As Christmas draws closer and, with it, the prospect for many of family gatherings, I hope no one will mind if my post today has a family-related theme. This site has featured lovely posts by other History Girls about their first history teachers. Mine was my older sister Helen.(above: The Writing Lesson by Albert Anker, 1865)
We are the youngest two of four children in our family, and are separated in age by just under two years. Whilst we argued and squabbled (and even on occasion fought) as much as the next pair of siblings, I formed the firm and unshakeable conviction at an early age that my sister was, well, where it was at. Her friends, effortlessly, seemed cooler than mine. Her talents were obviously the most worthwhile ones to have. And whatever Helen was doing or was interested in was, by definition, The Right Thing.
I have a distinct memory of Helen asking me – at the tender age when one ponders such questions – whether I liked gold or silver best (I think it was around Christmas time and we were contemplating sparkly pens). Gold, was my reply. Helen then revealed that she preferred silver. I remember quietly trying, really trying, to hang on to my liking for gold, even as the manifestly superior qualities of silver began to make themselves plain as day – its elegance, its sophistication…
You get the picture. So when I say that Helen was interested in history from an early age you will instantly understand how I came to find history fascinating too. I later followed in her footsteps by taking a degree in history, and now – though we have done some other, very different things in the last couple of decades – it is perhaps no surprise to find we’re both writing history books, albeit of very different types, since she writes non-fiction for the adult market. (No direct competition – which is both a relief and just as it should be: we are, at bottom, very different personalities.)
Feeling as I do that if it weren’t for Helen I might very well not have learnt to love history as early and as fervently as I did, nor perhaps have become a writer of historical fiction at all (since she introduced me to the authors who were my histfic heroines), I very much wanted to ask Helen what it was that drew her to history as a child, and what role historical fiction has played and continues to play in her love of the subject. I have therefore conducted a sibling interview, which you can read below.
But first, here’s my proud sister bit:
After studying for both her BA (in which she was awarded a starred First) and her PhD at Cambridge University, Helen spent several years as an academic historian (latterly as Director of Studies at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, of which she is still a Fellow). Now, however, she concentrates on writing non-fiction history books for a broader audience. She has been described by Saul David in BBC History magazine as ‘that rarity: a professionally trained historian who can write.’
(photograph © Chris Gibbions)
Her latest book She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, has won great critical acclaim both here and in the US, being described by Hilary Mantel in The Guardian as 'Highly readable, exciting and thought-provoking,' and by Kathryn Hughes in the mail on Sunday as 'Combining top-notch scholarship with fizzing storytelling ... a fascinating account of a group of women who refused to do what they were told and, in the process, paved the way for England's great female rulers.'
Her previous book Blood & Roses is a biography of the fifteenth-century Paston family, whose remarkable letters are the earliest surviving collection of private correspondence in the English language. Blood & Roses was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2005, and was awarded the Beatrice White Prize by the English Association in 2006.
Helen is one of the presenters of the BBC Radio 4 series Making History. This year she made her debut as a presenter for BBC4 with a film entitled A Renaissance Education: The Schooling of Sir Thomas More’s Daughter. She has recently finished filming a set of three documentaries based on She-Wolves, which are due to be broadcast by BBC4 next year.
I must point out that, were Helen here with me as I’ve been writing all this, she would have been blushing and cringing in equal measure – she is one of the most unassuming and genuinely modest people I know! But now, without further ado, I will present the questions I sent her and her answers.
Do you remember how and when you first became interested in history?
Helen: I must have been about five, I think, when I read Jean Plaidy’s two books for children – The Young Elizabeth and The Young Mary, Queen of Scots. And I absolutely fell in love with history: the sixteenth century, to start with – there’s no one more charismatic than the Tudors – but then later I found my way back into the middle ages.
Why do you think history particularly grabbed you at that age?
What I always loved – and still do – is the combination of human experience with an alien-yet-recognisable world. That’s also why I love science fiction – but history’s even better, because it really happened… In those two Jean Plaidy books, I could immediately identify with Elizabeth and Mary, fascinatingly different characters though they were, but then the world in which they lived was so strange and glamorous and frightening and thrilling. I can still see every one of the illustrations in my mind’s eye…
Did you enjoy studying history at school or was history, for you, an outside-school interest?
I loved history at school. I would have loved it anyway, but I was lucky enough to have two wonderful history teachers who opened up the whole subject in the most exciting way. What history as an academic discipline has to offer is the forensic exploration of complex evidence – but because it’s complex evidence with human beings at its heart, that forensic exploration has to be infused with psychological understanding and intuition about individual behaviour and group dynamics.
And, because conclusions have to be expressed in written form, studying history is also a training in how to write clearly, coherently and precisely. Language is at the heart of the subject – which is why I think the process of studying languages is crucial for historians. Translating from one language to another is the best possible way of understanding a text from the inside – what’s unsaid as well as what’s said, and where the disjunctions come between different cultures. You couldn’t get a better training for reading a historical text than that.
Would you say that historical fiction played a role in fostering your enthusiasm for history as a child and teenager? (And if so did it do anything in particular in that regard?)
Without a doubt. Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time conveys an overwhelming sense of the excitement of the detective-work (literally, in her hero’s case) involved in historical research. And, given that a lot of academic writing is more concerned with analysing the past from a distance than reinhabiting it from the inside (if that makes sense), it was Dorothy Dunnett’s fiction that provided me with experience, rather than simply intellectual understanding, of the complexity, sophistication and unpredictability of the medieval and Tudor world.
Do you still read historical fiction now?
Yes, though selectively rather than omnivorously. I regularly re-read Dorothy Dunnett. Your book is wonderful! And Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety are extraordinary and utterly inspiring. I know I’m not alone in counting the days till Bring Up The Bodies is published.
Historical fiction has something of a bad name among some academic historians. David Starkey famously never reads it, Niall Ferguson has argued that it “contaminates historical understanding” and Anthony Beevor has expressed deep concern about novelists using real historical characters in their writing. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m a great admirer of some of David Starkey’s books, but I hardly think it’s a good idea to take everything he or Niall Ferguson says seriously…
Clearly, a lot of professional historians feel uneasy about (or actively hostile to) historical novels. I don’t, though. I think the presence of historical fiction can help keep academic historians honest – because, for all the care and rigour with which we need to treat our sources, we still do have to join the dots, to produce an interpretation of the past (and especially of human behaviour in the past) that we find convincing. The past is gone, and in attempting to summon it up in our own words historians are engaged in a process of creative writing – creative writing according to different rules from writers of historical fiction, of course, but creative writing all the same. And I think that the explicitness of the process of creation in historical fiction can be a useful point of comparison and contrast with what we’re doing; and also a reminder that it won’t do to treat our own protagonists as pieces on a chessboard rather than three-dimensional human beings living in a three-dimensional world.
Maybe that reminder is more necessary to someone like me, writing pre-modern history where it’s much harder to find the evidence on which to base three-dimensional characterisation. But I was very struck by reading responses to Wolf Hall that said, for example, that Hilary Mantel had got Thomas More ‘wrong’. That wasn’t at all how I’d seen it; I tend to think that human beings are extremely good at living in contradiction, which is why one person can summon up such contrasting responses in others. It seems to me that a reminder that the evidence for Thomas More’s life can be read in a multiplicity of ways from a multiplicity of perspectives can only be historically helpful.
Much more problematic, in fact, for me, are books which purport to be history, written for a general readership (and therefore not subject to the kind of academic reviews which would pick up on what I’m about to say), which contain glaring historical errors and pages full of footnotes (to give that sense of ‘referenciness’) that on closer scrutiny are meaningless because they’re so non-specific that they can’t be followed up. I’m all in favour of writing for a general readership; and I’m entirely conscious that we all make mistakes; and I don’t think you have to have footnotes at all, so long as you offer a gateway to the sources you’ve used through some kind of bibliographical discussion (as many popular history books and academic textbooks do) – but, whatever gateway you offer, if you’re writing history it does need to be possible to interrogate your evidence one way or another, rather than being led up a blind alley…
Do you think that the work of your favourite historical novelist/s has in any way shaped or influenced your own approach to writing?
Yes, I do. The history I write now is narrative history – storytelling – because that, for me, is the way to put human experience at the centre of my work. I try as hard as I can to see the worlds I write about through the eyes of my protagonists, without hindsight in so far as that’s humanly possible. (One of my self-imposed rules is never to use the phrase ‘little did he know that…’) I weigh up my sources as best I can and then tell the story as it makes sense to me, rather than laying out the details of historiographical debate, because – valuable though that is in other contexts – it immediately jolts me out of the historical moment and into the distant present. And I try to give a physical and psychological sense of the world in which my protagonists lived.
The best historical fiction, of course, is based on rigorous historical research; and the works of history I love most allow me to explore the worlds of the past from the inside – Thomas Penn’s Winter King being a wonderful recent example. There’s an utterly distinct but relatively narrow dividing line between the two.
What are you working on now?
I’m working at getting back to writing after the exhilarating and fascinating but very different experience of making some documentaries based on She-Wolves. And I’m afraid I’d rather not say out loud what I’m trying to write about – it’s still at too early a stage of gestation…
Completely understood! And many thanks.
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, and Blood and Roses are both published in the UK by Faber, & in the US by HarperCollins.
Helen Castor's website is here.
H.M. (Harriet) Castor's website is here.