Tuesday 23 October 2018

Voices Unearthed: Diane Purkiss's 'English Civil War.' Leslie Wilson

  In my childhood, I went to historical novels if I wanted to find out about the lives of ordinary people: even Trevelyan's 'Social History of England,' which my father gave me when I was a young teenager, was rather too general in its narrative. I always wanted to get an idea of what life was like for ordinary people, not just for the generals, the nobles, or the King. Above all, I was interested in the lives of women. When I first started to write historical fiction, very few historians seemed interested in women's lives; they were peripheral to the main action.When I started to write about Nazi Germany, I did begin to get access to these, through diaries and journals and also covert reports from Social Democrats on life inside the Third Reich. But the lives of women in earlier times, when women were largely illiterate, were much harder to come at (though Alice Clark's The Working Life of Seventeenth Century Women was an invaluable resource.)

But here is a work of history, written by a distinguished scholar, as fascinating as any novel. Of late years, I've noticed that historians are beginning to go through 'unimportant' bits of detail, diaries, account books, wills, to resurrect the lives of women, and though there is still much we cannot get at, we are getting enough to give us a much better idea than we previously had. Diane Purkiss is writing in this tradition; though The English Civil War does also give us the voices of men, and she tells the stories of the King and Cromwell, Henrietta Maria and women of the aristocracy.

But in this book you also can hear  the common soldier , and ordinary, lower middle-class women whose voices were recorded because they became preachers in some of the Independent sects that grew during the ferment of this period, as well as those of the gentry are also heard. The book opens up the experience of a broad section of English society during the conflict.

As well as giving voice to the ordinary people (and examining the role starvation, which was widespread as the war dragged on, played in people's actions and reactions,) this book gives an in-depth, considered analysis of the causes and drivers of the conflict. Too many authors, for example, have described the religious issues of the times in the convenient portmanteau phrase: 'the Royalists were Anglicans, the Parliamentarians were Puritans'. In fact, many of the Parliamentarians were Anglicans, and Anglicanism in those days meant Calvinism, a theology nowadays more likely to be associated with Presbyterianism. The distinction between those who believed some humans were predestined for damnation, some for salvation, was far more complex than the Cavalier/Roundhead divide. This is important, because religion was a crucial part of people's lives in those days and needs to be understood.

Diane Purkiss also shows us the hideous anti-Catholic prejudice which meant many Catholics had their houses destroyed, were abused, attacked, and murdered. It was an atmosphere which reminded me of present-day Islamophobia, and gave an uneasy flavour of what might happen if it is nurtured, as it is at present. The mutilation of the Royalist camp followers after Naseby, who were considered to be whores and Irish Catholics (many of them were Anglican soldiers' wives), was what we would nowadays see as a horrific war crime. In addition, she tells the story of Matthew Hopkins's notorious Essex witchhunt, and makes a convincing case for the war's agency in the outbreak of a kind of witch prosecution otherwise absent from England.

What comes across, crucially, in this history, is that the protagonists of the Civil War didn't behave the way we would like them to; they were people of their own time. It's far too common for even historians to be partisan in writing about the conflict (and most of them taking the 'Cavalier' side). But what matters in the end is not who won, who had flowing locks and was romantic, who were people we'd like to identify with (none of them, once you really look at it). These people had ideas, many of which filled the ruling establishment with horror, which we would now view as mainstream or even old-fashioned, since few even of the Levellers and Ranters wanted women to have the vote. Indeed, some Ranters thought women had no souls (one was set to rights by George Fox, one of the first Quakers, an organisation that did give women the right to speak and continued that after the ferment of the wartime period had died down). But they had those ideas, and that was important. Yes, works of art were destroyed and images in churches were destroyed, but that was also part of their passionate belief in a religion that didn't rely on outward show.

As a Quaker, I can comprehend that, since I worship in a plain, unadorned room, mostly in silence, and the price of that precious worship was partly the destruction of statues in our cathedrals. Diane Purkiss says at the end of the book that she wouldn't exchange Milton's 'Paradise Lost' for the Rubens crucifixion that was destroyed during the war. 'Sometimes destruction is the price we pay for artistic breakthrough.' And spiritual, and political.

There is not enough written about the English Civil War. If you want to start reading about it, or want to revisit the period, this is the book to get going on. I wasn't able to put it down.


Ann Turnbull said...

I agree, Leslie. It's a wonderful book, which was an enormous help to me in my research when I was writing my YA novel Alice in Love and War. In particular, I loved the small details about everyday life, and how people coped in those years. My own copy is still covered in faint pencil notes and underlinings!

Leslie Wilson said...

It definitely makes me feel itchy to write another Civil War novel, or a novel actually set in the Civil War, rather than dealing with the aftermath.

Cindy Jefferies said...

Thank you for this fascinating piece. I have to get myself a copy! I’ve been researching the Civil Wars for my next book but for some reason hadn’t come across this. Most things I have read have made it depressingly clear how similar the civil wars raging in this century are to those three that convulsed Britain in the C17th. The hunger, sectarianism and atrocities committed on both sides as well as heroism and honour. When the talking stops the outlook is very bleak indeed.