The retired historians who belong to the reading group of which I am somewhat hesitantly the chairperson are politely outspoken in their scorn for works of fiction. They clearly favor reading books called “history” or “biography” — books based on research into what they call “facts” and what I (the retired lawyer) would call “alleged facts,” except that I’m reluctant to stir the pot during our pleasant lunches.
However, when I once mentioned to these very serious readers that Robespierre, a historical figure, is supposed to have declared: “Facts are fiction!” — they thought either I was joking or Robespierre was.
I don’t know about Robespierre, but I wasn’t. At least not entirely. I do understand that when geologists and archeologists go digging, what they dig up is factual. It exists. But what they make of their pieces of rock or their pot shards is another matter entirely and not necessarily “fact” at all. The construction placed on these discoveries very much depends on what else the geologists and archeologists already “know” and don’t know.
Historical and biographical fact is even more slippery. Who recorded the event? How accurately? What was the bias of that person? What did they omit, either intentionally or not? Which allegedly factual records, once made, have survived, and which were destroyed, either intentionally or not, before a later account of them could be made, which itself must be subject to questions about bias and accuracy?
Take for instance the contretemps involving a baby originally thought to have possibly been born to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley late in 1818. The “facts” known until the mid-twentieth century were that his wife Mary did not bear him a little girl at this time and that the poet wrote a letter to his friend Leigh Hunt in England containing obscure references to a “situation” in Naples in December 1818, because of which Paolo, a rascally servant, was trying to extort money from him. There was also recorded gossip between the English expatriates in Italy during this period that Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, who was traveling with them, was the mother of an infant fathered by Shelley.
In the 1940’s, a literary scholar, N.I. White, discovered more “facts” about the baby in the official documents in the Neapolitan State archive: a registration of birth of Elena Adelaide Shelley, signed by Shelley, stating the child was Shelley’s daughter and the date and time she was born; a certificate of baptism, also signed by Shelley and also stating the child to be Shelley’s daughter; and a death certificate, dated after the Shelleys had left Naples, stating where and when in Naples little Elena Adelaide had died. The documents also state that the child’s mother was Shelley’s wife Mary — patently a falsehood. Not only was there not a shred of other documentary or testimonial evidence that Mary had been pregnant or had given birth to this baby in 1818. The baby would also not have been left behind with foster parents (at whose home she died) when the Shelleys left Naples if she had been legitimate, and there would have been no blackmail.
So who was the mother? White concluded, with regret, the gossip was true. He noted that Shelley and Claire had had a week alone together the previous April (1818), while traveling to Venice to visit Lord Byron, with whom Claire already had a little daughter named Allegra. He therefore deduced Mary must later have helped Claire hide the pregnancy resulting from her relations with Shelley until the baby was born.
Was that fact? Or fiction? If true, how could Shelley, Mary and Claire have continued together until 1822, when Shelley died, and the two women have gone on staying cordially in touch afterwards? Moreover, Claire was devastated with grief when Allegra died, although by then she detested Byron. She showed no emotion whatsoever in her diaries, letters, or to anyone who recorded a meeting with her in 1820 when little Elena died, although she loved Shelley all her life.
[Just in case you’re wondering, I know all this because when I was thirteen, I too loved Shelley truly and deeply, and when I requested a Shelley biography for Christmas, my father found me a used copy of the two volumes of White, which I devoured twice over, lengthy footnotes and all.]
While I was in graduate school and long past my love affair with Shelley, I nevertheless noted with interest in a copy of the PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association) that further Shelley scholarship into this matter had later focussed on an additional fact not known to or considered by White: Claire’s private daily diaries throughout these years had an X in the corner of some pages, but not in the corners of many others. What could that mean? The writer of the PMLA article finally worked it out: Claire had marked the commencement of each of her periods in her private diary with one of those X’s. And there was no interruption of X’s in 1818! Thus, irrespective of what she had done or not done with Shelley while traveling to meet Lord Byron in April 1818, she could not have been little Elena Adelaide’s mother.
So in 1975, Richard Holmes, in Shelley, The Pursuit, a fine and in almost all ways authoritative biography on which its author toiled for eight years (and which of course I had to read for auld lang’s syne), placed motherhood of Elena Adelaide with Paolo’s wife Elise, the comely Swiss governess of Mary and Shelley’s two children. He had reasonably persuasive “proof.” I won’t bore you with it. At some point, someone else will come up with another hitherto unknown “fact,” and the probable “fact” of Elise’s motherhood may well become a fiction.
Closer to home are the questions now surrounding the presumably factual matter of my mother’s birthday, which has mysteriously become two birthdays. When I was young, she had just one. It was July 16. There was some initial confusion about the year of her birth; for a while both she, and therefore I, said it was 1905. However, when I was in my thirties and we were having a conversation about her age and mine, my father interrupted to correct her. He said she had been born in 1904, a statement with which she at once agreed, since she would never dream of challenging anything my father said.
As for me, I could not challenge it on her behalf because it was corroborated by the “27” inscribed on my 1931 birth certificate as “mother’s age.” The possibility that he, the “father,” may have given the hospital officials this information about the “mother” did not then occur to me. However, the manifest of the ship on which she came from Europe to Ellis Island in 1922 lists her as 18. I didn’t see this manifest until after she died, when my older son found it on the internet, but I have to assume she herself told the ship’s purser how old she was, which kind of settles the year-of-birth controversy definitively. At least for me. Unless something more turns up. Although I have always wondered why, if she had been intentionally fudging her age when she said her birthdate was 1905, she’d do it by only one year. If you wanted to stay 39 a bit longer, wouldn’t you have arranged for it to last three or four more years instead of only one? So perhaps it hadn’t been intentional fudging. Perhaps she really didn’t remember. Or had stopped counting. Or something like that.
But about July 16 there was, until recently, no question. That’s the day we celebrated with cake and presents, the day she received birthday cards, the day marked in my calendar all the years of her life, and marked in my mind even now. Seven days before mine. Always.
Until one of my daughters-in-law decided to construct a family tree for her first-born so he should know from whom he came. Using a website called Ancestry.com, she worked it all out and sent me a copy of what she had done to check the part of it I knew about. Much to my surprise, her tree declared my mother’s birthday to be February 14. At first, I thought my daughter-in-law had found and relied on some reference to the old Julian calendar, which was in use in Imperial Russia when my parents were born. But that would have produced a difference of thirteen days, not five months and two days. I inquired. She said she had found February 14 in Ancestry.com’s Social Security Registry. What could be more factual than that? Social Security? Rock-solid documentation. The government never makes a mistake!
But could that be said of my mother? When she worked before marrying my father (who thought it demeaning for a man’s wife to be employed outside the home), there was no Social Security. So she first applied for a card when she returned to the workplace after I was safely in college.
I can picture her in the Lord & Taylor Personnel Office in November 1951, applying for her first paying job since her marriage twenty-six years before. A nice-looking forty-seven year-old lady with a charming accent, dressed in a becoming suit and neat pumps with medium heels, her face carefully made up with Helena Rubinstein cosmetics. She was hoping to be hired as a temporary Christmas-season saleslady. She was nervous. They gave her all this paperwork to do. She had to take off her gloves, and fish her glasses out of her purse, and her hand was probably shaking. But why did she put down her birthdate as February 14? Who was born on that day? Not me or my father. Was it her mother? Her brother? Or did some government functionary in a Social Security office somewhere misread her Cyrillic-flavored handwriting when transcribing for future and perpetual reference the information she had written on her application? Perhaps, and more likely, she had simply become confused at having to labor over this bothersome task.
I’m sure she handed it in without checking her work. She got the job. But her mistake lives on. The California Registry of Births and Deaths, also available on Ancestry.com, lists the “right” birthdate on her death certificate: July 16. But it was me, her daughter, who supplied that date to the assisted living facility where she died, which passed it along to the California registry. Which means it’s not dispositive in resolving the dilemma.
So now my mother has two birthdays, recorded in two separate government registries, where both birthdays will be preserved for as long as such records are kept. Would my mother have cared about the discrepancy? Not a bit. If pressed for an explanation while she was alive, she might have waved the question away with a disclaimer — “I don’t understand such things.” If she could now speak from beyond the grave, she might understand, but what she would understand would be something else.
She would shrug the shoulders that don’t exist anymore and say, “What does it matter? It’s past, it’s done, it’s over.” And Shelley might say the same.
That’s why I prefer fiction. When well written. You know for sure what you’re getting.