History's Fictions

On February 22, 1732, on a prosperous farm along the Potomac River, Mary Ball Washington gave birth to her first son, George.

I think you know which George I'm talking about.

His birthplace is now a National Monument, though the house where 22-year-old Mary labored is no longer standing. The periphery of that original house is outlined in the grass, and behind the phantom house presides an elegant manor house. But there are more ghosts than just a missing house at this site.

See that rectangular outline on the ground? That's the original house.

See that rectangular outline on the ground? That's the original house.

The congenial folks of the National Park Service will give you an excellent tour of the site, filled with details about life in the rural countryside of the American colonies. At this time of year, in the winter months, the white farmers would be hosting dances and parties in the broad entry hallways of their houses. (There were enslaved African Americans too, but they didn't get much mention in our tour.) The master of the house had the finest bedroom at the front of the house, the better to show off his fine embroidered counterpane and luxurious curtains.

Putting the "master" in Master Bedroom.

Putting the "master" in Master Bedroom.

But at the end of our tour, our guide let slip a bombshell.

This old manor house wasn't actually that old. In fact, it was built in the 1930s. And in fact, it's not really that historically accurate.

The house, he explained, represents more what the people of the 1930s thought about 18th century life than what modern-day scholarship tells us. But the National Park Service keeps this flawed reconstruction, in honor of those people from the 30s and as an interesting representation of how those people thought about the past.

I thought the cabinetry in the dining room looked suspicious ...

I thought the cabinetry in the dining room looked suspicious ...

The history-lover in me bristled at this. What a charade! What a misrepresentation! This wasn't really how people lived. 

But then, after a few moments reflection, the novelist in me thrilled to the site. This was, after all, historical fiction in the flesh (or the brick). The house was built to tell a story about how people thought other people lived. Today, we find that story still worth listening too, even if we acknowledge the flaws. 

What is "history" anyway? Is it some concrete truth that, with only enough scrubbing and dusting, we can eventually reveal in its entirety?

Of course not. The "true" George Washington is just as elusive to us as he was to our 1930s predecessors. Through research and study we can probably construct a narrative that comes close to the man, but he himself is irreparably gone.

The honesty of confessing that construction is exhilarating. We reach toward history and truth, but we are, in the end, telling a story.

Historical fiction writers are constantly balancing between the exigencies of "history" and narrative. How much of the known record can we tweak in service to our stories? There's no answer, of course, and writers will differ in their preferences. I just read two novels dealing with the same historical event, yet aside from the names and a general sequence of events, they could have been continents apart. Or put another way, my description of my mother would differ from her own, but neither of us are exactly wrong or right. We're both grasping and filtering details in our own manners, and trying to make sense of a complex person.

We all tell stories. Stories drawn from our own memories to craft a tale about our identities and our shared histories. We are wired to order the nonsensical into a "plot," a sequence of events with cause and effect. This is one of the things that makes us human.

The more we recognize that we are grasping in the dark, the more we grow comfortable with the discomfort of our inability to ever truly know, the better we will be. We realize we aren't walking on solid ground. But with enough confidence to balance all the uncertainty, we will find we are, instead, flying.

And in that sense, I salute the National Park Service's monument to fictional history.

The view from the manor house out over Pope's Creek and, beyond that, the Potomac.

The view from the manor house out over Pope's Creek and, beyond that, the Potomac.