Monday, August 27, 2012

Historical Fiction and Author's Notes

I'm going to take a slight diversion from the topic of genealogy for a moment and address an issue concerning historical novels. I am a historical fiction enthusiast as much as I am interested in non-fiction and genealogy but I am not the type that requires my fiction to be perfectly accurate. It is, after all, fiction and some creative license should be expected.

What concerns me is the issue of the Author's Note in the back of many historical novels in which it's become common for authors to detail which parts of the novel are factual, which are grey areas, and which are complete fabrications. This would normally be a great little educational tool but readers tend to take this as gospel, which they unfortunately shouldn't. In two specific cases, I have come across an Author's Note that contains false statements of fact.

The first of which was Jeanne Kalogridis' The Borgia Bride. It's an excellent work of fiction based on Sancha of Aragon, wife of Joffre Borgia (son of Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia). But in her Author's Note at the end, she claims:
"Historians have speculated for centuries as to who actually poisoned Alexander VI and his eldest son. The mystery has never been solved."
My understanding is that most historians feel there is no conclusive proof that Alexander and his son were even poisoned at all. In fact, after reading The Borgias and Their Enemies by Christopher Hibbert, I am more convinced that they were merely the victims of a naturally occurring bacterial or viral infection. Take a look at the timeline detailed in Hibbert's work of non-fiction:
"On August 5, just four days before Cesare was due to leave Rome, father and son accepted an invitation to dinner at the villa of Cardinal Adriano Castellesi in the countryside some miles outside of Rome. On this occasion it was Cesare's health that caused the greater anxiety, since he was not only suffering from pain in his stomach, but also, according to Burchard, he was "much irritated by the skin on his face in the lower part, which falls apart like rotten leaves and results in a pus that he is much concerned to hide with his mask." On their arrival at Castellesi's villa, father and son were both extremely thirsty and asked for cups of wine, which they drank "most gratefully." It was a sultry evening, and the guests dined alfresco, thankful for the shade cast by the trees in the garden. The next day their host felt ill and went to bed; a week later the pope also took to his bed; Cesare then fell ill; so did several of the cardinal's other guests, as well as some of his servants. Poison was naturally suspected."
The illness Cesare was suffering from prior to the incident was Syphilis, though probably of no importance regarding this. Hibbert does mention that poison was suspected; it often was. But people at the time had little understanding of illness, disease, and poison. After all, they still believed malaria was caused by "bad air". With the knowledge we have today, one only needs to look at the timeline of events (which I've bolded) to understand that it could not have been poison. After the dinner at which they were supposedly poisoned, the host first falls ill the next day. A full week later, the pope takes ill and soon after, so does Cesare and several of the other guests and servants who had attended the dinner. I admit I am no expert on poison but I've never heard of one which, after only one dosage, takes a week to kick in and then kicks in hard. I can not see how that would even be medically possible. Gradual poisoning wasn't possible, not with so many ill who were all only in the same place one night. It seems more likely to me that this is the result of a natural disease and the timeline we're seeing is due to the incubation period (the time between one is infected and one shows symptoms). The host of the night was already infected but not showing symptoms yet (at least not strong or obvious ones, he could have been ignoring minor, beginning symptoms in order to host the party) and was unknowingly infecting many others at the dinner, since one can be contagious during the incubation period. With an incubation period of about one week, everyone else at the party who had been infected suddenly comes down ill too.

Surely, that makes more sense than an unknown poison which, after only one dose, takes a week to kick in and then somehow is powerful enough to kill? And ultimately, the fact of the matter still remains that most historians don't conclusively believe Alexander's death was the result of poison. I did not have a problem with the use of poison in the novel but I do have a problem with the author claiming that Alexander and Cesare were indeed poisoned when there is no proof of that and little evidence.

The second inaccurate Author's Note I came across was found in Jessica McCann's All Different Kinds of Free, a novel based on the life of Margaret Morgan and the Prigg vs Pennsylvania case regarding slavery laws and whether escaped slaves in Pennsylvania could be returned to their owners in the south or not, especially with no documented proof of their ownership. Margaret Morgan had claimed to be free but was captured and returned to the south where she was sold into slavery. In the Author's Note, McCann claims that Margaret was indeed free, not a slave, when she went to Pennsylvania and as evidence of this states:
"In fact, in the 1830 U.S. census, she, her husband and their children were recorded as 'free blacks' by the county sheriff."
It's true that there is an 1830 U.S. Census record of a black Jerry Morgan, who McCann claims was Margaret's husband, living in the right area. What she fails to inform the reader of is that Margaret's husband's name is lost to history and that in the 1830 census, only the "head of household" is recorded by name. Here is where knowledge of genealogy research does come into play a little bit because every genealogist knows that you can't make assumptions like this. McCann is assuming Jerry Morgan was Margaret's husband without any proof of it since Margaret is never named on the census herself. Could it be an accurate assumption? Yes, it's possible that Jerry Morgan was Margaret's husband and that they were free and therefore Jerry's name was recorded on the 1830 census. But it's also possible they were escaped slaves whose names were never recorded on the 1830 census and Margaret's husband's name was something else entirely. Naturally, it goes without saying that regardless of their slave status, Margaret's fate (being sold into or back into slavery) was immoral. But that doesn't justify making false statements to suit one's agenda. I certainly don't have a problem with Margaret being portrayed as free in the novel or even if the author personally believes Margaret was free - I would like to believe the same thing. But she still needs to be clear about the facts in the Author's Note, which she wasn't. Had she explained that the census record may not be Margaret's family but that she believes it is, fair enough, I'd have no complaints. But don't claim something is factual when you're actually only making assumptions.

While I respect all the hard work and research that goes into any historical novel, it's important to remember that if you would not use it as a credible source for an academic study, it's best to take it with a grain of salt. You wouldn't cite the Author's Note from a novel in an academic report of the topic so don't take it as gospel. The author can make mistakes or might be motivated to exaggerate the facts, even within the Author's Note, to lend authenticity to their story, making it more interesting to the reader. It's possible these were rare cases and that most Author's Notes can be trusted; I am not criticizing all historical novelists, I respect and admire most of them. But as I am not an expert in all fields of history, how can I know what to trust and what not to? So just keep this in mind the next time you read an Author's Note in a historical novel.

I will step off my soapbox now and return to genealogy in my next post!

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