“Droit de Seigneur:” Thoughts on the Outer Limits of History and Historical Novels.

 A true story:

 A female student in my Western Civ. asked me rather excitedly if I had heard about ‘droit de seigneur,’ and if it was “true.”  Wearing my historian hat, I said, yes, and no. She started to walk away, disappointed. I felt so bad that I called her back and referred her to The Warlord. She brightened up. I sighed.

 It was déjà vu all over again when I heard that term at the Historical Novel Society conference inSan Diego regarding a ticklish subject: As historical novelists, do we have an obligation to tell our readers where the fiction ends and history begins?

 HNS’s panels on topics “How much Fiction, How much Fact?” and “Fact in Fiction or Fiction in Fact?” and the corollary question, ‘how much to include in author’s notes or bibliography to show where I got the stuff?’ reveal a concern with this issue.

 Both questions are an acknowledgement that our genre straddles an actual gap between the approaches. The ‘all history is bunk’ mindset would deny that any gap exists, but I am not referring to the fictionally certain. I am referring to that tension between a desire for “accuracy” and the “right” to make it up. To that end, I posted this on my FB:

 … Everyone there [in San Diego HNS] loves historical fiction–except that for some (most?), the ‘historical’ part is interfering with the ‘fiction’ part. That didn’t stop me from making lots of friends even though as a ‘historian,’ I felt like I was wearing a sanbenito.”

 In reply I got an email:

 I saw your post on FB about how the people you met were less concerned about historical accuracy in their fiction than you were. That must have been (bad) luck of the draw. The panelists at the sessions I went to and the people I met all seemed to value accuracy highly (emphasis added).  So I hope that gives you a better impression of the HNS members than perhaps you took away.

 I gather from that and other comments and ‘research’ that while we as historical fiction writers share a long-term love affair with history and historical research, for some (most?) of us, that love (as all Love), comes with suspicion, frustration, confusion, and even a sense of inferiority, competition or rivalry with those who get to  “do” it for “real.”

 The reply to my post was in fact an excellent illustration of my actual point.  My comment refers to a very different issue than the accuracy of our heroines digging for potatoes in l3th centuryEurope. I was referring to those panels which promised to address the questions of “How Much?”

 What a brave and ambitious effort, I said to myself, wearing my invisible sanbenito, and waited for the answer: OK, HOW MUCH?

 Not surprisingly, from the panels’ answers, much dust was sprinkled on the subject  instead. Frankly, I found that surprising since many of the writers I met had impressive credentials in some academic discipline. Were they simply too polite to answer or ask? Not enough time to delve into it?  Didn’t know? Didn’t care?

Or was it because there were no historians on the panels or they were not willing to “out” themselves? If they were present, more likely the latter was the case, since s/he would know how easily one could become entangled in the brambles—see my FB post. Unless, of course, s/he were a (post)structuralist, in which case the answer is also simple: it’s all fiction—a bit of historians’ humor 🙂

 No wonder as well that readers of historical fiction who welcome with excitement “the idea of historians writing historical fiction” in the belief that “proper historians” will not “get the history wrong,” are bound to be disappointed. When a couple of “proper” historians served up their dish (Blindspot), the response of the very same reader was, “After nearly 500 pages, I am not sure I can recommend this…The story is interesting enough, but it does take a while to read and needs some thought and engagement.”

 Take that as a warning, you historian fiction writers, you.

 The standard defense of our work against historians’ charges of inaccuracy (i. e. anachronisms of every stripe) consisted of reserving our right to write what we want because after all, we are novelists, not historians, and we are writing fiction, not history, and if you want to know the “real” history, then ‘read my notes’ or a history book, but then those historians disagree and contradict each other anyway, so there.

 Spending 38 minutes with Dr. Eric Foner may assist in clarifying these issues between “us” and “them.” Foner’s point that “non-historians find it difficult to understand that there is often more than one legitimate way of recounting past events,” addresses that broader issue of “accuracy.”  Please stay for the Thucydides joke—which, if you teach history, takes us into a whole new direction….

 At the HNS, it was suggested that we can duck the charge of  “getting the history wrong” by invoking the privilege (now there is a ‘historical’ concept), of what someone called so descriptively, our ‘droit de seigneur’ – the ultimate right as novelist to ‘make it up,’ constrained only, perhaps, by making it ‘plausible.’ Ironically, “proper” historians have been known to invoke their own professional droit de seigneur when a novelist trespasses on their particular territory, as revealed in the strange l’affaire involving The Jewel of Medina.

 Even more ironically, however, invoking that ‘droit de seigneur’ defense is a perfect illustration of the who-has-the-right-to-say-what-about-whom-or-what. Why? Because, according to a pointy-headed historian, Alain Boureau (yes, he is French) there never was any ‘droit de seigneur,” or whatever you call it. It’s bunk.

 But it makes such a great story—and besides—it’s all plausible because others believed it existed. Fiction in Fact? Fact in Fiction? If  (when?) a novelist takes up again this juicy topic (explored in The Lovers by Outer Limit’s creator Leslie Stevens in 1956; currently selling for $194 on Amazon), what ought the novelist then say in her ‘author’s notes?’ This story is fiction based on a fact which is in fact fiction? 

 Things do get sticky, don’t they, and “accuracy” goes beyond potatoes or Mr. Nan Hawthorne’s (sic)  rivets.

 I propose that as novelists (excusing all those ‘alt’ histories, etc.), we have every right to play within the outer limits of the historical field staked out by historians. It is within those bounds that we find scattered those ‘ahaa’ moments that C. C. HumpherysC. W. Gortner, and others acknowledged as feeding our imagination.

 However, I would suggest that we avoid crossing those outer limits by assuring our readers that our work ‘debunks’ or reclaims from “proper” historians what happened in the past; that our work is offering some hither-to-unknown-to everybody information or approach—unless it really is; that we have rescued a character or an episode from historians who had missed it, slighted it, misunderstood it, didn’t understand it or never not considered it; or that we are the ones who understand what ‘history’ is all about—unless we really do.

 Lets truly join that challenging quest and tackle those fascinating propositions: “How much History, How much Fact; Fact in Fiction or Fiction in Fact?” Maybe then we can find a way of indicating to our readers, informed, credulous, or otherwise, the “outer limits” of novelists’ and historians’ “accuracy,” and acknowledge that not even the seigneur has every droit. 

P. S. I met Ms. Cecilia Holland. No further comment is necessary J

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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