This is my first post, and I’m very excited to be part of The History Girls line up. You won’t know me yet, but wait, don’t go! I’m currently ‘book pregnant’ to two publishers. As a historian for adults, I’ve written Georgian London, which will be out with Viking soon. Then, next summer, Chicken House will be publishing my first novel for Young Adults, which is based in the City of London and full of folklore.
So, I thought I would begin at the beginning, where my love for historical fiction was born. Like thousands of others, it started with Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber. Published in 1944, it sold over three million copies and was also banned in Boston as ‘obscene’. Winsor’s Amber, a headstrong girl from the country who follows the inappropriately-named aristocrat Bruce Carlton to Charles II’s Restoration London, is a wonderful heroine. She is also infuriating, obtuse, and not always entirely convincing but Winsor’s research into the period was meticulous. As Amber bounces from one disaster to another and indeed, one lover to another, she carries the reader through one of the most interesting and vibrant eras in London’s history. From streetlife to domestic scenes, the city comes alive. The book is also soaked in romance and elaborate descriptions of everything Amber wears. Love and sex are central, and as the Boston book-banners noted there are seventy references to ‘intercourse’ and numerous ‘objectionable passages’. But no matter how many lovers she takes, her heart remains with Carlton. He, meanwhile, is intent on keeping his social status and improving his fortune, and so has no intentions of fulfilling Amber’s dreams of marriage, even after she risks her own life to nurse him through the plague.
‘The plague bit’ of Forever Amber was the moment I realised historical fiction, and history itself, was for me. For some, it’s the romance, Amber’s devotion to her charismatic idol. For others, the rich fashions. For the fifteen year old me, it was the sweating, the vomiting and bloody buboes, the squalor. As Amber and Bruce fight for survival, around them London falls silent except for the tolling of the bells and the rumble of the dead-cart. I was hooked.
Twenty-something years later, here I am, a historian who writes about ordinary people with a borderline unhealthy interest in the underbelly of long ago London. Is Forever Amber great historical fiction? In parts. Is Amber a successful heroine? Essentially, no. Did Kathleen Winsor influence my life? Definitely. It wasn’t the fashions or the sex or the (clearly) doomed pursuit of an unattainable man, but a vivid portrait of a terrifying moment in history. I’ve read hundreds of historical novels since and many very good ones, but Forever Amber has a place in my heart. And every time I open a new historical novel, I hope that somewhere inside will be the next plague bit.