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  • Novelties:A Historian's Field Notes from Fiction
  • Jane Kamensky (bio)

Here in the twilight of the Enlightenment, academic historians have fallen in love with how little we can know. Over the last fifty years, people, events, even places in the past have grown more obscure to many of us. Compare a work of history written in 1960 to one published in 2010, and you might wonder whether the mists of time have somehow thickened.

Can aspects of the novelist's imagination help us to cut through the fog? Two years ago, the historian Jill Lepore and I published a novel we wrote together. Set in Boston in 1764, Blindspot started out as a lark, a gift for a friend. It grew into a project that felt important, even urgent, to us as scholars: a different way of knowing and telling the past. What follows are nine lessons learned in that effort to conjure a known and knowable world: a Then as real as Now, in our minds and on our pages.

1. Face It

Most historians suffer from prosopagnosia: face blindness. My co-author and I had written a goodly number of pages when it dawned on us that we had yet to tell our readers what our two first-person narrators looked like. In a novel that is, in large measure, about seeing, such description seemed a matter of duty. Our readers, not to mention our narrators themselves, needed to know how tall Fanny and Jamie stood, the color of their hair, the cut of their proverbial jibs.

How tough could such an accounting be? This was fiction, after all; we answered only to our characters. But confronted with this delectable task, we promptly choked. Their eyes, how they twinkled; their dimples, how merry: it seemed we had naught but rank cliché at our fingertips.

How do you take stock of a human face? Every time you walk in to a bus, a bar, or a classroom, you take people's mettle visually, instantly, almost without thinking. But the sheer narrative terror of that moment made me realize that, as historians, we seldom confront the embodied nature of past individuals. We're capable of writing the history of the self, or the history of the body, or even the history of sexuality, without crafting characters capable of staring back at us, as a good portrait does.

Writers of fiction give their characters faces and yea, even bodies, in a variety of ways. Consider this description, so thorough and meticulous that it bends in spots toward inventory:

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William Hogarth's "Characters and Caricaturas," 1743, from Anecdotes of William Hogarth: Written by Himself (London, 1833).

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt—ready with a text if abbots flounder. . . . [H]e is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.1

Cromwell, of course, is a character from history and from fiction, in this case Hilary Mantel's magnificent novel, Wolf Hall. Her description begins with a physical body, and a face, courtesy of Hans Holbein's [End Page 2] 1533 portrait. But then she peers through the eyes to the soul, as if she knows the guy, and her reader should, too.