Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Challenges of Historical Fiction

There's always something more to learn. Last week, over on my other blog, I wrote about an unexpected phone call that brought with it the offer of some hitherto unknown original source material connected to my book, The Road to Frogmore. You can read about it here. 

This week, copies of the material arrived in the mail, and even a quick glance revealed new information that might change much of how well I had done my research. I want to trace that discovery here, but for new readers, it will take some background information. The following blog post and the next three as well, are repeated from Chapter Eight of my book on writing -- The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese. 

Once you've had the chance to read all my thinking about the problems of identifying a diary, I'll post my newest discoveries. So follow along, if you will for the next few days

The Challenges of Historical Fiction
During the writing of The Road to Frogmore, I struggled with a particularly knotty historical problem. I was writing about one of the abolitionist women who went to South Carolina in 1862 to work with newly freed slaves. Laura Towne spent the next forty years of her life in the Low Country. She established the Penn School, which became a model of educational excellence and one that has developed into a major center for the preservation of Gullah culture. I look on her accomplishments with awe.
And yet . . . And yet . . . Trying to write about her became a dif´Čücult and frustrating effort. The problem? She kept a diary. Now, under most circumstances, that would be exciting news. A diary provides a way into her innermost thoughts, a way to understand her motives, her doubts, her worries, and her triumphs. In this case, however, there are too many competing copies of that diary, and worst of all, the original little composition books she used have disappeared.
Laura died in 1901. Her best friend and partner in all her efforts, Ellen Murray, died in 1908. Shortly after Ellen’s death, Laura’s diary became public knowledge. Laura’s great-nephew authorized a typescript copy of the diary and circulated it among the trustees of the Penn School. In 1912, a friend of the nephew published an edition of her diary and letters. The book is still available; I purchased my copy on Amazon. Sometime later, it was re-edited and re-issued by the Negro University Press. In the microfilm collection of Penn School Papers, housed at the University of North Carolina Library in Chapel Hill, there are two different typescript copies of that book, one typed on an old manual typewriter, and the other on a slightly more modern electric machine. Both have been extensively marked up, scratched out, and edited. And they do not match either each other or the print editions.
The real purpose of my recent trip to Beaufort was to track down the original diary. Everyone I talked to said, “Oh yes, we have a copy” or “Oh yes, I’ve seen a copy.” A copy. Not the original. But while there, I learned of another copy. This one was purported to be in Laura’s own handwriting. It had passed through Ellen’s estate to her great-niece, and then to a woman who wrote a history of the school in the early 1980s. She returned the handwritten original to the great-niece after making a Xerox copy. The University of South Carolina now holds the Xerox copy and agreed to make a copy for me.
It arrived—all 212 pages of it—written in a lovely and legible 19th-century hand. Now I could compare it to the print edition to see what changes that editor had made. Problem solved? No way! The two are entirely different in tone and in vocabulary. The attitudes and beliefs stated are sometimes diametrically opposed to one another. In places the handwritten copy is more detailed than the print edition. In others, the print edition contains long passages that are not contained in the handwritten copy. There is no way to determine which one is an abridged version of the other.
 Which details are fact and which are fantasy? Somewhere beneath all these various copies lay the real Laura. But couldI find her? I wasn’t sure.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I don't know whether I should feel sorry for you or envy you the puzzle.