We tend to like our heroes in fiction to come with obstacles, moments of indecision and crisis, and genuine confusion about how they fit into the world, so much the better when they overcome them. Yet our historical heroes are often portrayed as fully formed characters, certain of themselves and their actions. Hindsight has a way of smoothing out the details and sharpening the focus of individual and group identities.
Fiction does not. Like the best revisionist historian, it “problematizes” identities by zeroing in on the conflict and confusion. This is why I was happy to discover a novel recently that illuminated the confusion of a whole historical period through the identity struggles of its main character.
In response to my last post on problems with agency in historical crime fiction (and indeed, history in general), one of my readers suggested I read A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss. I am very glad I did, for aside from being a delightful work of fiction, it also allowed me to reflect further upon the differences between writing non-fictional and fictional history. The plot, in brief, involves murder and conspiracy, as the protagonist attempts to discover which shadowy figures and institutions are responsible for the death of his father. It centres on the beginnings of the London Stock Exchange in 1719, just before the South Sea Bubble, when the idea of money was changing rapidly. Instead of tangible coin or goods, the new wealth was in paper, in the form of stocks and other promises of money. The story grew out of the author’s graduate research on how people at this time viewed themselves through their money, and we see that this is in fact a central focus of the book.
The main character, who narrates his story in first person from many years in the future, is a young Jew from a wealthy trading family. Liss cleverly sidesteps many of the common historical pitfalls I identified in my last post by deliberately placing him in a liminal position. He is a man, which gives him freedom of movement, yet he is not fully accepted into any one class or social group. He is not at home anywhere, not among the upper orders who need not work and who scorn his people, nor among the lower classes, who must turn to violence and crime just to survive, nor even among his own people, whose customs and traditions he abandoned. He is also a celebrated pugilist, which gives him some degree of cachet amongst all those from whom he seeks answers (and, as is necessary in all crime fiction, the ability to stay alive when faced with many ruthless and cunning enemies).
This gives him a remarkable opportunity to reflect upon his own place and identity. A non-practising celebrity Jew from a wealthy immigrant trading family is at the edge of all worlds: rich, poor, criminal, religious, non-religious, accepted, scorned – the list goes on. And, of course, the trope of things (and people) not being what they appear is an old and useful one in crime fiction.
The idea of losing one’s identity and struggling to define oneself as the world changes is both a literary and an academic story, and the ambiguity unfolds masterfully in Liss’s tale. Neither the plot nor the history has an obvious outcome. This is part of the joy of fiction: there is no predetermined outcome that we all know because we’ve read a history text. Good fiction, like life, is whimsical, ironic, and unpredictable.
It is thus important for historians to point out how likely history was to turn another course, or how little those who lived it could have predicted the future. This is part of contextualizing fully, not just the events that were critical in the lead-up to an outcome, but those that were not, or that were red herrings that never get told. It is important to highlight both the signal and the noise.
For example, our pugilistic, Jewish main character in A Conspiracy of Paper lives and works in the world of thief-taker, a kind of detective of sorts that could chase down those who had stolen property, and were paid by those whose goods had been stolen. (Often, as is the case in this tale, the thieves worked for the thief-taker himself, a kind of crime cycle reminiscent of the modern mob.) This, of course, was before the advent of modern policing, which our protagonist muses about at one point, saying, “I suppose that if we in London had some sort of body devoted to apprehending criminals, what the French call a police, [certain criminals] could never have come to power, but Englishmen are far too quick to feel the squeeze upon their liberties, and I seriously doubt if we shall ever see a police on this island.” It is a delightful passage for the contemporary reader, who has all the benefits of modern knowledge to prove him woefully incorrect, but we never feel as though a police force is the only logical result of the teeming chaos that is eighteenth-century London. Similarly, we as readers have a sense of foreboding about this new behemoth that calls itself the South Sea Company, whose worth is based on promises, but we have no way of predicting how it will impact our characters – as indeed real-life investors did not predict its spectacular crash.
The book left me with the forceful impression that identity is always in progress, not clear and definite as we often see it in historical narratives. Both individuals and groups appear less well-defined, a little fuzzier around the edges, when we consider that they are in the midst of forming. Writing history well therefore means continually trying to keep all the options in the frame, and not just zeroing in on what we know was the result.