Friday 15 July 2011

History and Me by Marie-Louise Jensen

I'm another historical writer who isn't a historian. Not because I didn't love it. I did; even as a school subject. Not because I wasn't good at it. I was fine at it - it was maths I had problems with. It was simply because I loved fiction more and didn't want to pass up the chance to study English literature. And modern languages with more literature attached.

My route to history wasn't studying, or even reading historical fiction. Mainly, I just read old books. I read so many of them that the past started to feel real to me. I started with Dickens, and then went back to the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot. I went further back to Jane Austen and then, fascinated by her references to The Mysteries of Udolpho, I read Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and many other now less well-known, out-of-print books by women who thrilled audiences when the novel was in its infancy as a form. I was also enthralled by the Icelandic sagas which pre-date the European novel by quite a few centuries. Stories of such passion, violence and beauty that they take your breath away.

All these books and others are my main connection with the past - my sources and the reason for my fascination. They reveal so many of the details that history books tend to miss out as unimportant. Food, clothes, customs, how people felt and acted and fell in love. The bits that interest me more (to be honest) than Kings and Queens and wars. Yes, I'm one of those women VS Naipaul so despises for their narrow domesticity, and not ashamed of it.

I have one other big connection with the past - something I've had all my life. If I walk into an old building, be it house, castle, church or any other, I immediately start to imagine all the people who have lived and worked there through the ages and to see myself there among them. It's almost as though they are whispering to me of their hopes, dreams, heartbreaks, loves and daily lives down the years between us.

These things are my spur and inspiration to write historical fiction. The hours of careful research are what brings it all to life on the page. That is a job that didn't come easily to me at first as a non-historian. But I find I'm enjoying it more with each book. To refer back to a post earlier this week - there is so much more to recreating history than putting women into long dresses.


Anonymous said...

I've loved reading your novels, and so it was fascinating to read about your process of entering an historic building and starting to imagine its previous life. I think buildings do have secret biographies whispering in the walls - perhaps the writers' ears are specially attuned to them?

Michelle Lovric
writing as anonymous to avoid Blogger's sign-in shenanigans

Caroline Lawrence said...

I love this post, Marie-Louise.

I also imagine people from the past... but my writer's ear isn't so attuned to empty rooms as yours and Michelle's. I prefer crowded places, rather than empty buildings. For example, in the Piazza Navona in Rome I will sit in a cafe and watch the Italians go by and mentally clothe them in tunics, togas and stolas. I can immediately see who would have been a magistrate and who would have been a first century "Lesbia" (the beauty who stole Catullus's heart) and who would have been a rustic farmer, in to sell his veggies on a market day.

Same thing in Nevada. I go into a bar and mentally add cigar smoke and spittoons, and hey presto! I'm in an old West saloon. Some of those faces don't even need the addition of whiskers and beards. They are straight out of the 19th century.

I also agree - and detect a theme - that what inspires us to delve into history are books and stories. May we do the same for this next generation!

adele said...

I can remember being struck in Florence, as I was eating a pizza in a sidewalk restaurant, that the people all around me could easily have walked out of the paintings I'd just seen. Lovely post!

Kath McGurl said...

I too get that whisper from the past when I go into an old building or stand on an unchanged landscape. I love that tingle down your spine you get when you touch a furnishing that is hundreds of years old, and think of the thousands of ancient hands who touched it before you.