Hilary Mantel recently gave the annual BBC Reith Lecture in which she described why she became a historical novelist. Printed in The Guardian, Mantel argued that culture and genes, history and science, put “our small lives in context.” Mantel’s work is of course separated from the theme of this roundtable by two degrees, as she is neither a writer of YA nor of Early America, but the broader question I think she was trying to answer—why we write about what we do—resonate in a conversation on #FoundingFiction.
As many of the wonderful entries in this series have noted, especially Joe’s and Laura’s, reading historical fiction as a child was inspiring for professional goals. Mantel herself beautifully described how “when I was a child the past felt close and it felt personal. Beneath every history, there is another history—there is, at least, the life of the historian” and there is something deeply meaningful about how historical fiction gives you an entry into that life. My experience was somewhat different though than the other contributors. My previous ode to historical fiction over at Teaching US History clearly indicates how strongly I feel about the genre. Historical fictions is my favorite type of book to read, and it was also the primary inspiration for why I became a historian. But I came to the field in elementary school by way of fictional medieval Europe, and in my middle school years expanded into antiquity.
E.L. Konigsburg’s magnificent novel of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine introduced me to a sphere where women (or at least two women, Eleanor and her mother-in-law, the Empress Matilda) were brilliant, powerful, and took no nonsense from the less competent men in their lives. These women were also centuries and oceans away from #VastEarlyAmerica. A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver thus inspired my fascination with history. But it did not inspire my professional field or focus. Perhaps because although I am ever-interested in medieval and ancient history, I don’t work in it and as a result, don’t feel the creeping sensation of wanting to see my vision or interpretation in the text? I have never read Johnny Tremain, but I wonder if I did now, would it have the same stakes for me? Would I be tempted to want a different vision of Early America on those pages, in a way that I didn’t hanker after more information about Bernard of Clairvaux?
I’ve been testing this theory on Melissa De La Cruz’s new novel, Alex & Eliza. For those of who share a love of popular culture and librarians with supernatural powers, you may recognize De La Cruz from the engaging book-and-TV series, Witches of East End. Having seen the Hamilton musical and discussed it at length with her daughter, De La Cruz was motivated to write about the courtship of Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler. Set in the midst of the American Revolution, De La Cruz’s story looks quite different than the one presented by Lin Manuel Miranda and from the narrative of their relationship described by historians. Hamilton’s strategic as well as sentimental interest in Eliza is frequently emphasized as well as the complex relationship with her sister, Angelica Schuyler Church, and neither of these garner much attention in De La Cruz’s work, likely because Alex & Eliza is a love story.
It is a love story though with a social and political conscience. From the opening pages of the book, De La Cruz does not shy away from certain fundamental realities of life in colonial and revolutionary New York. While a picture is painted of the wealth and affluence of Eliza’s family, De La Cruz calls out coverture immediately. Eliza emerges from these pages as “more interested in books than fashion,” as smart as Angelica, as pretty as the younger Peggy, and most clearly, as quick as her love interest. While there are changes in the development of Eliza and Alex’s relationship—Philip Schuyler’s resistance to the match, a rival suitor, a thwarted assault, Benedict Arnold—De La Cruz seems most deeply concerned with capturing the interaction of her main character’s personalities. As a result, a proto-feminist is all over these pages, one that due to gaps in the archive, requires fiction as well as fact, to resurrect. Is there anachronism here? Sure. In 2017, when women of all colors, orientations, creeds, and faiths, are under attack, do I have a problem with this anachronism? Absolutely not. The challenges that De La Cruz’s Eliza faces are ones that many women, elite or otherwise, faced in the eighteenth century as well as the twenty-first: sexual assault, patriarchy, and the looming potential threat of poverty.
De La Cruz’s Alexander Hamilton is not the Hamilton of my research, and Eliza Hamilton unfortunately does not play a large role in my current project. Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is similarly not the Hamilton of my work. But thanks to the bridge of historical fiction, they don’t have to be. “The historian, the biographer, the writer of fiction work within different constraints,” Mantel said, “but in a way that is complementary, not opposite. The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts.” Hamilton, along with the other cast of characters that appear in my project—Lewis Evans, William Billings, Elizabeth Holt, Jedidiah Morse—are not there because I like them. They are there because they are essential actors in a story I’m trying to tell, a story that I think has consequences for the past and the present.
And this brings me back to my earlier query about whether I could engage with a novel set in my field in the same way that I can with one outside it. I like Eleanor of Aquitaine. Or rather, I like E.L. Konigsburg’s Eleanor. I also like De La Cruz’s Alex & Eliza.There is a difference, and I believe as historians we should be able to appreciate the distinction, between engaging with the strength’s of different genres, and collapsing them. I can, and did, deeply enjoy Alex & Eliza, the Hamilton musical, Wolf Hall, and A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver because I admire the craft of what those writers do and the resulting forms they take. In fact, I was relieved at how much I did enjoy De La Cruz’s writing. I went into it a bit nervous that my professional lens might hamper the fun, as it has with certain TV outings (“Sleepy Hollow” absolutely excepted).
I am also aware that what I do as an academic and publicly inclined historian is an utterly different task. As Mantel poignantly describes, “As you gain knowledge and technique as a writer – as you gain a necessary self-consciousness about your trade – you lose some of the intensity of your childhood relationship with the past.” Liking Eleanor was my gateway into a tremendously larger landscape of historical inquiry in which liking someone or not wasn’t the point. For a new wave of young historical fiction readers, Eliza could be their Eleanor. We need as many Eleanor’s and Eliza’s as we can get.