Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell writes about “The Power of Narrative in History” after attending an event at the Massachusetts Historical Society featuring Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of the remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning work of history, A Midwife’s Tale that was also made into a film shown on PBS. (n.b. I highly recommend this site where the midwife’s diary itself is online, annotated, and commented upon.)
I really liked Bell’s discussion on how differently fictional writers and historians consider the idea of narrative, particularly “heroic narrative.”
Ulrich felt that the Midwife’s Tale filmmakers were in danger of creating a fictional narrative for Martha Ballard that, while it might please viewers, wasn’t supported by the historical documentation. She was even willing to leave the project over that issue. The creative team was able to adapt, and the resulting film is both very affecting and historically grounded.
And does it have a heroic narrative? At this point I piped up from the audience to argue that the Midwife’s Tale movie does offer such a narrative—not about Ballard, but about Ulrich. While the movie shows several vignettes from Ballard’s life, the storyline that runs through it and fuels it is the historian’s investigation of the midwife’s diary. An individual sets out on a quest (to learn what that document can reveal), faces obstacles, devises strategies, makes breakthroughs, and achieves acclaim.
While I think this is an interesting idea, I’m not sure that I like it. Shouldn’t the focus stay on the history told? — on one woman’s diary to get a sense of her life in her time? To make the story about the historian getting the story turns it into something completely different.
I have to think further about this, but I think this relates to my reservations with teachers using historical fiction to stimulate interest in history. As Ulrich felt so strongly (strongly enough to consider pulling out of the film project according to Bell), history is not necessarily heroic. The historical story may be very different from a fictional telling, but just as interesting and moving.