Writers on Writing: black teeth vs everlite candles, or research vs experience

Most people have heard of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son. I lucked into either first editions or copies published not long after, which had obviously sat on someone’s shelf for two centuries before being dumped on a used bookseller, unread. I know it was unread because except for a few pages at the beginning of volume one, when Chesterfield was writing to a small boy, they were uncut. So I get to read the books that were published when his grandsons were still alive, in age mottled pages, right down to the f/s’s.

Chesterfield never intended those letters to be published. Living during the Enlightenment, he, along with Rousseau and others, felt that infants were tabulas rasas. With care and attention (and diligent work on the part of the child) one could raise a great man, and he was determined to help his son achieve greatness.  So what you get in the early segments of the first volume are educational goals and insights suitable to the age of the child and indicative of the time. In later years, Chesterfield opened up and talked about everything, from politics to medical theory to insight into human behavior and motivation—what would become psychology. The letters are never boring for me; sometimes I will pick them up at random and read a passage to see what he has to say about his world. I find him valuable not just for insight into the eighteenth century, but for writers.

Here he is on research versus experience:

The late Duke of Marlborough, who was at least as able a negotiator as a general, was exceedingly knowing in men; whereas the learned Grotius appeared, both in Sweden and in France, to be a very bungling minister. This is, in my opinion, very easily to be accounted for. A man of deep learning must have employed the greatest part of his time in books; and a skillful negotiator must necessarily have employed the greatest part of his time with man. The sound scholar, when dragged out of his dusty closet into business, acts by book, and deals with men as he has read of them…

And later:

Military men have seldom much knowledge of books; their education does not allow it; but what makes great amends for that want is, that they generally know a great deal of the world; they are thrown into it young; they see variety of nations and characters and they soon find, that to rise, which is the aim of them all, they must first please; their concurrent causes almost always give them manners and politeness. In consequence of which, you see them always distinguished at Courts, and favored by the women…

We know that to be successful writers we must combine research with experience, right? But how far can we trust our research? Even if we think we’ve found the perfect source, so much of the historian’s background is hidden from view; it is only in comparison with a whole lot of other reading that we can begin to perceive the prescription of their particular perceptive lens.

Example: Charles Elliott’s Princesse of Versailles—a careful, scholarly work focusing on Marie Adelaide of Savoy, during the latter half of Louis XIV’s reign. In this book we not only see the young couple as they were–bright, charming, and died much too young–but we see the machinations of Louis’s bastards by Madame de Montespan, who exerted themselves to gain power through the use of social weaponry, in later years in particular to offset the increasingly sobering influence of Madame de Maintenon on court and politics.

In Elliott’s book, the handsome, bright, apparently immoral bastards come off as wicked, dissolute, selfish idlers, deservedly robbed of power by the hard-working, unswervingly moral Maintenon, whose soul-searching self-doubts about her position and her duty kept her on her knees praying, when she wasn’t helping Louis XIV guide the kingdom.

Drawing on exactly the same sources, Nancy Mitford wrote a charming, deceptively light-toned book about The Sun King–and in it, the young couple still are charming and witty and dear, but Maintenon comes off as a narrow-minded, bigoted bourgeoisie witch, and the bastards as brilliant, attractive, playful aristocrats who are tragically denied a place in government that their wit and brains otherwise had designed them to fill. The matter of their bastardy? (Gallic shrug here.) Aristocrats and royalty do these things. It’s understood. But for the middle class bigots to rise above their place? That is unnatural, and brings the world to disaster.

Mitford’s own aristocratic assumptions probably present the court the way it would like to be perceived, and I suspect she furnishes some insight into their thought processes that seems to escape Elliott. On the other hand, Elliott seems to see Maintenon as the complex, bright, and driven woman she was, rather than stopping at the matter of her birth.

Using a single source for one’s fictional background means one is going to unconsciously reflect the views of the author, because however careful the research, that author is going to have a distinct view on the matters written about. So how long does the writer today have to research a historical period—research anything, really–until they get it right?

Much more to the point, once one has immersed in a period, where does one choose to blend the modern with the old? At one end of the spectrum, there is writing in period language, faithfully depicting tropes of that time, or else working to evoke the time in unflinching realism. So the author will present everyone walking about with blackened and aching teeth, and the cities will stink from the lack of plumbing. The characters will itch at the lice crawling in their hair, and try to hide with ribbons and brooches the grease and sweat stains in their velvet clothes.  And that’s the upper classes!

The danger here is, no matter how hard one tries to reproduce a time, there is going to be evidence of one’s own worldview and its language, or at least so it seems from cases of historical fraud, like Ossian, and at best it may read as mere pastiche.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the characters who are modern people in period dress, using a sprinkling of period idiom in modern cadences. The good guys will reflect our views today (showing how enlightened they are), and the bad guys will reveal themselves as bad guys by their period prejudices; characters will walk into rooms that are already brightly lit and warm, and carriages will bowl easily over roads that seem magically smooth. Each type of story will have its readership, depending on what the reader is coming to the tale for, and depending on how much they know about the historical period.

This is where experience works for the writer, in being able to make the decision about where that line between modern and period will be drawn. The more aware of human experience across the ages one is—and aware of paradigm—the better one can made a decision about what sort of story one wants to tell, and what one wishes to reflect about the past as well as the present. An easy, entertaining costume tale—or a profound commentary on the human condition?

Here are some thoughts on this matter from Vladimir Nabokov:

Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction.

The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. But the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself.

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Writers on Writing: black teeth vs everlite candles, or research vs experience — 12 Comments

  1. I love Nabokov. He never shies away from being right by being nice.

    Excellent article.

  2. Wow, I love what you have to say about the different strengths–or biases, or insights–of the Elliot and Mitford books. It’s kind of a Rashomon of scholarship, where from one perspective you see one side of the story and from another you see another. Absolutely fascinating.

    As for writers of genius versus minor writers, these days I flinch a bit at that. Maybe I’ll write about that on my own blog at some point.

  3. But there’s a place for what Nabakov called the minor writer, who gives an entertaining tale, and who intends to give nothing more than an entertaining tale.

    I also think the whole genius thing is especially iffy because it really is perceived by the reader: so many writers think they are giving the world the Great Novel, but it reads dull and hortatory. Sometimes the world discovers genius late–look at the history of Moby Dick–or for that matter, Jane Austen. She was regarded as a clever little lady writing about country gentry . . . it wasn’t until later that some perceived she’d pretty much invented the modern novel.

  4. Sherwood–for sure–oh, there’s so much more to talk about on that topic, but I don’t want to derail the conversation here. More anon, as they say.

  5. Anyone wishing to see what a talented writer can do with in-depth research should risk falling under the spell of Dorothy Dunnett and her ‘House of Niccolo’ series. These eight novels set in 15th century Scotland and Europe delineate and illuminate a fascinating era using the brilliant and wayward character of Nicolas de Fleury as her protagonist.

    This is one of the few series of novels that I regularly reread and so my copies are never lent out.

  6. I loved Dunnett’s LYMOND books.
    I find that the very word choice indicates class and time. Chesterfield’s phrase, above: “exeedingly knowing in men” — doesn’t that set the writer before you, probably peering sharply at you through a pair of pince-nez over the brim of a glass of port wine?

  7. Very interesting and clarifies for me why I can no longer read much historical fiction. I like the quasi historical settings in fantasy very much, but if the story purports to be a real account of a a real time, either rings false to me or is so nasty I can’t bear to read it.

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  9. Brenda
    I love the Lymond books as well. Some of them have been out of print and I had not been able to get my hands on ‘A Pawn in Aspic’. My daughter tracked down a copy for my birthday and now, my set complete, I am whiling away the gray autumn afternoons rereading those.