Crimes against history: the literary imaginations of Figes and Froude

A few days ago, there was an article in The Nation, by Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen on ‘Orlando Figes and Stalin’s Victims‘. It presents the evidence against Figes regarding claims of inaccuracy and invention in his 2007 book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, revealed largely as a result of checking against archived interviews by the publishers of a planned Russian edition.

Because these sources and/or their relatives are still living, the question of fidelity to the sources is particularly charged. In addition, the politics of Russia and opponents of the regime make much of the content a live issue. There is, therefore, an interesting question of whether anyone would have cared, or checked, had this in fact been a book about the longer-distant past.

That said, the question of Figes’s reputation for truth-telling has also been a matter for scrutiny, above all because of the revelation that he had written negative reviews of the works of rivals and a positive review of his own book on Amazon. Thus Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern was described as “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”, and The Whisperers was declared “beautiful and necessary”, written by an author with “superb story-telling skills”.

There is something incredibly fascinating about such tales of ambition, pride, fraud and revelation. However, laying that aside (and suggesting you read the article linked above for more), I was particularly struck by an undertone in the claims of Figes and charges of his accusers that relates to views of what history can or should be, and struck a direct chord with the debates of the 19th century that I am in the middle of reading about in Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain (which I hope to finish and review here very shortly).

It is, above all, a question of the relationship between history and storytelling, or, to put it in 19th-century terms, whether it is scientific or literary. Figes’s own anonymous and hugely positive comments about “story-telling skills” and the ‘beauty’ of the book  contrast very clearly with the accusations of Reddaway and Cohen: “mistakes”, “invention”, “misrepresenting”, “for dramatic purpose”, “cannot be fully trusted”. These defects are contrasted with what they call the “meticulous transcription” of interviews that were done on Figes’s behalf by the Memorial Society – their equivalent of Leopold von Ranke‘s archives revealing “wie es eigentlich gewesen”, what really happened.

It is all thoroughly reminiscent of the accusations thrown at one 19th-century historian, James Anthony Froude, by another, Edward Freeman. As Ian Hesketh shows, Freeman was incensed by Froude’s literary approach to history, claiming that his imagination led him to interpret all the (very real) archival work he had done in light of his desired narrative. Freeman wrote of Froude’s “Constant inaccuracy of reference”, blaming the “vagaries of narrative and judgement” on of “an inborn and incurable twist, which makes it impossible for him to make an accurate statement about any matter”. He made history fiction, and his account of Thomas Becket “the life of an imaginary being in an imaginary age”.

It was a vice that became known as “Froude’s disease” and, although the term is no longer recalled, the accusation can still be recognised. Froude, of course, was the more popular writer, but the newly-professionalising, discipline-defining historians like Freeman made a virtue of studies that were of interest only to other trained specialists. While readers may have sensed a past world brought to life, encouraged by the presence of references and original sources, “what passes for history in the hands of Mr. Froude is a writing in which the things which really happened find no place”.

I suspect Freeman was a little unfair. However he, Reddaway and Cohen similarly accuse their targets of having been led astray from the true path of history by desire to capture readers with a clear story. It is the strong belief in the validity of their view of the past that has led them to reinterpret the evidence, very possibly with the positive aim of creating a truer, more believable picture, rather than wishing to falsify the past or simply trying to write a best-seller.

The two sides put ‘truth’ in a different place. For these reviewers it is within the unadorned, uninterpreted archives; for the writers it is within the picture conjured up by the combination of their archival research, historical imagination and literary skill. There is merit in both views. Certainly, the kind of objective, disinterested history that Freeman advocated today seems unrealistic, and probably undesirable, but we do most certainly expect things in quotation marks to be accurate, and that references should point adequately to real physical, written or oral evidence.

Beware, all ye writers of popular history and literary non-fiction, of “Froude’s disease”, although it may yet be preferable to “Figes’s disease”.