The Addiction Of Non-Fiction – the pitfalls of writing history….

I’m doing quite a lot of work at the moment on a non-fiction book, a biography of Sir John Arundell, “Jack For The King” – the man who held Pendennis Castle for the King, aged 70, against everything Thomas Fairfax and the Army of Parliament could throw at him.
He’s an absolutely fascinating chap, and the main thing I’m discovering is that there’s an awful lot of rubbish written about him.

As an instance: one source has him down as having five sons, three of whom died young in the service of the King.
Another one has him down as having four.
A contemporary sexton’s account has one of John’s sons as an ensign who died at the battle of Windmill Hill, in Launceston, in 1643, and being buried there.
One of his sons turns up recorded as a brother in some accounts.

And all of that’s interesting – it’s fascinating – to unpick, but the problem is that when I’m not unpicking the tortuous genealogy of the Trerice Arundells, I’m a novelist.

So okay. I’m assuming, if you read my blog, you either read or write historical fiction, so I’ll give you a scenario.

Three members of a family die within eight weeks, one long summer: a mother, a son and a daughter.
Plague is reported in neighbouring parish records, but mortality bills aren’t kept in the parish where they’re buried.
Father is away at the time with two of his other sons, about twenty miles away in a castle under siege.

Now you could extrapolate a number of things from that. You could interpret it to mean that one son hadn’t gone with his father and his brothers to the castle’s defence, and that perhaps the family were intending to not put all their eggs in one basket, leaving at least one of the male line on the family estate to make sure that no roving Roundheads settled themselves there while all the handy Arundells were locked up inside Pendennis keep.
You could interpret it that all three died of the epidemic that we know was rife in the locality (although we don’t know what it was.)
You could interpret that after burying her eldest son and her daughter in the space of a month, unsupported by her husband and her other sons, worn out by war and worry – Mrs Arundell died quietly two weeks after her firstborn.

You could, and a novelist probably would, and a historian can’t.

It’s interesting to try and keep a narrative in your head when you’re writing a biography, but it’s also tempting to attribute thoughts and feelings to the people in it. (We assume that Mrs Arundell loved her husband and her children, and that their absence, and loss, would have grieved her. We don’t know it, because we have no evidence to support it: none of their correspondence survives. Although the fact of six children implies a degree of familial affection, doesn’t it?And again, with my novelists’s head on, I interpret a lack of correspondence to mean that he didn’t spend prolonged periods of time away from her, if he could help it.)

It’s out there. The information that’s going to make up a coherent whole is out there. It’s just piecemeal, and the trick is to find the pieces that are in the original jigsaw, and not the pieces that have been put in two hundred years later by someone with an agenda of their own. And I know what the picture looks like.
At the moment, it’s as if someone’s jumbled up two or three separate jigsaws, all equally interesting. (Little brother Thomas. And that’s all I’m going to say. Little brother Thomas deserves a monograph of his own, if only to blow a particular persistent myth about the Civil War in Cornwall right out of the water…)

I think I’ve got the corners. I think I’ve got eight corners, actually – John and little brother Thomas – and that’s all right, because let’s just say that you’re not going to mistake one for another in their particular avenues of activity during the 1640s.

Thomas’s picture is significantly different than John’s, and that’s going to make things easier, too.
But for now, it’s back to looking for straight edges.

8 thoughts on “The Addiction Of Non-Fiction – the pitfalls of writing history….

  1. What an endeavour, trying, as you state, to fit your pieces together, when, as you also rightly state, History is written from the angle of an era, by those with an agenda.

    Good luck, i look forward to it !

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  2. I fully agree. I am also currently writing a biography (of Captain Thomas Bowrey – see captainthomasbowrey.wordpress.com). Although no other full length biography has previously been written about him, he had been referred to frequently over a very long period. I great deal of rubbish has also been written about Bowrey. People have made assumptions or have simply not read the sources carefully enough.
    At least I do have correspondence to work with and, so, do know something of his opinions. Even so, I agree that care is needed not to attribute other opinions to him.

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  3. I’ve read that Mrs Arundell and her daughter were in Pendennis Castle as well during the siege, and died soon after the surrender, due to the conditions they suffered during those 5 months. Some sources say that the eldest son died in the siege of Plymouth. I haven’t fathomed out why there are two death/burial dates for John jnr. yet. I’ve been trying to look into the whole history of the Arundells of Trerice and agree a lot of what has been written, or assumed to be fact, has turned out to be rubbish – facts attributed to one person are often not right because there were so many John Arundells, from the many branches of the family, and it’s all become confused and stuck to the wrong one.

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    1. I hadn’t heard that, but from research into Pendennis think it’s *unlikely* – not impossible, but not likely. It’s not wholly inconceivable that John Jr, was John Jr Jr, if you get me? – we don’t (yet) have Mary’s date of birth, although we can guesstimate it from her siblings’ birthrates. I’m beginning to suspect she was a good deal younger than he was!

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