Sunday 31 July 2011

Competition giveaway!

Please look at the Competitions page for July's giveaway of David and Wolf Blood.

Leave your answers as comments on this post and we'll get back to you at the end of the first week in August.

Wolf Blood by N.M.Browne

David by Mary Hoffman

Saturday 30 July 2011

History's sole object is to ruin my sequel by Louisa Young

History is doing my head in.

I'm writing a sequel to my novel My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. That was set between 1908 and 1919; it started in 1917, went back, came forward again and overtook itself. It worked all right.

Why? Because History had given me a beautiful present, which brought with it period, setting, tone, character, plot and theme: a First World War field postcard, preprinted, for a wounded soldier to fill in as applicable. 'My Dear . . . , I want to tell you before any telegram arrives . . that I was admitted to . . . with a slight/serious wound in my . . . '. All I had to do was pick a battle, put my soldier in it, and then fill in the blanks, the untold story on that card. He lied, of course. You would. The story came beautifully, quickly, and easily: love and fear and lying to protect those we love, our great inability to communicate. The hideous, miraculous, disgusting origins of maxillofacial surgery. A slight wound in the stiff upper lip. It wrote itself, as they say. Time, in all senses, was on my side.

That field postcard was displayed at the Wellcome Foundation in London, opposite a photograph of a soldier whose facial wounds had been put back together by the pioneering facial surgeon Major Harold Gillies. (This is the moment when people say: 'Oh! Yes - the Guinea Pigs!' and I say: 'No, that was Archie McIndoe. This was twenty five years earlier. Though Gillies was his uncle.') My grandmother Kathleen Scott worked with Gillies, in 1917. She was a sculptor, and widow of Scott of the Antarctic; she cast in plaster the faces of the wounded, for the surgeons to measure and practice on. My first book, twenty years ago, was her biography. Researching it, I read about those wounded men in her diary, and uncovered photographs and drawings of them, and I thought: I'll come back for you. If you're feeling strong, take a look at the images at Number 17 of Tonks' pastels is Corporal Riley. I stole his name, his face, his wound, and an anecdote from his nurse's memoirs, and sent him to Passchendaele. My story had found all its legs, and stood strong.

The sequel starts out handicapped by the strength those legs. It's like being son of a famous father. So far I've attempted to start it in 1939, 1938, 1920, 1940, 1943, 1919, 1870, 1900 and (briefly, foolishly) 1964. But no matter where I try to start it, whichever year I go to, my former friend, history, turns up to confuse the issue, swishing in like Leonard Cohen's Waltz, with its very own breath of brandy and death, dragging its tail in the sea. History, lugging the entirety of human experience in the tails of its vast and capacious cape*, declares, between bouts of coughing, 'That won't work, you know'; or, 'That was five years before - why would he suddenly mind about it now?'; or 'You're completely ignoring the Spanish Civil War. Just thought I'd mention it.' History know just what I put in volume one, and that it is written in stone.

My starting point for this sequel was the realisation that there were only twenty years between the end of the first world war and the start of the second. Twenty years - a blink of an eye! But when you've zoomed in and placed yourself and your people in there, twenty years is a very very long time. I long to leap about, five years forward here, eight years back there, willy nilly as I please, making it up. But I can't.

Firstly, I don't want to confuse the reader. I already have nine protagonists. If they're all leaping about in time it'll be a bloody flea circus. I need to cull them, not send them flying in a great chronological leapfrog. (My sentences are also too long, and something of a flea circus themselves, if I don't keep them in line. You may have noticed.)

Secondly, I studied history at university, and I never got over it. I have a terrible attachments to facts. I accept that I have to get the bus routes and the underwear right, but I'm not putting all the bus routes and underwear in. If I'm writing about 1937, well, I'm sorry, history, but Italian Unification will not be getting its own chapter.

Thirdly, and this is the killer, my characters are already snagged in history and in their own pasts. This of course is what I want to write about. But at the same time I feel as if I'm trying to fly with something dragging on my own tail.

History, please, be my friend again. Send me the catalyst, the item, the image, which will make it all hang together. Shake something out for me, from your dusty velvet folds. I'm writing now. Please don't me wait another twenty years.

PS: *Hmm. Cape/Capacious. Connection? A cape as something you keep things in? Ohhh! Keep! Is that related too? As in, what is the capacity of your capacious cape; what are you capable of keeping therein? To Skeat's Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language: capacity, capable, capacious are all from the Latin capere, to hold or contain; cape, cope and cap are from old French. Hmm. Keep is not connected; it has a K and is therefore Viking. Cope the verb means to vie with, or to fight with - from the French couper, to cut. (See coupon. Aha! Something you cut out of the paper.) But is that what coping with something is? Vying with it? Fencing? Well no wonder we're all so tired. I went to the doctor and said, 'I'm feeling a bit you know,' and she said, 'Are you not coping?'. I replied, 'Doctor, it's worse than that - I am coping.'

Friday 29 July 2011

History in Fantasy by Juliet McKenna

Today we have a guest post from a successfully published writer of Fantasy. History was one of her favourite subjects at school and she read Classics at St. Hilda's, Oxford. It was there that she joined the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, which led for her as for so many others into writing her own fiction. While working as a Bookseller at the now defunct Ottakar's Juliet found recognition, through their rep, with the publisher Orbit and they offered her a two-book deal, bringing out her début, The Thief's Gamble in 1999.

“But don’t you just make it all up?” That’s a frequent comment when I mention my research for the book I’m working on. I’m an epic fantasy novelist, writing swords’n’sorcery and wizards’n’dragons. It’s not as if I’m writing a historical novel.

Let me explain. First, there’s the world building. If a fantasy writer just sketches the background, drawing on Tolkien and other genre writers, all they’ll have is a flat backdrop, as convincing as painted scenery in a school play. Do some research and the fantasy writer can create a fully realised world for the reader, a far more immersive experience than anything offered by film, TV or even the best live theatre.

These days, there’s a wealth of social and thematic history published exploring the everyday lives of real people; what they ate, what they wore, what they did for fun and entertainment.
The reader can experience the true discomforts and delays of travel by horse or carriage. They will realise how different life was when privacy was the exception and shared living, even shared beds were the norm. They see the practical implications, when the fastest means of communication is a man on a horse. Well, apart from a carrier pigeon, but don’t forget, those only go one way. And horses or pigeons, they need feeding and care, not just plugging in to recharge.

This research isn’t solitary toiling in a library. Visit galleries and stately homes to look at paintings and furniture and the fantasy writer can decorate their imagined world. Clothes and jewellery will be far more than some generic ‘gown’. Living history displays and battle re-enactors prompt vivid and realistic descriptions of sword fights. TV series like “Tales from the Green Valley” and “The Victorian Farm” give still more breadth and depth to the writer’s imagined world.

As long as the writer remembers that fantasy fans with an interest in history will most likely have watched the same programmes. Lifting material wholesale is a bad idea. Such an informed reader will also spot vague hand-waving to cover up a lack of knowledge. All the more reason to do the research.

If a fantasy world rests on shaky foundations, the reader soon realises they can’t really trust the writer. Then why should they keep on reading? Whereas, when an imagined world is fully detailed and fully convincing, that bond of trust is strong enough for the reader to follow the writer into the truly fantastic; to believe in the magic and dragons.

As long as their place in this world is thought through with the same care and attention.  Which is why I’ve read countless books on medieval universities, on the history of science when alchemy and astrology ruled, to create the city of Hadrumal where my wizards live and study. Which is why I’ve read medieval bestiaries and myths from around the world, to find out what people really believed about dragons, in those past centuries when they really believed in monsters. Don’t worry though. You won’t see more than a tenth of this in my books and you won’t notice it when you do. The most important thing about using history in fantasy is to use it with a light touch.

Historical research gives writers far more than a convincing world. Any story is about people as much as it’s about place. They influence each other. We’re all products of our time and upbringing, our paths through life influenced by our social status and the opportunities that result or which are closed to us. In turn our individual temperaments and our actions influence the world around us. This has been true for as long as mankind has existed.

Once again, we have superb resources these days. History is no longer about extolling the great deeds of great men. The lives and livelihoods of ordinary folk, the middle classes, even the criminal classes have been uncovered. In particular, the history of women has been brought into the light.

This is important for an epic fantasy writer moving on from the Tolkien template, where the affairs of kings and wizards dominate and the few visible women are defined by their relationships with the men who drive the plot. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t think Tolkien was a woman hater. But he was a writer of the Great War generation and of his social class and we live in very different times. These days a modern reader is really going to struggle to empathise or engage with any character whose attitudes to gender, race and religion are historically authentic.

Thankfully these days a fantasy writer can read about astonishing women who defied the pressures and expectations of their times. Like Lady Jane Digby who left her husband for an Austrian prince in the 1820s and after two more husbands and numerous lovers, married an Arab sheik twenty years her junior. Once we understand what sort of woman would be so daring, and yes, the price which she would pay, then we can create convincing women to play an equal part in our epics alongside the men.

Crucially we can do that without jarring the reader out of our imagined world, without threatening that bond of trust, with implausible attitudes and reactions. Because it would be the most idiotic fantasy to write about a feisty servant girl who wakes up one morning and discards a lifetime’s upbringing to decide she really must invent feminism.

Speaking of servant girls, we now see that remarkable women don’t have to be noble. Indeed, lower class women often had far more freedom than privileged daughters whose marriages transferred their father’s wealth to some husband. These days we know that women sailed with Nelson’s navy and worked in the dockyards building his ships. We know how women contributed to the rise of science in the Enlightenment, even if their brothers and husbands got all the credit. True, these were exceptional women but stories are generally about exceptional people. Now there’s no excuse to only to write about exceptional men.

Not that everyone has to be exceptional. There will be the ordinary people, the ‘extras’. These people still need to be convincing, however limited their lives and opportunities. Hopefully those characters will also give readers pause for thought, if they think that the freedoms which men and women alike have won in the last century or so no longer need defending.

So historical research gives us convincing worlds and believable people. It also gives us ideas for plots. Not in the obvious way. Readers will soon spot someone rewriting the American Revolution and hoping that no one will notice if they change the hats and the hemlines.

It can happen with little things. When I realised the implications of carrier pigeons only going one way, I couldn’t use magic to solve that problem in that particular book. Then I saw this was an opportunity to invent people who carried pigeons from place to place. Those bird-brokers added a whole new dimension to the unfolding plot of The Aldabreshin Compass.

It can happen on a much bigger scale. In “The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution”, I wanted to write a story about a divided society, where hatred and grudges persist through generation. About the people involved making their own situation worse without even realising. About the people looking on from outside with no good reason to intervene or even be benefitting from those quarrels.

So I read up on the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, a thousand years of Irish history, a century of division over Israel and Palestine and these past few decades of upheaval in the Balkans. I would never have dared write a novel about any of those times or places though. Just getting the detail right would be nigh on impossible. Inconvenient facts would wreck the drama I was trying to shape. Whatever side I was on, or if I refused to take a side, people would read whatever I said in the light of their own pre-conceptions.

But writing about the Lescari Civil Wars meant I could tell exactly the story I wanted to, with men and women from different classes and rival dukedoms coming together to fight against the intractable suffering their families endured. All that research made the story, the people, the places, the twists and surprises, all the more convincing. Here the use of history in writing fantasy goes beyond offering mere entertainment. The more convincing such a story is, the greater the chances that the readers will think a little more deeply about the next news report on some real-world strife. 

Now I’m writing a new trilogy. Those wizards in their scholarly city are facing the greatest challenge of their generation. It’s always been agreed that magic has no place in warfare. How long can that principle hold when corsairs are raiding the Caladhrian coast, stealing and burning? If the Archmage’s Edict is defied, what then?

Here I’m drawing on the decade and more of research which I’ve done since writing my first book. Because history is full of tipping points prompted by the use or abuse of power, whether that’s political or technological or both. Whether it’s wielded by those in authority or by some uprising to challenge the establishment. So that’s why this new series really had to be called ‘The Hadrumal Crisis’.


Thursday 28 July 2011

My History Teacher by Adèle Geras

When I first started Tweeting as a History Girl, I needed a name in a hurry. I became a little confused, and thought somehow that the username had to be as cryptic as the password. I came up with DWUSKID and since that day, I've had many people wondering (a)why I didn't simply go by my real name and (b) why the mysterious DWUSKID?

Once this post has gone up, I'm going to try and change my profile on Twitter and become @adelegeras. But DWUSKID comes from DWU and DWU was my History Teacher for all the years that I was in the Senior School at Roedean. Dorothy Butcher was her real name but she was universally known as DWU, which I'm afraid was short for Death Warmed Up. She must have known this, I'm sure, but she never referred to it.

She was so called because she was extremely pale and skinny and always seemed old to us. In all the years I knew her, she never changed and indeed it was very hard to imagine her being young. She wore pale sage-coloured or grey or pale blue suits and pastel blouses in yellowish beige and cream and her hair, which I imagine must once upon a time have been a magnificent shade of red...that golden red verging on strawberry blonde...was now the colour of very pale straw. It was also wispy and there wasn't much of it. What there was she gathered into a kind of loose bun at the nape of her neck. She had big teeth and a slightly receding chin. She spoke quietly. She was the opposite of imposing - almost ghostlike in the way she drifted about the place and perhaps her nickname had something to do with her spectral aspect.

But the wafty langour hid a very sharp and clear intelligence and a real love of History. I know she was a good teacher because she made so many of us love her classes. I can't remember exactly how she taught, after all these years, which is odd. I can still do an imitation of my French teacher, and I could also reconstruct an English lesson taught by either Miss Sturgis or Miss Godfray, but DWU's shostly qualities seem to have spread over her classes and all I can remember is: I loved them and I was very fond of her.

One of the reasons I liked her so much was (and this is very common, I'm sure as a reason for pupils liking teachers) she liked me. She also liked what I wrote for her. There's nothing so encouraging for a pupil as a teacher's admiration and praise. I still recall a remark she once scribbled at the top of one of my exam papers. I was answering a question on Louis XIV's foreign policy (this must have been just before O levels, I imagine...maybe even Mock O levels). I obviously hadn't worked very hard on foreign policy, but by heck I knew tons about Versailles and the Sun King and so forth. I got a very good mark for the question. DWU wrote: You gain this mark for your understanding and love of the period. A few more facts about the foreign policy would not have come amiss.

I dropped History after O level and am still not good about 'the facts,' though I do still love the period atmosphere, the clothes, the art, the music: the feel of different times in the past. It was DWU who made me realize that there was more to history than treaties, Corn Laws, battles etc. There were people. There were, above all, STORIES.

I've tried to canvass Old Roedeanians about DWU. Messages asking for anecdotes have gone up on Old Roedeanian Facebook pages but with no result. I don't know why that is. Maybe because DWU left Roedean in the early 70s and most Facebookers won't have known her.

She died in 1990. She lives on in my memory. I am grateful to her for showing me how fascinating History is and I don't regret calling myself DWUSKID. But to make life easier, I'm now going to try and change my name on Twitter. Dorothy Butcher,rather belatedly, thank you for all you did for me.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

A HEADY MIX – Perfume and Poetry by Dianne Hofmeyr

I’m not a historian but the minutiae of lives gone by fascinate me. What perfume someone applied before they went to bed. The list of ingredients in a recipe. The dowry list of young girl being sent as a gift to a king. Tiny details – clues that help unlock the character and the story.

I want to know what Kiya (presumed mother of Tutankhamen) took with her when her father sent her with a thousand horsemen and three hundred serving girls from his kingdom of Mitanni at the age of eleven to join the Royal harem of the aging Amenhotep III, in exchange for gold. What father would put his young daughter through this arduous journey from the very upper reaches of the Khabur River, all the way down to Tyre and across the Mediterranean and up the Nile to Thebes and why? According to clay tablets found in Amarna, Egyptian gold is the answer. Horses, copper, lapis lazuli and the sisters and daughters of the kings of Mitanni were all exchanged for Egyptian gold. And since lapis lazuli wasn’t mined in Egypt and if the abundance of it in Egyptian jewelry is anything to go by, one can only imagine how much lapis lazuli accompanied this girl. It was a political exchange of convenience.

When I see the deep indent on the forehead of the mummy of Queen Tiy and look at the size of the gold Vulture Crown, I slip into the head of Nefertiti and understand why she eschewed this crown. Does research tell me? No – but I imagine a girl of fourteen, newly appointed to the throne of Egypt, not wanting to follow in the footsteps of her mother-in-law and wanting something modern and startling – a green leather crown to accentuate the colour of her eyes and match the grey-green galena or ground turquoise paste on her eyelids, tall with upswept lines and worn wigless to show off her long neck, with gold cobras twining down the side of her face to show off her sculpted cheekbones.
And what lists were up on the walls of her Royal Unguent rooms? In Daunts Bookshop I found answers in a fascinating book called Sacred Luxuries. Most temples in ancient Egypt would have had their own ‘magic’ book of unguent recipes and the practice of anointing a deity was as common as the practice of anointing someone you loved. In 1300 BC in Egypt oils of acacia, basil, celery, camomile, cinnamon, cumin, dill, fenugreek, fir, henna, iris, juniper, lily, lotus, mandrake, marjoram, myrtle, rose, rue, and sage were all being used to make perfume. And because roots, barks, grasses, spices and resins held their fragrance, they travelled easily from Syria, Phoenicia, India and the land of Punt (debatable whether this was present day northern Somalia or the Arabic peninsula).

In 1300 BC perfume bottles and cosmetic spoons drew on an imagery of sensuousness. Delicately carved cosmetic spoons depicted girls swimming naked holding on to ducks. The symbolic use of ducks and vervet monkeys in perfume bottles was synonymous with an erotic iconography. The best material for storing perfume was a creamy white calcite known as alabaster and a special blue marble, as in the perfume flask of the two ducks, became sought after. The famous Greek herbalist, Dioscorides in his book, De Materia Medica written in the 1st century (the Persian translation is in the Topkapi Palace Library in Istanbul) tells of an ancient Egyptian recipe for Lily Oil:
1000 lilies x 2
4, 226 kg balanos oil (an ancient tree found in the Nile valley)
2354 kg sweet flag ( a type of grass)
140 g myrrh wine
1,530 kg cardamom
270 g best myrrh x 3
37g crocus x 3
281g cinnamon x 3

A total of 2000 lilies! Not your average household recipe I imagine, although
Queen Tiy was particularly fond of lilies and had her rooms at the palace arranged with hundreds and hundreds of lilies each day. But it was the scent of the lotus flower, namely the blue lotus that became the pervading scent of Egypt. The perfume of the open flower is like that of hyacinth. To adorn oneself with a lotus was to declare one’s intentions in love.

I found records of love poems like this one, written by a girl going down to the river to bathe in a diaphanous dress…
Oh my divine, my lotus flower
I love to go and bathe before you
I allow you to come and see my beauty
In a dress of the finest linen
Drenched with fragrant unguent
I go down to the water to be with you
And come up to you again with a red fish,
Looking splendid on my fingers.
I place it before…
Come! Look at me!

Whether ‘lotus flower’ was a pet name for her beloved, or whether it refers to Nefertem, the most handsome of all gods – the god of the Blue Lotus, I’m not sure but there’s no doubt about the girl’s intentions.

On reading the poem I was struck by the fact that the rhythms and what was portrayed was not unlike Solomon’s Song of Songs, which are filled with an evocation of sensuous awareness. So I went back to read Song of Songs again. Some researchers see the poems as Solomon writing allegorically of God’s relationship with Israel but in more recent times study has suggested it is more a tract of biblical wisdom – that gifts of God, like love, are to be received with gratitude and celebration. Song of Songs comes from about 1000 BC. My story setting in Eye of the Moon and Eye of the Sun is 1300 BC. Apparently interpreters have looked to ancient Babylonian and Egyptian love songs, to traditional Semitic wedding songs and songs related to Mesopotamian fertility cults and made comparisons… so I wasn’t far off.

Both the Egyptian poem I found and Song of Songs are poetic celebrations of a young girl’s spontaneous love with a strong connection to the sensuous in nature and include the use of perfume. In the Egyptian poem she draws the man to her with water against her body and the symbol of the red fish and a mention of being drenched with a fragrant unguent. In Song of Songs, the woman’s voice similarly draws the man with a subtlety and mystery to her allurements. She compares herself to a garden with choice fruits for the lover to feast. And says…
My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh
Resting between my breasts
My lover is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
From the vineyards of En Gedi

The problem with writing about history and particularly ancient Egyptian history is that there is almost too much to go on – far too many facts – but small details can infuse writing with piquancy. Add the use of nail colour, lip tints, eye pastes, body decoration, tattoos and strange dowry lists to that of poetry and perfume and one ends with a heady distillation. for a review of FArTHER - winner of 2011 Kate Greenaway Award

Tuesday 26 July 2011

THE PRESENT TENSE by Eleanor Updale


The other week, Sarah Dunant was on Radio 4's Open Book programme talking about why she writes her historical fiction in the present tense. She spoke of being attacked by a reader who accused her of not realising that history 'ought' to be written in the past tense. Of course, if the criticism was that dogmatic it was barmy, but I thought Sarah Dunant's robust advocacy of setting stories in an historic 'now' was over the top too.

We are all familiar with the argument. Hilary Mantel put it well when talking about Wolf Hall: "The present tense forbids hindsight and propels us forward through this world, making it new just as it was, in every unfolding moment for the players." So the present tense does two things: it's a prophylactic for the author, preventing her from accidentally endowing her characters with foreknowledge of their fates; and it's a tool for pulling the reader into a more intimate relationship with those characters, and their particular 'now'.

I'm not sure that either argument is completely convincing. Of course, any writer of history (fiction or non-fiction) has to think herself into the actuality of the world she describes - not just to avoid imposing hindsight, but also to set the right framework of custom and values in which to depict motivation and action. But that process can, and self-evidently does, take place in the minds of good writers of history whether the final narrative is written in the present tense or not. There should be no obligation to 'show your working' (as our maths teachers used to say). The second point, which implies that readers somehow have difficulty fully relating to narratives written in the past tense, seems to me both patronising and mistaken.

I don't mean to suggest that there's anything wrong with writing in the present tense. If an author feels it is the right voice in which to speak her story, and it is done well as a piece of craftsmanship, it will work. But to imply that it is 'better' than writing in the past tense (that the past tense is somehow for wimps) is ridiculous. It's true that confining oneself to the present tense brings challenges that only an accomplished writer can overcome, not least because there are fewer shades available on the palette. It's harder to explore pasts within the past, and differentiating between near and far past events can lead to bizarre tangles of language. But giving oneself those problems doesn't automatically make one a better writer, even if successfully overcoming them is a sign of skill.

The past tense is, surely, the most common form for all story telling. How many of us, talking to our friends, or making up a tale for children at bedtime, instinctively launch into the historic present? How many novels set in 2011 use it? How many of us, as readers, really feel a difficulty getting under the skin of the characters in novels such as Birdsong or Regeneration because we are told that someone did or thought something, rather than that they are doing or are thinking, it?

Is it heretical to admit that I found the use of the historic present in Wolf Hall rather tiring? For me, it meant that Hilary Mantel was always there. Far from making my relationship with Thomas Cromwell more immediate, I never forgot that I was reading a piece of 'writing'. OK, it was very well done, but the present tense (along with the annoying 'He' thing) meant Wolf Hall wasn't my favourite read of that year. I can't help wondering whether I would have enjoyed it more with less authorial craft on show. But of course, it might not have got so much respect from the world of mainstream literary fiction had that been the case.

That's not to say that using the past tense guarantees success. You only have to look at one of the books that nestled alongside Wolf Hall on that Booker shortlist to see that. I thought AS Byatt's The Children's Book was one of the most dreary things I have ever read (despite being set in a period and social milieu with which I am usually fascinated). Would using the present tense have made it better? I find that very hard to imagine.

So, in the realm of historical fiction, I am happy to leave it up to authors to decide on their tense. However, I think it's worth reflecting on what the use of the historical present is doing to broader historical discourse. The present is rapidly becoming the default tense for professional historians, especially when they are wheeled out to address the general public. Am I the only one who is being driven bonkers by the its overuse in historical non-fiction? If you ever listen to 'In Our Time' or 'The Long View' (again on Radio 4) you will know what I mean. A recent 'Long View' programme was a comparison between the mission of HMS Challenger in the 1870s and the Space Shuttle today. The English language could automatically have provided the speakers with a handy tool for distinguishing one from the other in their conversation: HMS Challenger in the past / Space Shuttle in the present. But within moments of the opening of the programme we were sloshing around in the historical present. Talking about the 1870s, one expert said "The object is to find out..." and we were off - slipping in and out of the two tenses for the rest of the discussion, with the assembled academics depriving themselves of the ability to use the 'real' present tense with clarity.

Worse still, it's rare for all the speakers in a discussion to adopt the same approach. Even individual contributors slide around between the two tenses, often within seconds - sometimes in the same sentence. To me, it just sounds sloppy and inconsistent. If you haven't noticed this before, believe me you will now. I'm sorry but it's likely to drive you mad. Of course, it's usually possible to work out what the speaker really means. My point is that you shouldn't have to. We have a perfectly good set of grammatical norms which make instant clarity possible. This phoney quest for immediacy is creating ambivalence and linguistic ugliness where neither need exist.

And now this fashion for the historical present has started to infect the most serious academic lecturing and writing. Why do people do it? In part, the new academic grammar is the fruit of a laudable move to integrate historical study with other disciplines. This has vastly increased the range of topics deemed 'suitable' for historical examination, but it has brought with it the habits and jargon of the other schools. The use of the present tense has come largely from English Literature studies, until recently seen as the epicentre of cool in most universities. There, it has long been customary to discuss books, poems and plays in the language of the here and now. But those works of art do still exist. They have a life in our time. The past is different. William III is not riding in Richmond Park. Queen Victoria is not on holiday at Balmoral and for some of us, phrases such as 'In 1805, Nelson is onboard the Victory' will always jar. It's not just that it sounds grammatically wrong -- I think there's a case for saying that using the language of fiction actually undermines, rather than reinforces, the notion that the people under discussion were real.

While historical novelists may find it helpful to write as if they and their readers are at those places with them, I can't see any virtue in academics following suit. Yet in some quarters the present tense is becoming a marker of the new wave of interdisciplinary studies: a new convention, with the unspoken question 'Does my brain look big in this?' running as an undercurrent. There are some crusaders who think it 'brings history to life', but how stupid do they think their audience is? Surely students and readers can cope with the word 'was' without falling into a coma? I think their teachers are trying to solve a problem that doesn't, or shouldn't. exist. If they can't imagine themselves back into the past without constructing a new grammar (and a pretty clumsy one at that) they are in the wrong game.

For most of the academic present-tensers, the style is simply a craze. It just happens, at the moment, to to be fashionable to speak and write in this way. I bet that in years to come people will look back on our use of the historical present as just as much of a cultural affectation as the 'Forsooth Sir Godfrey!' style of novelists in the last century, or the Latinate obscurantism of Victorian text books.

So what's my message to writers of historical fiction? It's pretty simple, really, and relatively tolerant, I hope. Write in the present tense if you really think it suits your book. But don't do it just because other people are doing it, or look down your noses at those who choose to tell their stories, and discuss historical events, in the time-honoured way.

Eleanor Updale's latest book, Johnny Swanson, is set in 1929. Longlisted for the Carnegie medal, and shortlisted for the UKLA awards, it has just come out in paperback (David Fickling Books, £5.99 / $12.99 in hardback in the USA). It is written in the past tense.

Monday 25 July 2011

Licence to be Extremely Thrilling - by Nicola Morgan

I don't like having to hold back. Don't like boundaries much. But all writers need to work within boundaries, and every genre, every age group, has them. You'd think historical fiction would have tighter boundaries than most. After all, we're constrained by the political or social mores of the times we write about, and have to work within the lack of inventions or technology that the facts give us. I remember the time I really really needed my characters to have a mobile phone and I had to create a convoluted method for them to know each other's whereabouts. Pah!

BUT. The fabulously best thing - in my opinion - about writing historical fiction for young people is that someone like me who likes to take it to the limit, cross the edge, dangle the reader off the precipice of fear and let them contemplate the worst, can do much nastier, crueller, more gruesome, more shocking, things to our characters than we can easily do in contemporary fiction. Why? Because the reader is secure in the knowledge that "it won't happen to me or anyone I know."

So, mastectomy without anaesthetic in front of an audience? Young mother drowned at the stake in front of her daughter? Teenage girl trepanned after drowning? No problem in historical fiction. I've done them all and many writers on this blog have done these things or worse. (OK, perhaps not worse than the beginning of Fleshmarket - may I claim that one?) You've got Celia Rees, Mary Hoffman and Theresa Breslin and many others choosing cruelly troubled times and settings and creating brilliantly real worlds from the past.

Thing is, we all know full well that grotesque cruelty is not confined to the past. The most shocking and unspeakably cruel things happen in many parts of the world today, including in our own country, usually (but not always) outside the personal worlds of our particular readers. I'd like to be able to write about them, too, as I don't think we should be allowed to think that bad things only happened in the foreign country that is the past. So I've written a contemporary novel - about human trafficking, prostitution, rape, drug addict parenting, brutality, murder and torture, and the political aftermath to a genocide that has happened within our lifetime (and for which a man is currently and prominently being tried in a court). It's set now, and here - in London, under our feet. It's called Brutal Eyes and it's my modern Fleshmarket. But I suspect it won't be published. (Unless I do it myself.) It crosses some lines, you see. And it's contemporary. I've gone too far and brought it all too close to home.I know who will like it, but it may not be enough.

It crosses the lines that you can cross in historical fiction without even being questioned. But maybe looking at the horrors beneath our own feet, testing the cracks in the veneer of our civilisation, maybe that's a step too far. After all, it's a thin veneer, isn't it? Especially when you can see it.

Sunday 24 July 2011

What if?

I am in the odd position of being both host and guest today, at least partially, since The History Girls is a stop on my Blog Tour for David. So I suppose I should welcome me!

But actually I'd rather thank the blog for giving me a spot to write about writing and to say how much I've enjoyed everyone else's blogposts so far.

And to mention that History Girl Michelle Lovric is appearing on The Book Show tonight, more4 channel at 7.30pm where they will be discussing her remarkable adult novel, The Book of Human Skin. If you don't catch it tonight or don't have that Channel, we believe it will be repeated next Saturday afternoon on Channel 4 at 2.15pm.

And now to my favourite kind of fantasy, the "what if" one. I have just seen two Shakespeare History plays - Henry 1V, parts one and two, Peter Hall Company, Bath and the return journey was full of 'what if" discussions:

What if the Black Prince hadn't died? Or Richard 11 had produced a son? Or been content to let Bolingbroke inherit John of Gaunt's title and wealth? They are endless and endlessly fascinating.

My most recent historical novel had a classic beginning: an upfront undisputed historical fact, a vast hinterland of unknowns, a sprinkling of speculation and a daydreamer for an author.

All fiction begins with a “what if?” and mine was “what if a young man looking just like that famous statue walked into the city of Florence in 1501 – what would happen next?”

And once I’d had that idea, the rest was relatively easy. No-one knows anything about the model for David, or even if there was one. Frederick Hartt suggested in 1987 that the musculature on the statue, with the overdeveloped right arm, could indicate a stonemason; that was all.

I put that together with the known fact that Michelangelo had been wet-nursed by a stonecutter’s wife in Settignano, where his father had a farm, and I had the first outline of a plot. If Gabriele was the sculptor’s “milk brother” then their fraternal closeness could get me out of the problem that Michelangelo might otherwise fancy his handsome model, which was not the novel I wanted to write.

Researching the period with books bought in the UK and Italy, reading academic articles online, consulting texts in the Bodleian and Taylorian and borrowing others from the wonderful London Library, of which I’m a member, I was able to create a timeline stretching before and after the intense three and a half year period featured in the novel.

So it was all there: Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities, the overthrow of the de’ Medici family, the military rise of Cesare Borgia, art patronage and the presence in the city of Leonardo, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio and the pattern of artistic rivalry.

All I had to do was make the characters come alive, imagine my Gabriele as a full personality and give him some erotic and political entanglements and voilà! (or rather eccolo!) – I had my plot. 

Of course, you don’t stand aloof and say, “I’ll invent this character and use that historical figure.” You create and remove exactly as much as you need to as you go through the novel.

Here’s a little example: I knew that the statue of David was stoned on the first night it was moved from the workshop to the Piazza della Signoria. (It took four days to trundle it) so I deduced that the stone-throwers were pro-Mediceans who saw David as a dangerous symbol of Republicanism. In a footnote to a journal article I was reading about a quite different aspect of Michelangelo's life, I found the names of four young men suspected of or arrested for this act of vandalism. One of them was a Gherardini.

Now this was the family name of Lisa del Giocondo – the woman known better to the world as Mona Lisa. After some fruitless research to see if I could trace a connection, I just made him a cousin to Leonardo’s sitter and had him playing the recorder to keep her entertained while her portrait was being painted.

I also made him and the other three named Florentines young members of the pro-Medicean group that Gabriele infiltrates as a spy. A tiny detail but I know it’s there and I know it made the book for me at least feel more authentic.

And if I’m lucky, I find something like that when I am working on any historical novel. But I think it’s important to play fair and say in a historical note what you’ve invented and what taken from known history. Otherwise the reader is left wondering - and misinformed.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Alone in Berlin - original version, by Leslie Wilson

I first read this book in German, when I was researching Last Train from Kummersdorf, and it made a huge impact on me. I was startled, but not at all surprised, when the translation burst on the international scene the year before last and became a best-seller.

But now it appears that the version I read, the one that has been so widely translated, is not the full version; it was subject to editorial cuts after Fallada's death, and the German Aufbau Verlag - the publishing house that originally brought the novel out - has discovered the unexpurgated version in its archive and published it. Aufbau Verlag was then a Russian-zone publishing house. The name means 'Reconstruction Press.'

Actually - as the German afterword tells me - it's a wonder that this novel got published at all. The original response from the publisher's reader is stupidly negative, and it's dreadful to think that Fallada had to endure it when he was already dying. There is no middle stratum in this novel, the reader said; the characters are either all good or all bad; the Persicke family are over the top; the characters are unconvincing; too many coincidences - and historical inaccuracies - and anyway, it's 'a novel of pimps with a political veneer.'

Fallada was never well enough to discuss this with Kurt Wilhelm, the publisher at Aufbau Verlag. He knew that he'd written one of his best works; it's to be hoped that he managed to remember that in the midst of the nightmare (Fallada's expression) that the reader's report was to him. And the novel did get published - but cuts were made.

One of those cuts (which has actually been reversed in the translation) was to suppress the fact that the postwoman Eva Kluge was a Party member. Also, for some reason, the character originally called Barkhausen was renamed Borkhausen - and there are a few editings that were seriously needed - such as the section where Enno Kluge and Barkhausen ransack poor Frau Rosenthal's flat which goes on forever in the uncut version.

Another character who has had some grey tones removed from his personality is Judge Fromm, who tries and fails to shelter Frau Rosenthal, at the beginning of the novel. Wiegler scissored out his admission to Frau Rosenthal that he was known as 'the bloody Fromm,' or 'the hanging judge Fromm.' This casts another, more sinister light on his cold passion for justice - and his coldness is one of the things that prevent him from saving Frau Rosenthal's life.

But to me the most significant issue is that the best part of a whole chapter vanished, because the desk editor cancelled Anna Quangels membership of the Nazi Frauenschaft (the Women's Organisation.) The Frauenschaft, in wartime, carried out many WI-type jobs, running courses for housewives on how to cook a good meal on rations, how to bottle fruit and vegetables safely and to make and make over clothes. But the crucial role of the Frauenschaft was described in its founding statement as 'the National Socialist indoctrination of German women.' It was members of the Frauenschaft who made punitive descents on my grandmother in 1933-34, when my grandfather, a Social Democrat policeman, was fighting for his job and for his life. They would turn the house over, inspect the books on the shelves, make insulting comments on my grandmother's housekeeping, and tell her she was scum and would end up in concentration camp.

The original Chapter 17 relates how Anna got herself out of this noissome organisation.

At the risk of spoiling it for anyone who wants to read the complete version; she achieves it by harassing - in her capacity as a 'Frauenschaft' functionary - the wife of an SS man who is evading war work. She is, of course, not meant to trouble such 'ladies.' The woman then does as Anna intended and kicks up such a stink that it ends with Anna's ejection from the Frauenschaft. It's a wonderful piece of writing, full of black humour, and it is a shame to miss it.

But it's inaccurate, historically, since women weren't called up for war work in Germany in 1940, this didn't happen till 1943. At which time many middle-class women did slip out of war work by getting doctors to certify them unfit, and the wives of Nazi high-ups of course wriggled out of the call-up. Fallada explains to the reader that at that stage slave labourers hadn't been imported from the occupied countries to work in factories. Quite true, but in 1940 the slave labour was being done by Jews, who worked themselves into the ground, knowing that if they didn't they'd disappear eastwards.

Whether this matters is an interesting question. I'm aware that I've breathed smoke and flames about the divagations from historical probability of books like 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.' But the slip in the timing really doesn’t affect the quality of Fallada's fiction or, more importantly, the sense of the era that it conveys. As Kath Langrish has already said in this blog, many writers try to get the history right, but we don't always succeed. (Nor do historians, but I shan't start on that). In all zones of occupation at the time, denazification was taking place, which meant that people who'd held Party membership were deemed ineligible for important jobs - unless they had a pretty good excuse or were particularly useful to the new political masters. (Later, of course, many of them got back into high positions). But in the Russian zone, history was being rewritten at the same time. Aufbau's political masters wanted heroic resisters to Nazi oppression, preferably working-class and communist if possible. So Eva and Anna were brought into line.

But Fallada, who himself had tried not particularly successfully to survive as a writer under Nazism, didn't ever regard himself as 'clean' - even though he'd also taken some risks that could have proved fatal to him. His intention in writing the novel was to depict the Quangels as 'Mitläufer' - ie people who went along with Nazism - who freed themselves from this position.

In doing so, as both versions of the novel recount, Otto and Anna grow to fully comprehend the many crimes of the Nazi regime, including the persecution of the Jews, which previously haven't bothered them so much. So it is important that Anna Quangel has belonged to the Frauenschaft, and ironic that in removing that part of her history the editor did actually remove some of that 'middle stratum' whose absence the reader bemoaned.

Ironically, too, the regime under whose auspices the novel was first published perpetuated many of the horrors described in the novel; the surveillance state, the informer culture, the imprisonment and torture of dissidents, and the distortion of the truth. That being so, it is wonderful that this brilliant and deeply honest work managed to be published almost unscathed.

Friday 22 July 2011


It was 2007, and I was whizzing along the A64 in North Yorkshire because in the novel that wasn't yet A Secret Alchemy one of my narrators whizzes along it. A small sign suddenly said TOWTON. I stamped on the brake and turned left, and the whole structure of the novel changed.

Modern-day Una Pryor drives the A64 because she's researching another of my narrators, Antony Wydvil, uncle and guardian of the Princes in the Tower. He rode this way to his death in 1483, but I hadn't realised till I got there that the road might take him into his own past: to 1461 and the Battle of Towton. It's the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, and it was Antony's first. Towton battlefield, I found, is high and open and eerily silent, and you can see how, when the two armies wheeled in the blinding snow on Palm Sunday, soldiers tumbled down the slope to drown in Cock Beck. It was said the water ran red for days.

So that became the shape of Antony's story: one, long, midsummer day's ride from the bleak, private Plantagenet stronghold of Sheriff Hutton, to the squat yellow muscle of the great administrative centre of Pontefract - and from it I strung his whole life. For him it was a pilgrimage, and Elysabeth his sister also tells her story as a series of stops on her life's journey through this glamorous and violent world. She was left a widow with two small sons when her husband was killed fighting for Henry VI. Edward Plantagenet's victory at Towton a couple of months later made him Edward IV, and caused the Wydvils to change their allegiance. What was it like for them, I'd wondered? The historical record is largely made by the Wydvil's enemies, but I wanted to understand them from the inside.

And then I realised that Una, too, makes a pilgrimage almost the length of England; she's looking for the Wydvils, but she also re-finds her own past, and thus her future. Una's pilgrimage through the book, therefore, became mine. And what I found was how late medieval politics is all about roads. Battles happen on the roads which lead from the great lords' powerbases to London and Westminster:  Barnet, Northampton, Tewkesbury and two at St Albans. If it's not battles, it's still about land. Elysabeth's first husband, Sir John Grey, lived at Groby, just up the A5 (Watling Street) from her childhood home at Grafton, and their wedding consolidated their fathers' local power. I've stood in the church at Ratby where they were married; I've seen his childhood home too; I've glimpsed the burnt-out shell of the manor house where their two sons were probably born. It was from the royal hunting lodge at Stony Stratford that Edward IV rode out secretly to woo the beautiful widow Elysabeth Grey; it was at Stony Stratford twenty years later that his brother Richard of Gloucester took control of their son Edward V, and sent Antony to his death; the stones of Bermondsey Abbey keep turning up as they build smart new flats there.

One of the pivotal events of the novel is the siege of the Tower of London, and I gave Una a house just along the riverbank in Narrow St. It's actually an agreeable pub, half-hanging above the dark grey waters of the Thames; I had lunch there. And several scenes are set at Eltham Palace, the beautiful little late-medieval pleasure palace now in South London, then handy for the royal dockyard - and the brothels - at Deptford. And necessity is sometimes the mother of inspiration. For dull reasons of chronology I had to set Una's narrative a few years back, but in 1990 Eltham - the 14th century palace and the Art Deco country house it became - was being restored by English Heritage. So Una goes to see what's being done to make it come alive, and the whole of A Secret Alchemy came to be about how restoring a historic house is like writing a historical novel.

How, in telling stories, can we - and can't we - bring the past alive? When you're restoring a house, says Mark in the novel, it's not enough just to tidy up what's left of the original. If you want to evoke the lives that once lived there, then leaving out everything which would have been there, but is no longer visible, would be another kind of lie. "You have to make the story whole." And one way I did so was to show how the separate strands are wound together into that whole: to make explicit what the whole novel is doing implicitly. Mark and Una are being shown round the restoration at Eltham:
The craftsmen and builders have gone for the day. ‘I was involved with excavating Bermondsey Abbey in the sixties,’ I say, and Charlie’s eyes light up. I tell him what I remember about the dig while we walk along a wide, curving, sleek-panelled corridor that wouldn’t look out of place in a grand ocean liner, and into the huge quiet of the Great Hall.
The space seems to hum against me. The windows are high in the walls and so big their stone mullions shimmer against the light, and a great hammerbeam roof of age-darkened oak lowers above and between them. Charlie says proudly it’s the original. He’s talking about the firebomb that came through it in 1940: the burn-marks are there, on the stones of the floor, and must be kept, for they’re part of the history too. Mark’s asking him about the masons’ marks and carpenters’ joints, and what the principle of restoration is.

'Well, in art restoration the rule is that the new work must be visible at two feet, and invisible at four,’ says Charlie. ‘That way you’re not pretending it’s real, but there’s a sense of realness. Obviously here it’s a bit different. We might darken a new wooden beam so it blends in with the originals, but we wouldn’t falsify. No fake wormholes or smoke-marks. On the other hand, where you have to conjure up from nothing, it works better to do something completely modern, not faux-historical. Clean glass and steel, or whatever: something good in itself. The Courtaulds’ architect in the twenties mostly knew that.’
I’m not thinking about the twenties, I’m thinking that here Elizabeth and Anthony danced, here ambassadors were given audience and wedding feasts were held, nobles drank and fenced, and the children ran riot on wet days, perhaps, with the dogs barking around them. Did they come here when Edward’s sister Margaret of York had been safely married off to the Duke of Burgundy? What did it smell like, then? Velvets and flower-water? Sweet herbs and banquets? Latrines and fly-blown meat? Sweat and fear? What did it sound like? The court was famous across Europe for its music, but how did they hear it? Did it creep into Elizabeth’s ears as it does mine, and make her want to laugh, and cry, and love? She wasn’t in love with either of her husbands, it’s a fair guess. But there’s nothing – not a single whisper in a court full of her enemies – that murmurs of anyone else. Did she ever love someone so much that she hurt for joy, so much that it seemed beyond reason? Did she regret that she never had? 
There’s ancient dust gritty under my feet and outside a last late chisel rings like a bell on the stone. If I strain my ears enough, perhaps I might hear them. If I could only peer hard enough through this time-thickened, time-thinned air, they might come before my eyes.

Thursday 21 July 2011

The Lost Research - Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson

Grey squirrel in snow

On Tuesday of this week I was at an event in Cambridge with a host of other crime writers, and writers of historical fiction. A young man in a flat cap approached and, having introduced himself as an aspiring writer of historical fiction, asked ‘How much research do you do?’ I gave him a bright smile and my usual useless, but utterly true answer. ‘You know. Way too much, and never enough.’

In a sense, and despite the title of this post, no research is lost. It all informs your writing about a period. Every book or newspaper you read, every house you visit, every antique gun you get to handle courtesy of generous re-enactors; it all adds to your knowledge of a time, its textures and flavours. That said, I am sure I am not alone in having notebooks full of research notes, anecdotes and sketches of historical characters that, I fear, will never make it into my novels. And that’s a shame because in each nugget lies, I think, a story waiting to be unfolded.

I spend about four months of the year in various libraries, gathering odds and ends before retreating to my study to write. I’m like a literary squirrel. Then I start work and, as the plot develops and the characters begin to move about in their world, some of my research becomes a lot more relevant than the rest. Those parts of my notes I return to, re-read, flesh out. Often the characters head off into some area I’m not that au fait with, and I’m back in the library again. In the process, some of those early nuggets get lost, and it is not until the book is written and I’m flipping through the notebooks before adding them to the growing stacks in the attic that they reemerge (can you tell where I’m going with this?) the same way the squirrel’s secret, forgotten stashes emerge in the Spring. Ok. I promise to leave that analogy alone now.

My latest book, ‘Island of Bones’, is set in the Lake District in 1783. During the research for the novel I wandered around Keswick and Derwentwater a lot, and read everything from the period I could get hold of written about the town and the lakes in general, and let myself sink into the folklore. There’s a lot in the book, but here are some of the nuggets lost that I am sorry I could not use.

1. The popular guide to the area of the time, by Mr West, includes extracts of Horace translated into the Cumbrian dialect.

2. In 1745 more than a score of witnesses swore before the local magistrate that they had seen a ghostly army march over Souter Fell.

3. You can identify the sea spirits that sometimes hang around Holy Wells by their green teeth and wet clothing.

4. Dragons hate nothing more than the stench of burning bones. (Which is ironic, when you think about it).

 5. A man stole a beehive and was identified by his being covered in a great number of stings on his person. Examined before William Hicks Esquire.

6. A meteor was seen on the night of 19th August 1783 across the country. In Canterbury ‘the whole hemisphere was as bright as noon-day’, it had ‘a beautiful train of various coloured stars and burst with an amazing explosion so great as to even shake some of the houses in the village.’

7. During the storms of July a steeple was split in two and an only daughter of Rev Mr Cranwell was struck dead by lightning as she was writing in her room.

8. The Regatta on Derwentwater took an unusual turn in September 1783 when the gentleman supposed to be surrendering Pocklington’s Island during the fake naval attack, got drunk and refused to give in.

 9. Before Wordsworth grew up and he and his cronies started stealing all the glory, the Muse of Cumberland was Susanna Blamire. She died in 1794.

 10. In the Scots magazine of 1785 the death is recorded in Keswick of John Maxwell at the age of 132.
I wish I could write them all, but if your imagination is fired by any of the above, I hope you do.

Island of Bones is available in hardback

Wednesday 20 July 2011


It sounds rather sad to say I've been thinking a lot about Cardinal Richelieu's face. Not, I hasten to add, in a Charles Aznavour kind of way, but in a sense that's perhaps even more disturbing.

With apologies to the squeamish, I've been thinking about this:

Poor Richelieu. His wasn't the only aristocratic grave desecrated during the French Revolution, but the front of his mummified head was actually carried away and sold to Nicholas Armez of Brittany, a wealthy collector who reputedly not only exhibited and lent it out, but would also (as a special treat) entertain favoured dinner guests by manipulating the well-known features as a kind of macabre glove-puppet.

I learned this last (hopefully apocryphal) detail from a museum curator, and as I was writing about Richelieu at the time it hit me rather hard. I wasn’t depicting him as a villain, I was working well within the known facts, but ‘IN THE NAME OF THE KING’ is still fiction, and in putting words into Richelieu’s mouth and thoughts into his head, was I really any better than that collector?

Mary Hoffman has already referred to Antony Beevor’s mistrust of fiction depicting real people, and A.S. Byatt has described it as ‘an appropriation of others’ lives and privacy’. There is certainly some truth in this today. Anyone who achieves a degree of fame seems immediately to be ‘owned’ by an increasingly entitled media, and if Julian Assange can be depicted against his will in the play ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ then arguably his face has been stolen as effectively as Richelieu’s own.

As a historical writer I tell myself firmly I am better than this because I only write about the dead. But that’s why the issue of Richelieu’s Face disturbs me, because it raises the obvious question: are even the historical dead really fair game?

My current book is set during the Crimean War, and during a recent visit to Sevastopol I was introduced to a young man visiting the spot where his great, great grandfather had stood during the Battle of Inkerman. His pride in his ancestor was both obvious and justified (Colonel Henry Percy won the VC) and I wouldn’t help a slight qualm at the recollection I’d been putting dialogue into his mouth just two days before. I’d written nothing disrespectful, but coming face-to-face with a real flesh and blood descendant I had an uneasy sense of having taken a liberty.

That seems, on the face of it, ridiculous. A father may ‘belong’ emotionally to his family, but an ‘ancestor’ is public property. But where do we draw the line? Grandfathers? Great-grandfathers? The death of the last person who actually knew the character? Is this a simple issue like copyright where we can do what we like 70 years after somebody’s died? In terms of distressing living relatives that seems quite reasonable, but if this is an ethical issue then the passage of time shouldn’t make the slightest difference. Either the dead have rights, or they don’t – and if we say they don’t, then there is nothing wrong with what Armez did to Richelieu’s face.

Those rights still aren’t absolute, any more than those of the living. Newspapers are allowed to deal with those parts of a person’s life ‘in the public domain’ and so of course are we. Henry VIII as Henry VIII is a persona rather than a person and I wouldn’t have the slightest scruple in writing about him, even to his detriment. I think the issue only really arises when we go beyond that and (literally in Richelieu’s case) try to get inside these people’s heads. A.S. Byatt makes the distinction when she admits Oscar Wilde appears in ‘The Children’s Book’ but adds drily ‘The novelist doesn’t say what he thinks.’ An interesting article by Guy Gavriel Kay takes that idea even further, arguing that historical fiction writers are all right as long as they steer clear of ‘point of view’ and don’t pretend to be privy to the secret thoughts and feelings of real people.

But…But…But!! That’s where the good stuff is. That’s what I want from good historical writing: new insights and deeper understanding. Are we never to be allowed a ‘Wolf Hall’? H.M. Castor's 'VIII'? No soliloquys in Shakespeare’s History Plays? Surely we want to see all round a character rather than merely the two-dimensional image of encyclopaedic fact?

It's true our portraits can never be completely true, but then they don’t claim to be. We’re not pretending to be psychics, and our readers know we are only offering an interpretation.

But yet again we’re confronted with the spectre of Richelieu’s face. I very much doubt Armez’s dinner guests believed that was really Louis XIII’s First Minister gurning at them from their host’s hand, but does that make it any less offensive? For me it’s not so much an issue of libel as one of dignity, and I’m not sure a disclaimer of ‘this isn’t real’ is enough of a defence.

So what is?

We'll all have our own answers to this, but personally I think it lies in the intent. Byatt’s interview conjures up an image of a bunch of harpies gleefully pillaging the graves of the dead, but I don’t know a single historical writer who approaches their subject with anything less than respect. Not one. We chose history because we love it, not because we want to debase it. We understand the importance of truth, which is why we spend so much of our lives reading and researching rather than just ‘making stuff up'.

I LOVE reading historical fiction from the perspective of real characters, and there are some wonderful examples of 'how to do it' right here on this blog. The only reason I haven’t written an internal ‘point-of-view’ like that myself is because I haven’t yet felt sufficiently qualified to do so. I planned to attempt it with the marvellous hunchbacked Marquis de Fontrailles for ‘IN THE NAME OF THE KING’, and even spent a grisly day hobbling about with a rucksack full of rocks on my back just to see how it altered my perception, but in the end my French simply wasn’t good enough to comprehend the nuances of his wit, and without the authenticity of his ‘voice’ I had to let the idea go. That may be just as well, actually. The first line I gave him was 'Do you ever look at feet?'

But 'respect' doesn’t have to mean 'reverence'. If we adopt a ‘nil nisi bonum’ approach to real characters then we’re not only producing dull writing we’re also distorting the truth. My own theory is that we need to bring to them much the same attitude we have towards our ‘own’ characters, whose humanity we recognize even when they’re behaving at their most vile. This is almost inevitable perhaps, under the theory of 'tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner'. We mustn't whitewash, but I don’t think anyone here will laugh at me when I say my personal creed for tackling real characters is to do it with respect, do it with truth, and perhaps, in the end, to do it with love.

In 1866 Napoleon III managed to rescue Richelieu’s mummified face and restore it to its rightful owner in the Sorbonne. Now whenever I’m haunted by the spectre of that first photograph I replace it with this tender detail from the restored tomb:

It’s ironic, perhaps, that the undoubtedly ruthless Cardinal should now be represented by this rather sentimental image of comfort, but perhaps Phillip Larkin had it more right than he intended in ‘An Arundel Tomb’:

‘…..The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.’

If we do our jobs well enough, then perhaps it will.

IN THE NAME OF THE KING is published by Penguin on 4th August 2011

INTO THE VALLEY OF DEATH is due Spring 2012

A.L.Berridge's website (in the process of updating)

Tuesday 19 July 2011


Why is it that in history highly intelligent, accomplished, able women are viewed with suspicion by men (and other women) and get such a bad press?
I discovered one of my favourite stories about feisty women in history as I was researching The Medici Seal which follows the fortunes of a boy befriended by Leonardo da Vinci. When Caterina Sforza’s husband was murdered she was left to defend her city and people against greedy would-be conquerors. Captured with her children Caterina negotiated to be released, agreeing to go into the last of her fortresses holding out against the enemy and persuade them to surrender. When she gets there she encourages her Captain and soldiers not to give up, and proceeds to stand on the battlements shouting down at her enemies, telling them all the tortures and deaths she will inflict upon them. They threaten to kill her children. The Bold Caterina’s response is to hoik up her skirts, point to her private parts and say “ Do your worst. I have the means to make more!”
Obviously Caterina was astute enough to work out that as soon as her enemies took her last fortress they would murder her and her children. Therefore she cunningly secured her freedom so that she could lead her armed men who were indeed inspired by her courage and thus gave her children their best chance of survival. They all did.
That amount of nerve leaves you gasping but, hey, way to go, Caterina!
That story was a bit of a sidetrack – one of those instances where you become fascinated by the research and then can’t shoehorn the nugget you’ve found into the final story. So glad we’re doing this Blog and I can share it now! I was actually on the trail of Lucrezia Borgia, famous (infamous?) daughter of a man who became Pope, she had riches in plenty but very little control over her life as her father and ruthless brother, Cesare, used her as a pawn in their strategies to acquire power and money. The husband she loved was murdered by her brother when no longer useful for his ambitions. Sent to marry the Duke of Ferrara who didn’t really care for her Lucrezia she won his respect by her courage in defending her adopted city against their enemies and for her diplomatic skill - to the extent that when he was away the Duke left the government in her hands. She was also a patron of the Arts, yet her name is more often associated with incest and murder. I hope I gave her a fairer hearing in the book. I loved finding out about her and reading her letters, and so grateful that my husband managed to blag his way into a convent of enclosed nuns to photograph her tomb.
It was a natural progression for me to become fascinated by the equally notorious Catherine de’ Medici while writing The Nostradamus Prophecy. The much maligned Catherine was “sold” as a child bride to the son of the King of France and fell in love with him, but was continuously humiliated for many years as he openly consorted with his mistress, showering honours upon her when he became King. Catherine was about to put aside as barren when suddenly she had lots of children - rumour was that his mistress had to insist that he slept with his wife to produce an heir and safeguard the throne. How awful was that for poor Catherine? However her time came. King dies. Catherine at once takes back the beautiful Chateau the King had given his mistress and the jewels etc, etc. Beset on all side by ruthless men with her children too small to rule, she fought her whole life to keep the throne safe for them to inherit. Credited with bringing ballet and the lucrative perfume industry to France, (and let’s not forget the innovative long drawers so that a woman could take part in the hunt by throwing her leg over a pommel while retaining her modesty). In addition to perfume Catherine was supposed to have imported the art of making poison too…
But if the armed guard supposed to be protecting you and yours is in the pay of your worst enemy what’s a girl supposed to do?
And then more recently in Prisoner of the Inquisition there’s the warrior Queen, Isabella of Spain, who was not prepared to be bullied out of her birthright. She suffered a traumatic childhood brought up in isolation by a mentally disturbed mother. Prominent supporters of her family’s rightful claim to the throne of Castile switched sides (sometimes several times) leaving her shocked at their betrayal. When her brother died she had to fend for herself. Marriage was brokered with Ferdinand of Aragon who thought he’d then be King of Castile and Aragon and take control of both, but Isabella wouldn’t let him and had herself crowned Queen of Castile.
Go Girl Go!
Isabella turned the government from one of venal corruption unto one that allowed the people to prosper and live under a rule of law. She was clever and had the foresight to back Columbus when others turned him down. I love the anecdote about Isabella that says she left a message about herself for history in the design of her tomb. In those days it was thought that intelligent people had heavier brains and her tomb was designed so that the indent on her stone pillow was deeper than that of her husband, Ferdinand, who lies beside her. I managed to get pic of her gorgeous little golden crown, and did try to get one of her stone pillow but when walking through to where her tomb is located the camera flash alerted the security guard. So the last photo you see is of us about to be ejected from the Royal Chapel in Granada.
OK - so people who disagreed with Isabella tended to be dealt with in very disagreeable manner, but that was the custom of the time, and if she hadn’t, well…..
Consider the lives of these women, their upbringing, background, the times in which they lived and their particular circumstances. Famous male rulers are held in awe for their strength, famed for their wars and respected for holding a tough stance. Strong women on the other hand are reputed to be unnatural and castigated as being vicious.
Theresa Breslin
Prisoner of the Inquisition was voted the Carnegie Medal Shadowing Group favourite book.
To see and hear Theresa answering questions and talking about the book.