Gentle Reminder: Making Stuff Up Is Called “Fiction”

BBC Magazine, September 5:

A point of view: When historical fiction is more truthful than historical fact

“More truthful” are the key words in that headline. An historian would argue that mixing fiction with history is precisely where a great danger lies. However, according to Lisa Jardine, a professor of Renaissance Studies (in the Humanities) at the University of London, and writing at the BBC web site, there is apparently little to worry about:

….For some time I have been researching the lives of a group of scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War Two. Although there are several impeccably researched non-fiction works on the subject and a number of biographies, none of these really conveyed to me the emotions and convictions that drove their work – I simply could not connect with the personal principles of the scientists who collaborated with such energy to produce the period’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

In my search for understanding the motivation of those who joined the race to produce the bomb whose use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled the world, I eventually decided to turn from fact to fiction. If historians could not fill the gaps in the record that made the knowledge I was after so elusive, perhaps storytellers less shackled by documented evidence might do so….

….Sometimes it takes something other than perfect fidelity to sharpen our senses, to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past. Silence comes between the historian and the truth he or she looks to the sources to reveal. Thank goodness for the creative imagination of fiction writers, who can reconnect us with the historical feelings, as well as the facts.

I am very uncomfortable with that “point of view.” Here’s why.

In the absence of their own words and thoughts, it is perfectly understandable some desire to invent words and thoughts in order to be better illuminate historical figures’ motivations. However, there is a line. Every writer must be cognizant of it.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of two medieval knights.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of two medieval knights.

If you have seen the John Adams miniseries, you heard dialogue coming from historical figures. As something of a Thomas Jefferson hobbyist, I discerned just about everything the Thomas Jefferson character said on screen was something Jefferson had written at some point in his life. It may have not been written in the exact context used in the series, but Jefferson pretty much said it at some time or another.

Relatedly, coincidentally you may know I just decided to entertain myself with a read of The Winds Of War. Writing about the run up to World War II, Herman Wouk did not use his historical fiction to try to get “inside the heads” of historical figures. Insofar as I can tell, he leaves the “thinking” to the fictional characters he had created and 100 percent controlled.

Both are by far the sounder approaches. For if there are no words, well, sorry, there are no words. To pretend we can “read minds” is a profound disservice to history. I wouldn’t want someone 70 years from now trying to read my mind. Would you?

Oh, yes, when you as an author are giving historical figures dialogue “to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past,” you may know the line. But you’re playing with serious fire. Most readers and viewers probably will be unable to spot the difference between established fact and your storytelling that is, uh, “less shackled by documentary evidence.”

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When Americans Meet

Yesterday, I discussed romance at 39,000 ft over the Atlantic. Today, we return to earth. Uh, “foreign” ground, to be specific.

Since Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, oh, and John and Abigail Adams (geez, never leave out John Adams, or he goes volcanic), Americans in Europe have provided storylines in countless books and films. Tourists form one distinctive source. Expats another:

“You’re American, right?” she asked James.

He answered, “You’re an American, too.”

“We’re from L.A.,” she said. “My husband works in Paris, and we’re on vacation. He had to go to the States for a time by himself. I thought the boys would like to see Normandy.” She concluded as one of her sons gestured restlessly that he wanted to sit on her lap and she waved a hand trying to dissuade him.

I’ve lived in Britain for over 15 years. I’ve run into Americans now and then. A few years’ back I read somewhere that there are around 250,000 non-military Americans residing in the United Kingdom, of whom some 100,000 live in London. (But please don’t quote me on that.)

When we bump into one another, of course we never quite know “who” we each are at first. I’ve always had the distinct impression we sort of eye each other up decidedly more than if we had met in the U.S. It’s as if we are trying to ascertain, “Who are you really? And why are you here too?”

Perhaps the major reason we may be rather wary of one another initially is because back at home we are sooooooo nastily divided politically. That often translates on this side of the water into meeting Americans who may be quicker to attack U.S. policies than even the most fault-finding, stereotypically “anti-American” of Europeans, while simultaneously also admiring Europe more than even many Europeans. I’ve also stumbled on the polar opposite: the expression “What’s that in real money?” may no longer be heard, but there are still Americans for whom the U.S. can do nearly no wrong and Europeans almost nothing right.

Myself, I’ve always been “careful” over here. Some right-wing Europeans think I’m rather conservative. Leftists often think I’m more left-wing than I am. Very good. Keep ‘em guessing….

But regardless fellow American let’s not draw swords on each other about whatever is bugging you about back home and wash our dirty laundry among these non-Americans listening to us because many of them have not been to the U.S. so are looking at us to provide them a first-hand glimpse into what our country is because their usual insight into life in the U.S. is through the media prism provided by the likes of the BBC and Le Monde. Oh, I should take a breath? You can tell I’m from New York originally? Buy you a drink, friend? ;-)

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I also recall once meeting the proverbial “American in Paris.” Politics wasn’t his obvious interest; but a certain woman definitely was. Working there for a time, he had within weeks of arrival become infatuated with a French friend of mine whom he had met through mutual acquaintances. (Editor’s note: this was well before Robert met his future wife.)

Smitten by her? Well, what a surprise? As she introduced us at a party, I sensed immediately he also wasn’t exactly thrilled she knew me.

“This is Robert,” she grabbed my arm, “my friend from in New York….”

Yep, that’s right, dude, I am from New York. And I’ve known her a lot longer than you. And you are, from, uh, some town in some state no one in this room’s ever heard of. ;-)

The intra-Yank “tension” bubbled hotly just below the surface. Moreover she had already also told me she was not interested in him “that way” anyway. “And he’s Protestant. I would not go with a Protestant,” my Catholic friend had made quite clear.

Thinking back on it, I would characterize the scene as akin to an awkward bit we might see in a Woody Allen film. At some point years after, I came to think nonsense like that might serve as a launching pad for a little literary endeavor of my own someday. Yep, Henry James, watch out. ;-)

“Which would be your second choice? France.”

Hope you had a good weekend. We’re still recovering from Ireland. Helping is that the London weather today is beautiful: sunny, 24C/ 75F. Fantastic.

I mentioned the other day that I had thought a “park scene” would work for what I needed in one chapter. Given that in the first book I had also alluded several times to James’s interest in Thomas Jefferson, in the sequel I’m thinking I will expand on that somewhat. Therefore what better to drop in than, say, a famous Jefferson quote about France?

Perfect, right? Uh, except there’s just one little problem: the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (which maintains his Monticello estate) warns us that “famous quote” is not one:

Although the saying, “Every man has two countries – his own and France” has been attributed to Jefferson many times, this exact wording has never been found in his writings.

So based on an experience of mine that I attribute here to James, in this scene I thought I’d use the exact quote. Click to expand:

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And of course I was going to end that “sneak peek” in a “cliffhanger!” Did you really think I wouldn’t? ;-)

You may know already I’m a bit partial to Jefferson. It is easy to find the Sage of Monticello cited on “social media.” Yet thanks also to that same “social media” Jefferson has become increasingly misquoted; and some of the whoppers are incredible. In fact it has gotten so out of hand, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s web site has an entire section devoted to revealing “spurious” Jefferson quotations:

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The freedom novels allow us, eh? We may get it wrong – either deliberately or accidentally – as well as get it right!

Other “sneak peeks” here.

Monticello v. Mount Vernon

We know yesterday President Obama took France’s visiting President Hollande on a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello.

Hmm. One wonders if Jefferson’s view of Rosalie and William’s Franco-American romance – which also included, early on, probably, uh, extramarital behavior – rated a mention? Seems unlikely. ;-)

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I write this as a long-time Jefferson fan. Having been to both Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, my personal take is that Mount Vernon reflects a more down to earth and conventional man. Washington’s home is predictable in its layout and room usage; while it is large, it reminds one today of pretty much any other big, rural, framed home. It was the Father of our Country’s living there for much of his life that most makes it special.

>Washington's Mount Vernon, seen looking at the rear of the house. [Photo by me, 2011.]

Washington’s Mount Vernon, seen looking at the rear of the house. [Photo by me, 2011.]

In comparison, Monticello is full of architectural quirks, personal inventions, and decoration that clearly reflects the input of its “quirky” owner. Of course all those help make for a great tour and masses of interesting anecdotes for guides to share. But they also mark it out as being more of a museum, and an experiment in construction, rather than a home.

What also struck me about Monticello is perhaps the contrast between the two founding fathers’ daily living environments. Yes, both estates had slave quarters. Yet because Mount Vernon strikes one first and foremost as a family home rather than its owner’s personal statement on refined living, Mount Vernon’s slave housing area feels somehow just a bit less morally appalling than Monticello’s.

The top of Jefferson's Monticello, seen from "Mulberry Row," a path along which slave cabins had stood. [Photo by me, 2011.]

The top of Jefferson’s Monticello, seen from “Mulberry Row,” a path along which slave cabins had stood. [Photo by me, 2011.]

Consider this. From its Mulberry Row path situated below the house, you can spot the top of the Monticello mansion. (Those two standard looking windows that are clearly visible are on a secondary, nearer, structure. That isn’t the house itself.) However, from the mansion, you cannot easily see down to Mulberry Row, so presumably Jefferson couldn’t see it easily either.

The wooden structures that once constituted Mulberry Row are long gone. But today you can still stand exactly where many of Monticello’s slaves once “lived.” That is about from where I took that photo above.

Standing there now, nearly two centuries after Jefferson died, one can only but wonder: what must those dwelling in those often ramshackle structures really have thought of the “great man” up on the hill in that arguably obscene museum of a house?

I recall also how a guide explained Jefferson rarely set foot in the kitchen, which was located in a part of “the basement” that ran the entire under-length of the house. Slaves would pop upstairs as needed, rather than traipsing around inside the interior of the house. His famous “dumbwaiters” were also loaded from the basement, transporting wine upstairs to the main floor.

After his death, the guide said slaves who had worked in the kitchen had recalled Jefferson appearing in the basement among them only when he came down every few days, to wind the kitchen clock himself.

Falling Short In The Pursuit Of Happiness

On Monday, according to Reuters:

President Barack Obama will kick off the state visit of French President Francois Hollande … with a visit to Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and a one-time envoy to France.

“Monticello reflects Jefferson’s affection for the people of France, the long-standing relations between our two democracies, and the shared values we hold dear: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the White House said in a statement….

There is little new to be said here about one Thomas Jefferson. However, a much lesser known story is that of Jefferson’s private secretary while he was serving in Paris, William Short. It seems unlikely Mr. Short’s personal “pursuit of happiness” will merit much mention during the Hollande tour of Monticello.

Jefferson's home, Monticello. Photo by me, 2011.

Jefferson’s home, Monticello. Photo by me, 2011.

After Jefferson returned to America, Short remains in France. He serves briefly as chargé d’affaires. But as Monticello’s web site explains further:

….By 1792 Short had become horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution. Unlike Jefferson, he correctly predicted that the tyranny of the mob would be replaced by the tyranny of a despot. Regarding their disagreement over the course of the French Revolution, Short did not trust his mentor’s faith in democratic reform: “Jefferson’s greatest illusions in politics have proceeded from a most amiable error on his part; having too favorable opinion of the animal called Man.”….

Short had hoped to succeed Jefferson as Minister to France. Perhaps predictably, given his relative youth, he does not:

….Much to Short’s disappointment, President Washington …. promoted him to be minister to the Netherlands, not France.

The Netherlands is not where Short wishes to be. Why that might be so is not especially difficult to understand:

In 1785 Short had grown attached to Duchesse Rosalie de la Rochefoucauld, whose husband Duc Louis Alexandre de la Rochefoucauld (an uncle thirty years her senior), was assassinated during the Reign of Terror.

The major reason Short would sour on the French Revolution after Jefferson’s departure is due in all likelihood to what would happen to the family of that young married, aristocratic woman with whom he had fallen in love. Jefferson’s famous biographer Dumas Malone noted that earlier, during the later 1780s:

….[Short] enjoyed [the company] of the young Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld often enough to excite some comments among his friends. She was much too young for Jefferson’s distinguished friend and contemporary the Duke; and Short, who seems to have appealed to all the ladies, obviously appealed to her. Up to this point the affair appears to have involved no more than a few sighs and kisses, but it blossomed into a real romance after Jefferson had returned to America….

The future U.S. president had never been in favor of American young men temporarily in Europe getting themselves mixed up with – and, in Jefferson’s view, by – European women (probably because those women were likely to be aristocrats). Jefferson greatly likes Short, and is displeased as he discovers what is going on between Short and Rosalie.

In a January 1793 letter (interestingly, written from America just weeks before the guillotining of the deposed King Louis XVI, and with far worse to come not long afterwards), in carefully crafted and detached language, Jefferson politely berates Short. Essentially Jefferson warns his much younger colleague not to turn against the French Revolution for personal reasons (i.e. love for a woman and concern for her relatives). He cautions Short as well, being abroad as long as he has been, against embracing an alien mentality at odds with that of (as Jefferson chooses to interpret it) most Americans at home:

….The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is. I have expressed to you my sentiments, because they are really those of 99 in an hundred of our citizens. The universal feasts, and rejoicings which have lately been had on account of the successes of the French shewed the genuine effusions of their hearts. You have been wounded by the sufferings of your friends, and have by this circumstance been hurried into a temper of mind which would be extremely disrelished if known to your countrymen.

We might generously read that as a “second father” pulling up a “son” he considers to be losing the plot. Or, less generously, Jefferson’s words come across as those of an older man, from the safety of 3,000 miles away, telling off a younger man for having the nerve to have formed his own opinions while on the actual scene.

Immediately after, Jefferson adds, and this time not unreasonably given Short’s diplomatic position, that his biggest concern is President Washington’s having heard of Short’s loose talk. Washington does not want Short’s opinions possibly interpreted in France as reflecting U.S. policy:

The reserve of the Pres. of the U.S. had never permitted me to discover the light in which he viewed it, and as I was more anxious that you should satisfy him than me, I had still avoided explanations with you on the subject. But your [letter] 113 induced him to break silence and to notice the extreme acrimony of your expressions. He added that he had been informed the sentiments you expressed in your conversations were equally offensive to our allies, and that you should consider yourself as the representative of your country and that what you say, might be imputed to your constituents. He desired me therefore to write to you on this subject. He added that he considered France as the sheet anchor of this country and its friendship as a first object….

Nonetheless Jefferson continued to hold Short in high esteem, and Short in return still much admired Jefferson. However, by 1793, Jefferson’s influence in Washington’s cabinet was also ebbing. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Monticello.org also tells us:

Whereas Short hoped Jefferson’s influence could help secure his post in France, Jefferson never managed to do so (Gouverneur Morris received the appointment instead). In 1793 Short was appointed as minister resident to Spain. Charged with the mission of negotiating the first treaty between the U.S. and Spain, Short had to wait until 1795 for the Spaniards to begin to cede anything because they were preoccupied with war with France. Rumors that Short was not welcome in Madrid forced Washington to supersede him by appointing Thomas Pinckney to finalize negotiations.

Now Short finds himself in Spain. The second wrong country. That Short has no professional success in Spain can also hardly have helped his personal outlook:

Cheated of his triumph in Spain after years of negotiations, Short returned to Paris to live with Rosalie.

But there is no fairy tale ending:

Short decided to return to the U.S. to take care of business matters only when he realized Rosalie was reluctant to leave her native country….

Ultimately, the more practical Rosalie refuses to marry Short, and instead marries yet another older man – an elderly cousin. Wikipedia sums up nicely:

William and Rosalie’s love affair was recorded in hundreds of letters …. documenting the lovers’ pains of separation and their frustration with social norms. Likewise, their words of devotion are especially poetic and moving. The love letters are an authentic literary contribution, and offer delightful personal insights into a turbulent era of world history.

Indeed the language often used in upper-class romance letters in the 18th/ early 19th century seems, to our eyes, flowery and earnest to the point of embarrassing. What is curious, though, is we do accept, and much enjoy, for instance, “Mr Darcy” sharing his heart with “Elizabeth Bennet.” Short and Rosalie’s story is told in some detail in a 1926 article by Marie Kimball: William Short, Jefferson’s Only “Son”; and here is but a tiny excerpt from a real letter from her to him:

….I am desolated, my dear and treasured friend, by the length of our separation and yet I see no end to it. Since you have been reappointed to your present post there is nothing definite upon which I can fasten my slender hopes. Up to the present I had hoped that you would make a trip here on your way back to your first post, and this slight respite from suffering was necessary to a heart so oppressed as mine. But hope itself has been taken away from me since your new appointment. . . .

What is to be done? What are we coming to? Misfortune seems to overwhelm my unhappy days in every possible way….

….Without you, without the reassuring thought of your love for me, I should not have clung to life, which offered nothing but suffering….

As much as millions of us are fans of Austen, her fictional characters’ stirring declarations usually don’t hold a candle to what Rosalie de la Rochefoucauld and William Short were actually writing to each other for years.