montagnarde1793: (République française)

So I just read this article which I have several problems with. Don't get me wrong; I see where the author is coming from. He's pointing out the difference between mistakes and intentional changes to the historical record in history. This is an important distinction to make. However, I must differ with his idea that this is the fundamental distinction to be made in the matter of historical accuracy in historical fiction. If fiction existed in a vacuum then yes, any intentional changes made by novelists (or playwrights, or filmmakers, or what have you) in the service of their storytelling would be fine. (We're assuming, for the sake of argument, that said changes actually improve the story, though we know well that they often do the opposite.)

I've said it before, I know, and doubtless the author of this piece would accuse me of being one of those fussy historians who think "the facts are the story" - I, of course, would say that the facts are often the story, but not always - but I think the spinner of historical fictions has a duty both to the people, events, ideas even that s/he writes about and to his or her audience. As such, a minor mistake such as a miscount of priests, unless it happens so often that it's clear the author either did no research and thus does not respect his or her readers, matters much less to me than a deliberate historical manipulation. Turning a real historical figure into the opposite of what they were - which, by the way, happens much more often for political than for entertainment reasons - shows a level of disrespect to the past and to one's audience that I for one cannot abide.

Shakespeare (whoever he was), as one commenter points out, is not a good role model in this case. I know little enough about Richard III, other than he was a king and that for this alone he has earned from me a certain base level of contempt, and that Shakespeare wants me to despise him, because the Tudors want me to despise him. I understand in terms of Shakespeare's own historical context, why he portrayed Richard, or really any of the characters in his history plays the way he did. That doesn't mean because Shakespeare did it, the best literary decisions are made based on political expediency. Lying to blacken or whitewash a historical figure tends to make less interesting reading/viewing in any case. History, apart from its own merits, tends to provide one with nuanced characters, and in that sense, yes the story *is* in the facts.

Does this mean that a novel needs to get bogged down in a bunch of little facts? That I've sinned against history if I don't quote a speech in full or describe in detail all the disgusting things lying in the street every time someone goes outside? Of course not. But if I rearrange that speech so that it says the opposite of what the original conveyed or if I claim that the streets were squeaky clean in centuries past? Well, then I've done both history and my readers a disservice.

Which brings me to what I think is the real point to be made about historical accuracy: not mistakes vs. intentional changes, but the letter vs. the spirit.

If I need to change the day on which some minor event happened for the purposes of my plot, I've violated the letter of historical accuracy; if I deliberately misrepresent the character and/or opinions of a historical figure, I've transgressed against the spirit. To me, that's an important component of historical accuracy. Doing your research matters. The author of this article is right about that. But that's not all there is to it.

(I should note, by the way, that saying "I'm writing a historical AU" changes the situation somewhat. But not entirely. An AU is asking "what if" and there are only so many what ifs a story can take and retain credibility. If you have more than one, they should probably be a result of one another. In other words, you can either start from the premise that there were unicorns in 18th century France or that France won the Seven Years War or that France won the Seven Years War because of the unicorns. Don't ask, "what if there were unicorns in 18th century France" and "what if France won the Seven Years War" if those two questions are unrelated. And certainly keep scrupulously within the realm of historical accuracy for other unrelated details, or why the hell are you writing an AU and not just a fantasy novel?)

(I should also note that I'm not among those who thinks that history should be used as pure entertainment or that things that are "just for entertainment" should be beyond the reach of critique, but if you're going to write some such historically inaccurate work would it kill you to put a disclaimer on it instead of proclaiming what you've written to be history or even historical fiction in the traditional sense?)

...And after all that, I still fine myself agreeing to a large extent with this commenter (though I would put in that I don't think it necessarily has to be that way).

Actually though, this whole post was just an excuse to reply to this comment. While it's nice to know we're not the only ones who have a problem with Mantel's misogyny, and I obviously agree that manipulating history to make "some wicked, wicked woman," in the commenter's words the root cause of every historical event (especially the negative ones) is helpful for nothing, least of all for making for a more interesting plot... "humane yet corrupt indulgence" vs. "idealistic but ruthless virtue"? Seriously? Did this person get his or her history for Wajda? Because, honestly, I don't think setting up these sorts of dichotomies is a much more evolved explanation than "it was all the fault of those evil wimmens." Because, I don't know about you, but if I can't think of any time when Robespierre was corrupt, I can certainly think of many times when he was humane and it could be argued that there were times he was even indulgent. Likewise, there are certainly times when Danton can be argued to have been idealistic, ruthless, and even virtuous, depending on how you read his actions. But Supreme Being forbid a novelist should explore these nuances and abandon a perfectly good opportunity to regale us with the dangers of virtue and idealism.

In other news, I have my visa now, and it is shiny and amazing. And it also has the nifty feature that if I were to decide I wanted to renew it for another year (not that I'm planning on doing that at the moment) I wouldn't even have to leave France to do it. I love it to death. ♥
montagnarde1793: (OMSBWTF?)

*sighs* I'm a bit afraid to read it. Browsing it has left me with a rather bad impression....but that shouldn't really surprise me, should it? Given the souce.

In other news, I don't know why they let Colin Lucas write the introductory article for the 1993 colloquium on Robespierre; the man is a revisionist sophist. (Because, clearly, when people talk about transparency in government, what they really mean is some kind of pseudo-Calvinist inquisition in which some people are inherently pure and only those people can tell whether others are pure or not. They obviously aren't talking about exposing the illicit or unethical actions of government officials to the People they are supposed to serve . D:<)
montagnarde1793: (OMSBWTF?)

I truly am sorry for inflicting this on you, but it's almost done, I swear.

montagnarde1793: (OMSBWTF?)

...But I'm posting it anyway. It will have to be in (at least) two parts, since despite the small part Éléonore plays in this book proportionately, it's rather... excessive vast.

montagnarde1793: (ame virile)

So, in an article of Hilary Mantel's, her first one, I believe, on the subject, she says the following: "'Eléonore thought she was loved,' said a fellow-student, 'but really she only scared him.'" (Him, being, of course, Maxime.) Now, I happen to know that, though a British historian uses this quote in the same way, they're both taking it rather out of context.

The entirety of the said student's writing (the accuracy of which Lenôtre himself admits is tenuous at best) on the subject of Éléonore is reproduced in Lenôtre's Paris révolutionnaire:

"Éléonore se croyait aimée, elle n'était que redoutée," says the student ("Éléonore believed herself to be loved when she was but feared"), but indeed, by whom? Why the other (supposedly royalist) students, of course! She continues: "Excepté quatre ou cinq élèves, chacun s'empressait de lui plaire, de la consulter, de prévenir ses désirs; les petits soins qu'on lui prodiguait contrastaient singulièrement avec la fierté aristocratique de quelques-unes de nous." (In translation: "With the exception of four or five students, everyone tried to please her, to consult her, to foresee her desires; the little cares extended toward her contrasted singularly with the aristocratic pride of some of us.")

In other words, she's not talking about Éléonore's relationship with Maxime at all, and logically so, for, whatever Mantel might think, it would make no sense for her to frighten him. An ignorant girl of aristocratic sensibilities, on the other hand, might persuade herself that Éléonore was to be feared (although not necessarily even in such a case, obviously).

This might not be quite so bad if Mantel had not based her entire theory of Éléonore's character on the line, but since she did, and since she used it to paint a rather slanderous picture of her, and in particular her relation to Maxime, not to mention the fact that this is not the first time she's taken such a line out of context, it reflects very badly indeed.

(I'm thinking one of three things must have happened: one, Hilary Mantel has a very minimal knowledge of French and thus she misunderstood what the "fellow student" was trying to say, two she deliberately took the line out of context and warped its meaning (which, considering, I wouldn't put past her), or three, she read Carr's biography of Maxime and didn't bother to check the original source, in which case one of the first two would have to apply to him instead, but one can still berate Mantel for sloppy research in the latter case.)

In any case, in order to keep this entry from being a complete waste, here's my translation of Lamartine's account of a meeting with Élisabeth Le Bas, also quoted in Paris révolutionnaire:

"I found in Mme Lebas, a woman of the Bible after the dispersion of the tribunes of Babylon, retired from the commerce of the living on a high floor of a fashionable apartment building on the Rue de Tournon, conversant with her memories, surrounded by portraits of her family..., of her sisters, of whom Robespierre was to marry the most beautiful, of Robespierre himself in all those elegant suits with which he boasted to present a contrast upon his person with the vest, the bonnet rouge, sabots, sordid signs, ignoble flattery by the Jacobins of equality and of the poverty of the masses. A magnificent portrait in pastel, of natural grandeur, of Saint-Just, the Barbaroux of the terrorists, the Antinous of the Jacobins, was displayed in a dusty gold frame against the wall between the bed-curtains and the wall, the object of a young girl's cult of memory for the most seductive of the disciples of the tribune of death. [Lamartine, in case you hadn't noticed, likes to be rather overly melodramatic and this leads him to many inaccuracies; I do apologize.]

"The young girl had become a wife, a mother, a widow; she had grown old in years and in face, with no trace of her former beauty in her features, but with no sign of age or senility. A fixed thought, sad by not at all disconcerted, gave to her strongly pronounced features a sort of lapidary petrification in a sole idea and sentiment, an abstract idea, a firm sentiment, but not at all strict.

"She welcomed me securely... she accorded me free access to her retreat, and let me flip through, page by page at my leisure, her present memoirs, inexhaustible and passionate on all the interior and exterior details of Robespierre's private and public life.

"Saint-Just also played a large role in these memoirs. I imagine that before marrying Lebas the young daughter of the entrepreneur Duplay, Robespierre's host, had thought for a moment to become the wife of the young and handsome proconsul, fanatical follower of this Mahomet of the mezzanine [reference to a Voltaire play], when the Revolution would finally come to a close by that sentimental sheepfold that Saint-Just and his master believed they were establishing in the place of the leveled inequalities and abolished scaffolds... Every time Saint-Just's name came up in our interviews, Mme Lebas's tone softened, her physiognomy was visibly touched, and she raised a glace of retrospective enthusiasm from his portrait to the ceiling like a silent reproach to the heavens for having taken some sweet perspective by the axe of 1794, with that exterminating angel's head upon the bust of a twenty-seven year-old proscriber."

...Lamartine has the strangest ideas, assuredly. Even Lenôtre, says, concerning the last bit: "I have long sought that which could have made this indiscreet and inexplicable supposition take hold in Lamartine's mind; Saint-Just loved, it is said, Henriette Lebas, his colleague's sister. [...] It would be possible, but improper and unjust to draw from this reticence [on the part of Le Bas--'we are currently very good friends, Saint-Just and I,' etc.] any conclusion in the direction indicated by Lamartine."

And one more thing, in case you missed it a couple of posts ago: do check out my new drawings on deviantart, won't you? I've added quite a few, especially in scraps. Merci d'avance. ♥


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