Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The White House


You know how it is. Sometimes, you think to yourself, I don't really want to be challenged with my reading material. A rip roaring good historical yarn would just about do me right now. So long as it's well researched.

So it was this morning. I had a slow morning so I ran myself a nice hot bath, stepped in, and settled myself with a Bernard Cornwell that I hadn't read. Much as the TV series with Sean Bean is absolute crap, (largely because Sean Bean can't act), the stories aren't bad (even though they have nothing in the way of characterisation, sub plot and offer nothing to a discussion of the human condition).

However I digress.

So in I get. I ALWAYS read the foreword, preface, introduction or whatever. (Actually I have an Honours degree in English from a damn good university on the strength of reading the foreword, preface, introduction or whatever. But that's another story).

In this case it was a foreword not a whatever.

And I quote:

Later that year [1814] in the same kind of operation, though on a much larger scale, [the British were] responsible for the capture and destruction of Washington itself. Among the many buildings that were burned was the president's mansion. The lower walls were of stone, so they survived, but when the mansion was rebuilt those walls were painted white to hide the scorch marks and it has been known as the White House ever since.

"Oh that's interesting", I thought. However in an idle moment at lunchtime, (told you it was a slack day), I thought further on it. "I know", I thought, "I'll read up a bit on that British assault", only to learn that Cornwell has perpetuated a myth, of which it seems, every American school child is aware.

The house acquired its nickname early on. Congressman Abijah Bigelow wrote to a colleague on March 18, 1812 (three months before the United States entered war with England): "There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President's" (quoted in W. B. Bryan, "The Name White House," Records of the Columbia Historical Society 34-35 [1932]: 308). The name, though in common use, remained a nickname until September 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt made it official.

Hmmm. A tiny spot of research tells us 'it aint so Joe'.

Look, I know historical novels are ultimately fiction and so about storytelling not academic rigour. And hey, we all make mistakes while attempting to be thorough in research.

But surely something so fundamentally flawed in the foreword (not in the narrative) of a book first published 20 years ago should have been corrected by now?

5 Comments:

Blogger IsobelMagsBuchan said...

Only by pernickity nit pickers Gavvybabes.

On the other hand I share your feelings. I often get quite angry when reading books and I know that they have manipulated known facts or completely misrepresented them.

Please don't say I am turning into you.

Wed Jun 13, 09:26:00 AM GMT+1  
Blogger Paul said...

I agree Gavin and I must say that when I was doing a lot more writing than I do now I was always confused by the reality/fiction part of fiction writing.

I had to give up reading Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd the first time round, back in the 80's, because there is one section where the topography is wrong - that's not just me being a smart arse I actually own half a dozen contemporary maps so I could check. I went back and read it afterwards, with my brain in neutral.

I was taught that the best research only appears subliminaly - that said we are talking about a foreword here.

The 1814 war is interesting as it has been in the news lately being quoted as an analogy with Iraq.

I think I've taken up enough space for now. Good to see you writing again.

Wed Jun 13, 10:14:00 PM GMT+1  
Blogger Gavin Corder said...

Indeedy doody both really.

But I don't think I really am a smart arse or pernickety. Surely not? Am I?

I'm feeling a bit fragile really since Augustus has taken umbrage, Sarnia's got the sulks - all I said to her was not to be foolish!

Crikey, the damage I could wreak were I but to try!

Eh well...

I love history. I love it. Whether I soak it up through primary sources, secondary sources or over the sauce on the dinner table. I love it. But what I don't want is to end up looking a chump because someone is telling me they have researched something.

So they are telling me, "This is true, buy into this," I will enjoy their book so very very much if I can use it and their wonderful imagination to illustrate my understanding.

If the basic information patently wrong it's annoying. Very annoying.

All the more for having been in an historical note or a foreword.

Thu Jun 14, 01:14:00 AM GMT+1  
Blogger IsobelMagsBuchan said...

Gavvy, pernickity yes but I say anything about you being a smart arse?

As to online spats, well you know I have had more than my fair share probably because I am a gobby cow. I only bare two grudges! Seriously though, they're not worth bothering about. This isn't real life and to a massive extent the people we meet online are not real people. All we 'meet' is a side and a shadow and not the real person. When I met Mr Mags I didn't know the 'real' person until I met him in real life where incidentally he was even more wonderful than his online persona!

Chin up old bean!

Thu Jun 14, 09:37:00 AM GMT+1  
Blogger Span Ows said...

hmmm...so where is the peer reviewed confirmation of Abijah Bigelow's letter and where is the actual letter...what if the date was misread and actually it was 12th March 1815 and not 1812 (or whatever)...are you sure about this?...what if this is a piece of re-writing history so the Yanks can 'stick us one'...eh?...EH?...

...anyway it doesn't change the fact that we burnt down the White house...hah ha.

Fri Jun 15, 06:08:00 AM GMT+1  

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