Monday, 16 January 2012

Lady Susan (I wish!): by Sue (the peasant) Purkiss




In days of yore, when knights of old rode out into primeval swamps and did battle against Tyrannosaurus Rex – well, okay, when I was young – I used to read a lot of historical fiction. There was an excellent library in our town:  given by Andrew Carnegie, it was, and still is, the most impressive building in Ilkeston’s market square. I borrowed as many books each week as I was allowed to, and then went to work there as a Saturday girl, which meant that I could borrow as many as I liked.

I read a lot of everything, non-fiction as well as fiction, but historical fiction was an enduring favourite – Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece (Have I got those the right way round?), Mary Renault, somebody who wrote bodice rippers about a girl called Angelique (Sergeanne Golon? Can that be right? What an excellent name…), Jean Plaidy – anything I could get my hands on. (Except Georgette Heyer. For some reason I didn’t take to her, though I know she has many fans among the History Girls.) Gail Rebuck has recently written an article about some research into how reading fiction develops empathy. It’s always good when research confirms what you knew already. I certainly used to enter fully into the worlds of the books I read, and feel that I was indeed the young Queen Elizabeth, the tragic Mary Queen of Scots, the gorgeous Angelique (though that really was a bit of a stretch).

But one day, it struck me that, living as I did on a council estate in an ex-mining town in the East Midlands, actually my ancestral self would probably not have been a princess or a Lady Susan at all – she would have been a skivvy or a peasant, living in a hovel rather than a castle. I’d read a book about the development of houses – I knew just how dreadful those picturesque thatched cottages really would have been. I wouldn’t have learned how to read, I wouldn’t have had gorgeous dresses and jewels, I wouldn’t have gone to court – I’d have been lucky to have a piece of ribbon and a hunk of dry cheese to call my own. I was outraged. How unfair was that?

So does historical fiction always take for its subjects the great and the (possibly) good? No, of course it doesn’t. There are lots of examples of books which take for their subject ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Back in the day, one of my favourite novels was Mist Over Pendle, by Robert Neill. This was one of the very few books which I borrowed over and over again. It told the true story of the Witches of Pendle, three witches with the fantastic names of Demdike, Chattox and Squinting Lizzie, who were accused and tried in Lancashire in the sixteenth century. But it told the story from the point of view of Margery, the young cousin of the local magistrate whose job it was to deal with the witches. What do I remember about it? I remember the atmosphere of brooding menace, like Pendle Hill which loomed over the countryside. But most of all I remember a description of a new dress Margery had. It was made in glorious colours, scarlet and russet and gold, and there were all these wonderful words I’d never come across before, like ‘sarsnet’ and ‘kirtle’. I could see the brightness of the colours, feel the luxuriant texture of the fabrics, experience the pleasure as Margery and I put it on for the first time. All by itself, that description was enough to take me into that place, that time, that story. (Incidentally, I looked Mist Over Pendle up, for the purpose of this post, and discovered that after being out of print for many years it was reprinted last year. So I’ve sent off for a copy – which is risky, I know: I hope it will live up to my memory of it.)

More recently, there have been masses of books about ordinary people: for example, Ann Turnbull’s Civil War story,  Alice In Love And War. This tells the story of a girl who follows the army in search of adventure.  Alice plunges you into visceral reality – you come to know the detail of how it would feel to be on the road in the seventeenth century. I particularly remember a description of camp followers making a meal over a fire. It’s vivid and convincing; you can practically feel the dirt crusted beneath your finger nails, feel the exhaustion and discomfort, smell the soup cooking in the pot. Alice’s story is every bit as compelling as that of the young Elizabeth Tudor.

And yet, and yet – the stories of Elizabeth and the other Tudors clearly exert a huge fascination over both writers and readers. They are the subjects of so many books, by Jean Plaidy, Dorothy Dunnet, Philippa Gregory and our own Harriet Castor to name but a few. Is it more rewarding to write about real – and ruling – figures from history? And if so, why?

I must admit I used to read historical fiction partly as a way of learning about history. At my school, history was deathly dull. It seemed to consist largely of lists of  the inventions and advantages of the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions. So there’s one reason to read, and therefore to write about real figures – to bring history alive.

Another is that you already have the bones of a story there: all you have to do is add the flesh and the lovely clothing. Against that, there is a panoply of experts who are ready to pounce on any inaccuracy, any tinkering with historical fact. (You can avoid this if you go back early enough. That’s one of the good things about writing about the Dark Ages, as I found when I wrote about Alfred the Great – there aren’t too many incontrovertible facts, so there’s plenty of room for poetic license.)

Perhaps too there is something about historical figures and verisimilitude. One of the things novels have to do is convince you, while you’re reading, that the imagined world is a perfectly coherent and possible one. Perhaps the inclusion of historical figures provides a shortcut to this conviction – ie Henry VIII was real, he’s in this book, so the world of this book is real…? I certainly think it’s quite a canny move to have the occasional historical figure dropping in, even if the rest of the book is about ordinary people. When I read Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace, I was thrilled when Charles Dickens had a walk-on part. It was almost like spotting a celebrity in the street. And it acted like an anchor: an assurance that this world and all the things that were happening in it were perfectly possible.

I like both kinds of HF. I like books about the movers and shakers of past times because they explore the complexity behind the time line, the extent to which the quirks of individual personalities influence great events. But I also like books about ‘ordinary’ people, the flotsam and jetsam on the sea of history. After all, that’s what most of us would have been. (Although maybe, just maybe, if I went far enough back I might have been an aristocratic Lady Susan? No? Oh well, all right then. I’ll just go off and scrub the steps. I know my place…)

18 comments:

afrogatlarge said...

You might be interested to know that the author of the Angelique series (all of 19 books!) is not actually one Sergeanne Golon but is a collaboration between husband and wife Serge and Anne. Serge is an old-fashioned French name.
I borrowed my grand-mother's books and devoured them. They were very popular in France (we just love the whole Louis XIV period), so much so that 5 films were made out of the first few books in the 60s. Think Brigitte Bardot-type woman as Angelique: it was melodramatic, fluffy and hilarious. I would recommend them for the sets and the fashion alone but I don't think they're available in English.

Sue Purkiss said...

I am interested! When I looked up the image for this piece, there was a picture of an elderly lady apparently called Serge Golon (?) and I thought, hm, must look into this! i particularly remember one with a sheikh in the desert...

Caroline Lawrence said...

I'd totally be the peasant girl with sturdy legs tramping grapes or an uncouth saloon girl wiping her nose on her arm if I'd lived back then...

But I might have outlived the Angelique types! ;-)

Marie-Louise Jensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marie-Louise Jensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adele said...

Loved this post. And good to see Ann Turnbull's wonderful historical novels highlighted. Whenever anyone asks "When in history would you like to have lived?" I think people tend to answer as though they'd be in the posh bit of society. Whereas we'd all be in the less posh, and suffering accordingly. Hurray for antibiotics and the 20th and 21st centuries and living in them and merely IMAGINING the past!

Leslie Wilson said...

Well said, Sue!
My German great-grandfather was a postman and a mason, also a smallholder and breeder of St Bernards. The other great-grandfather managed a steelworks or a coal-mine - my mother has died, so we can't ask her which. In England, I'm descended from agricultural labourers, a coastguard, tenant farmers, a railway signalman..and I'm proud of it. They were people who put their work into the country - anonymous they may have been, but their work was crucial.of course, there could have been some infiltration of noble blood from romps in the hay - but I don't long for that to have been the case. Apparently most English people are descended from Edward the 3rd, because he had so many sons and they all had bastard kids. Being only half English, and apparently descended from Huguenots - another thing I'm proud of - my chances of this are greatly reduced..

I never knew Sergeanne was two people, and used to wonder about the name too, Sue. The books were on the library shelves when I was a teenager, but I never read them. I think I was put off by the Bardot-ish hair. It made me sure, somehow, that the history would be dodgy. I read loads of Jean Plaidy, though. So did Hilary Mantel, apparently, and we have both ended up with the literary agency that used to handle JP's books, so any subsequent distaste can be mitigated by the fact that she has helped to fund our careers...

No, no distaste, really. Jean P made me want to read more about all kinds of people, and if she was inaccurate, reading history books corrected that.

However, the Angelique books are available from Abebooks, second-hand at least, if anyone wants to order one and they're quite cheap.

A very enjoyable blog. Thanks!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Adele and Leslie. There was lots more I wanted to explore, such as whether stories about movers and shakers are INTRINSICALLY more interesting than stories about 'ordinary'people - I'd like to think they don't have to be - but I was at risk of rambling, so thought I'd better stop!

Marie-Louise - where did your posts go??

mary said...

Sue - thanks so much for this. We have a lot in common: I, too, LOVED Angelique and thought the novels the height of literary sophistication. I never liked Georgette Heyer either (the word "mincing" always comes to mind). I always write from the p of v of the poor servant, usually an orphan, but my editor says I must "move upstairs" for the next book. Thanks for a great blog.

mary hooper said...

The above post is from me, Mary Hooper xxx

mary hooper said...

The above post is from me, Mary Hooper xxx

michelle lovric said...

Very interesting point! It does seem as well that if we historical writers reanimate the historical lower classes then we go for the DEEP steaming manure, the UNBELIEVABALE filth, the eviscerating hunger pangs, the rags for clothes, the nights without shelter etc - ie when we do poor, we do extremely poor. The middling range of comfort and wealth just isn't as exciting, is it?

Sue Purkiss said...

True. Drama is all!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Lovely post, Sue. My book Road to London (out in April) features Will Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men and lots of stuff about Queen Elizabeth plus a runaway (poor) boy. But for my next book, my editor said that the sales people didn't like real people in books. Now I'm really puzzled!

Jane Stemp said...

Michelle, your comment reminds me of Silas Weekley as described by Josephine Tey in /Daughter of Time/ - "The situation, to judge
from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas's last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid-out after his ninth Downstairs, eldest son lying to the Government in the cow-shed,
eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay-loft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silas never omitted the manure. It was not Silas's fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element in the picture. If
Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steamed downwards, Silas would have introduced it."

I live with the sure and certain knowledge that I wouldn't have got past birth if I'd been born any time earlier than I was (1961) so I'm able to pick anyone to "be"...

Sue Purkiss said...

The sales people don't like real people in books? So they'd have turned down Wolf Hall, for instance? Hm...

Great quote, Jane!

And Mary's got to 'move upstairs'! Julian Fellows reckons that Downton Abbey is so successful partly because the upstairs and downstairs stories are given equal dramatic weight. Perhaps that's the thing: a bit of each!

Nicky said...

Just read ' Mist over Pendle' for my new project - I f I read it as a child I've forgotten. It surprised me. Great post.

Sue Purkiss said...

Have just started it. So far, it doesn't disappoint!