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.


  1. I really like the way you connected your own work as a writer of historical fiction to the conflict between the characters of Bernard and Hannah in Arcadia. As an admirer of A MORE OBEDIENT WIFE, I found it fascinating to learn more about the research that produced your novel.