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A Kind of Historical Faith

On literature masquerading as primary source.

Mr. B. Finds Pamela Writing, by Joseph Highmore, 1743. [Tate]

When picking up a novel, we enter into a tacit bargain: if the fictional spell is cast with requisite skill, our disbelief is willingly suspended. Across literary history, the specifics of this accord have varied, but at its crux are two questions. Whose story is this, we typically ask, and why is it being told? To modern readers, these are metaphysical questions, to be satisfied from “inside” the conjured world as a test of the novelist’s imaginative empathy. Not so in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when the novel as an art form was taking off in Europe. Rather than claiming authorship, early novelists presented themselves as editors, transcribers, or rescuers of texts, whose existence required plausible real-world explanations. At a time when the word “fiction” carried only negative connotations of deception and mendacity, the contrivance of “real” primary sources reassured readers of a story’s legitimacy. 

Letters of a Portuguese Nun, first published anonymously in Paris in 1669, established a template. The book carried a note affirming the “care and trouble” taken to obtain the five titular letters: eloquent expressions of “unquenchable ardor,” to quote Stendhal, from a cloistered Franciscan nun to her lost love, a French officer. “This presentation,” writes the literary theorist Peter Brooks in his 2022 book, Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative, “managed to convince most readers over the next three centuries that the heartbreaking letters from the nun abandoned by her lover were authentic.” According to scholarly consensus, the actual author was Gabriel de Guilleragues, a French diplomat. Though he took pains to remain invisible, the wild success of his literary fraud, which was translated into many languages, shaped the craft of novel-writing. To engage readers’ emotions, authors learned, it helped to offer documentary authenticity — or at least the convincing illusion of it.


During the nascency of t­­he novel as we know it, the lines between fiction, journalism, and history were blurry. In the early 17th century, “novels” referred to the prototypical European news media of broadside ballads, which were composed, sung, and sold in rapid response to current events. And as late as 1835, “novels” could still denote news or tidings. Book-length works of fiction were often called histories, both to project authority and because they were partly drawn from life. Charles Sorel, a novelist, biographer, and the royal historiographer of France, considered “purely fictional” books pointless, he wrote in 1671, since “that which is imaginary and contrived for pleasure has absolutely no force in discourse.” On the other hand, sticking to the facts could be dull and therefore less lucrative. In writing about the lives of famous or notorious figures, many biographers fictionalized elements to create a more sensational — which is to say novelistic — story. Memoirists did the same. The technique worked: in the late 1600s, the gossipy biographical tale was the most popular literary genre. The stage was thus set for Daniel Defoe to write what is, debatably, the first novel in the English language. On its 1719 publication, Robinson Crusoe masqueraded as a travelogue, “a just History of Fact,” with an eponymous author. Crusoe’s account of being castaway on a tropical desert island, like the word novel itself, hovered at the semantic nexus of fiction, history, and reportage.

Pages from New Robinson Crusoe, 1818. [HathiTrust]

For Defoe and his fellow Enlightenment-era literary vanguardists, assuming the author-as-facilitator role also meant avoiding the besmirchment of their names by scandalous or subversive content. In 1722, Defoe published Moll Flanders, the putative autobiography of a woman “twelve year a whore, five times a wife (whereof once to her own brother), twelve year a thief,” which had (advised a preface) been edited into “language fit to be read.” Defoe was only posthumously identified as Moll’s creator. Disappearing oneself as author was not, however, a guarantee against censure. After the exuberantly smutty Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure — popularly known as Fanny Hill — was anonymously published in two parts in 1748 and 1749, the author John Cleland and his publisher were arrested for “corrupting the King’s subjects.” In court Cleland disavowed responsibility for the book, to no avail: it was withdrawn from sale. 

When Samuel Richardson published his epistolary novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), his approach to authorship and “source material” reflected the evolving expectations of prose fiction as a cultural product. Or, as the literary historian Lennard J. Davis puts it, Richardson’s writing “emerged from the rupture between factual and fictional narratives.” Opting for the familiar first-person format of letters, he published Pamela without an author’s name, only a foreword signed by “The Editor.” But the runaway success of the novel, which has gone down in history as the first English best seller, put Richardson in a tricky position. Other authors, wanting a piece of the action, purported to have acquired their own Pamela documents. Knock-off books appeared, including a “memoir” from the “real” Pamela and a supposed sequel to the original, Pamela’s Conduct in High Life, whose publishers branded Richardson as the “Scurrilous pretended Author of Pamela.” Having presented the letters as genuine, Richardson couldn’t protect his intellectual property. Little wonder that for his follow-up, Clarissa, he credited himself as author. Still, he was loath to relinquish the façade of factuality, writing privately that he wanted Clarissa’s letters to seem real, “to avoid hurting that kind of Historical Faith which Fiction itself is genuinely read with, tho’ we know it to be Fiction.” 

Pages from The Recess, 1785. [HathiTrust]

By the latter part of the 18th century, the public had grown wiser to the ruse of found material. Sophia Lee’s The Recess, published in three volumes between 1783 and 1785, is a gothic reimagining of an Elizabethan Britain where Mary Queen of Scots had secret twin daughters. In an “advertisement” included with the novel, Lee reported her discovery of an ancient manuscript — its legitimacy signaled by “a wonderful coincidence of events” — which she had merely, and with an “inviolable respect for truth,” translated into language “of the present age.” But, a reviewer retorted, “these subterfuges no longer surprise or deceive us.” Perhaps it didn’t help that “the fair authoress” played coy regarding exactly how the papers came into her possession. She was not, she stated, “permitted to publish the means.” A far more inspired attestation was spun by Mary Shelley for her 1826 novel, The Last Man. This future-set plague dystopia, Shelley’s introduction reveals, was fashioned from “Sibylline leaves … traced with written characters” found in Sibyl’s Cave in Naples.  


As “these subterfuges” were taken less seriously and the novel gained a surer footing in literary culture, more trust was placed in readers to enjoy fiction as fiction. Jane Austen, writing at the end of the 18th century, initially drafted Pride and Prejudice as an entirely epistolary novel. But she adapted her approach, discerning and directing the zeitgeist. The final 1813 version of Pride and Prejudice, though structured around letters, has at its helm a wry, omniscient voice. This type of all-knowing narrator, a feature of so many novels written post-Austen, wasn’t obliged to offer rationales as to a story’s evidentiary basis. Nevertheless, in a holdover from the logic of “someone, somewhere had reason to write this down,” the literary past tense remained the default. Events can only be recorded retrospectively; in the oft-quoted words of the critic and scholar Robert Scholes, “narrative is past, always past.” 

The first-person present tense, now so in vogue, would certainly have caused bafflement in 18th century readers accustomed to believe that interior monologues could only be accessed through telepathy. As a stylistic device, the present tense is meant to evoke immediacy, an effect often aimed at by “just written” narration. “Here I am,” Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) tells us, “sitting at a little oak table … writing in my diary in shorthand all that has happened since I closed it last.” As the novel’s introduction explains, the “records chosen” — diary and journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings — were “exactly contemporary” to the events themselves. 

Today, writers need not rely on such stratagems: readers don’t care how the information on the page got there. We’ll even accept first-person narrators who somehow access others’ thoughts, as in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble and Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. And yet the literary trope of found documents is far from obsolete. Our imaginative flexibility has not, it seems, evolved so far that these pseudofactual gimmicks don’t beguile and persuade, even if — unlike readers of 300 years ago — we are complicit in our own hoodwinking.  

Tellingly, some readers of A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning Possession, whose intricate plot turns on the contemporary discovery of 19th century letters, were upset by a few sections that describe the Victorian-era events via a third-person omniscient voice. In this manner we learn such details as the poet-hero wondering, after sex, if the blood on his thighs was due to his lover’s virginity or her period. “He could never ask. To show speculation, or even curiosity, would be to lose her.” In 1995, five years after the novel’s publication, Byatt wrote: “I still receive angry letters from time to time from all over the world, saying these passages are a mistake — that I have cleverly told the story of the past through documents, diaries, letters, and poems, and that I am breaking my own convention incompetently.” Those readers, looking over the shoulders of the characters who discovered the documents, didn’t wish for such pleasurable psychological elision to be interrupted. 

Old Woman Reading, by Gerard Dou, c. 1631. [Rijksmuseum]

The Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai took this idea to its witty conclusion by creating real-world evidence of his protagonist’s existence. In the International Booker Prize-winning War & War — published in Hungary in 1999 and in an English translation by George Szirtes in 2006 — György Korin, a suicidal Hungarian archivist, discovers an unsigned World War II-era manuscript. Korin decides that, before he dies, he must go to New York, “the very center of the world, the place where matters were actually decided,” and preserve for posterity “the one genuinely important item he had ever handled” by diligently re-typing it all onto the internet at warandwar.com. If Krasznahorkai’s readers visit that website, they see a poignant message: “The requested URL / was not found on this server. Additionally, please be informed that this home page service has been called off due to recurring overdue payment. Attempted mail deliveries to Mr. G. Korin have been returned to sender with a note: address unknown. Consequently, all data have been erased from this home page.” Oh, poor Korin, we think, having spent 300 pages inside his troubled head. All his hard work wasted. 

War & War’s text within a text, in Korin’s opinion “a work of astonishing, foundation-shaking cosmic genius,” relays the adventures of four men, survivors of a shipwreck in Ancient Greece who, though they continually travel to different eras and places, cannot escape encroaching war. Before Korin read the manuscript, it had dawned on him 

that whatever had existed, existed still … for nothing ever disappeared without trace … and possibly it was the sheer abundance, the peculiar inexhaustibility of history and the gods that he found hard to bear.

In his protagonists’ experiences, Korin finds — not coincidentally, since the story itself may be a product of his delusions — proof that “the indivisible unity and contiguity of phenomena” is a “childish mirage.” And in Korin’s experiences, we see vindicated the suspicion, so central to the literary tradition of paratextual trickery, that historical documentation is elusive, only precariously transferred between eras, and — crucially — subject to interpretation by the person whose hands it falls into.  

Once “the transmitting of the manuscript … to eternity” is accomplished, Korin travels to the Hallen für Neue Kunst (museum of contemporary art) in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. There, he asks for a plaque engraved with his final sentence to be put on display. In the real world, his request was honored by the Hungarian artist Imre Bukta, whose bronze memorial to Korin’s last hour hung, for fifteen years, in the Hallen für Neue Kunst. In 2014, the institution closed its doors for good, foiling Krasznahorkai’s best intentions while enacting an apt meta-level conclusion. The fight against impermanence is futile; most of us will be forgotten. But in fiction, exhibits of empirical truth not only cast a sheen of verisimilitude, deepening our readerly immersion. They also offer the soothing reminder that historical threads might, sometimes, remain unbroken.