Thursday, March 24, 2011

Et in Stoppard's Arcadia Ego

I recently had the thoroughly enjoyable experience of seeing the current Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, and I would encourage everyone who can to go and do likewise.

There are so many different things going on in this brilliant play that everyone who sees it is likely to latch onto something different (and I would highly recommend reading the play beforehand so that you have a better chance of following all the various strands). No doubt a physicist or a mathematician would be entranced by the scientific angles in the play. But as someone who has spent a fair amount of time parsing fragmentary 200-year-old documents and trying to reconstruct from them what actually happened in the past, the aspect of the play that really grabbed me was the historiographical one: two characters who are 20th-century historians tangling over just what happened at an English country estate in the early 1800's. (I say "20th-century" simply because the play was written in 1993, but of course they could just as easily be 21st-century historians--the study of history hasn't changed significantly in the last 18 years, and perhaps it never will.)

Stoppard's conceit is that the play alternates between two time periods: 1809 and a few years later, on the one hand; and the present (more or less), when descendants of the estate's 19th-century inhabitants still live in the house and are hosting the two historians who are doing their research there. The audience is in the privileged position of seeing both what really happened in 1809, and what the historians think happened--rightly or wrongly.

It's a delicious position to be in, and one that reveals the human psychology at work behind historical endeavor. We all want answers, we want certainty--or as close to certainty as we can get. And so, presented with bits and pieces of information, we construct a story that makes sense to us--a story that often requires making certain assumptions.

One of the historians, Bernard, decides that the subject of his own expertise--Lord Byron--must have been a guest at the house in 1809. After all, he lived not far away, and he was a schoolfellow and (presumably) friend of the resident tutor there, Septimus Hodge. Makes sense, doesn't it? Well, yes--and he turns out to be correct on those points.

But Bernard goes on to deduce that while staying at the house, Byron fought a duel with another guest there--a minor poet whose work he had (presumably) savaged in print and whose wife he had (presumably) seduced. And that leads him to another deduction: in the duel Byron murdered the poet, who is not heard from thereafter, and had to flee the country. This story provides a convenient explanation for Byron's otherwise puzzling voyage to Lisbon that year, at a time when Europe was ravaged by war and travel was risky.

Makes sense, doesn't it? Well, yes--and it also makes headlines and gets Bernard on the morning TV talk shows. The only problem is--as the audience knows and as the other historian in the play maintains--Bernard gets this part of the story all wrong.

In the play, Bernard later comes across evidence that disproves the central element of his theory, the murder, much to his dismay. But in reality--as anyone who has worked extensively with primary historical sources knows--these kinds of mistakes often get perpetuated for generations in secondary sources.

To offer a minor example, in the course of researching my novel A More Obedient Wife, I read what was then (and, I think, now) the leading biography of one of the historical figures I was writing about, James Wilson, an early Supreme Court Justice. According to this biography, shortly after Wilson married his second wife he freed a slave he owned. The author also mentioned in passing, without any citation, that this second wife was a Quaker and had undoubtedly urged her new husband to free the slave, in keeping with her abolitionist views.

A good story, I thought. And it makes sense, right? But as they used to say during the Cold War, "trust, but verify." I managed to find the document granting the slave his freedom, dated shortly after the marriage, so that checked out. But nowhere, in any primary source, could I find any evidence that the second wife was a Quaker, or that she had anything to do with freeing the slave. And I'm pretty sure I found every primary source relating to the second wife, Hannah Gray Wilson, who was one of my two main characters.

What I did find, however, were repetitions of the assertion that she was a Quaker in at least two later secondary sources. Which is understandable. After all, we're conditioned to believe what reputable historians say, especially if it seems to make sense. (Although I have to admit that this particular biography, written in the mid-1950's, raised all sorts of red flags for me despite its iconic status. The author--Charles Page Smith--kept putting in details like, "As he read the letter, his glasses began to slip slowly down his nose." Oh yeah, I wanted to say? How do you know?)

Okay, so sometimes historians get it wrong. Does that mean they should just throw up their hands and give up? Consign certain things to the dustbin of history that's labeled "Unknowable"? Well, they should at least exercise caution--as the more skeptical historian in the play, Hannah, keeps urging (at least when it's her competitor who's the one jumping to conclusions). But as Hannah herself says, it's the search for answers--not its ultimate success or failure--that's important. "It's wanting to know that makes us matter," she says. "Otherwise we're going out the way we came in."

Of course, there's another way to come up with an answer, of sorts--one that accepts the unknowability of the past and just keeps going. I'm talking, of course, about historical fiction, which can provide the satisfaction of a "good story" without distorting (consciously or unconsciously) the historical record.

I decided, for example, that I really liked the idea that James Wilson freed his slave because of pressure from his new wife. It made sense, and it fit in with the story I was weaving. But the idea that she was a Quaker--even aside from the absence of proof--just didn't make any sense to me. She was from a fairly elite family in Boston, a stronghold of Congregationalism, and I even have a reference to the church her family attended. (It was called "Dr. Thatcher's Meeting," after the name of the pastor. Actually, this may have been where Smith got the idea that she was a Quaker--today we use "meeting" to refer to Quaker congregations. But in 18th-century New England, the term was used to refer to Congregationalist churches as well.) So I made her an abolitionist, but not a Quaker.

So historical fiction has its uses, and its satisfactions. But it's no substitute for straight-ahead, just-the-facts-ma'am history. When I put on my historian hat, I try to rein in my imagination and retain a healthy skepticism. As Arcadia shows us so wittily, it's not always easy--and maybe it's not always possible. Sometimes I may be more like Bernard than I'd like to admit. But the sad truth is that there are some gaps in the historical record that only fiction--clearly labeled as such--can fill.

History and Literature

Note: This blog post was originally posted under the date February 17, 2011, which is the day I started writing it. I saved it as a draft that day and didn't finish and publish it until some weeks later. I assumed it would go up as a new post on the day I published it, but I just realized that it didn't -- it was buried among older posts. So I'm putting it up as a new post in case anyone missed it the first time around!

There's a certain kind of person who gets all starry-eyed when you say the name "E.P. Thompson," or utter the title The Making of the English Working Class.

That kind of person would be me (I've met a few others). For those who have not been anointed into this cult, E.P. Thompson was a British historian, and his magnum opus was published in the sixties. When I came across it in 1977 or so, as a sophomore in college, I had never been so bowled over by a book before--at least, a nonfiction book. I suppose it's fair to say the book changed my life: I decided I wanted to BE E.P. Thompson. After I graduated from college, I got a fellowship to study in England, with the intention of stalking my idol and becoming his protege.

I was informed, however, that the university where he taught--Warwick--was in a less than appealing location, and also that he had basically retired from teaching. So I ended up at the University of Sussex, charmingly situated near the seaside resort of Brighton, studying with a disciple of his (a woman who had also made the journey to the U.K. from the U.S. to study at the feet of the master, and who had never left).

What was it about the man, and the book, that I found so captivating? I suppose it was Thompson's marriage of academics and the armchair socialism that I was then prone to: instead of writing a history of the elites, which is what so much of history is inevitably about, Thompson focused on what used to be called the lower orders of society: the mechanics, the artisans, the workers. In a deservedly much-quoted phrase, he said he wrote to rescue these people "from the enormous condescension of posterity."

The difficulty with writing about such people as individuals--as thinking, feeling beings rather than statistics--is that they didn't leave much behind in the way of a paper trail. They didn't keep diaries (or if they did, the diaries generally weren't preserved), they didn't publish memoirs, they didn't make headlines. But Thompson was able to unearth and mine what they did leave behind: broadsides, pamphlets, hymns. As I recall (and I haven't read the book in many years), he used the techniques of literary criticism to penetrate the opacity of these sources, extrapolating from their choice of words and tropes to reconstruct their lives, their hopes and dreams and frustrations. For someone who was majoring in English History and Literature, it was perhaps the perfect textbook.

I didn't end up becoming E.P. Thompson, as it happens. But I never lost my interest in trying to reconstruct the lives of ordinary people who inhabited the past. And somehow, at long last, I'm getting a chance to do it, through the medium of fiction. For the novel I'm currently working on, which is set in early 19th-century Baltimore, I'm in the process of inventing a character who is a member of the working class of that era (if it's not an anachronism to use that phrase to describe a stratum of an essentially pre-industrial society).

My task has been made much easier by the existence of a book that, if it hadn't existed, I would have been tempted to commission: Scraping By, by Seth Rockman. It's an exploration, as the subtitle tells us, of "Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore." A veritable gold mine! And, as Rockman politely implies in his introduction, his task is even harder than Thompson's. Thompson focused on the artisan class--the skilled workers--who were generally educated enough to leave at least some written records behind. But, as Rockman points out, this was really the cream of the working class. The majority of workers were unskilled and largely unschooled. And, generally speaking, too worn down by the arduous process of trying merely to survive--"scraping by" in Rockman's phrase--to even attempt the efforts at self-organization and resistance that Thompson chronicled.

So Rockman has to rely on documents like almshouse rolls and jailhouse records to reconstruct the lives he's writing about. I found the book fascinating, but inevitably, there are huge gaps in the historical record. Occasionally a few tantalizing details of an individual life pop up, but most of it remains submerged, mysterious as the underside of an iceberg. And of course, the actual voices of these long-dead ordinary people, so vital to Thompson's approach, are almost entirely lost.

That's where fiction comes in--or at least I hope it will. In my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, I tried to give voice, through the medium of my imagination, to two obscure women of the 1790's whose lives, as best I could reconstruct them, were fascinating and dramatic. But of course, in that case I had letters--to, from, and about them--to serve as my guide to who these women might have been. And in the novel I'm currently working on, one of my characters (again based on a real, if obscure, historical figure) left behind not only some letters but an entire year of a magazine she edited and largely wrote. Her voice resounds quite clearly across the centuries.

It's the other main character in this novel-in-progress who I intend to draw from the ranks of the working class. Her experiences and her personality will be influenced by what I've read in Rockman and other sources--particularly Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, which focuses to a large extent on the early 19th-century tension between elitism and democracy. This character, who I'm calling Margaret, will exemplify the nascent trend towards what became Jacksonian democracy: a servant who rejects that label in favor of "the help," thought to be less demeaning, and for similar reason chooses to call her employer "boss" instead of master or mistress. She'll have had some experience of the almshouse, and she'll have chosen domestic service because her other alternatives--either "slop work" (low-paying piecework in the garment trade) or prostitution--were so unappealing.

But her voice will be my own invention--and so far I'm having a great time inventing it. Margaret herself never existed, of course, but surely many people like her did. And maybe at last, after two centuries, some of them will be speaking through her-- or rather, through me. I guess I haven't exactly turned into E.P. Thompson, but I feel that I'm trying to do through the medium of fiction part of what he accomplished as a historian. And I like to think that he'd approve.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

To Outline or Not to Outline

I'm at that juncture in writing a novel when I'd much rather write a blog post. (Some writers would probably point out that one is liable to meet with many such junctures in the course of writing a novel. They would be right.)

No doubt it would be better to resist this impulse and just force myself to stare at my computer for the time I'm now spending on this blog post, but I thought if I described where I'm at it might conceivably be of interest to others, writers and readers both. And it might even help me figure out what to do next with the novel.

Here's where I'm at: after several years of research and two abortive drafts of perhaps 50 pages each, I've now started another draft, and I have about 20 pages. I feel that I've finally figured out my focus in terms of voice and time span and characters, and I have a general sense of what's going to happen. The question is, do I now try to outline, in somewhat more detail, a plot?

I don't really know what most other writers do about this, but I suspect it varies. I've certainly heard writers say that they just start with a situation or a character and see where the writing takes them. I would guess that this is the more "literary" approach. But I did just browse through an article about plot in an issue of Writer's Digest that said something like, "It's a good idea to sketch out as much of the plot as possible in advance. I always like to know where I'm going. Don't you?"

Well, yes, actually. Generally speaking, I like to plan things ahead of time. In fact, this has been a point of contention for many years between my husband and myself. He's a big proponent of what he terms "spontaneity," particularly with regard to family vacations, and he thinks my insistence on having, say, hotel reservations and a general itinerary is micromanaging to the point of joylessness. Years ago I told him: fine, you can have one night of "spontaneity." This led to a situation where we arrived at a ramshackle, haunted-looking "bed and breakfast" in some godforsaken town in upstate New York, where we appeared to be the only guests, and where our kids (then about seven and ten) flatly refused to spend the night.

But that, of course, is beside the point. The point is that I do like to plan ahead in most areas of my life. Why not when I'm writing a novel?

Maybe because I'd like to think I'm too "literary" for that sort of thing--that my characters will come alive and simply take over, as writers are wont to claim their characters do. Unfortunately, my characters show that kind of initiative only rarely. Instead, what often happens is that I get to the end of a scene or a chapter and I have little or no idea what to do with them next. Eventually I think of something, but I can't help wondering if there isn't some better way to go about this.

With my first novel--which was in many ways a learning experience--after I thought I was done writing I ended up cutting about 200 pages, mostly from the beginning, on the advice of a publishing-industry professional who said the story started too slowly. With my second novel--also in many ways a learning experience--I was told by another publishing-industry professional, after I thought I was done, that I didn't have a plot. While I think that was something of an exaggeration, I did end up shoehorning another plot into the novel (no mean feat, let me tell you). Both of these changes made the novels better, but it would have been a lot easier if I'd been able to just write them that way the first time around.

The problem, of course, is that difficult as it is to write a novel without a plot outline, in some ways it's even more difficult to come up with the outline. An unfleshed-out plot can seem ridiculous and mechanical: first she does this, and then she does that, and then she realizes something else. It's enough to make you lose faith in your own endeavor. Plus, all that stuff that makes the plot (one hopes) seem less ridiculous--dialogue, nuance, perceptions--sometimes leads to an unexpected twist. Even if the characters don't exactly take over, on occasion you realize something as a result of having written a scene that causes you to rethink your plan: now that she's said or done X, she would never go on to do Y.

On the other hand, that's no reason not to try. There aren't any plot police roaming around who will force you to stick to your outline--just as, if you pass some intriguing and unanticipated roadside attraction on a family vacation, no one will actually prevent you from stopping. That doesn't mean you shouldn't make a hotel reservation for that evening. And if the roadside attraction is really intriguing, you can always change the reservation.

Actually, I've already done some planning. Earlier this week I banged out a seven- or eight-page summary of the plot. It was helpful, but at the same time discouraging. There's a lot I have to work out in terms of what happens when, and who does what to whom. And given that I'm working with some real people and real events, it can get pretty complicated.

So I just dug out an old artifact that I used to help me with my first novel, also based on the lives of historical figures: it's a huge roll of paper I bought when my kids were little, because I read in some catalogue it would be perfect for art projects calling for ... well, huge pieces of paper. My kids made a banner or two, but never used it much. Then, when I was writing A More Obedient Wife--a novel that was based on the lives of four real people and spanned a period of about eight years--I unrolled a length of it and turned it into a time line.

In that case, I ended up putting way too much information on it, but it was better than nothing. I'm hoping that this time I can be more disciplined. Now that I have a sense of what real events, and what people, are important to my story (which only covers about one year instead of eight), maybe I won't throw in everything but the kitchen sink. And I'm focusing on one historical figure rather than four.

Of course, I'll still be left with my other main character--a fictional one. What will I do about her? I'll save that for another blog post. After all, there's bound to be another point, soon, when I'd rather write a blog post than a novel.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Beauty of Xiaohe

The other day I traveled to Philadelphia to see an exhibition that the Washington Post has described as "one of the hottest tickets on the East Coast."

Hot it may be, but I have to admit that some of the artifacts I saw on display gave me the chills. The exhibit, which is at the Penn Museum, is called "Secrets of the Silk Road." And what's chilling about it is that it includes a number of extremely ancient things that really have no business being around anymore: textiles, foods like pastries and wontons, even a couple of amazingly well preserved dead bodies--all of them thousands of years old.

The main attraction is a mummy--one that was, unlike the deliberately embalmed Egyptian variety, naturally preserved by the dry climate of western China--that has been dubbed "the Beauty of Xiaohe," and that dates from between 1800 and 15oo B.C.E. Again, unlike Egyptian mummies, she isn't wrapped up in material that conceals her face and skin from view. She's wearing what was presumably the latest fashion in what we now call the Tarim Basin in about 1500 B.C. E--furry booties, a pointed felt hat, and (we're told) a "string skirt" under the blanket she's wrapped in.

She's basically just lying there, almost as though she's taking a 4000-year nap, albeit in a glass case. Her eyes are gone, but her eyelashes are still there, and quite lush. She has an adorable little pointed nose (as the Post points out, the kind of nose Michael Jackson spent his life pursuing) and prominent cheekbones (perhaps a bit more prominent now than when she was first buried), and an abundance of auburn hair that cascades around her shoulders. She is, or was, indeed a beauty, and it's hard to take your eyes off her. But to me there's something disturbing and frustrating about her as well, and about many of the other objects of daily life in the exhibit.

The Post review of the exhibit, which ran the day before I saw it, made an intriguing point about the "dichotomy between narrative history (which is obsessively interested in authority figures, emperors, kings, generals and the like) and the history of ordinary people (who strive for survival and, if they're lucky, dignity)." I'm primarily interested in the latter--that's what draws me to historical fiction, which allows you to get at lives that are otherwise opaque--and I looked forward to seeing an exhibit that focused on it. (The New York Times has also run a piece on the exhibit, which is surely the biggest thing to hit the Penn Museum in quite some time.)

But, as the Post article also pointed out, the fact is nobody really knows much about the people whose artifacts, and in a couple of cases bodies (there's also a mummified infant), are on display. In fact, it's all pretty confusing: a lot of different people apparently passed through this area, leaving traces of themselves behind, over the course of thousands of years. The signs accompanying the artifacts do the best they can with the little information available, but often they're reduced to simply describing the object you're looking at without giving you much in the way of context or background information. (Of course, sometimes the information wasn't all that obvious: apparently the tall wooden objects situated at the graves where the Beauty of Xiaohe was found were phallic symbols, for the graves of females, and vulvas, for the graves of men. To me they looked more like oars and wooden renditions of those primitive stone faces on Easter Island, but what do I know.)

As the Post writer observed, the challenge of this exhibit is to get us to care about people to whom we can attach no names and no stories--in contrast to an exhibit about, say, Thomas Jefferson, or even Cleopatra. I did want to care, but I have to admit it would have been easier had there been more of a "narrative" available--something the Post article dismisses as a "now-cliched crutch" in the context of museum exhibits.

Cliched or not, it's a crutch that seems to work, at least for me. Amazing as it is to see a 4000-year old woman, complete with eyelashes and hair, she doesn't really come alive, as it were, unless you know something of her story.

And I guess that's why the historical figures I write about--even the ones whose appearance remains a mystery to me--seem far more real to me than the Beauty of Xiaohe. I can always imagine what their eyelashes looked like, or their hair. But without some facts about their lives, and without the letters that have preserved their voices, I would never be able to imagine them.