Q&A with author Elizabeth Cobbs
You are a historian with four non-fiction books to your name. Why did you decide to tackle the story of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler in fiction?
Novels reveal emotional truths that history cannot. I enjoy writing fiction because, when I wear my non-fiction hat, I can rarely assert how a person truly felt. Most emotions are repressed, hidden, secret, or obscure even to the protagonist. Writing fiction allows me to go deeper than I can legitimately go in the role of professional historian.
Is it harder to write fiction or easier? What are the advantages?
They are challenging in very different ways. Writing fiction is faster and easier, because one can make stuff up! Non-fiction must be exhaustively researched and painstakingly documented. At the same time, fiction is also much harder. The standard for good writing is higher. If a protagonist breaks character in a single gesture, the illusion is spoiled. If prose bogs down, the reader feels no obligation to slog through for the facts.
But there are great advantages as well. Every professional historian struggles to help readers see that the past was not predetermined. History could have happened very differently. The North could have lost the Civil War. Fiction allows an author to achieve what the non-fiction writer can never do completely: begin when the future was still a mystery and allow a reader to experience the suspense as it unfolded.
What was Elizabeth Schuyler like and what do we know about her from the historical record?
Elizabeth Schuyler flits like a deer through the thicket of facts surrounding Alexander Hamilton. He wrote a dozen letters for each she wrote him and many no longer exist. At no point did she document the deep wounds that his infidelity, political quarrels, and duel with Aaron Burr surely inflicted on her. We know from the few letters that do exist, and from what others wrote, that she was bright, spirited, adventurous, and compassionate. We know, for example, that the Iroquois named her “One-of-Us” when she was thirteen, but not what she did to win their admiration.
We also know she had eight living children and one miscarriage, but nothing in the record tells us why the longest lapse in her childbearing occurred during the exact period that her husband plunged into a fateful, illicit affair. Was she trying to space her pregnancies? Was Hamilton tempted because Eliza didn’t want her mother’s record of fifteen children, half of whom died?
Why did Elizabeth Schuyler stand by her husband in the face of his affair with Maria Reynolds?
Historians are baffled as to why, when Alexander told the whole world in graphic detail how he had betrayed his wife, she stood by him and even bore him two more children (the youngest was two at his death). How could she look him in the face? How did she recover her dignity? Is it merely a coincidence that Eliza plunged into public service immediately after the affair was exposed, perhaps to build a life and identity outside her marriage? History cannot answer such questions with certainty, but a novelist can use the bare facts to envision a full-blooded, courageous woman who was not a mere foil for her illustrious husband.
Why do you think Alexander Hamilton is having such a moment right now?
At a time when politics seem more baffling, contradictory, and troubling than ever, Americans long to recover a sense of themselves as a people. Was the past so different from today? Why did our founding fathers and mothers fight so hard to make this country? What did they love about it? And why was “honor” so important then, when politicians seem to have so little now? Alexander Hamilton symbolizes the possibilities and contradictions of our past, while illuminating the great loves—of country, truth, justice, and family—that are America’s brightest dream of itself.
Alexander Hamilton was an orphan, bastard, and immigrant. He wanted to change the world that excluded men like him, and he did. He is the quintessential American—and a hopeful role model—for our times. Elizabeth Schuyler symbolizes the generous native-born citizen, willing to give him a chance and welcome him into her heart.
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The Hamilton Affair: A Novel
By Elizabeth Cobbs
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