Thursday, July 20, 2006

Sparrowhawk: Lacunæ and Artistic License

Someone may ask about Sparrowhawk: If one of my purposes was to recreate a world of heroes and the era that saw the birth of the United States, how can one create one's own world in a historical novel, when one's characters must conform to the historical record?

The answer is: When there is no historical record for them to conform to. Moreover, the question is asked on the premise that it is impossible to recreate a historical period and also write a Romantic novel in which the characters exercise volition and can choose and pursue their values in that period. It certainly is an achievable literary goal, and Sparrowhawk sets no precedent in this regard. Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas (père) and other nineteenth century novelists and playwrights did it without risking the charge that they rewrote history.

And, there is a certain irrelevancy to the question. One doesn't choose to write a Romantic-historical novel solely to recreate a particular period. One may as well write a history. If the period is important to one's fiction-writing purposes -- and certainly the pre-Revolutionary period in the American colonies and Britain was integral to mine -- then the characters one creates must be able to act freely in it, just as they should in a story set in one's own time.

In writing Sparrowhawk, it was important for me to heed and respect the historical record, because my characters are depicted as contributing to some of the events of the time. In recreating the events in the Virginia General Assembly and the House of Commons, for example, it was crucial that they be portrayed objectively and in character. This meant availing myself of the extant records and journals of both institutions.

And in those records and journals I discovered significant gaps. Of course, there were no such members of the Commons as Dogmael Jones and Henoch Pannell, no rotten boroughs as Swansditch and Canovan. On this side of the Atlantic, there was no such county as Queen Anne in Virginia, and no burgesses by the names of Hugh Kenrick and Edgar Cullis to represent it in the General Assembly. The boroughs, county and characters are all pure creations.

But, it was not a journalistic, naturalistic novel I wished to write. The gaps in the historical record made it easier for me to recreate the culture and politics of the period in Romantic terms, and to fill those gaps with my story. As Ayn Rand noted in her Introduction to Hugo's Ninety-Three, "To a Romanticist, a background is just a background, not a theme. His vision is always focused on man -- on the fundamentals of man's nature, on those problems and aspects of his character which apply to any age and any country." A background is similar to a theatrical setting, a stage on which men may think and act in a plotted story. The props, the costumes, the lighting, and so on, are all a means of establishing time and place, merely "special effects" subsumed by the story. (Today, special effects in film and on the stage are becoming the dominant focus, at the expense of the story, when there is one.)

While the records of Parliament in Sparrowhawk's period are abundant (though still incomplete), there is a paucity of records of the General Assembly, and what exists of them is colorless and dry, thick with the yawn-inducing minutiæ of mundane, unimportant issues. On the other hand, in reading the accounts of the debates in Parliament on the Stamp Act, one encounters a startling mix of eloquence and rude manners, unbridled passion and sly connivance.

Where the record was incomplete, I relied on secondary sources, such as diaries, letters, and newspaper accounts to reconstruct events. Even then, I had to fall back on my deductive powers and imagination when the records were lacking or so vague or sketchy as to be useless. For example, the numbers of the Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg, that might have reported what actually happened in the General Assembly in May 1765 when Patrick Henry introduced his Resolves, are missing. Furthermore, I found that I had to write Henry's "Cæsar had his Brutus" speech, because there is no written record of it, only memorable fragments recalled by men years after the event.

Let me cite two important events, the debates on the Stamp Act in Parliament, and the debates over the Stamp Act Resolves in the General Assembly, dramatized in Book Four: Empire.

Many of the actual speeches made by George Grenville, Isaac Barré, and other actual members of the Commons are excerpted in the novel. The two major fictive speeches made by Dogmael Jones and Henoch Pannell represent the fundamental, opposing positions taken by the parties, Pannell's an expression of contempt for the colonies, Jones's a spirited defense of them. But, the climax of the debates was the vote on the Stamp Act. The record shows that it was unanimous, with no dissenting votes noted.

Jones, of course, would have voted against the Act, and his would have been the single, lone dissent. To "conform" to the actual record, and to underscore the venality rife in the Commons at that time, I have Grenville's secretary bribe the House clerk not to record Jones's dissenting vote in the official journal.

Hugh Kenrick calls the General Assembly a "cameo" of Parliament. Complementing the absence of Jones's dissenting vote in the Commons journal was the subsequent expunction of Patrick Henry's fifth Resolve, and probably the sixth and seventh, as well, from the Burgesses' journal. There are contradictory accounts on whether or not the sixth and seventh were even introduced, debated and voted on, one by an anonymous Frenchman who witnessed the debates, the other by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Fauquier in his official report to the Board of Trade in London.

The contradictory accounts create a unique lacuna. Which account is true? Whose veracity, the Frenchman's or the Lieutenant-Governor's, should one place more weight on? Without any supporting evidence one way or the other, and in this instance there is none, it is anyone's educated guess about what actually happened. One would think that such an epochal event would have been meticulously documented. But, either it was not, or if it was, the records perished, or are molding undiscovered in someone's attic or in some library's special collections.

The greater gap was the means by which all seven of Henry's Resolves were broadcast to colonial newspapers outside of Virginia. There is no record of who was responsible for sending them. Henry at that time was a freshman burgess for his county, and it is doubtful that he knew any of the editors of those newspapers. Accounts of the event and biographies of the principal actors simply gloss over the subject. (My own unsupported theory is that it was Richard Henry Lee, burgess for Westmoreland County, who, because of the animus between him and the conservative Tidewater gentry that controlled the House, was not present during the Resolves debates that spring but who published his own protest of the Stamp Act.)

The Resolves, to our knowledge, were not reported in the Virginia Gazette, which was controlled by the Lieutenant-Governor, who dissolved the Assembly over the Resolves. The numbers of the Gazette from that period are missing. Perhaps one of Henry's allies in the House was responsible. The evidence of responsibility is simply absent. So, I hit upon a means for the Resolves to be sent "abroad."

It was important that I devise a means of disseminating the Resolves, for they served to unite the colonies for the first time in a common cause, which was to challenge Parliamentary authority. I date the true beginning of the Revolution to the summer of 1765.

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