Stranger Than Fiction
Lisa Jardine speaks at the Longman/ History Today awards on Erasmus.
In Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia the fictional academic Bernard Nightingale puts together a collection of documents – a copy of The Couch of Eros by E. Chater which once belonged to Lord Byron, and three contemporary letters found in the book – to argue a convincing historical case for Byron's having killed 'B. Chater' in a duel occasioned by Byron's seducing Chater's wife and slighting his poetry. The argument is impeccable, but, because the action of the play shifts between 1809 and the present, the audience knows that Bernard Nightingale is wrong. It is not the celebrity poet, Byron, but a historically insignificant household tutor called Septimus Hodge who undertook the duel, just as it is he who has underlined key passages in Chater's book, and he who penned the insulting review of it in the Piccadilly Recreation.
Stoppard's teasing portrait of the professional historian is a telling one. In the real world of historians, as in fiction, we miss the complexity of plots and the fascinating tales of the cast of minor characters, through focusing too narrowly on a small hand of familiar heroes. Stoppard's fictional Dr Nightingale puts together the wrong story from the documents because (just like his real-life counterparts) he is entirely bent on pursuing the documentary traces of the figure of lasting historical reputation – rather than some less well-known person – and corroborating an existing and recognisably grandiose 'life' to match the 'works'. While he singlemindedly pursues a reassuringly familiar soap-opera plot supposedly involving Byron (whom we never see), a far more fascinating series of lost stories unfold before the theatre audience.
To encourage us to think a bit harder about the making of history and our own practices as historians, I offer you here a 'real' case, which almost outdoes Stoppard's engaging fictional one.