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
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
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
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,
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. Alice
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…)