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

Friday, January 27, 2012

'Scandalmonger' by William Safire (2000)

Scandalmonger - what a great word! (and book title). It's no more than you would expect from Pulitzer Prize winner William Safire, whose On Words column in the Washington Post was a weekly must-read for me. Sadly, Safire is no longer with us, and among his many books are only two historical novels. The other, Freedom, is set in the Civil War, so Scandalmonger was his only foray into the founding period of United States history.

The titular character is James Callender, a Scots immigrant who became a leading journalist in the 1790s before his suspicious death in 1804 - drowning in three feet of James River swamp water. Callender's scathing editorial style and unrelenting criticism of the political leaders of the day earned him many enemies; first John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, later Thomas Jefferson and his Virginia allies James Madison and James Monroe. All of these men appear as prominent characters in Safire's novel, along with many other famous figures, including Hamilton's mistress Maria Reynolds, Aaron Burr, John Marshall and William Cobbett - Callender's main editorial rival.

Scandalmonger joins quite a large group of novels featuring historical characters from this period of American history. A large part of the fun is in how each novelist portrays these supposedly well-known and understood founders of our nation. Given the thousands of volumes of historical studies devoted to the lives of these persons, plus the voluminous correspondence and other writings they left behind, you might suppose that they would assume very similar personalities from one novel to the next. You would, however, be very wrong. Safire's Jefferson is much less Olympian than David Nevin's (in Eagle's Cry). Safire's Aaron Burr, while not devoid of good qualities, is still mainly the standard ambitious, amoral schemer - not much like the thoughtful, misunderstood non-conformist created by Gore Vidal. The most surprising of the characters in Scandalmonger is James Monroe. Most historical writers tend to dismiss Monroe as the least talented member of the Virginia dynasty. In Safire's hands, however, he becomes a crafty, politically astute "fixer". It's Monroe whose behind-the-scenes maneuvers help bring about the political downfall of Hamilton. Later, Monroe is the one who repeatedly steps in to repair the potential political damage wrought by Jefferson's love life and Madison's naivete. And, in the end, it's Monroe who steps in to deal with the volatile Callender, the man who knew too much. I doubt that the real Monroe was such a subtle thinker, but his character is really the glue that holds the novel's plot lines together.

My few criticisms of Scandalmonger relate mainly to the speculative parts of the historical story. Early on, Safire begins to develop a theory that part of the personal animosity between Hamilton and Burr might have come from their rivalry for the affections of Maria Reynolds. That interesting sub-plot is, however, never taken very far. At the same time, the novel fails to mention what many historians believe was the main source of friction between the two - Burr's defeat of Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler in a campaign for a Senate seat. Later, the novel tiptoes all around the possibility that Callender might have been murdered, but misses an opportunity to write a great climactic scene. Safire was perhaps too scrupulous as a historian to be a superior novelist.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. Even though I've probably read more on this period of American history than any other, Scandalmonger proves that the subject is far from exhausted. Score = 4

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

Yes. The story is nothing but history, except for a few invented details. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. At the end of the book, Safire provides a page by page listing of his sources for events and dialogue (most of which comes from the characters' own writing). He explains the rationale behind the few invented details, such as an affair between Callender and Maria Reynolds. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Yes. As noted above, what's remarkable is how, beginning with the same huge trove of historical materials as other writers, Safire created such unique portrayals. Score = 5

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

Definitely. Unfortunately, there won't be any more. At some point I'll move forward into the Civil War period and read Freedom. Score = 3.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

'The Queen's Man', series by Sharon Kay Penman

While in my local library last month checking out Lionheart, I also grabbed a couple of Sharon Kay Penman's forays into the historical-mystery-detective sub-genre; Cruel as the Grave (1998) and Dragon's Lair (2003). I assume that, for historical novelists, sub-genres are attempts to widen the author's normal audience. They generally do this in several ways:
  1. The novels are shorter
  2. There is less history
  3. There is more fictional content in the chosen sub-genre
All three of these are true of Penman's The Queen's Man series of novels. Having previously read the first of the series, The Queen's Man (1996), I expected these two sequels to be equally entertaining, and was not disappointed. These shorter novels tie in to the historical narrative of Lionheart and the other books in the Angevin Kings series, so there's no question that Penman has done plenty of historical research.

The central action in each of these brief novels is, however, a fictional murder mystery. The central recurring character is the fictional Justin de Quincy, who becomes known as a "Queen's Man" because of his loyalty to and employment by the dowager Queen Eleanor, widow of King Henry II. Eleanor is responsible for England while her son, King Richard I (Lionheart) is away battling the "Saracens" for control of Jerusalem. De Quincy is dispatched by his queen to far-flung corners of the island on confidential assignments, and one or more unexplained murders always seem to occur during his pursuit of the Queen's assignments. De Quincy then becomes a sort of amateur detective to solve the mystery.

The formula is simple and well-understood by fans of the genre, including myself. The entertainment value is undeniable. It would be a mistake, however, to read these novels as representative of the lives and minds of persons actually living in those times and places. It's possible that there was someone like Justin de Quincy in 1193, but we have no historical evidence for it. All the written materials we have from those times indicate that people simply did not think in ways that allowed them to solve a murder mystery by the methods de Quincy uses. They didn't examine alternative explanations for events. They didn't look for hidden physical evidence to support or refute a theory. Hard as it is for us to imagine, they just weren't like us. Anything confusing and/or unexplained became the province of the priest, who declared the event to be "God's will".

There's one other aspect of the construction of these novels that strikes me as somewhat facile. The events and persons connected with the murder mystery and its solution do not influence historical events or persons in any discernable way. The fictional story stands apart within a historical setting. This method allows the author to avoid most of the inherent contradictions involved. By contrast, a more ambitious work in this genre proposes fictional events and characters as part of an alternative explanation for historical events. Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears, is an outstanding recent example of such a novel.

Reading these tales, then, requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Having stipulated that caveat, however, I'm not one to let it stand in the way of my enjoyment of a good mystery. I look forward to reading the fourth installment of The Queen's Man, titled Prince of Darkness (2005).