Alexander Dumas, of whom I am moderately fond, said of his historical fiction that there was no use at all raping history if you weren’t willing to conceive a child by her.
And though it might turn out that Alexander Dumas was more of a book doctor than a writer – there have been rumors around this for years, and I’ve discounted them because, well, they were mostly based on “he wrote too fast” and that makes me chuckle. OTOH The Black Count, a largely sympathetic account claims that at least The Three Musketeers were originally written by someone else, who sued Dumas for part of the proceeds. On the third hand, this is the “original account” people talk about which they say was somewhat short of the charm and delicacy of a barracks story, so the book is still Dumas’ – I found out while writing my first trilogy that this attitude was the only way to stay sane.
There were so many, equally credible and well regarded contradictory reports, that I had to choose one. And sometimes to make room for my story I had to go “Well, that didn’t happen.” That was just dealing with Shakespeare – whatever the partisans of X-was-Shakespeare say, Shakespeare is actually one of the best documented, non-royal people of the last four centuries the problem being NO ONE even from the early 20the century is THAT well documented. You Run into the ten-witnesses-ten-accounts problem you find when you try to get a description of an accident. – and even with the out that I wasn’t writing a straight history. Couldn’t be. It had elves in it.
When researching Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s queen, not the actress) it got worse. She was a royal person and you’d think things such “where she was married” would be a matter of public record. Turns out not so much. I ended up going with the version of the present-day-descendant of the Seymours, figuring that he brought with him unspoken family legends to add to the brew but also because he adduced reasons why the more traditional version makes no sense. (If she’d got married at her parents’ place, there would be a local record of a royal visit. Henry VIII middle aged was not the sort of man to make incognito drop ins. And a royal feast was something that would have near bankrupted the region. Besides, there’s no record of Henry VIII taking the time to travel there. So the legend that she got married in her parents’ barn probably harks to some engagement celebration given while she was ruralizing there so that it wouldn’t be so obvious she was waiting for Boleyn’s head to drop.. And then my copyeditor found a website and tried to “correct” me and I had to take a mile-wide patch out of her hide, but that’s something else.
Anyway, all these things become vitally important when you’re writing, and you end up having to say “this far but no farther” and “from here on I’ll remember this is just a story.”
But there are other pressures. I made a rude comment about Dan Brown’s latest oeuvre, and one of my readers did a note and tagged me on Facebook, from which I assume the comment that you can’t write authentic history, you have to write what people THINK happened, or else they won’t accept it, and to document the contrary would be very boring, so you just don’t write the truth, you write what people expect, and to make disparaging remarks is a stupid thing to do.
Maybe so. It is debatable.
I mean, there is a point up to which you have to write what the people expect or at least what they’ll accept (which is not the same.) For instance, in writing Shakespeare I didn’t mention the scarcity of bathing and clothes washing. The people who know it know it, but the vast majority of people don’t want to be told that Elizabethans killed body-lice more or less constantly because they were all infested.
In the same way, I didn’t mention some of the more unsavory aspects of daily life. And I made Shakespeare almost a man of our time, or at least willing to become a man of our time – because that’s what the public wants to believe.
With the Musketeers — where I have a little more leeway because I’m dealing with a sort of Dumas fanfic, and Dumas’ work is not exactly historical to him (i.e. it’s set pre-revolution, ostensibly but Dumas didn’t let anachronisms worry him too much, so there’s a dash of Dumas’ own time in there – I found I had to make some radical changes to “sell” them to modern taste.
The very first one is that I had to give him some modern sensibilities. No matter how they felt in the Dumas books about Huguenots or the bourgeoisie, in my books they couldn’t hate people because of their religion or social status; no matter how funny that scene is in The Three Musketeers, I couldn’t have the musketeers beat their servants to keep them in line; no matter how funny Porthos’ stupidity is in the original, nowadays people don’t want to READ about dunces. (They want to watch dunces. That figure has moved to sitcoms.) In mysteries particularly, I couldn’t have one of the characters be a bumbling fool. So I made him inarticulate, and a man whose brain works too fast for his mouth. Also, Athos couldn’t be silent. Not if I was in his head. I still tried to have him talk more directly (and less) than the rest but not to the point of people suspecting he was mute, as happened in Dumas. Also I didn’t let them run horses to death, because that was ick even to me.
This was all in the service of the popular conception of the Musketeers as being chivalrous and noble which is what the public expects and I couldn’t break.
But there was more. For instance, I had to give the musketeers a uniform, when they were actually much more likely to dress in bits and pieces of stuff. I called the Cardinal’s guards “guards” even though their name was “the red musketeers” or “the Cardinal’s musketeers.” And of course, I made the Cardinal Machiavellic and super-humanly smart.
These are near-irrelevant details, so firmly fixed in people’s heads there is no point trying to dislodge them.
Even so, I fell afoul of pre-conceptions. Part of the reason I ended up selling the book to Berkley was the bizarre rejections I got from the other houses, all of them based on the idea that in the main book D’Artagnan was a minor character and not the narrator. One of them actually said “When you announce something with the Musketeers, your first chapter shouldn’t be narrated by D’Artagnan, because that’s like having Sherlock Holmes narrated by his maid.”
This was a pre-conception I didn’t even know was out there, but it’s at least widespread enough that four houses seemed to all have this issue. (Maybe it’s part of an ivy league education?)
So, you should be starting to see some of the compromises an historical writer makes. It’s a very bad idea, therefore, to base your view of ancient Rome on “This character was perfectly modern, in this novel” because that’s unlikely to be realistic.
On the other hand, if the writer is at least semi-competent, you could say something like “Romans had frying pans, because one was used in such and such a book.” (And when an author is forced to put in a detail they know is wrong, or which at least they can’t verify, they should put a note on the back. That’s the contract between author and reader. Because otherwise I could write the Flintstones version of the pre-history and well, it’s my license as a writer. You’re either writing historical or you’re not.)
In fact, what Dan Brown seems to have done in his latest – at least according to this review (yes, it’s a Catholic book site. It’s also incredibly funny) – is closer to the Flintstones version of history than the careful compromises of a historical writer. He’s not so much catering to or trying to bridge his readers’ pre-established notions, as he’s making stuff up out of whole cloth because he’s either too lazy to do proper research or he doesn’t care enough. (In fact, we knew someone who knew him in his salad days, when he wrote his first three unheralded books and the answer to those is “yes.”)
I will upfront confess I haven’t read the DaVinci Code. Even if it were a masterpiece, it is not my type of book – I read very few thrillers. The fact they package F. Paul Wilson as a supernatural thriller kept me from reading his books for years, which was a shame.
My husband read it though. And you need to understand how this works around this house. When Dan is reading something, he will read me vast stretches of it because he finds them interesting, amusing or wants my opinion. This means that I heard probably 2/3 of the book – the effect being rather as if I had skimmed it.
I also read an interview with the author and I read the book on which the author based this one: i.e. the book that comprised his ENTIRE research. This is not a secret. He named the two characters in his book after the authors of that book. Also, the authors of that book – Holy Blood, Holy Grail (I keep calling it The Sword and the Chalice. No idea why. Deal.) – tried to sue DaVinci for plagiarism, until it was pointed to them they had to pretty much admit their theory is fiction.
I read HB, HG more than twenty one years ago, because a friend of mine managed a New Age bookstore, where the book was a big hit, and he thought I might like it. (He also knows I’m fond of nutty conspiracy theories, the nuttier the better.) Afterwards, either to wind me up or because he was genuinely interested, he asked my opinion of it.
The fallacies (the book has little else) took hours to list. I will go with the two easier to grasp, though: the book posits that DaVinci was part of a secret conspiracy going back fifteen hundred years, give or take a few. (This is sort of kind of sorta possible, with modifications.) And it posits that the royal family of France is descended from Jesus Christ and Magdalene.
We’ll start with this last. Let’s suppose Jesus Christ actually had children (there are Christian sects that debate this, as well as the idea he was married to the Magdalene and that was why he could forgive her and be heard. I’m not going to get lost in THOSE weeds.) Do you know who his descendants would be? You. Me. The entire human race.
As someone has recently proven, except for very few, very isolated populations, you are descended from everyone who was alive a thousand years ago.
Genealogy makes you think otherwise because it concentrates on a few lines. However, if you think about it, all those women the guys marry (or vice versa, if you’re a militant feminist) have to come from somewhere, and they too had lines of ancestry going back…
This is why all our presidents are descended from Mohammed, who, btw, didn’t even live that far back. (For geographically close countries, you’re probably related to everyone 500 years back, particularly if you add in the genetic sieve of the black plague manifestations. I mean, it’s entirely possible someone who lived 1000 years ago has no living descendants today – in Portugal, the black plague caused the loss of several family lines and it wasn’t even as bad as in the rest of Europe – but if they have descendants, they have everyone. Now this doesn’t mean they show in your genome, because genes don’t work that way, but you can rest assured if they’d died celibate, you wouldn’t be here exactly as you are.)
Also when I read that the royal family of France were descended from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, I snorted ice-water out of my nose. I rarely come up against this nonsense anymore, where I feel completely foreign, but this was one of those moments. What went through my mind was “the things Americans will believe.” In this case, the authors of the New Age book swallowed this hook line and sinker because well… they hadn’t read enough European history to know that EVERY ROYAL HOUSE claimed this. It was their way of making an end run and claiming to be descended of G-d Himself. They also probably believe that everyone in the South was descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie.
There are other points, such as the fact that they based their entire theory on a DaVinci painting which was grimy and which they saw in reproduction. Since then the painting has been cleaned and made a mockery of their theories.
But let’s imagine nefarious parties ALTERED the painting so as to give them the lie – if you read enough New Age conspiracy books, you know parties nef like nobody’s business – let’s examine the whole idea that DaVinci was part of a secret conspiracy that knew the truth about what happened at the time of Christ.
Was DaVinci part of a conspiracy? Oh, heck yes. Probably dozens of them. Conspiracies were to the educated or professional or artistic man what writers email lists are to my ilk. He probably belonged to several overlapping ones. They were faulty and weird, and almost as crazy as the UFO conspiracies these days, but through them science advanced because some decent knowledge would get transmitted with the dross.
Was he part of an unbroken conspiracy that had transmitted secret knowledge since the time of Christ? Brother. Can I interest you in a lovely bridge in Brooklyn?
First, why would someone only five or six hundred years from us know something about events fifteen hundred years back from them that no one else – not all learned men, not all the researchers, not everyone who has access to the scant documents remaining – could find?
Second HOW would such a conspiracy be transmitted and maintained?
Look, the recent weeks have shaken my faith in the idea that three can keep a secret if two are dead, which is what I used to think about secrets and conspiracies. It is entirely possible I think to keep secrets for a limited time that involve a vast number of people, if you hold their livelihood under your power. However, it explodes – as we have proof daily.
Now… conspiracies involving all the notable persons in Europe (some of which were less than sane even by the standards of the time – yes, DaVinci included) that lasted thousands of years? Through wars, revolutions, changes of heart, changes of mind?
At best what you’d get by the fifteenth century was the equivalent of theology put through a game of telephone. And there would be some proof of the original stuff, beyond the paintings of a half-mad genius from Tuscany and the relentless Vatican assassins (To quote older son “If the Vatican had assassins, I’d consider the priesthood”.)
To transmit it would require unerring choice of successors; unflawed character of those receiving the secret and, oh, yeah, superhuman memory.
In fact we know that the “secrets” we got via that sort of transmission – mostly Greek and Roman “science” — did look like something that went through a game of telephone and until we found the original texts/ surpassed their knowlege, we had no idea what they were talking about.
So much for the New Age book on which Dan Brown based his book – yes, he admits this. He also believes in it, including the “great mother goddess” past, a bit of insanity our descendants will giggle at. – Dan Brown added his own insanity. That review mentions the “austere” Spanish Cathedrals. Never mind that. There were more obvious things, such as the fact the Portuguese assassin has a name not pronounceable in Portuguese. (I’m sure Dan Brown took it from someone he knows who is “Portuguese” – possibly from Africa or Asia. Or perhaps only part-Portuguese. One of the things he did in his early books was use the name of all his professors and classmates, so it’s probably no different.)
So… do I have the right to sneer at Dan Brown? Doesn’t his success prove that he was right about people’s expectations?
I don’t know. His success came through huge push (partly because he pushes the whole utopian matriarchy cr*p.) It came at a time when it was easy to make someone a great success by making sure he had huge distribution. Then the “everyone is reading this and I must too” operates.
On the other hand a lot of people (mostly pseudo educated people) are also stone cold stupid. One of my art teachers, at one time, was extolling the careful research of Egyptian history in the books of… Anne Rice. Egyptian history! (Bangs head on desk.)
That is neither here nor there. The traditional publishing establishment maintains their superiority over indie because they have layers and layers of fact checkers. Who clearly are all on heavy barbiturates, to let those elephants slip by.
I have private opinions on the morality of people who distort history to serve today’s political correctness – such as the entire stupid idea of a feminist utopia in pre-history. OTOH they probably can’t understand why I don’t do it since it guarantees push and wealth and fame. I’ve often wondered, myself, if this wish to be able to look at myself in the mirror, in the morning, is in fact a form of brain damage.
On the other hand, I don’t know much, but I know evil when I see it. And convincing generations who are largely illiterate of history that history is something completely bizarre that could not have happened is evil – it’s evil because it robs people of the tools to deal with the future, and it does so unnecessarily. Yes, his book would have fallen apart without the conspiracy theory, but nothing prevented him from putting on a post script saying “this is almost certainly not true because of this and this, but it makes a wonderful story and so I—” Certainly, nothing forced his publishers to publish it without that note.
AND – and this is what I was SNEERING about originally – nothing forced various academics to tell us that Dan Brown’s books were exquisitely researched.
Nothing forced them to do any of that except their meretricious craving for power and money, which can only be obtained by hewing to an ideology of lies.
Which means, at the end, I am entitled to sneer at them. A writer can sneer at whores. More importantly, someone who rapes history in order to conceive a bastard is entitled to sneer at someone who has snuff sex with history and leaves her bleeding corpse in an alley, entrails ripped out, unable to conceive ever again.
And that’s what I’m doing.