This is part 2 of a series about writing compelling characters in Historical Fiction. You can find the first part here.
According to James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, part of the difficulty in dealing with the history of a subordinate group is that there is a public transcript of events and a hidden transcript, which the dominant group neither knows about nor may access. Further, the hidden transcript is not necessarily a part of the written record, or if it is written, it may exist in sources outside the norm, such as rumors, gossip, songs, rituals, euphemisms, or jokes. Actions may also be a part of the hidden transcript. A quotation from page 14 bears exact reproduction:
“Tactical prudence ensures that subordinate groups rarely blurt out their hidden transcripts directly. But, taking advantage of the anonymity of a crowd or of an ambiguous accident, they manage in a thousand artful ways to imply that they are grudging conscripts to the performance.”
The performance he refers to is the dominant group’s version of reality. Add to this the now accepted view that history is written by the victors and the astute writer of historical fiction will see room for characters who neither assent nor conform inwardly to the dominant group’s conception of reality. They may even occasionally find ways to express their non-assent, although their expressions may be covert. It would be ridiculous to assume that marginalized groups were satisfied with the status quo and never sought to upend it, even if their resistance was in small acts. In her 1989 article, “The Return of the Repressed in Women’s Narrative,” Susan Stanford Friedman argues that women’s writing may be read as a form of disguised record of the forbidden. That women’s public writing had to disguise what they wanted to say more than their private writing. Women were protesting or “writing against the grain” from the beginning, and if they were writing against the grain, what else might they have done? In “History to the Defeated: Women Writers and the Historical Novel in the Thirties,” Diana Wallace points out that one of the many factors contributing to a boom in female authored and centered historical fiction during the 1930s was the renewed interest and demand for information about the lives of women in history. In addition, a surfeit of women who graduated from University after studying History, but who were denied entrance to other occupations, took up writing historical fiction. All of this brings to mind Catherine Morland, who observes somewhat dryly, in Northanger Abbey
“I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. “
Exactly–a great deal of it IS invention, by the victors. Indeed, if women (and others) are not part of the public transcript, with the exception of outliers, what might the hidden transcript reveal about them, if only we had it complete?
Another way of looking for characters who were forward thinking is to model them on famous outliers. One of my favorite historical outliers is Aaron Burr. I know you may think him a villain, but that is because he has been used as a scapegoat for the founders’ shortcomings for WAY too long. In her very excellent biography of Burr, Fallen Founder, Nancy Isenberg argues successfully that Burr was a man of his time with regard to politics, but ahead of his time with regard to women’s rights–an avowed reader and respecter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who educated his daughter to the same standard others of his time would have educated a son. She also argues that his roles in the 1800 election and the 1804 duel with Hamilton have largely been misconstrued both by the popular press and by the other founders, who were willing to paint Burr as a traitor in order to further their own political ambitions–Hamilton and Jefferson seem to be the most culpable, Madison less so. She further asserts that Burr’s lack of care over his own legacy in contrast to the other founders’ near obsession with theirs, contributed mightily to the oversimplification of Burr’s role in the early Republic. In the forward to the 1836 edition of his memoirs, written and published posthumously by Matthew Davis, the author admits freely to destroying a large quantity of Burr’s correspondence, because it would have been “injurious” to the reputations of some families. Burr was quite the ladies’ man, and morality was thought of differently in the late eighteenth century than it was in the Victorian era, which Davis was butting up against. It is a shame, really, that so much was lost. He also admits to not telling everything Burr told him about some of the other founders–some of which may have been biased, but may also have given us a fuller picture of the founders and taken some of the veil of villainy away from Burr. Alas, we’ll never know for sure–but this gap, like so many others in history and the outlier sensibilities of Burr could be exploited, and have been, to write some pretty wonderful historical fiction.
You cannot make a Burr, a Christine de Pizan, or an Eleanor of Aquitaine the average character in your book, but you can definitely make them the focus of the book. Look for where there is something missing–and use your historically informed imagination to fill in the gap.