Sunday, 4 October 2015

Merlin's isle of Gramarye - by Katherine Langrish

See you the dimpled track that runs
All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns
That smote King Philip's fleet!

So begin's 'Puck's Song' from Rudyard Kipling's love-song to England, 'Puck of Pook's Hill'. Enchanted by the Sussex countryside which was to him - born and bred in India - both home and 'strange', the stories in this classic children's book explore the layers of history which lie deep as leaf-mould in every part of this ancient land.

A few years ago a Saxon brooch was found only a mile or so from where I live in Oxfordshire. I saw it the same day it was taken out of the ground, and you can see it both as it was then, and after restoration, at this link.

This is what I wrote about it at the time:

I took a brisk walk out this morning to the Anglo-Saxon grave.

It was only discovered yesterday. We were out for an afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, taking a lane that runs out of the village towards the Downs in the distance, when we realised the wide, flat fields were full of widely separated, slowly walking figures (mostly men) with bowed heads, swinging long metal detectors. Every so often one would stop and dig a little hole, pick something up, then wander on.

We started talking to some of them. One pulled out a wallet and showed us a medieval silver penny. Another had more pennies, Roman and medieval: and belt buckles: and buttons. ‘And over there,’ they all said, pointing towards the furthest field behind a belt of trees – ‘over there, that’s where they’ve found an Anglo Saxon grave!’

Everyone was alight with it. A huge gold brooch had been found, together with some bones. The police had been called immediately and had thrown a cordon around the site. In their marquee by the farm, archeologists were already examining the brooch and we headed back to look. on the way chatting to a group of three men who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at a Saxon chieftain’s burial. Big lads, with acres of tattoos. One had long black hair, another a shaved head. One wore an enormous plaited gold ring on his thick forefinger.

‘Any luck?’ we asked. They were friendly, shook their heads: ‘Nah. Only rubbish today. Here’s what we got, on this table over here, take a look if you like.’

‘If you want some, have some,’ added the black-haired man. ‘It’s rubbish. It’s all going in the bin otherwise. But have you heard about the gold brooch?’

On the table was a clutter of stuff. Bits of pottery, coins, harness buckles, buttons, crumpled tin and lead. ‘Take it! Take it all!’ exclaimed the black-haired man. He shovelled it all into a plastic container. It was heavy.

‘When you start this game,’ explained the man with the gold ring, ‘you’re really excited about a coin or two, but then you get ambitious. Tell them about that ring you found.’

‘18th century, with seven diamonds,’ said the man with the black hair.

‘We’ve all found rings, one time or another,’ said Gold Ring Man. He laughed. ‘Once you start this game, you get addicted.’

We went on down to the tent. The brooch was there on display. It was the size of a large jam-pot lid, with a white coral boss surrounded by an inlay of flat, square-cut, dark red garnets. Around that, a broad band of bright yellow gold, with four set garnets standing out from it. Then more coral. And around that, a ring of intricate filigree, now black and dirty. People pored over it, photographed it, stared at it with awe, excitement, and reverence.

‘There’ll be another one,’ the archaeologist was saying. ‘They always come in pairs.’ And he had a look at the ‘rubbish’ the big guys had let us take away. It included four Roman coins, a bit of a medieval ring brooch, some Roman pottery, a lead musket ball the size of a marble - cold and heavy in the hand - and an 18th century thimble. Just a tiny fraction of what still lies under the dusty ploughlands. 

Well, there wasn't another one.  If the Hanney Brooch ever had a twin, it hasn't been found.  However I thought you might like to see some of the stuff that Gold Ring Man and his mates were about to throw in the bin as 'rubbish'.  Here they are, laid out together rather like that awful party game of my youth where you had to remember and write down a selection of disparate objects placed on a tray. The pencil of course is there to give a sense of scale. To the bottom right is the stem of a clay pipe. I have no idea what the bronze, grooved object just above it may be, or the crushed copper thing just below the middle of the pencil. The thing below the point of the pencil is a bone with a hole in it, age unknown, and the curved bronze object to the right of the bone is part of a clip for holding down the loose end of leather belt. There is a small flower engraved upon it.

In the middle are four Roman coins to remind us, as Kipling wrote,

And see you, after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a legion's camping place
When Caesar sailed from Gaul!

 (Actually they're probably later than that. But still.) To their right is the the piece of red Samian ware which suggests that somewhere around here people were dining and wining with high-status imported pottery.  Diagonally from top left to bottom right are three pieces of thick, greyish pot: these -

I'm ashamed to say I can't remember what the archeologists told us about these - whether they were Iron Age, or medieval - but how very different from the delicate Samian Ware!

Then there's a musket ball.

This fragile curve on the left is part of a medieval ring brooch, while to its right is an 18th century thimble.

And these are the cast-offs, the bits and pieces one small group of metal detectorists were going to throw away and even the archeologists weren't much interested in.  Imagine how much else came out of the ground that day!

A couple of years ago, my brother was privately involved in charting archeological remains in a large field which was being developed for housing not far from Didcot, Oxfordshire. As the topsoil was removed, the clear outlines of over ninety pits and circles appeared, along with many shards of pottery and bones. My brother took photos and even made a survey of the site. But it proved impossible to attract the interest of any professional archeologists, and the field is now a housing estate.  You can see some of the darker pits, here:

 And in close up, here:

While here are some of the pottery shards:

Sadly, we'll never know more about that particular site.

Move on to the present day, and our small village is informed of a planning application to build 600 houses in some of the fields across which those metal detectorists were doggedly plodding back in 2009.   While recognising the need for more homes, especially affordable homes for young people, 600 houses springing up on the outskirts of a tiny village (whose school is already full) is a big, big change. And I really don't know how 'affordable' those houses will be. It may be that in the end a smaller number of houses will be built.  But I'm happy to report that partly as a result of information supplied by the Hanney History Group, 82 trial trenches have just been dug in the field where the development is planned, and an archeological excavation will take place to discover just what, if anything, is really there. I nipped out a day or two back to take photos.

The truth is, dig a hole in the ground almost anywhere in England, and you're likely to turn up spadeful after spadeful of history - and houses must be built nevertheless. But important sites shouldn't be built over without any preliminary investigation.  So well done to the Hanney History Group, and I'll keep you posted as to what comes next.

See you our pastures wide and lone
Where the red oxen browse?
O there was a City thronged and known
Ere London boasted a house!
And see you marks that show and fade
Like shadows on the Downs?
On they are the lines the Flint Men made
To guard their wondrous towns!

Trackway and Camp and City lost.
Salt marsh where now is corn;
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born!

She is not any common Earth,
Water or Wood or Air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare. 

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Memoir vs fiction, by Y S Lee

Over the past two years, I’ve been reading memoirs from survivors of the Pacific War – that is, the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. Nearly all of them are awe-inspiring, and I’ve already blogged here about Freddy Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral and Nona Baker’s Pai Naa: The Story of Nona Baker.

Refresher: historical sources are typically divided into two categories: primary (artifacts from or documents created during the time of the events in question) and secondary sources (an item that interprets and analyzes the primary sources). It’s a broad-strokes sort of distinction that makes putting together a bibliography more straightforward. Although memoirs are typically written after the events in question, they are generally classed as primary sources because their authors were involved in the relevant events.

However! Having recently read a fair amount of memoir, I’ve come to distrust its simple categorization as a primary historical source. This unease began with my first Pacific War memoir, Freddy Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral (1949). It’s a brilliant book, packed with adventure and anthropological insight. Freddy’s voice is distinctive and charming, and while he shies away from emotional and psychological insight, I finished the book with a strong appreciation for his character (possibly too strong: my husband took to calling him "your historical boyfriend”).

Freddy Spencer Chapman

Still, I wondered how Freddy could possibly recall the terrifying and chaotic events of his three years in the Malayan jungle in such impeccable detail. This is a challenge in all memoirs. I am hard-pressed to remember what I ate for lunch three days ago, and in times of conflict or high excitement I often question, after the fact, my memories of what went down. Yes, Freddy kept detailed diaries while he was in the jungle, but on several occasions he was forced to destroy them because they were at risk of falling into enemy hands. His surviving diaries are held at the Pitt Rivers Museum, but they cover only a portion of his time in the jungle.

After reading Freddy’s memoir, I turned to Brian Moynahan’s recent biography of Freddy, Jungle Soldier: The True Story of Freddy Spencer Chapman, for context. Moynahan is a biased biographer – a longtime fan of Freddy who wants to burnish and prolong his hero’s fame. Even so, at one point, Moynahan points out a significant discrepancy between Freddy’s surviving diary and an event he describes in The Jungle is Neutral.

For publication, Freddy altered the event, probably in order to make it feel more dramatic. Moynahan disagrees with this decision, believing the original diary entry to be superior in terms of tension and the sheer danger of the situation. Either way, though, we now have a primary source (diary) imperfectly converted to a memoir - which is still technically a primary source. Yet we already know that it’s been corrupted. And if we have evidence of this with just one of Freddy’s surviving diaries, how many other events have been elided or embellished or just imperfectly reconstructed? We’ll never know.

This question becomes even more complicated when memoirs are written long after the events they describe and are mediated through others. Pai Naa: The Story of Nona Baker was first published in 1959, fourteen years after Nona Baker emerged from the Malayan jungle, contributed source material to Freddy Spencer Chapman’s official report on local Communist organizations, and returned to England.

Nona Baker is not credited as the author of her memoir!

Baker doesn’t mention keeping a jungle diary. Her narrative voice is quiet, wry, self-deprecating. She doesn’t in any way seek to portray herself as a heroine: rather, she insists that she was only “busily saving [her] own skin”. Perhaps this is why it took her fourteen years to produce a memoir, and why she distanced herself from the story even further: even though her narrative is written in the first person, the book is officially "by" Dorothy Thatcher and Robert Cross. To what extent is Baker’s voice really her own, here? And what sorts of artistic license have Thatcher and Cross taken with the shape of the story?

My last example today (though I have many more!) is actually a novel by Han Suyin (best known for her 1952 novel A Many Splendoured Thing, which was filmed as Love is a Many Splendored Thing and was also later adapted as an American soap opera). And the Rain My Drink is set during the Malayan Emergency of the early 1950s – the last days of the British empire in southeast Asia.

Han Suyin, the pen name of Elisabeth Comber

While And the Rain My Drink is technically fiction, Han Suyin inserts herself (using a name that is itself a pseudonym) into the novel as a character. This is a postmodern move which ought to undermine the ideas of narrative voice and the conceit of “truth” throughout the work. But the character Suyin tells her story in the first person, in conventional and realist terms. Because of this, and since the character Suyin’s biographical details map directly onto those of the author Han Suyin, the whole novel reads instead like a memoir of Han Suyin’s time in Malaya, with a few imaginative excursions. It presses the genre of memoir into the services of fiction - an act that points up the highly contrived nature of memoir itself.

Perhaps this is only appropriate – that we should end up in such an ambiguous tumult. A wide view of history will always include competing voices, and the line between fact and fiction begins to blur immediately upon examination. I’m thrilled to be feeling my way, step by careful step, in the company of such splendid adventurers.

Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries/The Agency Quartet (Walker Books/Candlewick Press).

Friday, 2 October 2015

Foodways, Fiction and the Inquisition - Gillian Polack

One of my favourite things when I read historical novels is reading about the food. I love it when writers get the food wrong, for I can call in my historian self and mentally shout “You cook the honey inside not drizzle it on top if you’re going to eat it with your fingers” or “How can they be eating potatoes in twelfth century England?” I like it even better when writers understand what researching food and writing about it well does to a novel. I mentally create cookbooks and recipes and have been known to check my sources and see if a dish really tastes the way the writer claims. I am a food tragic. 

Because food history is one of my specialisations, I mostly know what I’m doing. This means that I am continually learning and thinking and querying and seldom taking my knowledge for granted. it also means I actively seek out models for my work. Food history is an amazing place, for it’s changing and growing and developing. Food in novels can be equally amazing. Another day I’ll talk about the fiction side of it. Today, I have other plans.

My new novel is called The Time of the Ghosts. It’s a contemporary novel, but food history creeps in everywhere. This novel began as a series of dinner party menus that reflected the food history of the characters doing the cooking. I built up four menus for each character. Two of them were Anglo-Australian, but the characters (Mabel and Ann) are fifteen years apart in age. Mabel cooks the older Australian foodstuffs: very English, very robust. Ann is a more modern cook and is the sort of woman who likes food magazines. The third character, Lil, comes from a quite different background, and her menus had to reflect that. I had to develop a set of research tools that would enable me to create what she cooked.

My novel is released today, which is entirely fortuitous, for my publisher decided on the release date, not me. I want to celebrate,  in my best historian-foodie way: I’m going to introduce you to one of the best pieces of forensic food history I know. This book gave me my method for developing Lil's foodways, on a platter.

It's called A Drizzle of Honey, and it's by David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson. This is the book that made me think “We understand these people because of this work on their food. I want my readers to know my characters from the same direction.” This is the book that spawned my fictional dinner parties as well as giving me a method of handling the more complicated aspects of those dinners. In a way, my novel is a tribute to the men and women introduced by Davidson and Gitlitz. Some of these people were killed because of how the Inquisition interpreted their foodways.

In 1492, the Jews of Spain were given three choices: convert, flee, or die. Many of them converted to Christianity. Converting to Christianity required a profession of faith. I presume conversos were given religious guidance, but they were (as far as I know) not given detailed cultural guidance. They were expected to be fully Christian forthwith. Despite this expectation, they were given a second-class status in Spain. Those who had once been Jews or whose families had been were considered to be of bad lineage. (When I was studying Old French insults, ‘you come of bad lineage’ was an appalling thing to say to someone – this is a serious accusation. )

Then insult was added to injury, and more injury was added to that. Conversion was not sufficient. The Inquisition started looking into the lifestyles of those who had once been Jewish. 

The Inquisition was worried about heretics. It was specifically set up to worry about heretics and to persuade them to return to the Faith. It was 'merely' doing its job. Christians who lapsed back into Judaism were considered heretics. The punishment for heretics relapsing was death. The question over the centuries has been whether the Inquisition was merely doing its job, or whether it was doing more than that; whether it was seeking repentance, seeking punishment, or persecuting. The evidence has come down on the side of persecution. Food helps explain this.

In the early days of the Inquisition the Inquisition was more concerned about form of belief and focussed on the Cathars. The questions devised checked profession of faith and the like. 

The Inquisition that sought to get rid of hidden Jews was different. It wasn’t consistently different: Jews were not universally persecuted. But because Judaism was seen (is still seen) as cultural as well as a religion, Inquisitors and their staff often inquired into daily living habits. If someone had a bath before Friday dinner, they might be Jewish. If a woman met with other women on a Saturday afternoon and they ate salad together, they might be Jewish. 

Sevilla. Picture by Gillian Polack

The Inquisition demanded (as far as I can tell) that their religion where a profession of faith was sufficient to join had also to encompass every element of life. Without being taught the cultural norms (when does one cross oneself, for instance? What does a fast day mean?) families of the converted were expected to conform to them, completely. They were expected to eat meat after funerals, instead of the vegetables and legumes that they were used to. They couldn’t sprinkle cheese on a vegetable dish on a fast day, even if they had no idea that this particular saint’s day was a fast day or that cheese was forbidden. 

Christian culture was complex and required learning. Not only was their lack of teaching not taken into account, conversos were expected to sacrifice much of their daily lives to demonstrate that they were not, in their hearts, still Jewish. This was despite the fact that society regarded them as never being quite fully Christianised. They were discriminated against in employment, in lifestyle, in religion. 

No matter what these people did, it would probably not have been enough. Judaism was seen as a contaminant and culture left over was potentially a sign that the person was a heretic. Burning at the stake was the ultimate sanction, but there were many punishments and daily trials that were lesser and that pushed down into family life and hurt people.

It’s very depressing. 

Society participated in identifying hidden Jews. Neighbour informed on neighbour. Maids said of their employers “They bake eggs in the ashes of a fire.” It led to a society that was persecutorial in the worst possible way. People were killed for their eating habits, their washing habits, for doing things the way their families had. 

The Church was demanding, in effect, that even the way one wore clothes had to be not-Jewish, and obviously not-Jewish. Daily life in a region dominated by this kind of thinking would have been bad for everyone. Is this a Jewish salad? Are you lighting candles secretly on holy days? Are you certain that when you took Mass you swallowed the wafer?

Out of bad things, historians create understanding. David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson used the Inquisition records to find out what food Jews ate before the enforced cultural/religious shift. Without their work in A Drizzle of Honey, I would never have known about salad on Saturday afternoons. I would be missing my favourite doughnut recipe. And I wouldn’t know anything about the men and women who cooked and ate this food.

A Drizzle of Honey doesn’t just recreate foodways and reconstruct possible recipes from the Inquisition record. It gives us back the lives of those lost people. It tells us the methods used to reconstruct and the author give a bunch of information about the cultural contexts, so that we, as readers, can make our own decisions about whether a particular argument holds true and whether a particular recipe is a sensible reconstruction. 

It gave me a process I could use for my own fiction. I followed their research path for the foodways of my characters. It gave me a lot more understanding of my characters’ lives and their families, for food is essential to these things. I made one of my characters Jewish, to remind myself of this path. And this Chanukah, I’ll make one of those recipes for fried pastries,in memory of Jews whose foodways brought them to the attention of the Inquisition.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Does Elena Ferrante write historical fiction? by Mary Hoffman

Like everyone else, it seems, I have just finished reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet. The Story of the Lost Child is the last book, to many readers' regret and, if you haven't come across it before, please don't let this horrible cover put you off; it is nothing like the content of the book.

But, for reasons that will become obvious, this is a hard post to illustrate and the covers are all we've got. Unless you don't read the national review press, TLS, LRB, New Statesman etc. you are unlikely to be in ignorance of the name Elena Ferrante but you might not be reading this in the UK, so I'm going to write about her as for an innocent audience. (In her native Italy, she is not much talked about, for example).

But if you are half-way through, don't read this post; it contains spoilers.

"Elena Ferrante" is a pen-name, which has caused much speculation - even that she is a man. There are no photographs of her and when she gives interviews, she does so by email. I referred to her native Italy above but some have posited that she was born in Greece, perhaps because the "io narrante" of the quartet is a female novelist called Elena Greco.

Ferrante has been described as writing everything from a soap opera to books that should win her the Nobel Prize for Literature, so there is a lot to say. But it was something else that prompted me to write about her here on The History Girls: is what she is writing historical fiction?

The wider genre would probably be "family saga" in that it covers more than one generation, but I can feel the fans wincing from here at that description.

Here is the cover of the first book in the series, with an equally soppy and misleading cover from Europa Editions. My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena Greco, the first person narrator, learning that her friend Lina has gone missing. At this point they are both aged sixty-six and it is Lina's disappearance that prompts Elena to start the narrative of their friendship, which began when they were both six.

In other words, in 1950. A novel set in 1950 would certainly count as historical fiction today, sixty-five years later. In fact some people define anything written about a period a generation earlier, i.e. twenty-five years. The Historical Novel Society is stricter with a requirement of fifty years before writing.

But what about a book or books that begin over fifty years ago but trawl through the years since, coming up to the present day? The 50 years plus definition assumes that the writer has to research the period and has not lived through it. Since we don't know anything about Elena Ferrante we can't decide whether she was born in a poor suburb of Naples - "the neighbourhood," as she calls it - in 1944 and is writing a sort of memoir or much later somewhere different and had to study the place and period.

The latter seems very unlikely.

Elena is known to all as Lenù; her friend is Lina. Both are diminutives of their given names (Lina comes from Raffaella, which might surprise those unfamiliar with Italian). In the Childhood and Adolescence sections of My Brilliant Friend, Lenù and Lina are clearly two halves of a shared self, their fortunes rising up and down in Fate's scales. Only one of them can be happy or pretty or clever or successful at any given time.

What makes this early part of the narrative so effective is the evocation of the setting in which the girls are growing up. They and their friends are from working class or lower middle class families, Lina's father a mender of shoes and Lenù's a porter at City Hall. There are grocers and pastry-cooks and sellers of fruit and veg. The women wear shabby dresses and slippers out of doors; many of them are illiterate.

Naples 1947 Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone—Getty Images
They live in apartment blocks around courtyards and the landscape of their childhood is bleak and gritty. One day when Lina tempts Lenù to cut school and walk to the sea, they emerge from a tunnel to see: "Around us ... a landscape of ruin: dented tanks, burned wood, wrecks of cars, cartwheels with broken spokes, damaged furniture, rusting scrap iron."

Not a blade of grass in sight and they don't make it to the sea. It was a ploy by Lina to get her friend into trouble, so that Lenù's parents will revoke permission for her to go on to Middle School as Lina's own parents have done. It doesn't work.

This makes for a really interesting story: two girls equally clever, one educated and the other deprived of that chance. Their friendship continues, on and off, through betrayal and loss, for the next sixty years and yet it is always uneasy. When Elena sits down to write the story of their lives, she says, "We'll see who wins this time." It is always a tension, a struggle, a rivalry.

The other feature of the girls' lives, growing up, is violence. It is commonplace for men to beat their wives and children; once, Lina's father throws her out of the window and breaks her arm. But it's not just domestic violence, bad though that is. "We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died."

Life expectancy for children was low and their parents' work often dangerous: "Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection." (Ferrante is as fond of lists as is James Joyce).

People get murdered; by my reckoning, in the whole quartet, at least six. Sometimes this is politically motivated, sometimes it's the Camorra (Naples' equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia). But violence is always bubbling below the surface; young men react aggressively if other young men flirt with "their" women or even look at them in a way they find unacceptable. Punishment beatings are common.

So this is the setting of the quartet and a picture of 1950s Naples it would be hard to forget or discount. But the centre of the story is the relationship between the two girls, one who will marry at sixteen and the other who will "escape" and go to university. And not just their daily lives but the internal fears and obsessions.

Lina experiences something she calls "dissolving margins" where other people's outlines shimmer and disappear and she loses hold of reality. Much is made of this characteristic but Lenù senses something similar when terrified by Don Achille, the local ogre (later one of the murdered): "solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers, or swelled up, leaving empty spaces between their internal mass and the surface skin."

And it has to be said that Lina is not likeable. She is the most hated girl in the school and in the neighbourhood. She does mean, spiteful things, as in the episode above, is dirty and covered in scabs and bruises. Yet somehow she metamorphoses into the most beautiful and fascinating of the local girls, one whom three men are fighting to win.

The second book continues the story of the two women as they grow, one repenting a bad marriage, the other having an affair and then getting engaged to an academic.

The whole sequence returns us again and again to a group of families, whose members know each other from childhood, inter-marry, support each other, let each other down, regroup and re-marry. From earlier than adolescence Lenù has been attracted to Nino Sarratore, but in this book it is Lina who leaves her husband for Nino, a betrayal that Lenù swallows, at least for the time being.

Of course the narrative doesn't end there. After a lazy summer on the beach in Ischia where Lina and Nino fall in love comes the harsher reality of ill-paid and hard work in a sausage factory, where Lina discovers politics and fights for workers' rights. Lenù on the other hand is now a published writer and mines her friend's life for novels and newspaper articles, regardless of the dangers to her in the factory.

Corrupt politicians and industrialist shape daily life for the neighbourhood and the threat of the Camorra is always there. The Solara brothers, Marcello and Michele, are Camorristi but this is always just a background reality. Ferrante is no Roberto Saviano, whose book Gomorrah (2006) exposed and named Camorra bosses and whose life has been threatened so severely that he travels with seven armed police everywhere and spends no more than a night or two in any one place.

It has been said that Ferrante wrote the books in one draft and did not revise and polish. I can't quite believe that but in The Story of a New Name, Elena gets given a publishing contract without having re-read the novel she has written. The editor tells her, "Trust yourself: don't touch a comma, there is sincerity, naturalness, and a mystery in the writing that only true books have."

Magari, as Italians would say = "if only."

That editor will be Lenù's mother-in-law and she will change her mind about that book and about its author. That is one of the sequence's huge strengths: the fact that people and our perceptions of them change. The bride of one book will be a factory worker in another, and a computer pioneer in the next. A passionate lover will be a treacherous rat. The successful author will be a neurotic mess, fearful that her time in the sun has passed.

The third book is to me the least satisfactory, although it has the best title,  as it seems to degenerate into women defining themselves through their relationships with men, the stuff of so much 20th century fiction. Lenù marries and has children and discovers feminism. It is told from the viewpoint of 2011 (all the novels begin as contemporary and are then narrated in flashback).

Lenù and Lina are together again and find the body of a woman in a flowerbed next to the Parish church. She is someone they have known since childhood and the readers of the first two books know her too: "How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled."

This one is not a murder, as it later turns out but a natural death.

Lenù has escaped the neighbourhood but periodically returns and finds it fundamentally unchanged, even though full of skyscrapers: "Lodged in my memory were dark streets full of dangers, unregulated traffic, broken pavements, giant puddles. The clogged sewers splattered, dribbled over lavas of water and sewage and garbage and bacteria spilled into the sea from the hills that were burdened with new, fragile structures, or eroded the world from below."

By the end of this book the kaleidoscope of the two friends' lives has been shaken again and their relationships fallen into a new pattern.

And so again, to the fourth and last book with its ghastly cover. Really, whatever else it is, this book is not pastels and fairy wings.

There are recurring motifs in the form of numinous objects: the pair of shoes that Lina and her brother Rino make in the first book, to which the rise and fall of the Cerullos' fortunes are linked; the shabby dolls that Lina and Lenù lose in the cellar; the poems that Nino's father writes for the "madwoman" Melina; Lenù's mother's silver bracelet; Manuela Solara's little red book of loans and debts; Lina's story The Blue Fairy, written when she was a child.

And recurring themes, of which the most obvious, apart from the romantic merry-go-round, is the relation between mothers and daughters. Lenù positively hates her mother and has turbulent relations with her two older daughters. The third, by another man, is a disappointment to her.

Lina has a daughter too, one that shines by comparison with her friend's youngest girl. So much so that a magazine article about Lenù as a famous author attributes the wrong daughter to her. But little Tina, with the same name as one of those childhood dolls, is at the centre of the quartet's greatest trauma.

The women look after each other's children at different times, criticise or praise each other's mothering skills, remain competitive. In 1979, Lenù returns to live in Naples with her daughters and the two friends are neighbours again. Lenù remains naive, sensing that Lina know things she does not; this has been true all their lives.

At last, the scales fall from her eyes and she sees just what a shit she has tied herself too, but she never tells him how like his hated, womanising father he is or that she, Lenù, allowed that same father to take her virginity when she was a teenager. And boy, does the shit deserve to know both those things.

In the end, I found the narrator quite unsympathetic, a "feminist" who behaves like a doormat whenever her great love is around, clearly believing in "Venus toute entière à sa proie attachée." Lina, who never goes out of her way to make anyone like her, remains the more fascinating.

The last volume is not as satisfying as I'd hoped, leaving many mysteries unsolved: who is the killer of various people and what the motivation; what has happened to the lost child of the title and why; how do the fetishes left in Lenù's hotel room at the end get there and what does it mean?

We have been told early on that Lenù's mistake as a writer is to impose a sort of order on life that it doesn't have, but Ferrante has done this throughout so it seems unfair to change her pattern at the end when she has excited our curiosity and got us to care about these characters.

I don't think she is Nobel Prize-worthy (though the Committee has chosen some odd recipients from Italy (Grazia Deledda but not Elsa Morante or Dacia Maraini, Giosue Carducci but not Italo Calvino or Giorgio Bassani). But I do think Ferrante has written a powerful and engaging sequence of novels. She arouses strong feelings and opinions in her readers and, in her depiction of Naples sixty-five years ago, she counts as far as I am concerned as a writer of historical fiction.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

September competition

One lucky History Girls Follower can win a set of all three of Frances Thomas's Girls of Troy titles.
Our competitions are open to UK Followers only.

Just answer the following question in the Comments section below:

"Which character from the Trojan wars interests you most and why?"

Then also send your answer to so that we can contact you if you win.

Closing date 7th October

Good luck!

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Girls of Troy by Frances Thomas

Our guest for September is Frances Thomas. She was born in Wales during the war, but brought up in South London and read English at London University. She is married to a historian, has two  daughters and two grandchildren. She has written many books for adults and children, including a biography of Christina Rossetti and Finding Minerva which won the Welsh Books Council's Tir na nOg prize.  She now lives in mid-Wales.

Welcome to The History Girls!

The Girls of Troy

My father was a scholar and knew Greek.

When I was five years old, I asked him once,

‘What do you read about?’ ‘The siege of Troy.’

‘What is a siege, and what is Troy?’

Whereat he piled up chairs and tables for a town,

Set me a-top for Priam, called our cat

Helen, enticed away from home, he said,

By wicked Paris…

( Development – Robert Browning)

So Browning tells the story of how his lovely father introduced him to the tales of Troy, against the assured background of nineteenth century culture and the currency of shared values. Every schoolboy (every public schoolboy, at least) would expect to know the stories intimately, even reading them in Greek. Achilles, Hector, Priam and Odysseus would have seemed like old friends.

But I wonder today whether young readers are so familiar with them. Greek mythology doesn’t quite seem to be the accepted backdrop to Western imaginative thinking that it once was; fantasy has overtaken it as most young persons’ favourite read. Dystopian futures replace mythological pasts. The wonderful stories of gods and goddesses, of heroes and fantastic creatures don’t have the resonance that they once did amongst the young. And the publishers I approached with the idea seemed to think that mythology just didn’t sell, and therefore wasn’t worth bothering with.

Yet we call up those mythical figures whenever we refer to anyone as ‘jovial’, ‘mercurial’ ‘herculean’ ‘junoesque’; in every art gallery, their exploits still line the walls, making little sense to someone who doesn’t know the legends. Their beautiful statues fill our museums; who are they all? You need to know the stories if you are to make sense of our culture and how it arrived at the place it is now.

So I wanted, especially as we were about to make a first journey to Greece, to use some of that mythological excitement to write a story of my own, and Troy was the story I wanted to tell. But I wanted to write for teenage girls, and at first I found that relentless male and macho world a little daunting. The stories of the Trojan war are stories of men.

But… it’s surprising what you find when you look a little closer. My first ‘light-bulb’ moment was when I found that Helen of Troy had a daughter, Hermione. So what happened to her? In fact, though Hermione didn’t have anything like the fame of her gorgeous mother, she had quite a considerable story of her own. I was intrigued by her straight away – whatever was it like to be the daughter of the most beautiful and most infamous woman in the world? How did Hermione feel? Her mother had abandoned her, after all. Did Hermione resent her? Did they love each other? Was Helen capable of unselfish love?

Then I discovered that not only did Helen have a daughter, but that Achilles, the great Achilles, had a son, Pyrrhus. The light-bulb grew brighter. And that, even better, Pyrrhus and Hermione had a romantic connection. The light bulb almost exploded. My story started to take shape, and the characters began to jostle around me, making themselves heard, in the way that characters do when you start to write about them. And Hermione’s story was also the story of the doomed House of Atreus, of Agamemnon, her uncle, of Clytemnestra, her aunt, of Orestes and Electra, and poor Iphigenia, who had to be sacrificed for her father’s convenience. My first story, Helen’s Daughter , was on its way.
The next story I wanted to tell meant a jump over the sea, to the city of Troy itself. There was a young girl present in the palace there, whose story was certainly full of drama, Cassandra, daughter of King Priam. But really there was too much drama and it was all too horrific. Cassandra is punished by the god Apollo for refusing him, doomed to make prophesies that no-one believes. Later, she is raped by Ajax on the altar of the temple, abducted by Agamemnon as his concubine, and killed by Clytemnestra. I believe that young people don’t have to have stories made simple for them; they can grapple with hard issues. But I also believe that if you’re writing for teenagers, your story must contain at least a note of hope, and there’s none in Cassandra’s story. So in my second story, The Burning Towers, she’s a secondary character, though her story does get told, in all its horror. My heroine is Eirene, whom I imagine as Cassandra’s slave, and it’s she who tells the story, and has a story of her own.

For the final story, The Silver-Handled Knife, I return to Mycenae and the house of Atreus. Nobody comes well out of the Trojan War and most of the Greek kings return to meet sticky ends. Agamemnon has hardly set foot in his palace when he’s murdered by his wife Clytemnestrra and her lover. The story I tell is of revenge, as related by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the revenge that Electra and Orestes take upon their mother. All three of my stories are told in the first person, and at first I thought that a first person narrative from Electra would be just too difficult. How can you get inside the head of someone who is complicit in the killing of her own mother? I thought it couldn’t be done. So instead, I decided to use the voice of Chrysosthemis, the younger sister of Electra and Orestes; she would observe and tell the story. And so I started off.

There was only one problem – it was boring. Chrysosthemis didn’t have a story of her own, and just looking on wasn’t enough to make a drama. I realised that what I had to do was the thing I was avoiding – let Electra tell her story herself. After all, Electra’s motivation, her inner feelings , were what every reader would want to know about. If I couldn’t describe that, I’d be selling my readers short. And so I tried to get into Electra’s head, and find out how she changed from an obedient daughter of the palace to a girl with murder in her heart.

But there’s a happy ending, even for Electra. I didn’t make it up; it’s in the mythology. Orestes spent many years in exile, at the distant court of king Strophias, and the king’s son Pylades becomes Orestes’ dearest friend and accompanies him back to Mycenae on his mission of revenge. She and Pylades are attracted to each other. Electra is bruised and battered from her experiences of life, but she has a future

One of the wonderful things about these ancient stories is the degree of humanity embedded in them- the characters aren’t just mindless heroic figures, they have feelings and all-too-human emotions – they behave in ways that we can recognise and identify with. So many of the stories, told by Homer, or by the great Greek playwrights, are full of human detail; there’s the wonderful scene in the Iliad where the aged Priam makes the dangerous journey to Achilles’ tent to beg for the body of his dead son, and Achilles, in spite of his anger, is moved to tears. There’s the wily and clever Odysseus, beloved of Athene, and the moment when at last after many years wandering, her arrives back home and his ancient hound recognises him with its last breath.

There’s Demeter, desolately wandering the earth in search of her lost daughter. There’s passion and violence, jealousy and love, anger and rage, and tenderness and obsession – stories told and retold over the centuries, gaining strength and intensity from each retelling, you could find themes for a lifetime’s writing from these stories. They have a reality that made-up fantasy can’t emulate, they’re embedded in our hearts. That’s why I hope we, and future generations, will continue to read them, to study them and to be excited by them.

Frances's Girls of Troy books are available on Amazon.
Her website is

Monday, 28 September 2015

Leonard Mulley: a very civil hero, by Clare Mulley

Sorting through some family papers recently, my mother came across a handsome gentleman’s silver cigarette case. The initials ‘LM’, etched squarely onto the front, stand for Leonard Mulley. Len was my father’s favourite uncle, a working class lad brought up in a two-up, two-down cottage in east Finchley alongside his thirteen surviving brothers and sisters. Cheeky - in the way that only someone who knows they can get away with it - can be, he seems to have been forever putting frogs down his sister’s pinafores when they were young, and later coal dust in their powder compacts. Several of the brothers became local boxing champs, and nearly all were sailors with the Merchant Navy before and during the war. The presents they brought back included a macaw for their mother, who used to enjoy picking out her hairpins, and rope soaked in tobacco and molasses for their father to chew – apparently it smelt absolutely delicious. This elegant silver case is not the sort of object that I had imagined Len owning but it sits well in the hand, feels weighty, and would clearly have been pleasing to own. An inscription inside, dated November 1946, tells a rather lovely story…

The autumn of 1946 was pretty dismal in England. Eighteen months since the end of the war in Europe, the early mood of jubilation was long gone. The country was in recession, reconstruction had not yet started on any significant scale, demobbed former-servicemen were finding it hard to get work, and there was no prospect of the rationing for food and clothing ending anytime soon. Len had served in the navy during the war, delivering essential supplies to Russia on the arctic convoys, and tying up a substantial part of Germany’s Navy and Air Force. On one voyage to Murmansk, his convoy was waylaid by enemy aircraft and u-boats and several ships were sunk. Traumatised, Len was transferred to clearing up London bomb damage but found retrieving civilians' bodies so distressing that he rejoined the merchant marine.

Although he returned to civilian life with few formal qualifications after the war, Len’s strong work ethic and good manner with people secured him a job as a Steward at the rather theatrical Eyot House Club, which sits on its own island on the Thames at Weybridge, in Surrey.

Eyot House Hotel, circa 1955
Copyright The Francis Frith Collection

Eyot House had been built by D’Oyly Carte, the Victorian music impresario, theatrical producer and hotelier who had already built the Savoy theatre and hotel in the Strand, among many other famous venues. In its heyday the place would have been full of celebrity guests such as WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, and writers like JM Barrie, which might explain why D’Oyly Carte once reportedly kept a crocodile on the island. By 1946, when Len worked there, the club was reduced to trading on its former glory, but it still held a certain mystique. There was as yet no footbridge to the island, so guests arrived by boat, or had to pull themselves across on the chain ferry. Once installed however, the wrap-around, Colonial-style veranda provided a strong sense of occasion, along with commanding views down the river.

The sun had set just after four in the afternoon on 24th November 1946. Although the weather had been unseasonably mild, there had been heavy rain for some days and most club members were inside, drinking tea or something stronger, and listening to the London Symphony Orchestra concert at the Royal Albert Hall being broadcast by the BBC Home Service. The setting could hardly have been more Agatha Christie, when suddenly shouts were heard coming from the river.

The Thames below the club house was at full tide and, further swollen by the recent heavy rains, the water was high and moving rapidly. Perhaps Len’s years in the navy meant the water held less fear for him. It is possible that he had helped saved others when his convoy had been torpedoed. However perhaps he had never had the chance, and the water held worse memories for him than for many. What we know for certain is that it would have taken great courage to plunge into the dark, fast-moving river that Sunday evening, but Len did not hesitate. Some time later he managed to swim to the bank, fighting hard to keep his head up, one arm clamped around a half-drowned woman. Who she was, and whether she was in the water through accident or intent, has been swept away by time and tide, but she survived that night because of Len.

The inscription inside Len's cigarette case

These dramatic events are recorded in three very brief accounts. A few lines were reported in the local paper that week. Shortly later Len was presented with his cigarette case by impressed members and staff of the Eyot Club House, ‘in recognition for his outstanding bravery in saving a life from drowning after dark, and with the river in full flood’. The following year the Royal Humane Society presented him with their ‘Honorary Testimonial on Vellum’, awarded when someone has risked their life to save another, and in this case specifically ‘for having gone to the rescue of a woman who was in imminent danger of drowning in the River Thames at Weybridge, and whose life he gallantly saved’.

Len's Royal Humane Society certificate

Sadly nothing more is known, except that the envelop enclosing the Royal Humane Society certificate was addressed to Len not at Weybridge, but at the Norfolk Hotel at Arundel in Sussex, where he was employed as Head Waiter, within a stone’s throw of the River Arun and not far from the coast. It seems that although changing jobs he wanted to stay close to the water. The Eyot House Club closed not long later, having been raided by police who stormed the island by boat late one Saturday night, and arrested a number of people for drinking after hours. 

Tragically, Len was later killed on his way to work when he was accidentally knocked off his bicycle by another vehicle. He may not have been highly decorated for his service during the war, no DSO or medals beyond those standard for active service, but Len's story reminds us that heroism is not confined to times of war. Len continued to live by the principles he had fought for during the war, risking his life for the security of others in the peace. He was a truly good man, and a hero.