud, they lie in letters. They lie on time sheets and under oath and in diaries and in gossip. I spent a whole summer in my teens pretending to be English. Sometimes they don’t know they’re lying, they just feel sure that time will make what they say correct. We can say, “We have this letter from Chapuys, to Charles V–” and that’s where we need to stop, because that’s the only reliable thing you have (and even that can be undermined by later revelations, such as a letter being a forgery, or never delivered); you have a tangible item, but you do not have the intangible truth of that item.

History is a fancy way of saying, “Here’s my guess.” And if you’re a professional historian, you can say, “Here’s my guess, and it cost me $120k.”

At long last the point: We need to be careful with any appeal to historical authority. And we need to question every piece of historical evidence that comes our way. History is the non-smoking section of a restaurant that allows fiction to smoke at the bar. And vice versa.

2 thoughts on “Novels and History”

  1. I am glad to see you being snide about Harold Bloom—I took a scunner at him years ago and I cannot remember why—unless (in part) he is the fellow who said that real character, or was it personality—began with Shakespeare. He obviously never read Chaucer, or the poems of Catullus, or The Tale of Genji. And I am always wondering if I mean Alan Bloom…

    In line with your comments—I am reading a book on the making of the novel Anna Karenina—by a worshipful devotee of that novel, who thinks about it as you do about the Cromwell Trilogy. The fellow learned Russian to read it in the original, has pored through the extant letters and memoirs of Tolstoi and many of his circle, and the diaries and memoirs of Sofia Tolstoi and two of their children, and other critical writings on the author. And he is very very careful to point out how so many points in these records vary, and how different the possible interpretations might be and how it is possible that certain incidents in Tolstoi’s life crept into the novel, but on the other hand…most illuminating!

    In relation to history—Tolstoi did not in the least start out by writing Anna. He did immense amounts of research on the life and times of Peter the Great—and could not make himself take up that subject, despite his success with War and Peace. Nope. Anna took over—and changed in the writing, which took years and was like pulling hen’s teeth…

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