Like most writers of historical fiction, I love the research phase of creating a new book. I adore unfolding original letters, feeling old fabrics, and trying to recreate in my own mind the reality of past times. But there is one other source that I have only recently come to value: the fiction written in the era one is trying to depict.
This thought came to me when I was asked to contribute an introduction to a new edition of Curtain Up, written by Noel Streatfeild during the Second World War, and first published in 1944. It’s part of the Ballet Shoes series, and indeed the new edition has been given the American Title Theatre Shoes to bring home that point. Streatfeild’s original publisher had allowed the work to go out of print, and it’s been rescued by Jane Nissen Books (www.janenissenbooks.co.uk) a company which specialises in bringing back lost gems.
So the war throbs on in the background, and the little details that emerge, almost accidentally, are the more enlightening for that. Any of us writing the story now would probably adorn it with all sorts of well-researched titbits about sirens, shelters, blackouts, loss and the spectre of death. Streatfeild doesn’t labour points about rationing or dried egg. If an elegant London square has been allowed to become overgrown, that’s simply an unsurprising fact. A modern historian might not even wonder whether the escalators at London tube stations kept running during the war. If he tried to find out, it might take hours of wading through documents at the London Transport archives. Streatfeild doesn’t go out of her way to tell us that precious power was used to keep the escalators moving – we just find her characters using one, and now we know. Streatfeild is not educating or making a huge revelations, she’s getting people from A to B. To today’s eye, her book is as interesting for what she doesn’t feel it necessary to say as for what she does.
Theatre Shoes contains very few overt reflections on the nature of war, and the changes it brings to people’s lives. How interesting, then, that one of those musings is rather positive: The grandmother in the story has fallen on hard times. She is forced to sell off family heirlooms. The old lady is lucky, says Streatfeild, to face poverty at a time when everyone else is forced into frugality, so her shame doesn’t show. How many modern writers, setting a tale in the 1940s, would come up with that angle?
So what are we building into our own books for 22nd century writers to mine? Will they be struck by our pathetic attempts to save the planet by recycling a bizarre assortment of household rubbish? Will they laugh at our ferocious striving for uniformity, while portraying ourselves as free spirits? Or will it be titbits such as how often we wash our underwear or the complexity of our car parking regulations that give them a key to understanding our world?
Whatever it is, let’s hope they don’t end up thinking that we all live like characters in soap operas: inhabiting spotless kitchens as we battle against everything from psychopathic neighbours to terminal illness --passing the time with a little light adultery or incest, while we wait for a boy on a broomstick to come and save us all from You Know Who.
But maybe that is how you live? If so, get writing now.