*Warning: this post contains a spoiler for Hamilton. If you haven’t heard it or seen it yet and want to go in fresh, like me, you should skip it.
There’s a moment in the musical Hamilton where the character Eliza seemed to be speaking to me directly. In “Burn,” after Alexander published the details of his affair in the Reynolds pamphlet, Eliza is burning her letters from her husband (oh how I cringed at this destruction of the historical record!) and sings, “Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.”
In a way, this song breaks the fourth wall. I was suddenly aware that the musical was just that: the wonderings of a historian (can we call Lin-Manuel Miranda a historian? Why not). It was not real representation of the past, though it felt real. But then, it might have happened that way…
I read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that Hamilton was not history but history fanfiction. I liked that, when I read it, and now I’ve seen the musical I like it even more. Somehow by calling it fanfiction, rather than historical fiction, gives Lin Manuel the license to take as many liberties with the actual history as he likes, in the name of a better story. And it’s a damn good story. But if someone were to write the equivalent story and publish it as a historical novel, they would likely be pilloried for inaccuracy. Why? Why our authors so self-aware about historical accuracy in a work of fiction? And why are readers so demanding of it? Or am I just making too much of the preferences of a portion of the market? After all, I do not mind when stories play fast and loose with facts, and though I appreciate when such intentional inaccuracies are acknowledged in an author’s note or similar, it’s not as though any novel is ever pretending to be a work of nonfiction.
Back to Eliza, burning her letters (sitting in the stalls, I could smell the smoke):
The world has no right to my heart
The world has no place in our bed
They don’t get to know what I said
Ouch. I squirmed in my seat. I’ve never been so aware that what I’m doing as a historian is invading the privacy of people in the past. Commiserating in their misfortune, ogling over their romances, reading between the lines of diaries and letters that may or may not have been intended for public consumption when they were written, or circulated, or donated to a museum. Digging through documents looking for clues, speculating on sex lives of strangers from a hundred years ago.
Should I feel guilty? I do now. Am I going to stop? Well, no. I’m not. The world may have no right to the juicy details, but the world is still pretty curious.