Friday 16 March 2012

What we write about when we write about history: Sue Purkiss

A few years ago, I was staying in a hotel in Warsaw. With an hour or so to spare, I started to flick through the television channels, and came across an international one broadcasting  news and current affairs in English. I sat and watched; there were several extended reports about issues affecting the lives of people in various countries in eastern Europe, and I think further afield, too.

I don't remember specifically what they were about, but as I watched, I started to feel slightly disorientated. Perhaps that's not quite the right way to express it; this is going to sound ridiculously cliched and obvious, but quite suddenly, I realised in a way I hadn't before that Britain really is not the centre of the world. Of course, I knew this already in my head, but somewhere much deeper, my perceptions radiated from my awareness of myself as a person living in 21st century Britain. If I watch a documentary on British television about, say, everyday life in a Chinese village, it will have been filtered through a British lens; even if the commentary attempts to maintain a carefully studied neutrality, the choices as to which bits of film to show, which characters to focus on, which stories to highlight - all these will have been made by British producers and editors, with a view as to what will interest and  entertain a British audience.

Watching the news channel in Warsaw, I realised suddenly that there is an unconscionable amount of fascinating history, geography, economics - life! - about which I knew absolutely nothing, just because of where I was born.

Scroll on a couple of years. I was lucky enough to have a stint as a Royal Literary fellow at Exeter University, where it was my role to help students with their essay skills. One of the students who came several times was a Greek postgraduate studying naval battles during a particular period of the Ottoman Empire. As I read his work, I felt that same slightly dizzying shift - or perhaps it could be described as suddenly finding myself on the opposite side of a wall that I hadn't even realised existed: here was a portion of history as full of characters, intrigue, tragedy and triumph, as the Tudors or Dark Age England. It was just that I knew nothing about it.

And then on again, to the book I'm writing now, which had as its starting point my father's experiences as a prisoner of war, so that to begin with, I saw it very much from the point of view of an English person looking out at what lay beyond the barbed wire fence. Again, as I dug deeper, that shift, as I began to see that the history of the war as I had hitherto seen it - a history starting perhaps with Chamberlain and his piece of paper, moving on through Dunkirk and the Blitz to the D-Day landings, with obvious significant sideshows such as Pearl Harbour and Singapore - was a very, very partial one.

I began musing on all this the other day, prompted by a book someone gave me to look at called The Great Sea: A Human History, by David Abulafia. It's about the Mediterranean. I only had time to read the first few pages - but that was long enough to tell me that yet again, here was a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing.

Well, of course, you may justifiably be thinking - how could anyone know more than a tiny fraction of what there is to know? The day when Renaissance Man (or Woman) could reasonably hope to know all that there was to be known is long past, if indeed it ever existed. But what it led me to think about was the subject matter we choose for our historical fiction novels. I know that there are those among us who write about other countries - Mary Hoffman writes books set in Italy, Marie-Louise Jensen has books set in Scandinavia, Theresa Breslin's last book was set in Spain, and very fine they all are. But in general, do we write mostly about British history, do you think? There's nothing wrong with that if we do. But do novels about British history interest, and reach, readers in other countries? And conversely, do we get the opportunity to read much historical fiction written by writers from other counties? And if not, why not?

I'd very much like any recommendations!

And in case this has all been more than somewhat indigestible, here's a picture of a delicious memory from Warsaw - a slice of virtual cake for you to have with your coffee. Enjoy the thought!


  1. I love this post, Sue - it really resonates with me. I've often thought about the filtering that happens through the accident of birth, but have never been able to articulate it as well as you do here. Not indigestible at all - but thanks, anyway, for the cake.

  2. Great post, Sue.
    My Scandinavian books haven't been very popular here, and foreign publishers won't buy The Lady in the Tower because it's 'too English'. Really you can't win.
    I have to say that news/documentaries/history teaching in Europe and Scandinavia is generally speaking much more outward-looking than our focus here. I'm always shocked when I get back from a spell in Denmark or Germany and see just how insular we are in the UK.

  3. That's just what I feel when I come back from Brussels, where my son now lives. And it seems very strange to me that books set in other countries and cultures don't do well; it seems to me a huge plus to learn about somewhere/something you don't know at the same time as reading a great story! Thanks, Malaika and Marie-Louise!

  4. A fantastic, and important post - thank you, Sue. The most 'dangerous' bias is the bias we can't see... And the bias operates even within GB itself. It wasn't until I got to university that I realised (doh!) how English was the history I'd learnt. Where was the Scottish/Welsh/Irish history, not from the English perspective, but from the Scottish/Welsh/Irish perspective?

  5. Great post Sue. I have read loads over the past few years about eastern med history too, lovely stuff. My historical novels tend to be UK history but from a perspective that is usually ignored, however the next one - fingers crossed will make it out of the uk and maybe as far as Turkey....

  6. Hello - a bit new to your blog and really enjoying the varying perspectives. A couple of personal experiences to add to the mix. A few years back, I lived in Hong Kong for three years and that experience you write of - the incredible disorientation of being 'the other', the minority in a culture which is so distant - slammed into me very quickly. A fascinating time. Second experience was to write a novel from the viewpoint of a French woman living through WWI. Also fascinating. If you are interested, I am conducting a survey on those who read (or do not read) historical fiction. I would welcome the opportunity to share some of the results at a future time as it has questions pertaining to what time period and geographies people read. And, if you would like to participate, please visit the link .

  7. Writing this from sodden County kildare where I am researching bogs, churches, hovels and, as it turns out, genuine Irish rain. Ireland feels more foreign to me than Italy, and the research responsibilities weigh heavily so your post really meant something to me, Sue. I am desperate not to write 'Hong Kong Paddy' but to be able to transmit a genuine, if faint, flavour of Harristown in 1855.

    In response to your worries, we must do our best on the facts, and remember that our role is to bring the past to life. That's not ALWAYS through the facts. Some it is through smelling the air and through empathy. I think we're historical novelists second, and human beings first, and the better we are at being and feeling the latter, the better we are as writers.

    Off to dry my shoes and write up my notes!

  8. Good luck with that next one, Catherine!

    Mary - have completed the survey. I agree - writing from the viewpoint of someone else is an excellent way to step beyond one's own experience!

  9. I too lived in Hong Kong, and found it an eye-opening experience. Though in the 80s, HK expats - if white -had a reasonably cushy time. But I have always felt a little like a foreigner in Britain, though I am British. I'd say the British will read about other cultures, as you say, Sue, from a British - sometimes English - perspective, and feel most comfortable with that. Though many people have said they appreciate the German perspective in my novels of WW2, so I mustn't be too grumpy! I think our problem, here, is the preponderance of English - makes us less inclined to read books in translation. Or to learn enough of an other language to read in it. Amazon Germany has a whole section for English language books. We do seem to lap up US stuff, though...
    Very thought-provoking blog, Sue. Thanks!

  10. Thanks for filling out the survey, Sue. Leslie, thanks for sharing your HK story.


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