Reality is in the Eye of the Beholder

Until a few years ago, if you were a lover of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music then you were probably familiar with the Mozart Forum — a website dedicated to discussing Mozart, his work, his world. Unfortunately, it’s gone, along with the extensive library, which contained some excellent articles. Probably the site got hacked, or perhaps the arguments among Mozart fans were so heated that the site had become unmanageable. Forum members often brawled over biographical issues, rather than musical ones; with unending debates woven around what Mozart’s father, Leopold, and Mozart’s wife, Constanze Weber, were like… as far as I know, it was impossible to reach any kind of consensus.

historical fiction
Constanze Mozart, née Weber. Portrait by Hans Hansen (1802).

Some time ago there was a debate about which is the best Mozart biography available on the market. A Spanish user sparked off the topic and then at a certain point she switched the debate to historical novels with this posting:

I have lately seen in Internet this book, but I am always afraid and I usually get upset of the novels based on real history, because sometimes one doesn’t know what is invented and what is not. Do you know it? It’s Rita Charbonnier’s “Nannerl, la hermana de Mozart”.

This was the curt response from a senior forum member:

Rita Charbonnier’s book is an extremely highly-coloured romantic novel, with very little historical or biographical accuracy, I’d be tempted to say none.

Real history. Historical or biographical accuracy. What does this mean, exactly?

One day I found myself on a French blog about classical music. The author, who is a great lover of Mozart, said he had devoured my novel La soeur de Mozart in one night and that it was… awful. In terms of the writing. I must point out that the French translation was done by a top-class writer, as well as a lovely person, and that his version is nicer than mine. He was called François Maspero and sadly he passed away in 2015. This is what the post said:

The fact that a famous publisher could publish a book like this which, in my opinion, and it is only my opinion, is so awful makes me feel very sad about the world we live in, a world which allows people, in the name of freedom of expression, to sully the memory of a family who have no living descendents to defend them.

The next day (brace yourselves) he says goodbye to all the people on his blog because La soeur de Mozart had upset him so much he didn’t want to talk about Mozart any more.

I can’t get rid of the image of Mozart’s father Leopold as Thénardier and his mother as a big, ruddy, rather stupid German woman, Wolfgang as a horrible man and Nannerl as a rude and nasty martyr, the dirty slatternly Constanze, and the poor violinist accused of alcoholism who we imagine is supposed to be Wenzel. No, really, it is too difficult to rid my mind of this false Mozart family and find the real one again!

You can imagine how I felt when I read this. I felt really upset about making this man so depressed but, at the same time, a wicked thought came to mind. He was only defending himself because he felt attacked. Someone had expressed a point of view about Mozart which didn’t coincide with his own, and that made him cross. And, in fact, after a couple of miserable days, the Mozart lover was back to his old self again, happily and eruditely expressing his musical opinions on his blog.

The question is whether it is legitimate to create your own story around what actually happened, or whether this is disrespectful behaviour typical of writers who use heroes of the past to their own ends or to sully people’s memory of them?

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Late 16th century portrait of King Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

To be honest I don’t believe that things “actually” happened. I think that reality only exists in the eyes of the beholder, so every individual has their own version. It seems to me that there is something much more personal behind this brandishing of shields than passionately defending the historic truth. In general, people who get cross because they feel that the proper version of history has been violated, get cross because their own version of the facts has been violated. Thus, what they are defending (and this is natural) is themselves rather than the historical figure in question.

Any author who portrays a highly cherished (or hated) historical figure will eventually deal with this. It’s impossible to create an image of an existing character that will please everybody, fans and experts alike. We are all looking for vindication of our hero or heroine; how we feel about these people is deeply emotional (after all, as I was told, a whole organization exists devoted to defend the good character of Richard III, so “maligned” by Shakespeare). And that applies not only to fiction but even to essays which claim to tell “the truth”: the views of expert historians are quite often very different.

When I was researching another novel, La strana giornata di Alexandre Dumas (published in Italian) I came across the French-Canadian journalist and writer Maurice Constantin-Weyer. He was born in 1881 and died in 1964. He won the Prix Goncourt in 1928 and wrote 54 books including the novel L’aventure vécue de Dumas père. This is what he wrote in the preface:

Many eminent critics despise biographical novels as a genre — and what biography does not have something of the novel in it — saying that they are “false”. I have to confess that I do not understand the term “false”. […] For someone who has lived through two world wars and communications relating to them and for someone who spent many years in a newspaper office, the idea of a factual report loses all credibility. It becomes suspect. Any communication can serve opposing objectives. Any one piece of information can be true in twenty different ways. […] And can we be sure that an absolute truth really exists anyway? The older I get the harder it becomes to accept the idea.

It goes without saying that I agree with him.

I quoted Constantin-Weyer on a website page and I received the following interesting comment by Maria Cristina Savioli — literary translator and Professor of English at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (in Italy) and former professor of English Literature and Literary Criticism at the Universities of Leeds and of Huddersfield, in Great Britain.

Constantin-Weyer’s words say it all in a nutshell. It is perhaps also worth reminding that he is not alone in expressing his beliefs concerning “truth” and “facts”. Historians themselves have had to come to terms with the idea that there is no such thing as objective reality. Suffice it to think of the ample bibliography produced in the field of historiographic metafiction.
But let’s stay closer to home and think in terms of historical fiction. Even at the outset of the historical novel tradition in Italy, writers would point out how an author had best use major historical figures as secondary characters, because in this way they would not be tied to what was historically known about them. Nonetheless, this did not prevent such writers from producing novels that depicted such figures at particular moments in their lives that no historian had ever written or ever heard about. Following from this, how many voices have ever been raised in shock to claim that the Nun of Monza or Cardinal Federico Borromeo as they were depicted by Manzoni lacked historical or biographical accuracy? Do we know these figures so intimately as to be able to say they did or did not do that particular thing at that particular time?
I do not think we need to say anything about the “historical accuracy” of Shakespeare’s historical plays here, as so much has been written about this subject.
In 1967 the French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote a famous essay titled “The Death of the Author”, where he pulled apart the till then widely accepted notions of “authorial intention” and “objectivity”. I’m amazed that after so long since that revolutionary essay was published anyone would still demand faithfulness to whatever “truth” has so far been established by history to evaluate a work of fiction. New historical documentation surfaces almost daily and questions what until yesterday went without saying. Therefore it is no wonder that often authors, through their fictions, get closer to what happened at a particular time in history than whatever historical documents have revealed until then. Think of the plot to kill Hitler. Canadian author Timothy Findley had made it up and written about it in a novel titled “Famous Last Words” published in 1981, long before such a plot was uncovered by historians. Was that fiction? Now films that retell the tale in a more or less fictionalised way abound on the big screen.
As the definition of the genre says “historical fiction” IS fiction albeit embedded in a historical context. So why not define historical accuracy, if we can.