Make Believe

Historians are tethered to the archive, but sometimes fixing the gaps requires the techniques of a novelist.

A young woman hanging up laundry, Newport, Rhode Island, 1903. Photo by Gertrude Käsebier. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington DC.

In 1987 one of my great historical heroes, Natalie Zemon Davis, published Fiction in the Archives. It focuses on the ‘fictional’ elements of royal letters of pardon and remission in 16th-century France, by which Davis meant how the tales in such letters were crafted into narratives, acts of literary creation, even as they told the teller’s truth about their life and the crimes for which they sought pardon. In an earlier work, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), after introducing the extensive documents she had consulted, Davis stated that when she could not find her individual man or woman, she had relied on other contemporary sources to get a sense of what they might have seen or felt: ‘What I offer you here is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past.’ Prompted by Davis and the work of another pioneering scholar, Saidiya Hartman, I want to consider fictions in the archives and the history books.

In my last column I considered absences, erasures and violence in the archive. To this list we should add fibs, fabrications and fabulations. What we take to be facts can be fictions. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), a study of young Black women in the US in the early 20th century, Hartman finds that between 1882 and 1925 it was lawful to arrest a ‘wayward minor’ (under the age of 21) who was ‘willfully disobedient to the reasonable and lawful commands of parent, guardian or other custodian and is morally depraved or is in danger of becoming morally depraved’ (my emphasis). This included those who, without ‘just cause’ or parental consent, were absent from their home. Young women walking home after working late hours, going to parties and drinking, having sex outside of marriage, or suspected of being about to do so were vulnerable to arrest at random and, if found guilty, to a sentence of up to three years at the State Reformatory for Women. Hartman notes that the state archive, generated by social workers, probation officers, journalists, sociologists and investigators, upheld a world view in which women of colour were assumed to be susceptible to criminality and deviancy: ‘The official documents made her into ... : delinquent, whore, average Negro on a mortuary table, incorrigible child, and disorderly woman.’ What remains in the archive justifies the confinement of these women through branding their acts of freedom as ‘moral depravity’.

How can a historian respond to such fictions? Hartman’s response has been to ‘craft a counter-narrative’, which presses ‘at the limits of the case file and the document, speculate[s] about what might have been’. As well as grounding her research in what the archive does say, she considers what it does not. Like Davis, she turns to other sources to find a way into the past. She writes speculatively about what might have been but cannot be verified, poses counterfactuals, renders indirect speech into dialogue and asks searching, imaginative questions. She terms it ‘critical fabulation’. Hartman is one of a number of scholars attempting to infuse historical writing with narrative strategies and literary techniques borrowed from novelists.

A founding principle of history is that historians do not fictionalise; we do not invent or dissemble; we do not make things up. We are tethered to the archive. How then should we feel about Hartman’s counter-histories and critical fabulations? For Hartman never untethers herself; hers are histories ‘written with and against the archive’. When there is no other way to enter a story, Hartman crafts a narrative. She marks the limits of what can be known but dares to imagine what cannot be proved. She resists the hubris of speaking for her subjects and the temptation to fill in the gaps, but also refuses to let the judgement of the powerful who composed the documents in the archives be forever the judgement of posterity. In so doing, she demonstrates, with Davis, that it is perhaps possible to write history that is both scholarly and fictive.


Suzannah Lipscomb is Professor of History at the University of Roehampton and author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford University Press, 2019).