There can’t be many contexts in which it can be claimed, even metaphorically, that a famine is better than a feast. Yet when it comes to the source material accessed by a historical novelist, a dearth can often be more valuable than a glut. Take this reaction from the reader of an early draft of Make Me A City about the representation of a character called Eliza Chappell. Eliza, a schoolteacher, was depicted as being toothless by the age of twenty eight. Wasn’t that hamming things up? Would it make any difference, I asked, if you knew that Eliza Chappell was based on a real life figure, and that this detail about her was true? Yes, came the answer, it would. I, though, was not so sure.
At issue is one of the privileges, and one of the potential pitfalls, of writing a historical novel. While sifting through a magma of information gleaned from multiple sources, choices have to be made about what to extract. Facts in fiction, if included gratuitously or handled carelessly, can damage the narrative they are intended to enrich. While both novelists and historians have to establish their credentials if they are to be taken seriously as interpreters of the past, there is an obvious divergence in their need for information and the uses to which it is put. Would a historian complain that there was too much evidence to make sense of? Probably not. Fiction is different: more encourages clutter, less presents opportunities. Indeed, it can be liberating when the sources disappear altogether. At this point, when the historian is pulled up sharp, the novelist is free to head for the evidential gap.
But the right to fill that gap must have been earned. To establish their credibility, novelists have a variety of techniques available from which to pick and choose. For example, they can make reference to notable events, or include characters based on real life prototypes, or channel contemporaneous ways of living, language and behaviour. The important thing is that the narrative should be safely embedded in a convincing historical landscape by the time a gap appears in the documentary trail. Because in that void, nobody knows what really happened or why, or who did what, or why they did what they did. But oh what we’d give to find out! And at this point, who is better placed than the novelist to usher the reader across the divide?
I’d argue that this hiatus, and the speculation it prompts, is familiar enough in our everyday lives. When things aren’t crystal clear, we begin to play at what might, what could, what if; we use hunches and intuition. Indeed, it is in these gaps where the stuff of our own lives – unannotated and unrecorded – often piles up and sometimes, and in some form or other, passes into memory. Here, too, lies the holy grail of the historical narrative, for its aim is not to uncover the truth as some historical ‘facts’ (always disputable) might have it, but to conjure up the much more moving and percipient spirit of the truth.
Such gaps, big and small, fuelled the opening chapter of Make Me A City. The book opens with a story set in 1800 about a real life pioneer of obscure origins, Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, who is probably of half-French, half-African descent. Pointe de Sable is credited with establishing the first homestead and trading post in Chicago. Though his experiences are recounted by a fictional historian in the novel they draw, in both mood and detail, from the work of a genuine historian of that time, Milo M. Quaife. Quaife writes warmly about Pointe de Sable, a generous, ‘well-educated’ man who, among other things, owned twenty-three pictures prior to his arrival in Chicago. One of them, Quaife reports, was called ‘Lady Strafford’.
Quaife’s mention of that painting is a good example of one of those small gaps where a historian has to move on, but a novelist can choose to linger. What, for instance, did the painting look like and why was it important to Pointe de Sable? In the novel, the painting will cast light on Pointe de Sable’s character and the predicament he faces, before taking on a life of its own.
Quaife’s account is full of many small gaps like this, but there is also a very large one. Pointe de Sable amassed a tidy fortune in Chicago. Suddenly, for reasons the historian (his frustration is palpable) can only record ‘is a matter of uncertainty’, he sold up and moved to St Clair, Michigan. Quaife even provides a copy of the original bill of sale which shows every item that was sold, from property to livestock to household utensils. He also tells us what he has found out about the buyer Jean Lalime, and Lalime’s curious relationship with a fellow trader, John Kinzie. Pointe de Sable’s property, he goes on to record, eventually fell into Kinzie’s hands and Kinzie, not Pointe de Sable, would come to be lauded as the original settler. Quaife provides a lot of uncomplimentary information about Kinzie and is adamant about Pointe de Sable’s contribution: ‘too long have Chicagoans regarded their first citizen with feelings mingled of levity and contempt. The sober historical record, pieced together from many divergent sources, discloses him as a man in whom the modern city may take legitimate pride.’
The lack of sources, the gap that thwarts Quaife, the puzzle over why a prosperous Pointe de Sable should have sold up and moved away – this is what fiction is uniquely equipped to explore. Steeped by now in Pointe de Sable’s world, the narrative is ready to take the leap into what a historian would deem to be the unknown.
So when it comes to source material, which is preferable — feast or famine? The novelist needs information, but does not want to be overwhelmed. Too many facts can act as a brake on the imagination. So let’s settle on enough, but not too much. And when enough suddenly shrinks to nothing, if a big gap opens up, that’s an opportunity for the novelist to let go. Where, then, does that leave Eliza Chappell? Did the inclusion of dental misery nudge her portrayal towards caricature? It seemed to me that the equanimity with which she bore her deprivation was a sign of fortitude. I therefore chose to keep it in, aware that this might not please all readers. In my view, this was one of those instances where a fact that was true also contributed to the spirit of the truth.