Saturday, March 29, 2008
JUST THE FACTS MA'AM
Fake memoirs, factual fictions, and the history of history.
by Jill Lepore writing in The New Yorker magazine March 24, 2008
What makes a book a history? In the eighteenth century, novelists called their books “histories,” smack on the title page. No one was more brash about this than Henry Fielding, who, in his 1749 “History of Tom Jones, a Foundling,” included a chapter called “Of Those Who Lawfully May, and of Those Who May Not Write Such Histories as This.” Fielding insisted that what flowed from his pen was “true history”; fiction was what historians wrote.
“I shall not look on myself as accountable to any Court of Critical Jurisdiction whatever: For as I am, in reality, the Founder of a new Province of Writing,” Fielding explained.
Tom Jones’s claim to truth is different from Margaret Jones’s. Earlier this month, Jones, also known as Margaret Seltzer, tried to pass off a gangland bildungsroman as the story of her life. Pulped days after it was published, the book, titled “Love and Consequences,” is a fraud; “Tom Jones” is not. Fielding was playing; Seltzer was just lying.
But Fielding meant it when he said that “Tom Jones” was true, and there’s a sense in which he was right. History matters, but the best novels boast a kind of truth that even the best history books can never claim. And when history books are wrong they can be miserably, badly, ridiculously wrong, a point that wasn’t lost on Jane Austen, who, in 1791, when she was sixteen, wrote a brilliant parody of Oliver Goldsmith’s four-volume, march-of-the-monarchs “History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II.” (Goldsmith, the author of the novel “The Vicar of Wakefield,” wrote history to keep out of debtors’ prison.) Austen called her parody “The History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st, by a Partial, Prejudiced & Ignorant Historian.” It consisted of thirteen perfectly dunderheaded character sketches of crowned heads of England. Of Henry V, she wrote, “During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for.” Of the Duke of Somerset: “He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it.” Of the allegation that Lady Jane Grey, Edward VI’s cousin, read Greek: “Whether she really understood that language or whether such a study proceeded only from an excess of vanity for which I believe she was always rather remarkable, is uncertain.”
Once in a great while, Austen happened to bump into a fact or two, for which she apologized: “Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian.”
Historians and novelists are kin, in other words, but they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. The literary genre that became known as “the novel” was born in the eighteenth century. History, the empirical sort based on archival research and practiced in universities, anyway, was born at much the same time. Its novelty is not as often remembered, though, not least because it wasn’t called “novel.” In a way, history is the anti-novel, the novel’s twin, though which is Cain and which is Abel depends on your point of view.
Among the ancients, history was a literary art, as John Burrow illustrates in his fascinating compendium “A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century” (Knopf; $35). Invention was a hallmark of ancient history, which was filled with long, often purely fictitious speeches of great men. It was animated by rhetoric, not by evidence. Even well into the eighteenth century, not a few historians continued to understand themselves as artists, with license to invent. Eager not to be confused with antiquarians and mere chroniclers, even budding empiricists confessed a certain lack of fussiness about facts. In “Letters on the Study and Use of History” (1752), Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke condemned those who “store their minds with crude unruminated facts and sentences; and hope to supply, by bare memory, the want of imagination and judgment.”
For the rest of the piece go here.....