Monday, January 6, 2014


GUEST POST by Catherine Reef

I don’t recall the issue we were debating. It was too long ago, and now it hardly matters. But an idea had been raised in my college sociology class that provoked some heated discussion. At one point a student read a passage from our textbook to support his opinion. The instructor listened and then asked us all, “Do you think the book is right?”

I sat up a little straighter. What was that? Was she suggesting the book might be wrong? The book, that esteemed authority—words printed in black ink and bound in a hard cover—wrong? While the rest of the class argued on, I pondered this startling notion.

As you may have guessed, the most important lesson I learned in Sociology 101 was to be a critical reader. It is one that has served me well as a writer of nonfiction, because again and again in my research I have encountered books that were wrong. I have learned to question, to track down original sources, and to weigh the printed evidence.

I could show how this healthy skepticism has paid off by citing examples from the research that went into nearly every one of my books, including The Brontë Sisters. More than one writer has adopted an authoritative tone, for instance, to write that in 1855 Charlotte Brontë died of tuberculosis, the disease that took the lives of at least four of her five siblings. But how did these authors know this? The answer is that they didn’t; not really. They saw it in another secondary source or jumped to a conclusion after glancing at the facts. The reader or researcher who bothers to investigate Charlotte’s case finds that the cause of her death is uncertain. Her death certificate states that she died of phthisis, a wasting away, but was it due to consumption, as these writers assume, or to the severe intestinal illness that had been plaguing her for weeks? Some authors declare that Charlotte, who was recently married at the time of her death, was pregnant. Charlotte Brontë herself believed this was true, if only because of the severe nausea she was experiencing. Did she actually die of morning sickness, though? It must be noted that the foul water in the Brontës’ village of Haworth was known to carry disease, and a longtime family servant had sickened and died in a similar way only a short time before. So did Charlotte succumb to waterborne contamination? These are all questions I cannot answer. As her biographer, I saw only one way to be honest with my readers and fair to my subject: I described how Charlotte died, but I offered no diagnosis.

So, yes, books can contain factual errors; they can also be wrong, or at least untrustworthy, when it comes to words placed inside quotation marks. Here’s what happens: one writer paraphrases something a subject wrote or said. A second writer repeats the statement word for word and attributes it not to the writer who did the paraphrasing, but to the well-known man or woman whose words were paraphrased in the first place. At some point, as more writers repeat them, the words become enshrined in quotation marks. Content to cite in their endnotes some other secondary source, these writers never check whether the words were ever uttered.

I encountered one of these suspicious quotations when the time came to write about Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Published in 1848, this book was ahead of its time in its frank depiction of alcohol abuse and marital discord. At one point in the narrative, the distraught wife, Helen Huntingdon, bolts her bedroom door against her husband and refuses to let him enter. Now, I am sure such things happened in England in the 1840s, but no one spoke of them above a whisper, and certainly no one wrote of them in a novel. A wife denying her husband access to her bed? Shocking!

“The slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England,” proclaimed a writer of a later generation, May Sinclair. Or did she? This great quotation appears in a number of critical works, but not one lists a source. Literary detective that I am, I tracked down Sinclair’s actual words in her 1913 book The Three Brontës. And what Sinclair wrote is this: “The slamming of that bedroom door fairly resounds through the emptiness of Anne’s novel.” The second quote is less dramatic than the first, but it is accurate, and it is the one I included in my book, properly sourced. Thus I made a small correction to literary history, but a satisfying one.

Fortunately for us all, authors get their facts right more often than not. Nevertheless, students can be better writers of nonfiction—which is what they are when writing reports or essays—if they read critically. Where did the author get her facts? Check the notes and bibliography. Does he cite primary sources, and is it possible to track them down? Students may not have access to a research library, but many older texts are available online. Do the words “perhaps,” “might have,” and “must have” crop up too often? These are signals that the author is speculating. Students need not be in college to learn to question what they read and to cite printed sources with care.

Because once doubt has been cast on part of a nonfiction work, the rest becomes suspect. We want our readers to trust what we write.
   BIO: Catherine Reef has written more than forty nonfiction books for young people and adults, among them The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne and Leonard Bernstein and American Music. Her work has earned her the Sydney Taylor Award and the Joan G. Sugarman Children's Book Award as well as Golden Kite and Jefferson Cup Honors. A graduate of Washington State University, she lives in College Park, Maryland. Visit her online at

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