The lies of memoir

Writers of historical fiction consult many sources to try to get as complete a picture as possible of the time, place, customs, and characters in their novels. And primary sources are the gold standard when it comes to research. But there is a caveat, and that has to do with memoir. Why? you ask. Isn’t a historical character’s own story of her life the most reliable? On the contrary. It can be full of lies.

Autobiography is about controlling the narrative

Imagine you are a famous person about whom many people have reported or written. Doubtless you believe they got some things wrong and exaggerated others. One way to correct the record is to write it down yourself. As you see it. The problem is 1.) that most people are not objective about themselves, and 2.) the desire to leave a positive record could  outweigh the need to be completely honest.

This is especially true of earlier eras, but not unheard of today. How many memoirs have been shown to be biased or inaccurate? Try this with your own family: Think of an important family event—a wedding, say. Ask each member of the family who was there to describe what happened. Chances are you’ll end up with as many different accounts as there are voices.

So what’s a researcher to do?

Look for clues in the narrative to uncover what the memoirist wanted to keep hidden. Protesting too much about virtue begs the question why, for instance. Ignoring negative responses clues one in to the fact that there were probably more of them than the memoirist wishes posterity to know. The complete absence of someone you know was important in the memoirist’s life is a huge red flag.

And look to other sources to confirm chronology, since a memoir relies primarily on memory, which can be notoriously unreliable.

The positives still outweigh the negatives

Hearing the authentic “voice” of whoever you’re researching is revealing even if half of what they say is codswollop. The way they phrase things, the people they refer to, reveals something of their character. And knowing what was important to them to preserve for future generations is, of course, revealing.

So if you can get your hands on a good memoir of your subject or someone important in the story, do it. But remember not to take it at face value, and keep your eyes peeled for meaning hidden behind the text.

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