Friday, September 8, 2017

The Vanishing Gallery

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, no matter how hard historical novelists strive to portray their fictional worlds with accuracy, that goal is elusive. Readers usually blame the novelist for errors of omission or commission, and for sure some writers wouldn’t recognize research if it hit them with the proverbial barge pole. Others justify any stretching of the facts by citing the need to tell a good story. This approach, more than any other factor, explains the tendency among academic historians to sniff at historical fiction and those who produce it.

But this response does not do justice to the many historical novelists who do try hard to avoid anachronisms, even in the speech and thoughts of their characters. Furthermore, it ignores an even more fundamental problem: the real gaps that exist in our knowledge of the past.

In my interview a couple of weeks ago with Linnea Hartsuyker we talked about how remarkable it is that she can trace her ancestry through documentation back to the year 1000, although even in Norway most of our current information about daily life in the ninth and tenth centuries comes from archaeology, not documents. I mentioned then how impossible such a genealogical exercise would be in Russia, where even the earliest chronicles exist in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century copies. Only a handful of religious miscellanies survive from the Kievan period (862–1240 AD).

The problems don’t stop there. For obvious reasons, well into the sixteenth century (and up to the present in the rural areas that constitute most of the country) the primary building material in Russia was wood. That applied to Moscow as much as anywhere else, although the Kremlin acquired stone walls in the mid-fourteenth century and the familiar brick silhouette in the fifteenth. More and more churches, monasteries, and fortresses were built in stone or brick as time went on, and even the occasional domestic estate: the Old English Court and the house in which Tsar Mikhail Romanov (r. 1613–1645) was born are two sixteenth-century examples that have survived to the present day. But the vast majority of dwellings and shops in Moscow were made of wood. As a result, huge fires swept the city every twenty to thirty years, consuming not only lives and property but records. Historians of medieval Russia struggle with gaps and losses in the documentation every day. So too do historical novelists.

Take, for example, the Moscow Kremlin. If any place in Russia should have a voluminous and relatively complete history, it is this one. Yet basic questions about what existed when remain unanswered. The historian who checked The Vermilion Bird (as well as The Winged Horse and The Swan Princess—I am deep in her debt) for errors of fact mentioned the existence of a shielded viewing area from which royal women and children could observe ceremonies in the Palace of Facets, the main reception area for Muscovite grand princes and tsars. We know it was there in the seventeenth century, because the mother and half-sister of Peter the Great watched plays in the Palace of Facets while hidden from view. It appears also to have been used as a musicians’ gallery.

But did it exist in 1537? No amount of research and pleading on my part has so far answered that question. Although the seventeenth-century plays were a European import not known before the Time of Troubles (1598–1613), there were other reasons why such a viewing area might have been regarded as important in the 1530s: not least the dynastic reality that Grand Prince Ivan IV (later crowned as the first tsar and better known as “the Terrible”) had come to the throne in 1533 at the age of three, and his mother, although not a regent in the full European sense, had managed to overcome the many strictures on women and maneuvered her way into power. But even she could not receive foreign envoys or preside over meetings of the most powerful nobles, so she had every incentive to authorize the building of a structure where she could observe without being seen.

In the absence of definite information I decided to use the gallery in The Vermilion Bird. It so perfectly solves a problem for that story, and the solution to that problem could only be manufactured in any event. So as always, I include a disclaimer in the historical note. It is the luxury of fiction, when history fails us, to invent this detail or that.

But rest assured, I prefer the truth. I think many historical novelists feel the same. And many, many thanks to the historians who went out of their way to help me ascertain what that truth might be, even if in the end we had to conclude that the evidence just wasn’t there.

Images: Viktor Vasnetsov, The Seventeenth-Century Kremlin in Moscow (1913), public domain via Pinterest; Szymon Boguszowicz, Reception of the Polish Envoys by False Dmitry I (1606), showing the interior of the Palace of Facets, apparently as viewed from above, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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