Sitting on the hinge of history

When you write historical fiction, as I did with The Great Liars, you must first read history – quite a lot of it. I have shelves and a closet full of histories, autobiographies (a dicey source), biographies, memoirs, diaries, official papers and so on. When you sit down to write, you push aside the thousands of notes assiduously taken and look for the story you wish to create. It will not be the exact truth; not even all of those thick and seemingly authoritative volumes are the truth. They are what the authors tell you is the truth even though they are perfectly aware they could have come at it from another point of view and chosen another collection of facts that sometimes would be at variance with theirs or with the “truth,” that ever-elusive Holy Grail. History, as Henry Ford famously said, is bunk. I suspect Henry was a hard-minded, practical sort, impatient with nuance. Reading one history of something and then comparing it with let’s say a later revisionist version, of course he would see the impossibility of rendering any fully truthful version, so the hell with it.
Then there is the obligation in historical fiction to create a readable story. This is not the easiest thing in the world, but it is easier if you pay attention to the small details of a figure’s life. I confess I haven’t paid much attention to 19th Century German history and Otto von Bismarck, who laid the foundation for most of the grief of the century that followed by unifying a host of petty kingdoms into one powerful Prussian-led nation that dominated the Continent.
In researching The Great Liars, I was struck by Winston Churchill’s habit of taking a class of wine in bed first thing in the morning and the glass of something quite different that Eleanor Roosevelt insisted Franklin drink for his bowels. She watched his diet closely, almost obsessively. Count (later prince) Bismarck had the opposite problem. His wife was never happier than when he was at the table satisfying his gargantuan appetite. Of the leading men of his time, it was matched only by the Prince of Wales. The rare visitor invited to dinner – Bismarck was not a social man – came away stunned by sheer amount of food. As Robert K. Massie wrote in Dreadnaught, the table groaned under Brunswick sausages, Westphalian ham, Elbe eels, sardines, anchovies, salmon, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, and bottles of dark Bavarian beer. When Bismarck had a stomach ache, his wife fed him foie gras. When the platter was brought to the table, the great man helped himself first and then watched with such intensity as it was passed around that no visitor dared take more than a small portion. When it was returned, Bismarck keep the dish to finish.
“I have unbearable pressure on my stomach and unspeakable pains,” he wrote in a letter. He drank a bottle of champagne to help him sleep, a remedy so unsuccessful that he often lay awake until seven in the morning. Sleepless with insomnia, he thought of the grievances of the past day. “I have spent the whole night hating,” he wrote. If the day had not been sufficiently aggravating, he combed through childhood memories for something to anger him. Bismarck suffered from migraine, gout, hemorrhoids, neuralgia, rheumatism, gallstones, varicose veins, and constipation. His teeth hurt so bad before they were all pulled that he had a permanent twitch in his cheek he grew a beard to hide. He was a great man, but imagine how much greater he would have been if he had been healthy.
It’s the small things like this that often determine human fate. Some historian I read long ago wondered if the piles Napoleon suffered from contributed to bad decisions at Waterloo. A day on horseback with that – how could it not?

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