Truth is no stranger to fiction

This is an article I wrote for History Today published  11/11/2004. It is now locked behind a pay wall (fair enough) but the copyright is mine, so here it is. You can quote from it but please don’t steal.

It seems a simple enough distinction: historians deal in fact and novelists deal in fiction, one in truth, the other in lies. One poet in her late 80s told me that she was too old to read fiction: ‘At this age I have to be concerned about my soul.’ Does ‘fiction’, however, mean untruth? The word comes from the Latin fingere, meaning to make in clay, and is therefore similar in meaning to the Greek poesis, to make. Fiction, therefore, like poetry, is making something. Out of what? Usually it is facts mixed together with observation bonded together by invention. In general or literary fiction the facts may be those of the society in which the story is set, as well as those of human nature known to the author through experience. In historical fiction they have to be researched from the history books (although observation of human nature still plays its part). Playwrights, of course, use the same ingredients, but where poetry and plays are noble, fiction is considered ignoble – a poor relation loved only by the airline traveller, the invalid or the feeble-minded woman. Make-believe for adults.

History, of course, dealing in facts, deals with the truth. But does it?

Both ‘story’ and ‘history’ derive from histor – ‘an ancient bard or storyteller’. The histor was a learned or wise man, someone who could tell stories for the education of the tribe, stories of past heroes and dramatic events. When it came to the classical period, the historians still knew how to tell a good tale, often with a cautionary or moral point; and the best of them tried to be accurate in their detail. This blending of narrative skill with factual reporting has, for the past century, been somewhat out of fashion but things are changing today and there is a return to narrative skill among some historians. On TV Simon Schama and Michael Wood can tell a riveting tale, and history books aimed at the popular market are increasingly well written. The recently published The Cardinal’s Hat by Mary Hollingsworth is a fine example of a writer using careful and plausible speculation; using, that is, imagination, to make her material, drawn from dusty ledgers, leap into life.

But old prejudices still remain. Given the premise of modern history that ‘fact’ means ‘truth’, it therefore follows that the more facts you pile up, the greater the truth. The truth of a fact (the battle of Bosworth was fought on. . .) is very limited and, as you approach causes (the battle of Bosworth was fought because. . .) we leave the facts behind and enter the field of interpretation. Due to the idolatory of documentary sources, written interpretations tend with time to be accorded the same respect as straight facts. As long as you can cite an ‘authority’ for your statement, it does not matter whether it is true or not in the strictest sense.

Any historical novelist seeking authenticity does not make the facts up but works with them, often at a different level of understanding to that of the historian, for the facts have to add up to a coherent whole. Which brings us to the thorny question: ‘What is truth?’ From my experience of novel-writing, I would say it is a wholeness, a unity, to which all elements must conform. It is not the facts themselves but what bonds them together. This bonding, or organising principle, is the Law of Story. Stories demand a beginning, middle and end – and a point. A human life conforms to the same law.

The novelist uses the work of the historian (with gratitude) to gather the facts as building blocks of the story, and then does something with them that the historian tends not to do, which is to view them in the imagination. You have to imagine yourself in that place, that time, that person, that very moment – so acutely that the senses come into play. What time of year is it? What time of day? What do I hear, see, touch, smell? By this method sometimes things are found which could be called ‘items of probability’ – things not recorded in the documents but clearly seen in the imagination.

In my research into the Florentine Renaissance, I read a thesis on a bookseller that was marvellously detailed. The site of his shop was identified, the rooms measured, the stock described. When, however, I walked through that shop in my imagination, I smacked into a wall. I told the author that she had forgotten to mention what must have been an archway in the wall separating the two parts of the shop. When I explained she said, somewhat enviously, ‘Oh, novelists can use that kind of intuition. I can only record what is in the documents.’ Is that true? There was nothing stopping her writing, ‘There was probably an opening in the wall joining the two shops.’ But the head bent low over documents will not see with the eye of the imagination.

As the story requires unity, so does each character, with all his different facets knitting together into a coherent whole. Historians often take ‘an angle’, concentrating on a particular aspect of a man, and thereby conveniently ignoring those facts which are awkward or contradictory. The novelist must view all facets, read all the specialist literature and put the character back together again like Humpty Dumpty. It is, for example, generally held today that Lorenzo de’ Medici was a tyrant but that is not the picture that emerges when reading his poetry. There one finds not only a reflective philosopher but one who bears a deep love of humanity. Of course, you could create a character who is a mass of contradictions, but it is better not to. So you have to dig deeper, ponder, dwell, ask questions. There is always something, some deep principle, that will make a unity out of disparate detail.

For example, the wife of Lorenzo, Clarice Orsini, is sometimes presented as being the docile and pious mother of eight; at other times as the bigoted persecutor of the poet, Angelo Poliziano. In fact, after the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, in which Lorenzo was wounded and his brother murdered, mild Clarice underwent a change of character, suddenly becoming wilful and fractious. (This is another problem with history books – characters are too often and simplistically tarred by traits that may have been momentary in their lives.) No account I read of Clarice sought to explain the virago, but when I stepped inside her and had a look at the world through her eyes, all became plain. Florence was at war with Rome. Clarice was Roman by birth and very pious. Being married to a Platonist such as Lorenzo would have been difficult for her – and what would she think when the house of Medici and Florence itself began to suffer catastrophe? Why, that her husband’s heresy was bringing the retribution of heaven. With Lorenzo at war with the pope, who should she support? For the sake of her children she had to think for herself and act independently. She wanted her sons educated not in the new learning but in the tradition of the Church, and the person she attacked was not her powerful husband, but his companion, the vulnerable poet, Poliziano. Very few documents exist for women of this period. For Clarice there are a few letters but they give scant insight into the nature of her character. It has to be the work of the imagination.

 I am, however, disciplined about getting my facts right wherever possible. Sometimes I discover something in research that can really upset my narrative, but I have found, time and again, that if I stick to the empirical truth then it is possible to reach a deeper, more rich level of understanding and the narrative benefits incomparably as a result. It has happened often enough for me no longer to be upset by it but rather to look forward to discovering the solution that lies behind all such problems.

A story, well-formed, must comply with certain rules of structure, just as (most) music complies with the Pythagorean scale. Indeed, the two things are very similar. A good story follows an octave, starting at doh and ending at a different doh, with many adventures in between. My duty as a historical novelist is as much towards Story as towards Fact. Either because documentary evidence lets me down, or because the story demands it, I have to invent. It has often happened that subsequent research has proved the ‘invention’ to be true, so often that I now almost take it for granted, although friends and family still enjoy goosebumps when it does happen. Presumably writers of history are as familiar with these little miracles as novelists, but only novelists can depend on them.

My interest in the Renaissance began when, reading a couple of lines summing up the character of Poliziano in a book on Lorenzo, I knew instinctively that they were not true. It did not take very much research to uncover a trail of lies that led back to the sixteenth century, and yet these lies continue to be perpetuated as ‘facts’. Indeed, I read them again, just last week, in a book which in all other respects is a first rate academic study of the work of Poliziano’s friend, Pico della Mirandola. We can get tunnel vision, researching our chosen subject to the bottom of the well while barely looking at the characters around him beyond checking their dates and repeating what everyone else has said about them. But facts should be facts, and not assertions that have gained authenticity by repetition over the centuries.

Just as it serves novelists to stick to the facts, so it serves historians to observe the Laws of Story, familiarity with which tends to illuminate the truth of a character. For truth does not lie in the facts themselves, but in the spaces in between. Writing history in the style of a novelist is not the point, not if, in the effort to write a popular narrative, an author abuses the truth. Imagination and Reason are two wings of a dove. Neither one alone leads to the truth, but both together, working in harmony, may. (c) Linda Proud 2004

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