endpaper graphic

Articles & Images
Site Map

Our web sponsor:
Hidden Knowledge

Rafael Sabatini site logo

Rafael Sabatini, citing the myths of William Tell and the Man in the Iron Mask, upholds avowed Fiction against alleged Fact.

Historical Fiction

by Rafael Sabatini

It is less of a truism than it seems, to say that the writer of historical fiction seeks his inspiration in history, for if he has a proper sense of his calling he will take for his foundations none of the legends disguised under that name.

Elsewhere in this connection—in the preface to my play 'The Tyrant'— I have enunciated a truth which it seems to me worth while to repeat and examine.

It runs as follows:

'It is demanded of the writer of fiction, whether novelist or dramatist, that the events he sets forth shall be endowed with the quality of verisimilitude. What he writes need not necessarily be true; but, at least, it must seem to be true, so that it may carry that conviction without which interest fails to be aroused. The historian appears to lie under no such restraining obligation. Whilst avowed Fiction is scornfully rejected when it transcends the bounds of human probability, alleged Fact would sometimes seem to be the more assured of enduring acceptance, the more flagrantly impossible and irreconcilable are its details.'

If this were not true it would have been impossible for the innumerable myths that cumber serious history to have found their way into it and to have become so firmly established that it is almost impossible to uproot them.

To illustrate the point it may not be amiss to consider in some details two such myths as those of William Tell and the Man in the Iron Mask.

For some centuries the figure of William Tell, that foremost of Swiss national heroes has been conspicuous in the Pantheon of history. To this day his image, shouldering a crossbow, is to be seen on the Swiss stamps.

There is practically no important fact of his life with which we are not acquainted. We learn that he was born and lived at Bürglen. A chapel dedicated to his memory, adorned with scenes from his heroic life, stands upon the site. It was built somewhere about 1580. Himself noble—his coat of arms was included by Zurlauben among those of the armigerous families of Uri—he was connected by marriage with the patrician house of Attinghausen.

He was farming his lands at Bürglen in the dawn of the fourteenth century, at the time when the nucleus of the Swiss Confederation was emerging from the Forest States about Lake Lucerne. Three of these states—Schwytz, Uri and Unterwalden—entered into a solemn league to defend these free communities from the encroachments of the predatory Hapsburgs. In this league William Tell is a prominent figure.

An Austrian Landvogt, or bailiff, named Gessler, presumably suspecting the existence of this anti-Hapsburg league, hit upon an ingenious device for discovering the malcontents. He caused a cap of maintenance to be set up on a pole in the market place at Altdorf, and demanded that all passers-by should do reverence to this emblem of Austrian sovereignty.

Tell comes along, accompanied by his little son. He pays no heed to the emblem. Challenged, he stoutly refuses to uncover. He is seized. Gessler supervenes. Out of a refinement of cruelty, aware of Tell's great reputation as a marksman, he gives him a chance of saving his forfeited life. If he can from a given distance hit an apple placed on the head of his son, he shall go free; but if he fails both he and his son shall perish.

Tell accepts the condition, having indeed little choice in the matter. His quarrel unerringly splits the apple, which must have brought disappointment to the tyrant who sat his horse, a witness of the feat. Gessler is reluctant to let him go. He questions him about a second quarrel, which Tell had taken from his quiver and bestowed ready to his hand in his belt. With the proud, reckless courage of the hero, Tell avows its purpose. If the first quarrel had missed the apple, the second one would certainly not have missed Gessler's heart.

Now that is not the way to speak to a man invested with despotic power. Gessler orders him to be bound, and brought along to the Castle of Küssnacht, where the bailiff resided, and where he proposes to give himself the pleasure of hanging this stubborn rogue.

They embark in Gessler's barge, so as to cross the lake to Küssnacht. A storm springs up. They are in great danger. Tell is a powerful fellow, a skilled waterman with experience of lake storms. He is unbound and given the tiller. He brings the boat alongside of a rocky promontory. Then snatching up his crossbow, which had been carelessly left within his reach, he leaps ashore, and in the very act spurns the boat back among the windswept waves.

On this rocky promontory, known as Tell's Platte, stands a commemorative chapel built at the end of the fifteenth or beginning of the sixteenth century.

He clambers up the mountain-side, whilst Gessler and his men are left to struggle with the storm. He makes his way to the heights above the Engegasse, the narrow way or hollow way, by Küssnacht, there to lie in wait for the homing Gessler; and there, eventually, he shoots him dead.

On this spot another commemorative chapel was built somewhere about 1570.

Tell's deed is the immediate cause of the rising of 1291 against the oppressors, in which Tell plays a leading part.

Again he is prominent in the Battle of Morgarten in 1315, which shattered the yoke which the Austrians sought to impose upon the Swiss.

Finally his death is placed in 1354. Heroic to the end, he loses his life in an attempt to save a child from drowning in the Schachenbach.

A statue of William Tell stands in the market-place at Altdorf, on the spot where he shot the apple from his son's head, erected there in 1895. There is another well-known statue of him in Lugano, and lesser statues are dotted up and down Switzerland in honour of this man who for centuries has been an inspiration in patriotism to the Swiss people.

To his skill with the cross-bow and his feat of marksmanship at Altdorf we may attribute the zeal with which the Swiss have aimed at rendering themselves a nation of marksmen. Periodically in Switzerland great shooting competitions—Schützenfeste or shooting festivals—are held, attended by competitors from every country of Europe. And these undoubtedly rest upon the inspiration derived from the memory of William Tell, which, again, they serve to commemorate.

Now the story of Tell's adventures with Gessler presents many suspicious features; there is an opportuneness about the events, and a liberal seasoning of coincidence to help out dramatic situations. We are justified in suspecting that accretions have swollen the story. But it is staggering to find upon investigation that in spite of numerous statues erected to his memory, in spite of three chapels to commemorate his deeds, in spite of a coat of arms and a very circumstantial personal history, this man never lived at all. In short, that the whole story from beginning to end is a fabrication, a legend, a myth without the slightest foundation.

With the value of the legend as a national inspiration I am not concerned. My concern is solely with its right to a place in history. From this, at last, and very reluctantly, it has been expunged. Therefore I need not trouble now to trace its gradual growth and development through Johannes von Müller and Melchior Russ, back to the White Book of Sarnen in which it has its spurious source.

The Man in the Iron Mask and all the legends that have accumulated about him are much in the same case, for, properly speaking, there never was a Man in the Iron Mask. He is one of history's synthetic mysteries; by which I mean a mystery gradually built up by successive historical writers in their endeavours to explain the initial mystery discovered in the earliest accounts of his existence.

Let us strip away these speculative explanations, which have been accumulating for two hundred and fifty years—for the subject appears to be one of perennial fascination—and consider the few bare bones of fact with which we are left.

In the reign of Louis XIV there was in the frontier fortress of Pignerol in 1679 a prisoner whose head and face were covered by a mask.

After a time, when Pignerol—the modern Pinerolo—was given up to Savoy (in 1694) this prisoner was removed thence with others and transferred to the Ile Sainte Marguèrite. Four years later, in 1698, he was transferred again, this time to the Bastille, where he died in 1703. In the Register of the Bastille his name was given as Marchioly, and his age at the time of his death was stated to have been about forty-five.

The mask covering his head and face lend him at the outset a mysteriousness which is an incitement to invention. Since the mask is the starting-point of the mystery, it should also be the starting-point of investigation.

Our first shattering discovery is that the mask is made of velvet—a sort of casque, or helmet, covering the entire head, fitting tightly to it and held in position by steel springs on each side.

It is not difficult to perceive how fancy was captured by those steel springs. Attention becomes so absorbed in them that soon it loses sight of the fabric of the mask itself. As we advance, narratives cease to mention it. They mention merely a mask with steel springs. Steel and iron are, after all, akin; and perhaps because iron has a slightly more sinister connotation—I can think of no other reason—it comes to be preferred by the sensation-monger. Presently the actual springs go the way of the velvet; only the metallic substance remains; the manufacture of the iron mask is complete. The mystery has become deeper and more sinister in consequence. Therefore, speculation must exert itself still more actively to explain it. Such a mask must naturally be fixed and immovable. Why else should it be made of iron? Eighteenth-century writers are busy clamping, rivetting, or padlocking this iron pot onto the prisoner's head. Inconveniences arising from the inability to wash and the growth of hair and beard are not considered.

A reason for this mask must be provided, and imagination goes briskly to provide it. If we are at such pains to conceal the features of a man, it follows that the disclosure of his identity must be attended by the gravest consequences. It also follows that his features are well known, that he is a person of some worldly consequence. Therefore it comes to be reported that he is treated with the utmost deference, and that he is always addressed as 'Monseigneur.'

I pass over such stories as that of the message scratched on a metal dish, which he flung through the window to be picked up by a poor fisherman, who escaped being put to death, so as to bury the terrible secret, only because he was unable to read.

We are told, by way of stressing his consequence, that he has a governor in the person of Monsieur de Saint-Mars, who moves with him from prison to prison. Here cause and effect have been confused. Saint-Mars was governor of Pignerol when the man was first imprisoned there. Later Saint-Mars was transferred to the governorship of Sainte-Marguèrite. Later still, when Pignerol was ceded to Savoy, some of the prisoners, among whom was the man in the mask, were conveyed to Sainte-Marguèrite. Finally, when Saint-Mars was made governor of the Bastille he certainly did take this prisoner with him. But it was the prisoner who accompanied Saint-Mars, not Saint-Mars the prisoner, as we are asked to believe.

The title of 'Monseigneur' by which we are told that he was addressed, materially narrows the field of conjecture upon his identity. When the most searching investigation fails to discover the disappearance in Europe of any personage of the eminence implied by this title, you would suppose that speculation would confess itself at fault and would turn in its tracks. Not at all. That is not the way of sensation-mongers. Since no living Monseigneur can be discovered to have disappeared, the identity of the prisoner is sought among the dead ones. One man after another of monseigneurial rank is put forward as having survived a falsely reported death.

This mask is said to conceal the features of the Duke of Monmouth, beheaded in 1685; of the Duke of Beaufort, who died in Candia in 1669; of Louis Comte de Vermandois, the son of Louis XIV by Louise de la Vallière, who died in 1683; of Fouquet, who had certainly been imprisoned in Pignerol, and who died there in 1680, and of several others, amongst whom we find the son of Oliver Cromwell.

Voltaire is responsible for so much of this fury of speculation and so much of this nonsense that it is scarcely too much to say that he is the inventor of the Man in the Iron Mask. It is he, in his 'Siècle de Louis XIV,' who to explain the masked prisoner of Pignerol, imagines an elder brother of Louis XIV of a countenance so strongly resembling the king's that, in putting him away, so as to avoid political complications, it was necessary to cover his features lest they should of themselves betray this terrible secret. Because there is something lacking here to make this story quite convincing, another pen, a little later, explains that this elder brother is really only a half-brother, a bastard brother, the child of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a work appeared in France under the title of 'The Mèmoirs of the Duc de Richelieu.' It seems to have been taken seriously until it was discovered that in reality it was an historical novel from the pen of the Abbè Soulavie. From this we learn that the secret of the Man in the Iron Mask was disclosed by the Regent d'Orlèans to one of his mistresses, who, in her turn, disclosed it to the Duc de Richelieu. To stress the terrible nature of this secret the main facts are actually printed in cipher. But in a cipher so puerile that the dullest may decipher it almost at sight.

In this version, the author, with the laudable object of giving the story a twist less damaging to the honour of a chaste and virtuous queen, presents the Man in the Mask as the twin brother of Louis XIV; the second born, and therefore the elder, as being the first conceived—a point for which there is neither biological nor legal sanction.

Those who are familiar with Dumas will remember what excellent use he makes of this extremely romantic material in his 'Vicomte de Bragelonne.' In some ways this fantastic story is the most plausible that has been put forward to fit the accretions accumulated about the bare facts of the Man in the Iron Mask.

In 1801 a story was current that this scion of the royal house of France had left a son who had settled in Corsica under the assumed but suggestive name of Da Buona Parte (i.e., 'of good stock'). Here it is no longer the hand of the sensation-monger that is at work, but that of the propagandist of whom it is also necessary to beware when reading history.

To leave these fictions and return for a moment to the known facts, Marchioly, the name in the Register of the Bastille, appears to be a corruption of the Italian name Mattioli.

A man named Ercole Mattioli, bom in Bologna in 1640, was minister to the Duke of Mantua, and governor of Casale. This frontier fortress was coveted by Louis XIV, and Mattioli sold it to him for one hundred thousand crowns. But on the eve of its occupation by the French, Mattioli double-crossed the King by betraying the transaction. Louis XIV was not the man to allow this to go unpunished. But he was faced with obvious difficulties in punishing a foreign subject. However, in 1679 his agents kidnapped Mattioli, and he disappears.

Now 1679 is the year of the arrival at Pignerol of the prisoner in the mask, subsequently registered at the Bastille as Marchioly.

Need we look further? Would anyone have looked further but for the mask and the irresponsible transmutation of its substance?

The mask itself remains to be explained. It is possible that, considering the violation of a frontier entailed by the nature of the arrest, it may have been expedient to impose it upon a prisoner whose anonymity it was desired to ensure. On the other hand, it is just as possible that the prisoner was masked of his own volition. After all, the wearing of masks by state prisoners is by no means uncommon in the seventeenth century, when the mask was recognised as a more or less ordinary article of apparel. Certain it is that the type of mask worn by the prisoner of Pignerol was one which he could put on and off at will, and that it was for this very purpose that it was equipped with the steel springs which are responsible for the vast literature of the subject, amounting by now to some fifty volumes. When we reflect that, before the discovery and manufacture of rubber, steel springs were the only elastic substance known to man, the purpose of these becomes manifest and all mystery vanishes.

The innumerable narratives as fantastic and groundless, as those two we have examined would never have found their abiding place in history if historical writers, instead of hammering them in by careless reiteration, had applied to them the tests which common-sense dictates should be applied to statements relating to present-day events. In adopting these statements responsible writers proceed cautiously. For one thing, there is today a law of libel to inspire this caution. It helps us to remember that all human evidence is liable to error, as a result of faulty observation or faulty interpretation of the facts observed. It is also liable to deliberate dishonesty, the calculated deception practised from motives of prejudice, or bigotry, for purposes of political propaganda, of personal profit, or merely out of a morbid passion for the sensational and the defamatory.

Human nature does not change. As it is today, so has it been in the past. Therefore it is the duty of the historian to deal with the evidence supplied by witnesses or chroniclers of the events in precisely the same manner as obtains in civilized courts today.

Let me illustrate the point by briefly considering the evidence of the incest of which history accuses some, if not all, of the members of the House of Borgia. It is the basis of a great deal of question-begging in that history and helps to render credible by its undeniable turpitude the other fantastic turpitudes laid to that family's charge.

The accusation, we find, is first uttered by Giovanni Sforza of Pesaro, Lucrezia Borgia's first husband; and just as he supplies the source of it, so he remains the only witness of any authority, since, from his relationship with the family, he must be accepted as possessing that intimate knowledge which certainly could not be claimed by any other of the contemporary scandalmongers who repeated it.

Since, properly speaking, there is no competent corroboration of this hideous charge, it becomes doubly necessary to investigate, as a test of credibility, the character and possible motives of our single witness.

What actually did he say, and in what circumstances did he say it?

Giovanni Sforza's marriage was annulled on the grounds of his incapacity to consummate it. This he, himself, ended by admitting over his signature. Before admitting it, however, and possibly stung by the ridicule into which it brought him, he alleged that he had been coerced into consenting to the divorce, that the grounds urged for it were false, and that Lucrezia had been taken away from him by her father, who wanted her for himself—'per usare con lei,' in his own actual words.

Malice may reasonably be suspected here, urging us to look closely into the attendant facts for matter that will either confirm or refute the accusation. To confirm it nothing is discoverable. To refute it we find the following considerations:

  1. If Giovanni Sforza knew of these incestuous relations between his wife and her father, how came he to tolerate them, and why did he wait until the promotion of the divorce to make his denunciation?
  2. That her father 'wanted her for himself' is not supported by the sequel. For nine months later we find her being given in marriage to Alfonso of Aragon, the nephew of the King of Naples.
  3. It is not conceivable that the royal House of Naples and the sovereign Ferrara House of Este (in which Lucrezia found her third husband) would have accepted a woman stained by such practices. From this we may infer that the charge of incest was regarded by her contemporaries, who were competent to judge, as the groundless and vindictive utterance of reckless spite.

So as to test the truth of the statements upon which history depends, the first inquiry should concern the qualifications of the witness testifying; it should seek to discover what facilities he enjoyed for observing the matters which he reports. In the second place, it should be investigated whether motives of interest or bias might sway him in one direction or another; and, in the third place, corroboration of his statements is to be sought from other witnesses and from what we may term the logic of the actual events.

Only by such processes of sifting and collating can the truth of any past transaction ever be reached. It is certainly true that in the main these processes have been scrupulously followed by conscientious and painstaking historical writers. But it is no less true that very often they have not. There is an easy road to popularity by pandering to the love of the sensational, the bizarre or the macabre, and this road has been diligently pursued by many of those who supply the sources of history and by still more of those who compile from them.

The foolish prig who conceives that he is impressive when he asserts that he never reads fiction because he is a student of fact, and who rejects with disdain the well-made, careful, and instructive historical novel, will consume with proud delight (because it gives him, at the cost of very little effort, the sense of being a student) the ill-made, grotesque, impossible, and sordid fictions artlessly presented under the spurious label of Fact. It was probably one of these who, as a result of the particular well from which he drew his bucket, first asserted that Truth is stranger than Fiction; but he failed to discover that well made fiction is never stranger than fact.

It is the function of art to hold the mirror up to nature. Applied to the art of fiction, this means that it should hold the mirror up to fact. And this is as true of historical fiction as of fiction dealing with contemporary life.

It is idle to suppose that even indifferent historical fiction can be written without a deal of research and a close and intimate study, not only of the major events, but of the manners, the customs, the minutiae of daily life obtaining in the epoch chosen and exerting their influence upon the characters that moved in it.

Just as the novel dealing with contemporary life should be an illustration and elucidation of the present, so should the historical novel be an illustration and elucidation of the period selected from the past. If it accomplishes this, then it is not too much to say that it will supply, in addition to entertainment, more valuable instruction than any of the histories in which events have been falsified and historical characters have been distorted.

A period novel need not concern itself entirely with historical characters and historical happenings. It may do so, of course. On the other hand, it may do no more than present an invented story developed by means of imaginary characters, but set against a real background to which story and characters must bear some real and true relationship. Or it may lie somewhere between these two varieties, blending events that are real with events that are reasonably and logically imagined, and characters that lived with characters that the author has invented.

In presenting characters that have lived, the conscientious novelist will strive to draw portraits that are as true to the originals as it lies within his power to make them.

If I seek in my own work the illustrations I need of the main classes into which I have subdivided the historical novel, it is solely because naturally I am better acquainted with—and it is easier for me to dissect—my own work than that of others.

As an example of a novel of the first type I mention, I may put forward 'The King's Minion.' For this I did not invent a story. I scarcely invented even a minor character. I took from history an episode that appeared to me in itself to be intensely dramatic, and sought to the best of my ability to give it actuality, to set the characters through which it was developed, moving and breathing as in life. I permitted myself, however, to imagine a solution to the mystery presented by the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. But even here my imagination was ridden on a tight rein, and it is my settled persuasion that the explanation I supply is the correct one. All that I permitted myself to imagine was imagined as the result of close study and close reasoning. I cannot prove that there were two simultaneous conspiracies to murder Overbury which became entangled—this supplying the pivot of my own plot—but I can and do assert that all the evidence points strongly in that direction when considered in the light of the well-known treacherous characteristics of James I. So that my 'The King's Minion,' whilst remaining an historical novel, offers at the same time an historical study of certain important happenings in the reign of the first Stuart King of England, and is not concerned with anything outside of these.

'Scaramouche' will serve for an example of a novel in my second class. Here we have an invented character moving through an invented personal history. But he is—as every character of a novel in this class must be -- one of the natural offspring of the circumstances and habits of mind of the time into which he is born. His character is moulded by these; his fortunes (however fictitious) are shaped by them. The background against which he moves and into which he merges is borrowed from history; and to this extent we have here again an historical study of an epoch, although it is subservient to the fictitious history of Scaramouche himself.

'Captain Blood' lies between the two. Although not actually a real character, his attributes and a great many of the vicissitudes through which he passes have been lifted from the lives of men who actually lived.

The early part of his story is really the story of Henry Pitman. A surgeon who had been a considerable traveller on the Continent of Europe, Pitman came home, to the West of England, at about the time of the Monmouth Rebellion. Persuaded to give his skill and his labour to mitigate the sufferings of some wounded followers of Monmouth, he was arrested for this, tried before ]effreys at the Bloody Assize, sentenced to death with a batch of others, the sentence being subsequently commuted to transportation to the overseas plantations. Shipped to Barbados and sold there as a slave, the fact of his being a surgeon served to ease his lot. Skilled men of medicine were scarce in the Colonies, and his purchaser found it not only desirable but profitable to set him to practise his profession rather than to labour with the other slaves in the plantations. Hence Pitman enjoyed a certain amount of freedom, and he used it to plan an escape, associating with himself in this a group of rebels-convict who had been shipped out with him into slavery.

It will be seen by those who have read 'Captain Blood' that up to this point his story runs closely parallel with that of Pitman in general outline. In detail it follows it with the same closeness, but incorporating matter from other sources, so as to complete the picture of social history in England and in Barbados in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Blood's story ceases to be based on Pitman's from the moment of the escape. For my protagonist in what is really the second part of the novel, dealing with Blood's career as a buccaneer, I employ several models, of whom Sir Henry Morgan is one, and I derive from the buccaneer history of that eye-witness Esquemeling the foundation of fact for the events which I invent or adapt to my own purposes.

There is, I should imagine, no fundamental difference between my own methods and those of any other writer of historical fiction. And when all is said, these methods are not very different from those of the writer upon contemporary themes. Each must inform himself as closely and accurately as possible of the realities of the life with which he deals.

The aim of all fiction being to present a story that shall be to fact as weft to warp, I can conceive of no reason why a transaction invented to fit the days of, say, Queen Elizabeth should be of less merit, interest, or appeal than a transaction invented to fit the days of President Roosevelt.

The writing of historical romance certainly makes heavy demands upon an author. Before he can come to it, he must have rendered himself by study and research so familiar with every phase and detail of the life of the period chosen that he can move at ease within it, and produce his effects so that his narrative, without being clogged by a parade of the knowledge he will have assimilated, will yet be fully informed and enlivened by it.

That, at least, is the ambitious aim; and if we are fortunate as well as diligent, we sometimes achieve it.

Return to Articles & Images

Last updated 29 March 2008. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.