How Much Is True?
I believe a novel has a different role from a history book: no, not everything in my novel is actually true. What is important for me is that you, the reader, believe in the world I have created. For my thoughts on this subject, here is an essay (http://www NULL.theglobeandmail NULL.com/news/arts/a-rewriting-of-things-past/article372427/) I wrote for The Globe and Mail when my first novel, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, another historical work, was published. Here is an interesting interview (http://www NULL.theglobeandmail NULL.com/books/too-good-to-be-truth/article1552644/) with Australian author Peter Carey on the same subject and a more recent one with Newfoundland writer Wayne Johnston, (http://www NULL.theglobeandmail NULL.com/news/arts/books/wayne-johnstons-colony-of-outraged-readers/article2127807/) who says “You can take whatever liberties you want.”
For those who want to know more about the Dreyfus affair, there are many English-language books on the subject you can find at most libraries as well as various chronologies on line. Louis Begley’s recent book, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, features a succinct account of the events.
I used these classics:
The Affair: The case of Alfred Dreyfus by Jean-Denis Bredin, Captain Dreyfus: The Story of a Mass Hysteria by Nicholas Halasz and Guy Chapman’s The Dreyfus: A Reassessment. There is also Michael Burns’ France and the Dreyfus Affair and G.R. Whyte’s The Dreyfus Affair: A chronological history.
This is a French government (http://www NULL.dreyfus NULL.culture NULL.fr/en/) website with historical background about the affair and a chronology. I relied on the following chronology (http://www9 NULL.georgetown NULL.edu/faculty/guieuj/DreyfusCase/Chronology%20of%20the%20Dreyfus%20Affair NULL.htm).
Meanwhile, information about Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy is largely in French: I used Marcel Thomas’ two books, L’affaire sans Dreyfus and Esterhazy ou l’envers de l’affaire.
And now, for those who still really want to know, I will detail here how much of this novel reflects actual historical fact and how much I made up. But I have to warn you, if you have not read A Man in Uniform yet, I do reveal several major plot developments here.
Of course, Alfred Dreyfus was a real man, the French army captain wrongfully accused of spying for the Germans. The broad lines of his notorious case, and the paper chase that pointed to the real spy, Esterhazy, are as described in A Man in Uniform. However, in the great tradition of dramatists from Shakespeare to Hollywood, I have greatly condensed time in the novel, taking events that covered about six years and jamming them into a few months.
The main characters in A Man in Uniform are all fictional creations. There was no François Dubon, no Geneviève or Madeleine, no Baron de Masson. I should also stress that the widow is a fictional creation: there is no evidence that Dreyfus kept a mistress, although many Frenchmen of his class and his era did.
Here are some real historical characters:
Major Henry was the real Mr. Fix-It in the Statistical Section who gave his name to the infamous forgery that ultimately betrayed the conspiracy against Dreyfus. The document described in A Man in Uniform as the Italian diplomat’s letter became known as the faux Henry, or Henry forgery.
Colonel Picquart was the real straight arrow who began to doubt the military’s case against Dreyfus and was initially punished for his efforts.
(However, the other officers in the Statistical Section are all inventions.)
Schwarzkoppen and Panizzardi, the German and Italian military attachés, were real people and it was their correspondence that the Statistical Section had intercepted. Mme Bastien was also a real person, the cleaning lady turned spy.
Mathieu Dreyfus, the Captain’s brother, was his real advocate, loyally and doggedly pursuing the quest to clear his sibling’s name for long years. In the period of my novel, he was meeting with little success – he did actually hire an English detective to help; English detectives had a great reputation in those days, perhaps thanks to the fictional Sherlock Holmes! But later, it was the efforts of Mathieu Dreyfus, not those of my fictional characters, that finally lead to Esterhazy.