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Historical Accuracy

A reader says, "You've said that you pride yourself on being as historically accurate as possible. Are there times when you deliberately haven't been? Or do you always stick to history?"

Oh good question! Yes, I do try to be historically accurate. But -- and here's the huge thing -- the sources are not always unbiased. That's true in any study of history, but even more so when you're using primary sources that are autobiography. Think about it -- when you're telling people your life's story, do you leave out some things that don't make you look good? Do you just not mention that job you had fifteen years ago that you got fired from? What about that ex who turned out to be a nut? What about that car accident you had that was your fault? Or the time you really screwed up? We all edit our life stories. Moreover, we edit the stories of people around us depending on how we feel about them. Your old boss was really great to you, and so in your story of what happened she was wise and pithy and kind. Maybe you hated that teacher with a passion -- in your version of high school, he's your own Professor Snape. Your spouse is super and your ex is terrible. You'll never tell an unbiased story about your dad.

So what I do is triangulate -- the same people appear in a number of memoirs and sources. What do a bunch of people agree on? Where is there obvious bias because of people's feelings? For example, in Elza's own memoirs, Michel is devastatingly gorgeous. He's the handsomest man to ever walk the earth! Now, you can look at the portraits and he's at best ok and at worst kind of homely. But she loves him and she thinks he's tremendously attractive. And it says something about her, doesn't it, that she looks at this not so gorgeous guy and thinks he's an absolute sex god! It says a lot about her, and about her feelings. Ditto the reverse. There's a sketch of Elza from 1805 in which -- well, let's just say that if this picture were of me, I'd kill any friend who kept it! Dreadful is a pretty mild word for it. And this is contemporary with Michel writing that she's the most beautiful woman in the world. Either he's blind as a bat, or he simply adores her.

In following her memoirs and writing in first person, I've kept Elza's biases while trying to indicate that she is not always the best judge! One thing I did deliberately change is the timeline she gives for the end of her relationship with Moreau. Quite simply, the story she gives in her memoirs doesn't fit the facts as we know them. For example, we know when Michel was stationed at Lille. If the mix up of the letters happened when he was there, it did not happen when she says in the memoirs, but a year earlier. We know when Moreau had a field command and when he didn't. He couldn't have broken up with her when he wasn't there. Again, the break up had to be a year earlier than she says. I came to the conclusion that she'd stretched the relationship out a bit, made it end a year later than it really did. Why? Because that erases the entire year that followed, her worst year, the year when she was struggling for parts and falling into deeper and deeper trouble, the year that I'm sure she'd like to forget. Of those two years she only tells us a few anecdotes, the audition with Chaptal, the horrible play, the trip to Digne with Isabella's traveling troupe and the bright painted wagon and the feuding Angora and pug -- things that are funny rather than terrible. She's cut the terrible parts. She's made it a year between Moreau and Michel rather than two years, erased the worst days of her life. And who wouldn't? If you were writing your memoirs, wouldn't you skip the parts you'd rather never think about again?


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(Deleted comment)
Apr. 1st, 2014 05:57 pm (UTC)
Well, in the symbolism of the period, blue is truth. So that's always there. But there are other things. For example, the blue dress Elza is wearing when she meets Michel at Victor's party is deliberately meant to echo the blue dress Charmian is wearing at the dinner with Agrippa in Hand of Isis when she tells him off! Most readers won't notice that, but it's the same dress.
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