Disclosure: This piece appears in slightly different form in a private social media post.
Please click the link at the end of this post to read an excellent article in the London Review of Books by Julian Barnes about French Impressionistic painter Berthe Morisot and her sisters, Yves and Edma.
The article in the LRB includes an excellent quotation attributed to Gustav Flaubert:
“The story of a louse can be as beautiful as the history of Alexander the Great — everything depends on the execution.”
I sensed this piece by Julian Barnes did not embellish unrealistically on the lives of Berthe Morisot or her sisters (although I admit I knew nothing about them until I read it). However, that one line from Flaubert should make us think carefully when we read, watch or hear a compelling “nonfiction” piece.
Real life is rarely as compelling as fiction, and nearly all of the historic accounts we’re exposed to are expected to be commercially viable. Book editors — who take orders from people above them at publishing houses — sometimes send nonfiction manuscripts back to authors, demanding changes that not all of us would find honest if we knew about those demands. Fact-based movies are made watchable, but if you’re familiar with the events that influence those stories you’ll find some tampering. The tampering can be for entertainment value, or for propaganda.
Whenever we encounter “historic accounts,” we should consider the human factor. We’re reading, seeing or hearing one angle, which may be influenced by a particular vantage point or something more sinister.
I’m interested in following up on something I read in this article. Julian Barnes claims Edgar Degas — a legendary misogynist who was noted for being in a snit while he mentored Mary Cassat — was supportive of Berthe Morisot’s work. Maybe Degas saw gray areas that he didn’t explain. Maybe not. We might never know, if it’s all subject to speculation and good storytelling.