Accuracy in Historical Fiction

I fancy it’s a true statement that I have been called a pedant more than once.  Or even more than twice.  It’s generally not used as a compliment. 

However, the use of the word is not, er, misplaced.  Today’s example: 

I am currently embarked on a major rewrite of my novel, May 1812.  And I shall be honest, the discussion in the first chapter about the impending war with the United States has probably caused me more aggro than most of the rest of the book put together.  I mean, trade wars are such a muddle to explain, aren’t they?  And the one that led to that war–it was a three-way affair which was particularly tiresome and ofttimes just plain silly.

So, there I was this morning thinking through this conversation again, reading what I’d rewritten once again and then striving to feel rather than think.  (It has also been said of me that I think too much and need to feel more and think less…)  And so asked myself the question, what does this character feel and know? 

Joel Barlow (1754-1812)

Joel Barlow (1754-1812)

At which point I realised I’d got the whole thing completely and utterly wrong.  Because on the 21st April, the PM announced in the Commons that they were going to revoke the Orders in Council, provided they had proof that the French had revoked the Berlin and Milan decrees.  They then wrote to Joel Barlow, the American Ambassador in Paris, saying take that to the Frenchies (I paraphrase) as they said they’d revoke the Berlin and Milan Decrees–establishing the Continental Blockade–as far as the American shippers and merchants were concerned if the British revoked the Orders in Council.  Tit for tat diplomacy.  (I did mention that it was all a muddle and quite silly, didn’t I?)

The problem was, when Barlow meandered into the office of the appropriate Minister, the French showed him a copy of a letter, dated 11 April 1811, saying that they had revoked the Milan and Berlin decrees as far as the Americans were concerned. 

The other part of this deal was, according to the French, that if the British didn’t at the same time revoke the Orders in Council as they applied to the Americans, then the Americans must declare war on Britain… (I know, I know…don’t even start about upstart Frenchies telling everyone what to do.)

The interesting or weird or suspicious thing about this letter is that they never received it in Washington, there is no record of it anywhere.  Nor was there any sort of follow-up from the French of the sort that says, er, remember that letter we sent you, er, we’re waiting for a reply…which leads most historians to believe the French copy is a forgery, probably written somewhere around the 26th April 1812…Just in time for Barlow to lay his peepers on it and get very confused.

But the point is, in London, on the 28th of April 1812, they didn’t know all this.  Not any of it.  The English didn’t learn about the French forgery until probably the 10th or the 11th of May–by which time they had other things on their minds. (Read the book if you doubt me…)

So they undoubtedly thought the matter was all but sorted.  All they were praying for was a fair wind to take the dispatches and letters to Washington so that the whole thing could be put to bed. 

Hence that scene will be rewritten again tomorrow–this time with what the characters might actually know and without the benefit of 200 years hindsight…

And if that makes me a pedant, well then, so be it.

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5 comments on “Accuracy in Historical Fiction

  1. junebugger says:

    I always wondered where you get your resources for the information you incorporate into your work. They’re too rare to be found off the internet or a common public library.

    with my writing, I feel too much and think too little. Balance is always needed. But I think you’ve got ’em both well balanced.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The bibiliography for May 1812 is something like 150 books long…and of that 150, I probably have over an hundred of them in my bookroom. I did try counting one day, but something happened, the dog needed letting out, the telephone rang…so I don’t honestly know how many are in there. But the point is, with so many there, when I’m rewriting or writing something anew, I often can just check to make sure that I’ve got my dates or even times right, and then I’ll read the whole pertaining passage. Which is what happened this time.

  2. jsd says:

    Thank you for being a pedant; we need pedants.

    Please check your email also — mail@mmbennetts re: thoughts on a new HF imprint.

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