Historical novels as "found" documents

I’m a fan of historical fiction – so much so that I've enrolled in a MOOC called "Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction" on Coursera – but I’m especially intrigued by historical novels that set themselves up as authentic, “found” documents.

Archaeology Wessex Archaeology / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Sometimes historical novels declare themselves as "found"documents in a preface, written by the author as if he or she has actually discovered someone else’s text. To cite an early example, Sophia Lee does this in The Recess (1804) with an “Advertisement” (a term that once had the general meaning of “a notice to readers”, rather than the more specific commercial meaning it has today). Bruce Holsinger, the MOOC's professor, talks about the ways in which this device lends plausibility to the author's endeavor, and uses it as an example to help define the genre more generally.

Bram Stoker introduces Dracula with a similarly brief note, declaring that the “papers” that follow contain “no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary”. Umberto Eco expands on this device in The Name of the Rose: he claims (also fictionally) that his story is a translation of a reproduction of a 14th century manuscript written by a monk.

Other historical novels bake the idea right into the narrative. One example I read not long ago, Code Name Verity, doesn’t have a preface like the others. Instead, the narrator, who is a prisoner of war, tells us that she’s being forced by her captors to make a series of written confessions, and that’s what we’re reading. We assume that someone has discovered, and published, the documents. Quite the opposite of the other authors, Elizabeth Wein notes in a "Debriefing" at the end that she is "legally bound" to clarify that no official secrets have been breached, and that "it pains me to admit that Code Name Verity is fiction."

No matter the method, the underlying point is to give the narrator a reason for recording events. And that makes it really interesting and unique. Unlike in most fiction, we know why we’re able to enter the narrator’s mind: because he or she has emptied it onto the page for us.

Here’s another thing that’s really interesting and important about this type of book: it takes the historical novel, which usually relies on primary sources for its plausibility, and turns it into a primary source itself.

It raises all kinds of fascinating questions. What can the idea of the “found document” contribute to a historical novel? To the context? To the motives of the narrator? What does it do to the relationship between the author and the reader, since the fictional narrator may have his or her own fictional, target audience? (Code Name Verity is a great example, since her immediate audience is not to be trusted.)

I’m intrigued not only as a reader, but as a writer as well - I’ve set up my own historical novel, a mystery set at Cambridge University in the 1600s, in this way. Can you think of other historical novels that pretend to be “found documents”? How do they accomplish it? How successful were they?

[A version of this was cross-posted at Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction on Coursera.]

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