Historical Archive and Subjective Interpretation in Fiction

A historical novel can be understood as a collision between the factual archives of the past and the creative substance that arises from those gaps within that archive. In this sense, the writer recognizes the open spaces within the knowledge of the past and then makes a series of subjective choices as to those apertures should be filled. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus understood of history as a combination of truths and stories, speaking to the malleable character of history and the relevance of literature which simultaneously participates in and deviates from what is known about the past. Thus, in any text of the historical fiction genre, it becomes evident that writers of historical fiction are deliberate and unabashed in how they shape history to reflect their individual visions of the past. In their respective novels Girl with a Pearl Earring and Coming Through Slaughter, Tracy Chevalier and Michael Ondaatje contemplate the past in respect to historical figures who lack definitive biographical or historical narratives. Each author leaves known, historical facts about these individuals behind in order to create an authoritative yet ultimately fictional portrait of the world that these figures inhabited. Chevalier and Ondaatje employ narrative content, linguistic and grammatical strategy, and finally archival participation in order to create and maintain stories that recognize the finite material of history while also displaying the author’s individual vision of it.

A crucial narrative element that yokes both of these texts is the fact that they each revolve around figures from artistic and musical history whose biographies are mostly, if not entirely, unknown to contemporary historians. For instance, Coming Through Slaughter revolves around the historical figure of American Cornetist Buddy Bolden, a pioneering jazz musician whose recordings have never been found and about whom little is known (other than that his descent into schizophrenia early in his life). This specific basis of Ondaatje’s story (and importantly, not his style) exemplifies a more common route in historical fiction, which is to center the narrative around a real individual and write the character within their lived surroundings. Alternately, Girl with a Pearl Earring is centered around an imagined character, Griet, who was lifted directly and entirely from the titular painting by Johannes Vermeer. Compared to the narrative basis of Ondaatje’s work, Chevalier’s storyline exemplifies an adjusted method of setting historical fiction which sees an actual period of history refocused through the lens of an organic, imagined character’s perspective. Following these plot-based formulas, these authors seek to establish a sense of historical context while creatively elaborating upon it with personal and creative interpretations of both the individual’s personal storyline and the contextual narrative of the dated setting.

Chevalier establishes the audience’s awareness of the past with a distinctive immediacy. For example, the prose of the novel is preceded by an isolated page that states the year that (the audience must assume) the story to follow takes place in: “1664” (Chevalier, 1). The purpose of such a preface is to instantly take the reader from their present reality and release them into an isolated and yet wholly distinctive section of the past. From the outset, Chevalier is clear in her intention that the following work of fiction be understood as a historical narrative. Furthermore, specific uses of diction continue to distinguish the historical context of the narrative from the context of the reader. When Griet first hears the voices of her future employers at the very beginning of the narrative, she notes that they seem to sound of “. . . books and pearls and fur” (Chevalier, 3). Though it is a tactic is subtler than the preface, Chevalier is further attempting to date her story by attaching words to her characters which embody a sense of the past. Another example of this specific technique would be the mentioning of a “flagon” within the next two sentences (Chevalier, 3). The terms that Chevalier uses are words that are either used infrequently in the present day or have since been replaced with modern synonyms. Acting as an example of traditional historical fiction, Girl with a Pearl Earring begins with the author’s endeavor to establish a setting that, for the rest of the novel, will be firmly rooted within the past. In the beginning of Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje foregoes a statement of the year the story takes place in (as Chevalier has done) and instead includes an epigraphical quote by Louis Jones, an individual insinuated to be a contemporary of the novel’s central figure, Buddy Bolden. Jones states that, “He was the first to play the hard jazz and blues for dancing” and that the musicians who came after Bolden, “. . . knew he had begun the good jazz” (Ondaatje, 5). The quote is meant to start the reader off with an understanding of Bolden’s legacy as a musician, or in other words, why this individual merits the biographical treatment that the author intends to give him. Ondaatje is unmistakable in his effort to establish a notion of Bolden’s legacy for the sake of the reader. However, a notable feature of this epigraph is the fact that it fails to indicate whether or not Louis Jones is a historical figure or if these attributed remarks about Bolden come from a verifiable, documented source. Such formatting shows how Ondaatje intends for the audience to assume the authority of the epigraph, whereas the author may have organically created Jones and written the attributed quote himself. This technique consciously blurs the lines between fact and fiction and thus establishes a sense of the past which, unlike Chevalier’s story, privileges Ondaatje’s imagined conceptions of the past. Furthermore, dynamic usage of grammatical tense and person allow Chevalier and Ondaatje continue to extend their illustrations of the historical past well into the bodies of their respective works of fiction. Girl with a Pearl Earring is written in simple past tense and is in first person from the perspective of Griet. A notable example of these grammatical choices can be found in the novel when Griet is making her journey from her home to that of Vermeer and is reflecting upon the immediate surroundings and her own, personal reflections. Griet relates that, “the canal I walked along was a mirror of white light tinged with green”, and she continues with a reflection that, “to my left was the New Church, where I had been baptized sixteen years before” (Chevalier, 12). These examples establish two simultaneous senses of the past within the novel, as the former quote speaks to the historical past that the novel is set in and the latter speaks to Griet’s personal past within that same setting. Where the first quote briefly describes the finite historical surroundings of the novel, the former is a significant example of Chevalier filling in the gaps of her character’s past with her own notions of what that past must look like. While it is obvious that Chevalier makes far more traditional choices in terms of grammar, it is nonetheless evident these choices reflect an attempt to converge the historical context of the novel with individual, creative notions of how such a background affects the characters placed within that setting. In the case of Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje switches from present to past tense early on in the novel and then switches between the two tenses intermittently. In the case of the former grammatical strategy, the reader is first called upon (in the present) to “float by in a car today and see the corner shops” (Ondaatje, 8) before the section continues into the past tense phrase “history was slow here” (Ondaatje, 9). The seamless movement of present to past tense serves to subtly orient the reader into the transition from their own contemporary reality and into the historical framework of the novel. Ondaatje’s paced seduction of the reader into the past highlights the means by which he uses grammar to create a sense of the past that is indeed as “slow” as the text indicates it to be. Finally, in an unanticipated and rapid movement back to the present, Bolden “. . . puts the towel of steam over a face. Leaving holes for the mouth and nose” (Ondaatje, 11). Because the historical framework of the novel has already been established by the previous section of the text, Ondaatje then is free to perform his own individual sense of the past, which is here marked by the alternating uses of past and present tense. Not only does this grammatical strategy establish the context that is required in historical fiction, but the dynamic collision of tenses showcase Ondaatje’s fluid and sense of what the past and present mean in relation to one another.

The final way in which these authors participate within an authentic historical past is by having their characters actively participate within the existing visual archives of the narrative of the past. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, characters within the book are continually identified as the subjects of Vermeer’s existing paintings. Maria Thins describes Tanneke’s experience of being painted by saying that “When he painted her she stood there happily pouring milk for months without a thought passing through her head. God love her” (Chevalier, 157). The novel has the paintings of Vermeer act as visual aids to the past, a basic fact which easily substantiates the claim that the artist’s work is the historical archive that the novel is formulated upon. However, when Chevalier intimately describes the experiences of the characters who are being painted, she organically twists the archive in order to suit her individual, creative interpretation of those records. Similarly, the work by Ondaatje contains a sequence in which the only person who photographed Bolden, E.J. Bellocq, is shown developing a print of that photo for Webb. After Webb leaves, Bellocq creates two final prints of the photograph and is then said to have, “. . . dropped the negative into the acid tray and watched it bleach out to grey. Goodbye. Hope he don’t find you” (Ondaatje, 53). The notion of participating within the visual archive of history is revisited in this sequence, as it shows Bellocq actively engaging with the only known photograph of Bolden, which in reality is one of the few records of the man’s life. While Ondaatje maintains the prevailing sense of the past by involving the photograph in the narrative, the author disturbs that historical lens by having Bellocq participate in the creation and destruction of the visual archive. The author thus puts a new spin on this moment from the past by having Bellocq decide for himself what records of Bolden should and should not survive. Chevalier and Ondaatje each establish a vision of the past in a traditional sense by engaging with pictures from history, but by showing how their characters control the meanings and fates of these visuals, the authors move on from presenting an already-known vision of the past and instead illustrate their ideas as to what the past might have meant.

By simply setting their novels within a respective historical past, Chevalier and Ondaatje have allowed their works to be characterized under the historical fiction genre. However, both Girl with a Pearl Earring and Coming Through Slaughter reveal the many intricacies and implications of writing fiction set within the past, including the fact that authors must create a faithful sense of the past while writing with a deliberately subjective lens. More than maintaining a spirit of the historical throughout the respective novel, writers must also confront the multitude of gaps within the archives of the past and then use those gaps to create the organic material of the text. Therefore, establishing and maintaining the past is a two-fold endeavor that is based upon how authors choose to build historical truths and envisioned tales upon one another in their narrative, thus creating a past that is recognizable as a context and unique in its inherent significance.