Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

'Lydia Bailey' by Kenneth Roberts (1947)

Lydia Bailey is the name of the fictional heroine of this later novel by Kenneth Roberts. The time period is 1798 to 1805, and encompasses several major events in US history. The same cautionary note applies to this novel as to Roberts' previous works - that is, his fictionalized historical character portrayals are very black-and-white, either much more heroic or villainous than they could possibly have been in real life. Also, government officials in general tend to be small-minded, conniving, dishonest and cowardly, among other faults. Their actions continually frustrate the patriotic and altruistic designs of Roberts' noble heroes. Given that large grain of salt, Roberts invented a clever and exciting plot that takes fictional hero Albion Hamlin on a wide-ranging journey from his home in Portland, Maine. Young attorney Hamlin first travels to Boston to defend a newspaper publisher on trial in 1798 for violations of the infamous Sedition Act. The judge turns out to be the Federalist Samuel Chase (future Supreme Court justice and enemy of President Jefferson), the novel's first black-hearted villain. While there, Hamlin falls in love with a portrait of Lydia Bailey and sets out to find her and save her inheritance from an unscrupulous cousin. This quest takes Hamlin first to Philadelphia (still the US capital in 1798), where he meets the novel's central villain, State Department functionary Tobias Lear. Nearby, Hamlin meets botanist John Bartram. Further plot twists take him into the middle of the Haitian Revolution and on to the Mediterranean, ending up in Tripoli on the eve of the first Barbary War. Along the way, he meets good guys Toussaint Louverture and William Eaton, along with bad guys Charles Leclerc, Yusuf Karamanli and William Bainbridge The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. Many of these historical events were relatively unexplored by by historical reading, so the novel opened up some new vistas. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Definitely. As noted above, Roberts' clever plot manages to bind many geographically remote historical events into one story. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Pretty much. As with virtually all historical novels, there's a certain amount of exaggeration for dramatic effect. I found no outright fabrications or willful distortions. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Characters are always more subject to the novelist's manipulation than events. Roberts, as noted in the opening section above, uses that sort of artistic license to fit characters into his good vs. evil sort of historical outlook. He did plenty of research, however, and included a brief list of sources at the end - always a plus in my scoring system. Score = 4

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Unfortunately, I've just about reached the end of Roberts' novels, and he won't be writing any new ones. I wish there were more. Score = 4.

No comments:

Post a Comment