Awhile ago, I posted something to the tune of, a historical novelist's job is so cool because, where a regular historian has to just shrug and say, "we don't know the details about this or that," a novelist can gleefully fill in the blanks about events or people in the past. And so -- here I am. Pen in hand, I prepare to fill in the blanks on Anne Bradstreet -- her marriage, perhaps, or her opinion about the other women around her. But then my inner historian starts screaming.
"YOU CANNOT EMBELLISH THE HISTORICAL RECORD!" she says.
Historians record history -- sort of. We assemble whatever is left over from a life or a place or an era, and try to make a coherent whole out of it. We don't like to consider the possibility that much, too much, has been lost -- hidden, destroyed, or deemed not worth saving, Instead we build with what we have, hoping (but never sure) that it gives us a true picture. We make leaps to connect the dots, connect the spaces between firm evidence, but we try to leap cautiously. We back our extrapolations as well as we can -- with material evidence, logic, science, the cultural background -- so there is reason to suspect that This Is How It Was.
But we would never invent a girl's birthday. We'd never say her smallpox scars were on her cheeks and chin but not her forehead unless we knew. But if I'm going to write a novel about Anne, I have to do that, and it really bothers me -- or at least, it bothers my Inner Historian. And I have to go further. I have to (for instance) invent out of whole cloth her mother's personality, because we know almost nothing about her, except that she was a model wife and mother (yawn).
And I have to decide what her relationship with her father was. Likely he was one of her mentors in her craft as a poet, but Thomas Dudley was an irascible, difficult man as well. Was his relationship with his daughter a great exception in his life -- here he was nurturing? Or was their relationship more tumultuous? It's my call.
Folks, this is going to be hard for me. It's going to take grit to override my Inner Historian and fill in these blanks in ways that simply please, or that tell a better story. I feel like I'm not being true to History, or to Anne. But if I want to tell a story, instead of write a biography -- this is the task.
My work on Anne Bradstreet has slowed recently. I have been trying to get very familiar with Stuart England (or Early Modern England, as it is so poetically called), so I understand Anne's context. I've plowed through a couple of tomes, but wonder if I've learned anything useful to my purposes. My kids are home for the summer, and I'm teaching a couple of courses at a local university, which limits my time. My students don't realize that if they post a comment to this blog, I'll give them a few extra credit points.