Back Talk: Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky
Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, and Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Brandeis, met as graduate students in the 1980s. In 2007, the two began to write a historical novel. The product of that collaboration, the occasionally racy Blindspot (Spiegel & Grau, $24.95), tells the story of the portrait painter Stewart Jameson and his apprentice, "Francis Weston," née Fanny Easton, the disguised daughter of a prominent Bostonian. Lepore and Kamensky compiled glossaries, consulted collections of urban slang and lifted freely from eighteenth-century sources. With each in charge of one narrator--Lepore wrote Jameson's chapters, Kamensky Easton's letters--the two volleyed passages back and forth, like "a tennis game."--Christine Smallwood
>The book ends with one of the main characters boarding a ship for an adventure. That seems like a good opening for a sequel.
It's not written for the sake of a sequel. The whole novel is a play on genre. There are seven different genres struggling for mastery. Is it a murder mystery? A love story? A political thriller? It's playing with the conventions of the genres invented in the eighteenth century: there are Gothic elements, and then there's the sublime. You don't need to get that to enjoy it, but it plays with all that, and so it's important to us that the ending be both conventional in a genre sense and also unconventional for the modern reader.
One of the ways in which it's as much a twentieth-century novel as an eighteenth-century novel is that the characters are struggling with their own conventionality in ways that they see and don't see. Ignatius Alexander [a highly educated fugitive slave] gets to be the one who comments on the ways that our narrators do and don't get to slip out of their emplotted lives. Eighteenth-century characters don't tend to break frame like that----
Eighteenth-century characters do! There's this great moment at the end of Northanger Abbey. Do you remember this? It's from the end of the book, and something happens and Austen just turns to the reader and says, You may be wondering how this is all going to end, because there are so few pages left. Our ending, is it leading to a sequel? No. It's actually just playing with that self-consciousness about the book as an object. You've gotten to the end, but it's not really the end. It's not about Blindspot 2. It's more about the way Austen was funny.
Did you conceive of this as an explicitly feminist project? There's some role-playing with gender, and Fanny is a strong, bold character.
I think we wanted a set of questions about gender and genre that were true to the way we think about the past but also true to the past. So quite a lot of how Fanny questioned the boundaries of a woman's life could also be found by reading eighteenth-century letters. Masquerade is a key element of urban culture--for men more than for women--but there were women who dressed as men and fought in the Revolutionary War. And certainly the Enlightenment project broadly and the American Revolution particularly opened a lot of questions about who gets to be what, and why that remains the unresolved work of American democracy. Fanny's questioning of a woman's place and its limitations is very much a part of that eighteenth-century project. I think she comes to somewhat broader answers than most women would have dared.
Our ambition was for the sensibility of our novel to have a kind of authenticity and fidelity to eighteenth-century sensibility. Fanny's proto-feminism, and similarly the stuff about race--to some readers, maybe that will feel tacked on or inauthentic because our American-heritage version of the early American past doesn't really spend much time dealing with those things in any thoughtful or rigorous way. But those debates really did happen. Boston was very much alive with the question of whether to abolish slavery while we're having this conversation about the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act. This could be the time; we could end slavery!
Can a novel tell history in a better way than a history book?
It's a different way. You know, all American historians talk about the incredible success of biographies of the founders--those men who dazzle us in part because they're such wonderfully knowable individuals. But they left huge historical records. The superb work that's been done on working-class people, on African-Americans in and out of slavery, on women, on children is inherently nonnarrative. People are known in the aggregate, not often through their names; or if it's through their names, it's a name in a city directory or an almshouse entry book. In a work of nonfiction you couldn't put ideas in those people's heads or words in those people's mouths. It would be almost an act of interpretive violence. In a novel we had the freedom to try to imagine those lives, not to make them eclipse the story of the Revolution but to put the novel equal and adjacent to stories that are more familiar to us.
What are other common misconceptions about the era?
There's a politically worrisome dimension to enthusiasm about the founding fathers: Oh, those leaders were so much more virtuous than ours; what an age that was! To imagine that the nation was founded by a race of men so wholly unlike ourselves is to take us completely off the hook. It's actually about not demanding more of our democracy. It's about demanding less, because it buys into some kind of declensionist narrative. And I think that's somewhat insidious, so in Blindspot there's a lot of goofy irreverence. It's meant to suggest that ordinary people weren't necessarily sitting around, worshiping at the feet of the guy next door who had made a great speech in the assembly hall.