The magazine of The Historical Association
â€œHow can there be a true history, when we see no man living is able to write truly the history of the last week?â€? Lindsey Davis 1066: The Limits of our Knowledge Marc Morris Historical fiction: warts and all Historical fiction: engaging the young reader in the past Judging a book by its cover Downton Abbey: Question and answer session with Susannah Buxton What is your period? Historical Flash Fiction Competition My Favourite History Place St Petersburg
in this issue
Historical Fiction Edition Issue 117 / Spring 2013
4 Review – Lincoln 5 Editorial 6 “How can there be a true history, when we see no man living is able to write truly the history of the last week?” Lindsey Davis
16 Historical fiction: warts and all Richard Lee 22 Historical fiction: engaging the young reader in the past Fiona M Collins 28 Judging a book by its cover Judith Graham 32 Downton Abbey Question and answer session with Susannah Buxton
11 The President’s Column 12 1066: The Limits of our Knowledge Marc Morris 34 What is your period? Historical flash fiction competition 35 Review – Pure 36 My Favourite History Place St Petersburg David Pearse 39 Henry VIII in ten tweets Paula Kitching
The Historical Association 59a Kennington Park Road London SE11 4JH Telephone: 020 7735 3901 Fax: 020 7582 4989 President Professor Jackie Eales Deputy President Ben Walsh honorary treasurer Richard Walker honorary secretary Dr Trevor James chief executive Rebecca Sullivan © The Historical Association 2013 all rights reserved. Registered charity 1120261 Incorporated by Royal Charter Advertising telephone: 020 7820 5985 Printed in Great Britain by Newnorth Print Limited, Kempston, Bedford, MK42 8NA ISSN 0265-1076
editor Trevor James Guest editor Dave Martin editorial committee Alf Wilkinson, Paula Kitching and Rebecca Sullivan proof reading by Rafael Pepiol publisher Rebecca Sullivan design and layout Martin Hoare
Contact us c/o The Historical Association’s office at: 59a Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4JH or email us at: email@example.com Contributions to The Historian are welcomed for consideration for possible publication but the Association cannot accept responsibility for unsolicited manuscripts nor guarantee publication. All enquiries should be sent initially to the Association at the above address. The publication of a contribution by the Historical Association does not necessarily imply the Association’s approval of the opinions expressed in it.
Review In Joseph McBride’s biography, Searching for John Ford, the great American director is somewhat obsessed with the great emancipator. To Ford, “[Abraham] Lincoln is the archetypal figure of justice,” states McBride. He is a “symbolic reconciler of opposing forces in American life.” The connection started early. A young Ford reputedly saw his prodigal elder sibling on screen one day, while Francis Ford was in the process of establishing his reputation with a host of silent era renditions of Lincoln. For McBride, John somehow imbibed the magic and mysticism of the martyred president. Five years before Searching for John Ford, McBride’s portrait of Steven Spielberg made much of the directorial wunderkind’s indebtedness to Ford, especially the stylistic and structural influence of The Searchers. Perhaps it was inevitable then, that the links their respective biographies recognised in each other should finally, causally, fuse themselves together at the altar of Lincoln. Ford spent the better part of forty years having the president’s face and apparition in his movies – from The Iron Horse to Cheyenne Autumn – while Spielberg spent more than ten just bringing Lincoln to the screen. Each knows the Lincoln of legend; each has attempted to understand the hold the man has on successive generations of Americans; each has brought a pellucid, crystalline quality to their portraiture. Indeed, Spielberg’s indebtedness has never been forgotten and the last time we see Lincoln alive in his film is with his back turned, striding away, framed by the edges of a narrow corridor that leads him out of the White House, and on into immortality. A Fordian moment if ever there was one. If framing and stylisation were always an enduring facet of Ford’s direction, ambiguity was not; and rarely has it been with Spielberg. The heroes and villains, outcomes and redemption, have never been that hard to find. In Spielberg’s ‘historical’ movies – The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad – that has sometimes been a blessing and a curse. Knowing right from wrong in matters of Nazi tyranny, Japanese imperialism and of course, slavery has never been up for debate; knowing the intentions, ambitions and instructions associated with his protagonists in these matters however, often has. The protagonists of Lincoln though, are sculpted to almost historical perfection. Indeed, the imprint of historians as particular and precise as Doris Kearns Goodwin – whose book Team of Rivals acts as the source text – and James McPherson is never far away in the film. Mary Todd (Sally Field) appears perhaps just once too often conferring upon the audience the knowledge of a home life increasingly wrought with misery and pettiness set against the backdrop of her middle son’s death. But no one could question the intricacies of Field’s portrayal; nor doubt that the mawkish temptation to compare her in the movie with Lincoln’s alleged lost love, Ann Rutledge, is avoided with unswerving certainty. It is that investment in character and relationships that dominates and demands attention in Spielberg’s film. The president’s increasing closeness to William Seward (David Strathairn) as confidant and political ally, and the ideological and moral battle with Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, throw up a political drama that is a lesson for any age, let alone the one we live in today. Even the most historic, most monumental of legislative landmarks, it says, is rooted in democratic negotiation and compromise. To achieve greatness, it suggests, you sometimes need to just make people vote the way you want.
4 The Historian – Spring 2013
There are those who’ve described Lincoln as ‘wordy’ and not as ‘action-packed’ as it might be, as though the ‘vampireslayer’ version of the president should be among us in this movie too. What they mean to say is that the film is ‘political’ in every sense of the word – the whole story is concentrated upon the House of Representatives’ passage of the 13th Amendment – and political is testing and trying, not easy and malleable. If the film’s success asks us to regard democracy as a fallible beast subject to manipulation and aggrandisement which the greater amount of its +$100m box-office audience can appreciate, so much the better. And those intentions are made clear in the opening prologue. Screenwriter Tony Kushner establishes the Civil War context by suggesting correctly that the “American democratic experiment” was at stake. Because that is its focus, Lincoln shies away from the sentimentality of the assassination itself, and even demands of its audience an understanding that those closest to, and most admiring of the president, sometimes got bored with the tales and anecdotes that later reinforced his mythic grandeur. And in Fordian terms, it is memory and remembrance that suffuses much of the film. Pictures, books and especially daguerreotypes of young black children and slaves (the famous picture of a Baton Rouge man with his exposed back injuries from whippings is dwelt upon for a moment) captivate Lincoln’s young son, Tad. An early dream sequence of Lincoln being swept along on a boat heading for the faintest of light beyond the threatening sky; the immersion of the president in the floating curtains of the White House windows; all emphasise the ethereal, almost spiritual dimensions of the piece. As a cinematic experience then, it’s a tour-de-force; as a study in character it’s brilliant; but as a film rooted in the congestion of political conflict and coruscation Lincoln is surely Spielberg’s late career masterpiece. Ian Scott, University of Manchester. Author of American Politics in Hollywood Films (Second edition 2011), Edinburgh University Press.
editorial This edition of The Historian is devoted largely to historical fiction. Now this fiction genre has come a long way from the days when it was regarded with distrust and today many historians can be found writing historical fiction themselves. In 2013 historical fiction is a highly popular genre both with readers and historians, which should really come as no surprise. The appeal of history is that it is all about people; they are what make it endlessly fascinating. This is a point that Lindsey Davis makes about her method of working: ‘[Readers] want good stories about people who excite and intrigue them …’ And just as this is true for adult readers so it is for younger readers, as Fiona Collins notes in her survey of the past sixty years of children’s historical fiction: ‘…the past is made up of people and it is these characters which make the stories so enjoyable.’ As well as providing entertainment, good historical fiction is also concerned with evidence, with historical accuracy, unlike fantasy fiction such as Game of Thrones or science fiction such as Asimov’s Foundation trilogy which use history (the Wars of the Roses and the decline of the Roman Empire respectively) merely as a jumping off point for the author’s imagination. The theme of ‘trying to get it right’ can be seen in Lindsey Davis’ comments on her research. It also runs through Susannah Buxton’s answers to our questions on
Downton Abbey, Melissa Linton’s review of Pure and Ian Scott’s review of Lincoln. And where authors get it wrong we notice, as Richard Lee points out, on the treatment of religion by some modern authors. Marc Morris discusses the problem of the evidence for 1066, in passing notes the gap between history and historical fiction, and critically considers the work of historians. At a time when the current government is laying down its version of history it is worth being reminded that history is a construct rather than a given and that it is more than a mere collection of supposed facts. Chronology, change and continuity remain key concepts for us as historians and the passage of time is considered in Judith Graham’s exploration of the different covers given to Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason since it was first published in 1940. These reveal something of the changing nature of society. Children still read but what attracts them to a book has changed. Our changing society can also be glimpsed in the surveys of fiction for children looking back and for adults looking forward. Just as each age rewrites its history, so does each age rewrite its historical fiction. And sometimes this takes a considerable time. In his review, Ian Scott notes the ten years it took Stephen Spielberg to bring his version of Lincoln to cinema screens.
Looking forward, one topical question is the impact e-publishing is having on historical fiction, whether it be the advantages such as classic novels being more readily available and a wider variety of historical periods being covered or the disadvantages such as the absence of the book cover art in some e-readers. All these themes and more are discussed by the contributors to this edition. My thanks to all of them. And I hope that once you have finished reading you will feel encouraged to write your entry for the new Historical Flash Fiction competition. At the very least I hope that you emerge from this edition with some new reading and research ideas to pursue, perhaps exploring David Pearse’s St Petersburg in fiction? I’ll leave the final word to Maximilien Robespierre with whom I’ve become very familiar over the past three years: ‘Our revolution has made me feel the full force of the axiom that history is fiction.’
Guest editor Dave Martin is a freelance History Adviser and Open University associate lecturer. His latest book, an A-level text, is The French Revolution (Hodder Education 2013).
Six years ago we offered our members a themed issue of The Historian to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery. As part of our strong commitment to promoting and popularising The Historian, over the next three years or so we shall be returning to this approach by presenting members with a series of themed, or theme-dominant, issues. Several guest editors have agreed to contribute to this process and we are very grateful to them. Dave Martin has very kindly agreed to begin this process, with his perspectives on historical fiction, and I do thank him for his efforts in drawing this issue together. We hope that, with his help, our strategy will have some measurable impact. We hope the changes we are introducing will encourage more members of the Historical Association to subscribe to the journal and hopefully non-members too will find this an attractive and appealing offer. We do welcome your feedback and we still welcome offers by members of articles, or suggestions for articles. The forthcoming Annual Conference at York on 10-11 May would be just the occasion to come and discuss our attempts to re-vitalise this important Historical Association publication. Trevor James
The Historian – Spring 2013
“How can there be a true history, when we see no man living is able to write truly the history of the last week?” Lindsey Davis “How can there be a true history, when we see no man living is able to write truly the history of the last week?” (Thomas Shadwell) Indeed! Once when I had to give a talk in Spain, I found this quotation by looking up ‘history’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. The author is a picaresque seventeenth century dramatist. As I should have known, though I could only think of Shadwell as a station on the Docklands Light Railway, I Googled him. There you can glimpse my approach: curiosity about the past, placing historical figures in context, the importance of locations. For research I used a traditional resource plus a modern one and, ultimately, my choice of the quote appealed to the student of English in me. Although grounded in ‘Eng Lit and Lang’, when I began to write professionally, I always wanted to be a historical novelist; no alternative ever appealed. I didn’t know then that you only get taken seriously if you are either a literary author who decides to slum it in costume for a few quick bucks or a professor of history – “Look at me, a Famous Man, lowering myself to write a novel about a Famous Man!” They are a bit one-track-minded, novelist profs; it’s always Alexander being Great, never the boy who files Bucephalus’ hooves. I, by contrast, might actually find mileage in Antinoos’ life when he was only a Theban shepherd, before Hadrian happened along… Luckily I have managed to get a fair way without being taken seriously and now I am asked to tell you about it, so maybe things are looking up. I probably differ from most readers of The Historian because my purpose is 6 The Historian – Spring 2013
not to educate. Historical novels – good ones − are never textbooks. Lousy ones try to be, but I don’t read them and I bet you don’t either. Mine are never meant to be tools for lazy teachers, the easy route to the now proverbial Daily Life in Ancient Rome. To those who proudly tell me they put The Silver Pigs on their students’ reading lists, I respond with snarling ingratitude. My aim is to provide entertainment and escapism. In that context historical novelists do not have to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In fact, as a campaigning creative artist, I maintain it is positively our duty to be original. What is more, and I hope this doesn’t shock you, fiction writers who invent material are not even obliged to mention that they have done so. Getting started was not easy. I tried to interest publishers in romantic stories set in the English Civil War, then a straight love story about the Emperor Vespasian and his mistress Caenis, and eventually in a spoofy Roman detective series. Over and over again I was told there was no market for historicals and absolutely no market for books set in the Roman period. Readers couldn’t take it. Too difficult. Too obscure… Go into any good bookshop today and marvel. I knew readers were open-minded. If you give them something interesting and make it accessible, they are not scared. They want good stories about people who excite and intrigue them, stories told in a strong way. They do have an appetite for information despite not wanting didacticism, but people don’t love Falco because he steps from the streets of ancient Rome (even though many of them believe, on my persuasion, that this is true). They enjoy his human character: his rakish attitude, jokes, casual appearance and honest courage, and his
ragged family life – things that women fall in love with and men wish were happening to them, or vice versa. Even so, Rome has its importance. Readers do like an author to describe, as far as we can know for sure, what life in another period and place might have been like. I find it awkward answering the many people who ask me: how do I do my research? Because my degree was in English, I had been prepared for this job and to me it’s obvious. We were taught to boldly go into libraries. We had to find, dissect, evaluate and place in context original texts, then defend our opinions. I say that fitted us to wander into any other discipline too, and certainly to write novels with meaty ingredients of all kinds. For me, the requirements of a novel are, in no particular order: plot, character, dialogue, narrative, structure, vocabulary and decorum. (By decorum I mean, whether a book is written in a way suitable to its subject.) Importantly, this definition makes no reference to history. I could write a picaresque, satirical, deeply humane novel, a typical Lindsey Davis novel, yet set in the modern world. It would use exactly the same tools and be based on my interests – architecture, street-life, social groups, political shenanigans at local and national level, accidents of fate and their effects on individuals, love, betrayal, greed, ambition, industry, logistics, trade, travel, publishing, writing... Sometimes I think I should write a contemporary novel to prove my point. Still, as things turned out, I am a historical novelist and famous for detail. “How do you do your research?” readers keep asking. They often look anxious, as though they imagine it a chore, but really for me it’s great fun. Fun is important because it communicates to readers. You don’t have to discover everything.
Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.
Wall painting in an oecus triclinium.
You are after the striking detail, which in an academic thesis might be a dry statistic; however, in fiction it needs to be relevant. Mention anything scientific and you will effortlessly acquire a patina of seriousness – without needing to draw any tricky diagrams. Some of what I need is not historical at all. Geography, dogs, weather patterns… I have to know what a murdered corpse would look like. Pathologists’ memoirs are troves of facts about maggots.
“Garden of the Fugitives”. Plaster casts of victims still in situ.
Based on how I was trained, I read everything that may possibly be relevant. I will always prefer to work surrounded by books stuck with marker slips, especially on a long project. But I’ve mentioned the Internet. I do grapple with this phantasmagoria. I then visit locations, museums and sites. Nothing beats seeing for yourself. Scale, bulk, colour, views from and to, are all best evaluated in person, and photographed if possible – though alack for my grand
Portrait of the baker Terentius Neo with his wife found on the wall of a Pompeii house.
set piece in the amphitheatre at Leptis Magna, where cameras were forbidden because the Libyan archaeologists had yet to ‘publish’ the site... Still, I have always advocated sauntering about and using your memory. When I begin to write, I will be using ideas that came to me during this process, though it will continue. This is the stage people often misunderstand. It is comparatively rare for me to look up a particular fact. Searching for specific The Historian – Spring 2013
information, especially in the ancient world with its limited source material, can waste a lot of time. It is so much better to absorb everything I come across, then let the material inspire me. And as well as preparing each novel as a separate unit, I have a longterm process of hoarding information, for years or even decades. Some of this stuff, how ever intriguing, may never be used. As a novelist I use other tools. Observation (visual, aural, olfactory), tempered by my knowledge of the world, society and human behaviour. I need an ear for words, a sense of humour, a feeling for tragedy, a determined idea of right and wrong. History colours those, but I have to distinguish between modern and older sensibilities – and sometimes fight readers’ own perceptions. In practice my fact-finding differs according to period. I am best known
my lifetime there have been changes, where I try to keep abreast. I was at school when Barry Cunliffe described the Roman Palace that he hoped he had found at Fishbourne. The site of the Varus disaster, ‘lost’ for centuries, was identified by a British army Major when I had just started to write. Initially I knew no-one in the academic world but I soon met friendly, helpful people. Hilariously, the fiction editor at Woman’s Realm, who gave me my first break as a writer of romances, had an archaeologist son, Will Bowden; he took me to see Nero’s Golden House and then led me down the drains, into the Cloaca Maxima, beneath the Forum of Nerva many years before its recent appearance in a TV documentary. That illustrates how sometimes my special needs differ from the academic, because yes, I used the Cloaca’s Etruscan brickwork, the bend in the tunnel, the smell, the weed
in Satyricon by Petronius – and I am the first to say that fiction should not be taken literally. By contrast, for the modern period, I could read the equivalent of Hansard: I even read the online House of Commons records at home, fortified by tea and winegums. I was awash with primary sources – news sheets, parish and county records, livery company archives. I looked up Civil War people in the Dictionary of National Biography, again free and accessible by non-specialists, merely with membership of a local library. I found fine, and perhaps unsung, government sites that not only offer original documents but sometimes critiques: for instance, on the House of Lords site the Death Warrant of Charles I has an invaluable discussion of the circumstances in which it was rushed to finality, the changes that seem to have been made, and why. I had read descriptions of the Battle of Naseby,
This is the period I had always wanted to write about, ever since my father led me into the Central Library in Birmingham, a rather odd teenager who wanted to look up the incident called Prince Rupert’s Burning Love. for Roman novels, but more recently I embarked on a long, serious novel set in the English Civil War and Commonwealth. Researching Rebels and Traitors was a refreshing surprise. Perhaps few academic historians have an opportunity to explore both ancient and modern history, so the fascinating difference is worth mentioning. Equipped with a classical education and inspired by a Latin teacher who introduced us to archaeology, Roman fiction had called to me without much forethought. Handily, much surviving Latin literature comes from the First Century. I have regularly used Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars, the histories of Tacitus and Josephus, the satirical writing of Martial, Juvenal and Petronius. I have drawn on Pliny’s villa at Laurentum, Cicero’s lawcourt style, Greek plays. The big disadvantage is that Latin sources are so few that for two thousand years everyone writing either fiction or non-fiction has flogged away with the same texts. They don’t go out of date and Jerome Carcopino’s iconic Daily Life in Ancient Rome remains in print after 90 years precisely because its dense pages are packed with allusions to those classics. But the frequently repeated anecdotes have become clichés. Archaeology is my favourite source for the Roman world, first because I like it and of course because the eruption of Vesuvius gave us that spectacular time capsule of remains. In 8 The Historian – Spring 2013
in the cold current - but most useful to me was realising afterwards, as Falco remarks: ‘When you have been down a sewer, nobody will help you to pull off your boots.’ Turning to the seventeenth century after twenty years of togas, I felt like a child in a chocolate factory. This is the period I had always wanted to write about, ever since my father led me into the Central Library in Birmingham, a rather odd teenager who wanted to look up the incident called Prince Rupert’s Burning Love. (That day’s green biro notes were finally used after four decades.) For Rebels and Traitors I became a Reader at the British Library. Oh frabjous day! In the Civil War, everyone knew they lived in spectacular times and many produced personal memoirs. Pens flew at all levels and sex was no bar. The Thomason Tracts, pamphlets and newsletters collected at the time, comprise over twenty-two thousand items; when I was researching, they were on open-access shelves. Even if the burned scrolls in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum can be excavated, preserved and painstakingly deciphered, it will be years before they produce anything so wondrous. How different this new world was from researching Rome. The Roman Senate’s pronouncements were put up daily, as the Acta Diurna, yet none remain; we only have a shadowy parody in Trimalchio’s conversation at dinner
where eye-witness accounts survive, but with all the confusion you would expect. The English Heritage Battlefield Report discusses events with outstanding clarity (its author not even named, but thank you). Without doubt there is more immediacy in the modern period. To read Cromwell’s ‘Take away that bauble!’ speech in full was not only a rollicking experience, but forensic evidence of just how the man would work himself up to action. Now while ‘my’ emperor, Vespasian, comes through in Suetonius and Josephus, I have to allow for them being ancient spin-doctors and though we are told he had a country accent and was a joker, we know hardly anything Vespasian said. His wry dying comment: ‘I think I am turning into a god’ gives a clue – but only if he said it. The historical record shows the actions of the great; it often does not show the reactions of the rest. That is the task of the historical novelist. It is a fine task. It gives pleasure and instruction to both producer and recipient and it can be fun. To give a full picture of a previous period, novelists have to know intricate details of daily life. Take underwear. Any decent seduction scene specifies what bodices are ripped or what tunics are shed. A fellow author heard I was writing a scene where Falco is suspended upside down in a well, heroically rescuing a child; she immediately snapped: ‘Did the Romans wear underpants?’ Well, a famous squaddie’s letter in the
Vindolanda tablets does touchingly beg: ‘Dear Mother, please send underpants’, but he’s freezing on Hadrian’s Wall. I was chuffed to find pictorial evidence on the Ara Pacis, Augustus’ self-glorifying monument. In the family procession, an imperial toddler has his tunic rucked up in his belt, with his bare bottom showing. My tough guy Falco wears no pants (but cringes as his mates mock his exposure). I didn’t have to wonder with the Seventeenth Century. Museums have vests assigned to Charles I and among vivid eye-witness reports of Thomas Rainborough’s murder, I found a maid saying the Colonel’s attackers disturbed him ‘in his waistcoat, drawers and slippers’ (other witnesses omitted the drawers, a useful pointer to attitudes). From Roman times, anything perishable – fabric, wood, leather – vanishes or only survives in fragments, perhaps carbonised, rusted or crushed. Seventeenth Century domestic wares are abundant and even crop up on Antiques Roadshow - pottery, weapons, clocks, fabulous painted chests and scrumptious stumpwork embroidery. I also fell upon an incomparable range of modern pamphlets that gather details of domestic life, many from an excellent man called Stuart Peachey. Titles include The Single Woman, The Soldier’s Snapsack Opened, and Did They Wash in Those Days? The Book of Pies (oh bliss − two volumes!) is almost as luscious as the Hairy Bikers. Novelists are worldly-wise so I felt I could do Lust and Seventeenth Century Sex unaided, though trust me, Advanced Seventeenth Century Sex is thrilling. Nothing ever beats doing it yourself, however. When I wrote One Virgin Too Many I soon discovered that if you look up ‘Vestal Virgins’ with an internet search engine you must wade through websites about heavy metal rock groups, evangelical Christianity and hardcore pornography (also Jimmy White’s Snooker Homepage, for some reason). Still, although people seemed startled when I said this, I ‘researched’ virginity from memory. My experiments in historical cookery, for both periods, have varied from curious to entertaining. No-one has died yet, however. Serendipity happens. My Civil War project took so long, I wrote two Falcos during it. Alexandria naturally has a body in the Great Library – not easy, since the earthquake that tossed Egyptian and Roman monuments into the harbour has obliterated even the library’s location, let alone details of layout and décor without which the building that had been so famous in its day was damned hard to recreate confidently in a novel now. While I worked in the British Library on Rebels and Traitors no-one was murdered or died of old age unnoticed at their desk (if so, it was suspiciously hushed up), but, as I joyously browsed the Thomason Tracts, I was also gathering ideas about readers’ irritating behaviour, students meeting their friends, helpful, under-rated staff... All this would colour Alexandria. People like to get very excited about ‘authenticity’. For a novelist, depicting any society at any period means persuading readers to believe your version even if it’s a truism that we can never really know what Roman society was like. Achieving it can be unnerving. I once had a beseeching email: ‘Did Marcus Didius Falco exist? Can you please get back to me with the answer?’ I answered very gently, because I detected a lovesick teenager. The elusive historical ‘authenticity’, can have unseen repercussions. A student once told me she had discussed with her tutor the fact that Roman buildings had gimcrack foundations and often fell down, only to realise she was citing as her provenance Falco’s apartment collapse in Venus in Copper. When I’m pretending to be serious, I call this a great responsibility. In more mischievous moments, I dream of inventing some ludicrous fact and having it become accepted internationally. Perhaps I have done it. How would you know? You sometimes have to fudge. I can allude to the truth: how the hell did the Romans tell the time with that daft hourly
Prince Ruperts Burning Love (1643).
system, or whatever happened at breakfast if every male in a family was called Titus? But in novels people have to be able to make appointments they can keep and you just cannot give a whole bunch of characters the same name. I am not always aiming for the historically ‘real’ anyway. I don’t personally care for time-travel novels, but my Falco series deliberately had several cultural standpoints, being both ‘cross-genre’ and ‘spoof ’. In an odd way I think this makes it more important to make the Roman background right. You have to be serious before you can be funny. You have to be real before you can be surreal. William Thackeray tried to make his historical novel Henry Esmond true to ‘the manners and language of Queen Anne’s time’ (a hundred and fifty years earlier); it was even printed in a special type designed to mimic the appearance of a book of the period. So should my Roman books be printed on carbonised scrolls, mimicking the treasures from the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum? I do draft my manuscripts in Times New Roman, and I know of a font called Pompeii; it is based on the dark red lettering used for political advertisements – ‘Vote for our boy, say the manicurists of the Forum Baths!’ Unfortunately, it is horrible to read. So forget Thackeray; that’s out. Finding out historical facts is only the first half of my task. Research will help me to make my characters realistic, to have them doing what they genuinely might do, at the right hour of the day, wearing appropriate clothes. I want to know how they would work, eat, drink, sleep, how they regard their motherThe Historian – Spring 2013
in-law, discuss the weather, make jokes about the government. Personally, I think human nature doesn’t change much, which makes some of this easy. But one big issue for a historical novelist is how to incorporate daily detail in a way that will sound appropriate. This often requires an almost impossible balancing act, but sounding ‘right’ makes the difference between whether or not you get angry letters or vituperative emails. I do a lot by ‘feel’ so can’t describe it. In theory I must avoid language which sounds too modern, and obvious jarring anachronisms are ruled out. But I reckon that, to people in the past, their speech sounded contemporary, not old and quaint. So I have to devise something which hints at another world while accepting that we really have very little idea what Roman street slang was like, or else I must present the seventeenth century without cumbersome theeing and thouing, or arcane Biblical allusions that general readers now won’t recognise. People will still complain that it sounds ‘too modern’. Some will say ‘too American’ or some, ‘too British’. I just carry on. A critical area is swearing. There is no doubt that Falco and his associates, my Praetorian Guard in Master and God, cavaliers, and even Roundheads in a tight spot, plus any incidental criminals, vagabonds, slaves, feisty women, haughty aristocrats – well, everyone, in fact – will swear on occasion. Sometimes you can’t just write: ‘I cursed’, although my new character Albia does make a joke of that (“Oh what a nuisance” – approximately!). Master and God, a hefty standalone novel set in the reign of paranoid emperor Domitian, was written in the third person where invented words felt wrong and I had a startling conversation with my editor, discussing how many times my soldier hero might say ‘fuck’, until we agreed ‘Gaius is a soldier; he wouldn’t mince words’. In lighter novels, I cheerily invent. In the spirit of Tintin and Captain Haddock’s ‘Blistering barnacles!’ I grow increasingly fond of having characters exclaim ‘Flying phalluses!’ using those authentic winged wotsits from Pompeii. I suppose there are extra considerations in writing historical detective novels. By coincidence murder − within the family, and caused by jealousy − is the first recorded crime in ancient Rome: when Romulus jumped over the half-finished walls of the new city and battered his brother Remus to death. (Not a classic whodunit, though, 10 The Historian – Spring 2013
since we always know who it was.) I have written a short story where an investigator tries to impose law and order on Romulus in the traditional way, but I was fighting my inclinations. Since I was a civil servant once, I wanted to know whether the city walls went over budget because of the delay, if the incident on the building site resulted in any kind of contract claim and what official statement was put out in the media to whitewash the murder and soothe public unrest… With time and the proliferation of historical mysteries, what is possible for me has changed. I remember clearly that when I began to devise Falco it was a period when women detective writers were producing strong female protagonists. I consciously considered whether this would be possible in the Roman world but for years I said I couldn’t have a female lead because no respectable Roman woman could knock on strangers’ doors and ask questions. She could be a midwife or prostitute, but I lacked first hand knowledge of either and didn’t fancy the research… Now I think it can be done. My next project is a new series about Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia. Albia originates in Britain; she can show us Rome from new perspectives, both as a woman and an outsider. By creating a character who had a rough past yet who has acquired links to the world of the better-off and well-placed, she will be able to do her job as an investigator in more than one milieu – while complaining entertainingly about the social limitations she has to overcome. I like the opportunities for a new kind
of satire, and I genuinely think the setting works with a heroine who earns a living – as many Roman women did in craft or commerce, whatever the textbooks imply. There are too many historical novels written about the love affairs of aristocrats or endlessly fighting soldiers. Whatever other authors do, I have always shunned stereotypes. What counts most for me is the story but there are reasons why I will always like setting that story in the past. A historical period lends distance. It is escapism for readers, and indeed for me. I think that lends a separation, a neutrality from which I can work with passion and incisiveness but with more freedom than if I was describing modern life and its many stresses. Perhaps I want to be in control, more than any of us can be in the real world. Perhaps I feel easier saying: ‘I am telling you this is how it was’ than I would be trying to say ‘this is how it is’. We can never know what ‘history’ was really like. But if a novelist makes people believe that they have travelled beyond the straightforward recital of events and into the hearts of the people to whom those events happened, then that is at least a start. Historical novels provide the mental therapy all reading offers, but with a particular focus. They may not be good teaching devices, but they do present past societies in a pleasurable and accessible way. Even when they describe a world very different from ours, they have much to tell us about human nature both then and now, at its best and worst. We need to understand the past in order to grapple with the present; we need to improve on the present if we are to have any hope for the future. Above all, readers want to escape from immediate troubles into a different world for a short time, and then come back to reality cheered and refreshed. For me, helping them to do so is a wonderful task.
Lindsey Davis is best known for Roman detective, Marcus Didius Falco . She has also written Rebels and Traitors, set in the English Civil War and Master and God, about the paranoid Emperor Domitian.
The Ides of April, the first Flavia Albia novel, will be published in April 2013.
Her books are translated and have been dramatized on BBC Radio 4. Her awards include the Premio Colosseo and the CWA Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement.
The President’s Column The draft National History Curriculum has been making headline news recently. It was the subject of BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze on 27 March and has been heavily criticised in articles by David Cannadine and Richard Evans, amongst other eminent historians. Many school teachers have been equally critical of the draft, which they say is too content heavy and fails to recognise age appropriate learning. Support for the proposals has come largely from journalists and pundits, as well as in a letter to The Times from 15 historians, most of whom then fell conspicuously silent on the subject. Naturally, the last few weeks have also been a very busy time for the HA. Rebecca Sullivan, our CEO, and Mel Jones, our Education Officer, had both been involved in the consultation process prior to the announcement of the proposals. They had presented substantial evidence in the form of pedagogic research to the officials at the Department for Education, but the HA’s advice has clearly been ignored so far. The deadline for responses to the new proposals is mid-April and the HA has been active in canvassing the opinions of history teachers via our regular primary and secondary surveys along with a dedicated forum and a poll. The majority of respondents have been negative about the proposals and there is little evidence of support for them amongst teachers of history. As an early modernist, one of my great concerns is that the proposals, which are strictly chronological, dictate that children will have to reach 1700 by the time they leave primary school. This means that any student dropping history at age 14 will have a very vague grasp of pre-modern history. I certainly do not remember much about the history that I was taught at primary school. What does stand out, though, were trips outside the classroom, especially a visit to a local museum, which taught me more
about chronology than I could have picked up in several weeks of history classes. Yet museums, archives and libraries are also facing cutbacks, making the job of effective teaching history all the more difficult. The HA will continue to represent the views of our members during the current consultation and will press vigorously for changes to the proposals. On 18 March I represented the HA at a conference on Teaching Difficult Histories at Cumberland Lodge where the draft curriculum was also a topic of discussion. Sir John Elliott gave an insightful keynote lecture on ‘The Contested Past’ based on his experience of research into Spanish History. During the day we heard about the development of history textbooks for use in Afghan schools, and history and conflict resolution in Rwanda and Northern Ireland. By the end of the conference we had concluded that historians should confront the ‘myths and halftruths’, which pass for history whilst acknowledging that a completely neutral history is impossible to achieve. For my own talk, I was able to draw on the HA’s excellent 2007 report on Teaching Emotive and Controversial History. I was also able to reflect on how much of the new draft national curriculum consists of contested histories, including the Crusades, the Plantation of Ireland and Cromwell’s Commonwealth at Key Stage 2 (7-11) and the growth of Empire, the Indian Mutiny, the
‘Great Game’, and Home Rule for Ireland at Key Stage 3 (11-14). Given the sensitivities surrounding these topics, some teachers may want more training and support to deliver them successfully, but I wonder whether the Department for Education has given this any consideration? Branch visits have continued to be an important part of my role as President of the HA and I have encountered some delightful and, given the state of the weather, very determined audiences! Heavy snow in late January did not prevent members from getting to Welwyn Garden City to hear my talk to the Hertfordshire branch, although the weather had improved considerably by the time I went to the Exeter and the North London branches in February. In March I spoke in Plymouth and Canterbury, where I was delighted by the turn out of 97 people to hear about Canterbury during the English Civil Wars. I am looking forward to my forthcoming visits to the Isle of Wight, Essex, Winchester and Durham branches in April and May. This year the HA’s annual conference will be held in York, one of my favourite cities. I shall be speaking about Elizabeth I’s reputation as a ‘glorious’ queen and I do hope that I will be seeing some of you there.
The Historian – Spring 2013
The Limits of our Knowledge Marc Morris
s the most pivotal and traumatic event in English history, the Norman Conquest continues to generate controversy and debate, especially among those who know little about it or enjoy passing judgement on the past. Who had the better claim to the English throne, William the Conqueror or Harold Godwineson? Was Harold out-generalled at Hastings or simply unlucky? Was William a war-criminal or just a typical warrior of his time? Confronted with the abundance of such hardy perennials, wags might be tempted to quote the apocryphal words of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, asked in the 1970s about the significance of the French Revolution: it’s too early to tell. The real problem, of course, is that 1066 was a long time ago. When we move back almost a millennium into the past, the evidence is not that good. Eleventh-century England was a literate society, but literacy existed only in pockets. Other societies at the time – those in Scandinavia, for example, with which England was intimately involved – were scarcely literate at all. Much was left unwritten, and much that was written has long since been lost. In comparison with the later Middle Ages, the survival rate for eleventh-century evidence is awful. By the thirteenth century royal government was producing vast amounts of written material every day; the royal chancery had more than a hundred clerks producing thousands of documents, many of which can still be read in the National Archives. Thus the itinerary of Edward I (1272–1307), compiled and published in the 1970s, 12 The Historian – Spring 2013
fills three large printed volumes. But by way of sad contrast, the itinerary of William the Conqueror (1066–87) fills only three printed pages, because government archive from the eleventh century is virtually non-existent. Despite the immense importance of William’s reign to English history, we can barely say where he was from one year to the next. We are not, thank goodness, solely reliant on official documents. We also have monastic chronicles, and these can go some way to making good the deficit. But with such chronicles we are at the mercy of the monks who wrote them; we have always to take into account their tendency to interpret events as the unfolding of God’s great plan, and sometimes their political bias as well. Also, as with the archive, we are often confronted with quite insuperable gaps. Take the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our principal source for what was happening in England both immediately before and after the Norman Conquest. Sometimes it is extremely garrulous, but at other times infuriatingly tight-lipped. Describing, for example, the arrival of a Viking fleet in 1057 led by the son of Harold Hardrada, the Chronicle comments: ‘a pirate host came from Norway. It is tedious to tell how it all happened’. The same taciturn attitude infects the Chronicle at other critical junctures. ‘The king arrested Bishop Odo’ is all it has to say about William’s detention of his notorious half-brother in 1082, while the sum total of its entry for 1084 is to record the death of the abbot of Chertsey. For other years –
crucial years – it has no entries at all. The insufficiency of our source material means that vast tracts of the Conquest story lie beyond our reach and must forever remain a mystery. To take perhaps the most celebrated example of all, consider the old chestnut about whether King Harold was killed with an arrow in the eye. At first glance, it seems certain that the story must be true: not only is it alluded to in several chronicles, it is also famously depicted on that most wondrous survival, the Bayeux Tapestry. But the closer you look, the more the arrow-in-the-eye story itself starts to look like a piece of embroidery. In the first place, the chronicles that mention it are somewhat vague: Harold is variously said to have been hit in the eye, the brain or some unspecified place. They are, moreover, all written some time after the event, the earliest dating to the beginning of the twelfth century. Contemporary chroniclers, by contrast, even those that supply long and detailed descriptions of the Battle of Hastings, do not mention the arrow story at all, and one of them relates a very different version of events, wherein Harold is hacked down by a dedicated Norman death-squad. The only contemporary source to feature the arrow is the Bayeux Tapestry, and the Tapestry is famously ambiguous (Is it really an arrow? Is it really Harold?). Its testimony is also fatally undermined by its demonstrable debt to other artistic sources. The scene that depicts Harold’s death appears to derive from earlier manuscript illustrations of the biblical king Zedekiah, punished by
Nebuchadnezzar by having his eyes put out. The inescapable conclusion is that we have no good contemporary evidence for the arrow-in-the-eye story, only a pictorial source of dubious worth, which may in turn have spawned a later chronicle tradition.1 You never know: one day someone may dig up a skeleton, perhaps at Waltham Abbey, perhaps on a hill near Hastings, surrounded by obvious trappings of royalty, an arrowhead rattling inside its skull. But despite the excitement generated by the apparently certain identification of dead medieval monarchs, even the best-intentioned archaeology can sometimes take us in the opposite direction of historical truth. In the late 1950s, experts in Caen decided to crack open the tombs of William the Conqueror and his queen, Matilda, and as a result it was widely reported that, while he was an impressive 5’10”, she was a diminutive 4’2”. Widely reported, but not accurately reported. When the disbelieving royal gynaecologist Sir John Dewhurst looked further into the matter, he discovered that the French archaeologists had actually concluded that Matilda had
been 5’ – a result far more compatible with the fact that she bore at least nine children. But in any case the heights of both Matilda and William were only estimates, in her case extrapolated from the size of part of her pelvis. If indeed it was her pelvis. Since tombs at Caen were desecrated on two separate occasions, their contents scattered by Huguenots in the sixteenth century and revolutionaries in the eighteenth, any conclusions about the size of the Conqueror and his queen must surely be so qualified as to be all but worthless.2 Apart from the Bayeux Tapestry, the Conquest period boasts one other world-famous piece of evidence in the form of Domesday Book. A record of landholding in England compiled and collated in 1086, Domesday is justly famous: running to two volumes, 832 folios and somewhere in the region of two million words, it has justly been called ‘the most complete survey of a pre-industrial society anywhere in the world’.3 As a source it could hardly be more different from the Tapestry, which is artistic, ambiguous and derivative. Domesday is crammed full of personal names, place names and figures, a
veritable mine of information. Here, at last, is the cold hard data which can confirm or deny the hearsay and opinion of the chronicles. But Domesday itself is a fairly intractable source. It says a lot about its nature that, after more than a century of rigorous scholarship, historians are still not agreed on what it was made for, or indeed precisely when it was made. With careful winnowing by experts alive to its limitations and idiosyncrasies, Domesday can be made to yield valuable (albeit qualified) answers about the nature of English society as it existed both before and after 1066. But without such cautious handling it too can create more layers of misinformation. Over a century ago, for example, a scholar called Francis Baring posited that it was possible to chart the course of William’s armies by looking at Domesday’s recording of ‘waste’ (vasta) – the assumption being that such devastation had been caused during the campaigns of 1066. It all looked very clever and well substantiated, but was completely discredited by a more careful scholar, John Palmer, some twenty years ago. Nevertheless, books continue to be
The Historian – Spring 2013
Battle Abbey, Sussex: despite recent controversy, contemporary voices assure us it was built ‘on the very spot’ where King Harold was defeated.
written that follow the Conqueror along the detailed but bogus routes sketched out by Baring.4 We have to face up to the fact that some things about the Norman Conquest are completely irrecoverable
Biography, however, and you’ll discover that his surname is not recorded until the twelfth century, as Harefah, and probably arose from confusion with the Norwegian king, Harold Fairhair. The same applies to the legendary
We have to face up to the fact that some things about the Norman Conquest are completely irrecoverable – not least the personalities of some of the key players. – not least the personalities of some of the key players. Consider, for instance, Harold Harefoot, son of King Cnut, who succeeded his father in 1035 and ruled until 1040. King of England for the best part of five years, and yet, because of the reticence of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we know precisely nothing about him – no contemporary source offers us so much as a single adjective. Look him up online and you’ll discover that Harold’s colourful surname apparently signified that he could run as fast as a hare, a happy notion put about by an American writer called Albert Le Roy Bartlett in his Essentials of Language and Grammar as recently as 1899. Look the same king up in the Oxford Dictionary of National 14 The Historian – Spring 2013
English hero Hereward the Wake, whose cognomen was once thought to betoken an unusual level of alertness, yet almost certainly arises from his supposed connection with the later medieval Wake family. Naturally, the fact that we cannot recover anything of these characters’ personalities does not deter some from trying. After all, people have been making up stories about the Conquest from the moment it happened, and continue to do so today in the form of historical novels, television dramas and so on. But as the Conqueror’s contemporary biographer, William of Poitiers, so aptly points out, poets are allowed to amplify their knowledge in
any way they like by roaming through the fields of fiction. Those who claim to be historians, by implication, ought to exercise greater restraint, yet the temptation to fill the gaps with psychohistory often proves irresistible. One of the most popular books on the subject in recent times has been 1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth. In many respects a charming piece of writing, easy-going and uncluttered, Howarth’s book is nevertheless laced throughout with constant speculation about the mental state of its characters, based on nothing more than its author’s own questionable reading of their actions and some amateur stabs at psycho-analysis. Discussing the famously childless Edward the Confessor, for example, Howarth comments: ‘given the behaviour of Edward’s mother, a psychiatrist would not be surprised to find a homosexual son; but to judge by his reputation, whatever instinct he had was strictly suppressed’. That’s splendid on two levels: first, in its assumption that homosexuality is caused by distant and unloving mothers; second, in its allusion to Edward’s spotless reputation, effectively admitting that there is no historical evidence to support such idle comment. Plenty more follows in a similar vein. When Tostig Godwineson attacks England in 1066, Howarth is quick to diagnose mental illness. ‘Certainly if anyone behaved like Tostig today he would be sent to a psychiatrist’. And at the end of the book Howarth is wheeling out the consulting couch again, this time for Harold Godwineson, who (in this version of events) discovers he
The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle, one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, contains unique information about the history of England after the Norman Conquest.
has been excommunicated by the pope on the eve of the Battle of Hastings, with fatal consequences. ‘Harold’s own confidence in himself, his cause, his very right to be king, can only have been shaken to its foundation’.5 Sadly Howarth is not alone in peddling such nonsense. We find similar cod-psychiatry in 1066: The Year of Three Battles by Frank McLynn, where Edward the Confessor is described as ‘a crossgrained neurasthenic, a neurotic with a tendency to paranoia and possessed of a fearsome temper that often made him impervious to reason... his ‘saintly’ detachment can be read in quite another way, as the ‘schizoid’ alienation of the classic lone-wolf ’. How do such writers, one wonders, arrive at such vivid diagnoses? The answer, it seems, is by a kind of historical Chinese whispers. McLynn, for example, is adamant that the Confessor, despite spending almost a quarter of century in exile at their court, owed no debt of gratitude to the dukes of Normandy, because ‘he had not been especially well treated’. It is a notion that hardens as the book progresses: later we are told that Edward ‘hated and despised’ Normandy and ‘was in reality livid with anger’ at the Normans.6 Yet there is not a shred of evidence to support this interpretation. It derives entirely from comments made thirty years earlier by Edward’s modern biographer, Frank Barlow, who was equally insistent that his subject had no reason to be grateful to the people who had raised him. ‘It would seem just as possible, perhaps more likely’, wrote Barlow in a wholly speculative passage, ‘that Edward had
a grievance against the Norman court. It would have been a little unfair, but hardly unexpected, if he had claimed that his Norman relatives had kept him out of his ancestral inheritance’.7 It would, in fact, have been completely unfair, because it is entirely at odds with the evidence. Twice during his exile Edward tried to regain England by force, and on each occasion his Norman hosts supplied him with fleets and soldiers. We can also see that the Normans recognized Edward’s status as England’s rightful king during this same period, since he is styled with that title in surviving ducal charters. As this example proves, there is sometimes enough evidence to counter the worst excesses of the why-notmake-it-up brigade; sometimes we can say what happened in the distant past with something approaching certainty. Despite the noisy newspaper headlines in recent months, for instance, we can still reasonably suppose that the Battle of Hastings was fought on the site where Battle Abbey now stands, because the contemporary voices that tell us so are so compelling. ‘On the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England, he caused a great abbey to be built’. So says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its obituary of William the Conqueror, a passage clearly composed before 1100 by an Englishman who describes himself as having lived at the king’s own court. Unsurprisingly, it is a source that goes unmentioned by those who contend that the battle was fought elsewhere.8 But the basic truth remains that, when we venture back almost a millennium into the past, there is often far less evidence than we could wish, and certainty remains elusive. Faced with
this fact, responsible historians admit the limitations of their source material, both to themselves and to their readers. William of Malmesbury, one of the greatest of all medieval historians, wrote his account of the Conquest period barely fifty years after 1066 itself, yet occasionally found enormous difficulty piecing together what had actually happened. ‘I should like to warn the reader’, he wrote, before describing the contentious events of 1051, ‘that here I perceive the course of my narrative to be somewhat in doubt, because the truth of the facts is in suspense and uncertain’.
D. Bernstein, ‘The Blinding of Harold and the Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 5 (1983), 60–4; C. Dennis, ‘The Strange Death of King Harold II’, The Historian (2009), 14–18. 2 J. Dewhurst, ‘A Historical Obstetric Enigma: How Tall was Matilda?”, Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 1 (1981), 271–2. 3 S. Baxter, ‘Domesday Book’, BBC History Magazine, 11 (August, 2010), 25. 4 F. Baring, ‘The Conqueror’s Footprints in Domesday’, English Historical Review, 13 (1898), 17–25; J. J. N. Palmer, ‘The Conqueror’s Footprints in Domesday’, The Medieval Military Revolution, ed. A. Ayton and J. L. Price (1995), 23–44. 5 D. Howarth, 1066: The Year of the Conquest (1977), 34, 84, 164. 6 F. McLynn, 1066: The Year of Three Battles (1999), 13–14, 67–8, 78. 7 F. Barlow, Edward the Confessor (1970), 51–2. 8 J. Grehan and M. Mace, The Battle of Hastings 1066: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012). 1
The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris is now out in paperback (Windmill, 2013). Marc has recently made a short film dealing with the same theme, the limitations of source material for the Conquest period, which you can watch at: www.marcmorris.org.uk/p/films.html
The Historian – Spring 2013
Historical Fiction: warts and all Richard Lee
he perception is that, for historical fiction, this is the best of times. It has never been more popular: witness the 2012 Christmas day schedule-jostling between Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. It has never been more literary: witness Hilary Mantel winning her second Man Booker prize for Bring Up the Bodies, sequel to Wolf Hall, and no fewer than four other major Commonwealth literary awards seized by historicals.1 Literary historical fiction even has its own bespoke award, the Walter Scott Prize, now in its fourth year. Listening to writers (or agents or editors) though, you don’t always hear the same thing. It is especially hard, apparently, to sell anything outside the popular periods and settings. Again, certain genres are ‘hot’, but many more are deemed saturated, or old hat. And what do readers feel? Are we getting the historical novels we want to read? Do we think this is some kind of a golden age?
What are the popular periods and settings?
Since the Historical Novel Society began in 1997 we have endeavoured to review ALL historical fiction published in the UK (and now the US, Canada et al). Throughout that time the twentieth century has ALWAYS been by far the most popular period. Next is the nineteenth century. After that, coverage declines rapidly. There are small pockets of intensified interest. Perennially, the sixteenth century is popular: particularly focused on the reign of Henry VIII (or, more accurately, the wives, paramours, or courtiers under threat from him), but also Elizabeth (Walsingham, Mary Queen of Scots and popery). Helped by the film Gladiator (2000), there has been a prolonged interest in 16 The Historian – Spring 2013
Rome, particularly from the soldier’s viewpoint, often focused on the end of the Republic or the first Emperors (this interest is not shared in the US – despite the film having been successful there). Recently we have also seen a spate of soldier novels set during the Viking period and in England at the time of the Conquest. There is renewed interest in the Plantagenets (especially Richard III, or those around him) and the midmedieval period (Eleanor of Aquitaine has attracted much recent attention). The next big thing may perhaps be the seventeenth century – it has the religious hatreds, the families divided, and the colonial expansion and exploitation issues that appeal today. Historical fiction is very much marketed at male or female readers by the style of book cover (sword or musket covers for men, elaborate period costume and superimposed filigree decoration for women). Crime and mystery novels, the more ‘love and war’ style twentieth century novels, and ‘literary’ fiction have covers which blur this gender stereotyping – and of course, many readers and writers happily cross the divide (Chistopher Gortner, for example, is a male author marketed to women; Robyn Young a female author marketed to men). The market in historical fiction – perhaps in fiction as a whole – tends to follow the ‘big beasts’. Where one author or film is successful, many others follow in their wake. So Ivanhoe led to a predilection for rather stuffy knights, d’Artagnan and co. to Gascon flamboyance whether appropriate or not, the Scarlet Pimpernel to myriad cunning disguises, Georgette Heyer’s romances to sparky heroines and spicy Regency dialogue, Hornblower to a genre of dutycentered British navy stories, Catherine
Cookson to a bookshelf of gritty tales of cross-class abuse in industrial Britain, and Cadfael to a genre of pre-procedural crime fiction. The big beasts at present are Bernard Cornwell (the ‘Sharpe’ series, lately a King Alfred series) and Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl, lately the Cousins’ War series). Our soldiers are no longer bound by duty and a love of God and country – they are much more likely to be ‘working’ soldiers, anti-authority, with a personal code of morality that is ‘higher’ than religion and camaraderie taking the place of patriotism. Our queens, meanwhile, wield very real power over kings and courtiers, but their power is founded on quicksand, subject to political enmities and sexual rivalries, and ultimately tragically dependent on masculine institutions outside their control. If I were to make one regretful prediction for the short-term future of historical fiction, it is that it will continue the trend to re-interpret the past from a secularised viewpoint. Our current authors rarely present religion as heart-felt, and if they do, any religious sincerity is usually seen in a negative light. There is a further irony in this, because many secularists are specifically drawn to write about religious themes – so we get tales of people willing to kill and/or die for their faith written by people who have no wish to understand either motivation. Usually these novels preach tolerance, but their authors are stridently intolerant of religion and its excesses. At its worst this attitude can kill a novel dead – just as dead as any similar novel preaching that one or other of the religious attitudes was ‘correct’. Even at its best (and some of these books are international bestsellers – for example Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, or World Without End by Ken Follett) it will
always be an unhistorical attitude, and will inevitably distance readers from the past. There is also one trend I have noticed that appears to be a cross-over from video games: the rise and rise of the anti-hero, and the rise and rise of violence in historical fiction. If you compare Scott’s opening combat in The Talisman between Sir Kenneth and the Emir, with a fight scene in almost any contemporary historical fiction, you would find the gore factor massively enhanced nowadays – though in truth it is only just overtaking the delight in spilled entrails that you find in the Chanson de Roland.
The twentieth century
Forty two per cent of all English language historical novels listed to be mainstream published in 2013 are set in the twentieth century (120 novels), according to a recent survey.2 The bestsellers often opt for the century-long saga – perhaps rags to
riches to rags (or the opposite), but equally possibly a humbler storyline – with the drama often supplied by the author’s manipulation of the reader’s hindsight. Any happy marriage in 1912 will likely have the couple separated in 1914. Any survivor of 1918 will face the home-front cull of the Spanish flu. Any child born after the war will grow up in a family facing the depression, the rise of fascism, the next war etc. The skill is in how our expectations are confirmed or confounded. The success of Downton Abbey has probably reinforced this trend, and re-emphasised the salability of British class-wars. Recent permutations on this theme are to choose settings that are increasingly international (especially set in favoured holiday destinations), choosing protagonists with mixed national/class/ racial loyalties, and – especially – inverting the story in a ‘Who do you think you are?’ way. Thus you get a book like Victoria Hislop’s The Island – a British girl with Greek roots discovering for the first time her grandparents’ story. No-one particularly thinks they would buy a book about a leper colony (nor, possibly, do they know they are doing so), but they are drawn to read by a fascination with ancestry, with a new twist on the twentieth century experience and the glamour of a Greek island.
The literary take on this is interestingly quite anti-historic, in that these novels usually suggest that memories and records (photographic or written) are poor guides to the realities and intentions of the past. Real history, they posit, is secret history, unknowable history. Alan Holinghurst’s latest, The Stranger’s Child, particularly addresses this. The title is from Tennyson; the next verse ends: ‘And year by year our memory fades, from all the circle of the hills.’ Elsewhere in the twentieth century the Spanish Civil War remains attractive – glamorous, perhaps, because voluntary for the British, and morally more cloudy than the Second World War. Americans in Paris, with the cynicism, wine drinking and associated debauchery are apparently endlessly glamorous (there is a thesis to be written on how many times Hemingway is evoked in historical fiction). There are plenty of period detectives, filling in the areas that classic crime failed to cover, or layering classic crime with the grit and serial killers it failed to notice. There are still many sagas, though this genre is contracting (warm-hearted, domestic stories of struggles against the backdrop of big events). Adventure stories have returned to the Second World War (soldier The Historian – Spring 2013
stories), but not yet to the Great War (no clubland heroes any more – only tragic, betrayed young men or opportunists and cads). The twentieth century is also an excuse to choose settings for British heroes and heroines anywhere in the world – China and the Far East are becoming more popular as we become more interested in those areas. Other trends are for novels about artists and musicians – ideally if connected to the perennial box office of Hitler and the Holocaust.
The nineteenth century
Twenty two per cent of all English language historical novels published in 2013 are set in the nineteenth century (63). The events of the nineteenth century are less well known to readers, so writers use different ways of tweaking our interest. Authors often use wellknown people to draw us back: Brunel, Victoria, the Ripper (endlessly), Brummell, Dickens, Bonaparte. Again, there are plenty of artists and musicians – and again, many stories about the women behind the men. The things we are interested in would appear to be (not necessarily in this order): dark, gothic, grimy, smoky, abusive London 18 The Historian – Spring 2013
(or New York or other industrial big city); glamorous, sexy, fashionable, enlightened Paris (or Vienna or other European mini-break city); far flung Empire (how arrogant we were, how primitive but soulful they were); Victorian women were lusty beneath their bustles (not just Victoria herself) but very fearful of being ‘fallen’ (except where they were abused/part of the sex industry, in which case they were already fallen but never lusty); Science, medicine, engineering, photography – great advances, moral conundrums, silly misconceptions; related to the previous, Spiritualism, mediums, magic shows and charlatanry. And Vampires. Where authors can’t find real people to draw us back, they use fictional characters and extend, gloss or subvert well-known stories. There is an industry in books related to Pride and Prejudice. At the other end of the century, Sherlock Holmes has been redrawn in many different ways – as have the people supposed to have inspired Sherlock Holmes. For the rest, there are the usual genres. There are stories of adventure and derring-do set in Europe and around the Empire (Sharpe and Sharpealikes, and those inspired by George
Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman). There are still new offerings in the Hornblower genre (for example navy man Julian Stockwin’s Kydd series). There are sagas at home (poverty and nursing – for example Jean Fullerton’s excellent Hold On To Hope) and stories of love across the divide in different cultures. Novelists approach the nineteenth century with a special mark of respect, regarding it (rightly?) as the Golden Age of the form. Recently there have been a number of landmark novels which show more or less where we are in relation to the genesis. Michel Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White mirrors Dickens’ dark worlds of exploitation, but subverts them. Sugar is ‘rescued’ from penury by her would-be writerly protector, but only on his terms. Faber’s Dickens-like authorial voice is used to puncture the hypocrisies of Victorian sensibility – though he is by no means disparaging of real charity. Sarah Waters takes the great women’s novels of the Victorian period and thoroughly shakes them about in Fingersmith. Romance, innocence, inheritance, and mental health are all revisited and renewed, and there are some stunning plot reversals. Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer for taking the
world (and a character) of Little Women and colliding it with the American Civil War (March). Last year Patrick deWitt wrote a stylish, humorous revision of the Western genre (The Sisters Brothers – winner of two major Canadian awards and shortlisted for everything else).
The remaining 36% of historical novels to be published in 2013 are set before the 19th century. Coverage in these earlier periods is by no means equally spread or universal. In the US, writers complain that the only books it is possible to sell are about ‘marquee names’ – or genre romance, or crime. What results is often a ‘stretch’ on marquee names, so there are a lot of books called the ‘blah blah’s wife/daughter/lover’ or variations on that theme (eg. Philippa Gregory, The Kingmaker’s Daughter; Michelle Moran, Cleopatra’s Daughter). Marquee can mean anything from the semi-legendary – eg Achilles, Nefertiti, any number of biblical women – to the barely-heard-of – eg Sherry Jones Four Sisters All Queens, about the daughters of the house of Savoy who became Queens in France,
is as if we instinctively dislike clearcut moral lines now. We don’t want crusaders against Saracens. We are even (possibly!) becoming more skeptical about the British against the French (in those times it was the English and Welsh, not the Scots, anyway). Instead we would appear to be feeding on the blood of our own nation’s inner turmoil. Bernard Cornwell is now writing about the Anglo-Viking civil war. Jumping a little forward, there is a flurry of novels about the Conquest – a tell-tale title, perhaps, is James Aitcheson’s The Splintered Kingdom. 1066 is treated mostly as a war story, but interesting sidelines on this subject are Robert Lyndon’s Hawk Quest (as the title suggests, a hunt for hawks through the Norman world and beyond), Sarah Bower’s Needle in the Blood (those who made the Bayeux hanging), Patricia Bracewell’s forthcoming Shadow on the Crown about Aethelred’s Norman bride Emma, and Justin Hill’s poetically influenced ShieldWall. Forward a little way, and Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick and Ken Follett have all written memorably about the wars of Stephen and Matilda. The squabbles
Historical Fiction is a genre constantly at war with itself. England, Germany and Sicily. This trend is less prevalent in the UK, but still significant. Well established authors can do well with books about unknown but interesting characters (eg Elizabeth Chadwick brings us several biographical novels about the more obscure members of the Marshal family, as well as the epic tale of the great William Marshal himself). In the UK it is possible to sell a wider variety of stories, and it is still possible (though rare) to sell books about entirely fictional characters in unfashionable settings. An example is Maria McCann’s The Wilding, set in rural Somerset after the English Civil War, and about cider making and the poverty of outcasts as much as it is about any big ‘historical’ issue. It nevertheless got to be a Richard and Judy Book Club choice, and a WH Smith book of the month. In The UK there is the strong ‘soldier’ thread for those interested in political history. There is also, on both sides of the Atlantic, a market for crime and espionage novels set in these earlier times. The latest ‘hot’ areas for UK historical fiction in these earlier times are interestingly all to do with civil war, family against family, and betrayal. It
of the Angevins are often seen as a continuation of these ongoing wars. On a little further, and the Wars of the Roses are set to be especially favoured this year. HBO’s hit drama the Game of Thrones seems to have made the wider public aware that George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic is founded on the England of York and Lancaster. This year will see a ten-part serial of Philippa Gregory’s Cousin’s War series, and Conn Iggulden (Emperor series, Genghis series and The Dangerous Book for Boys) is now also pitching into this period. Expect many a suffocated Prince, many a vat of malmsey. Forward again and three authors are tackling Robert the Bruce’s internecine struggles (Jack Whyte, Robert Low and Robyn Young). The sixteenth century, as I have suggested, when not indulging its predilection for royal bedrooms, concerns itself strongly with the rebellions and invasions that might have occurred. New authors in this field are Christopher Gortner (The Tudor Secret), Nancy Bilyeau (The Crown), and James Forrester (Sacred Treason). An outstanding 2013 novel in this vein is C.C. Humphreys’ Shakespeare’s Rebel. Lewd, debauched and pungent on the one hand, it is The Historian – Spring 2013
varied bunch, and Roman history spans seven centuries – longer if you include Byzantium – so it’s unsurprising there is a strong showing. Of these I’d single out Harry Sidebottom for his scholarship and the obscurity of the history, Kate Quinn for waving a lonely banner for female protagonists in epic Roman fiction, and M.C. Scott for bravely tackling religious issues of the time – and from a unique perspective.
But How Good are the Gate-Keepers?
genuinely romantic, honourable and deeply felt on the other, and gives a vivid portrayal of Elizabethan Southwark in ferment, and Shakespeare, and the context of several of his plays. The English Civil War has been avoided for years by authors (with some impressive literary exceptions: Ronan Bennett’s Cry Havoc; Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost and Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt), but we now have a family-divided saga from Giles Kristian (beginning with The Bleeding Land) and a more straightforward soldier sequence from Michael Arnold (Civil War Chronicles). More gore and mayhem (much more) can be found in Roman times. Newer authors Simon Scarrow, M.C. Scott, Douglas Jackson, Harry Sidebottom, Ben Kane, Robert Fabbri, Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn, John Stack, Anthony Riches, Henry VenmoreReynolds, Gordon Doherty, Russ Whitfield, have joined Conn Iggulden and Lindsey Davis on what is now seen as a ‘sword and sandals’ bandwagon (and many more).3 But in truth they are a 20 The Historian – Spring 2013
In this article I have talked airily about publishing trends, fashions and markets, which for our lifetimes have been what have dictated the books we get to read. There is a lot to be said for this system. Publishers know what sells, therefore they know what we want, do they not? They can protect us from wasting our time, from reading dross: they are the gate-keepers. After that we can rely on reviewers to sift further, and booksellers to help, and we’ll always find what we want. Well, perhaps. I want to offer two examples from my own recent experience of where the usual gate-keepers may not always have been correct in their judgements – and why. Margaret Skea recently won the historical fiction part of Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘people’s novelist’ competition in 2011, but organisers HarperCollins declined their option to publish despite fulsome plaudits from the judges (Cathy Kelly, Jeffrey Archer and Penny Smith). No agent could foresee a wide market for the book either, so she could not even get her book on the desks of the other major publishers, who will not accept unsolicited manuscripts. In the end a small Scottish press (Capercaillie Books – who have only released 4 new fiction titles) have published Turn of the Tide – but the point stands. The reason most publishers turned their back on Margaret Skea was nothing to do with quality or talent, but to do with mass sales. If a perceived lack of market is one reason for rejecting a book, another is because the book is perceived as ‘old fashioned’. The Historical Novel Society once ran a competition with Louis de Bernieres (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) as judge. The winning entry, The Last Hero by Hilary Green, Louis considered to be as good as Mary Renault – and written in a comparable style. Not bad, you’d think: of all the seminal historical fiction authors who have been praised to me over the years of the HNS, Mary Renault has received most plaudits. She is also an author who I would happily read now, and whose Fire From Heaven
I rate as still the best novel of Alexander. But the comparison with Renault was the problem with it, from the publishers’ point of view. Hilary went on to write six novels published by Hodder set in the Second World War, so her aptitude is not to be questioned – but The Last Hero (not about Alexander) remains unpublished. The long and the short of it is that agents and publishers choose their titles, usually well, for the buying public, which is not necessarily the same as the reading public. For those of us who are quite capable of spending an hour or two in a second hand book shop – who still read Graves, Sabatini or Duggan, Plaidy, Lofts or Renault – we read, but we are not ‘the market’.
The impact of Goodreads, Amazon and e-publishing on historical fiction
Despite my opening reference to A Tale of Two Cities, the ‘present period’ in the world of publishing is NOT like any period previously: on the contrary, a revolution is occurring. There are three main changes. Firstly there is a democratization of reviewing (many commercial websites like Goodreads, Amazon, Lovereading and myriad non-commercial sites and blogs) which means that smaller titles have a bigger chance to find their readership. Secondly there is a new, more affordable format for reading (via e-readers, tablets and phones) – offering classics for free, and new titles from as little as £1. Finally there is now a very cheap and remunerative form of self-publishing, so that in 2012 (already) more fiction titles were self-published than were issued by mainstream publishers, and many mainstream-published authors are also now self-publishing. The result for historical fiction is mixed – and unpredictable in the future. An indisputable good point is that many obscure or hard-to-find favourites are becoming available again. Eventually, one assumes, most titles will be available in this way. Also good is that ‘backlist’ titles are more available. Readers are less likely to suffer the infuriating business of the middle book in a trilogy being out of print. So long as you are unfussy as to format, it is simple now to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series in order, whatever the vagaries of your local bookseller or library. On the other hand, small print run paperbacks are likely to become rarer (as are local booksellers and libraries), so the enjoyment of these books in the future is more likely to be digital-only. There may well be a future when bookshelves, like record
collections, are arcane. The plethora of self-published – or ‘Indie’, as it is increasingly called – fiction is generally received with distrust, but perhaps wrongly. I will give one simple example that demonstrates that self-publishing is no longer synonymous with vanity publishing. The HNS in 2012/13 is running an Award for unpublished fiction. The deadline has passed, and we whittled down to a shortlist of 15. One author contacted us anonymously to ask what the projected sales were likely to be for the winning entry. I replied that it was the first year of the prize, so we could give no figure – but that given the terms of the prize (the winner receives £5000 and epublication with the author receiving a 50% royalty on all sales), he needed to consider carefully if he believed he would earn more than £10,000 from the book without the prize. He promptly withdrew from the competition. The author is Gordon Doherty, and his book Strategos, Born in the Borderlands – a soldier story set in Anatolia in the years before the Battle of Manzikert – is clearly earning him more than many mainstream published authors receive for their books (a typical contract for a new author even with the biggest houses might be £10,000 advance for a two-book deal). The quality of writing in a selfpublished novel is also not necessarily worse than that in mainstream published fiction. Editors in mainstream houses have less time than they did, and reviewers constantly bemoan underedited mainstream published books. Also, many Indie writers buy in freelance editing for self-published projects – often the same people who work for the big houses. Set against this, the advantages to readers (and writers) of self-publishing are substantial. I have already mentioned cost and availability. The other great advantage is that it is now possible to find books on more obscure subjects or periods. Commerciality and massmarket is the strait-jacket of publishers; niche and specialization are the freedom of self-publishing. My advice to readers is still (always) caveat emptor (buyer beware) – but I believe that historical fiction will increasingly be self-published, increasingly ‘niche’. Readers will be increasingly guided by ‘peer’ reviews, both from the commercial sites (beware the adoring and the spiteful) and the specialists and bloggers.
This is a whistle-stop tour around a massive and many-faceted genre, and clearly I have missed out far more than
I have included. For more exhaustive information, or for areas I have seemingly ignored, please visit our website historicalnovelsociety.org. Historical Fiction is a genre constantly at war with itself. There are never-ending debates about accuracy and inaccuracy. If we do not know that a given King was a philanderer, for example (and proofs are rarely conclusive), are we defaming the dead to suggest that he was? There are also debates about the morality of too much accuracy. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell fits the research nicely, but some historians feel that makes it the more sinister: what can prevent her fictionalisation from distorting the truth from which it springs? Novelists and readers constantly debate many aspects of the art of fictionalising history, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that there is any conformity in opinion. As a genre, however, warts and all, historical fiction is in rude good health.
Andrew Miller, Pure, Costa Best Novel, and Costa Book of the Year; Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues, Scotiabank Giller and Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers, Rogers Writers’ Award, Governor General’s Award; Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles, Orange Prize; Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side, Walter Scott Prize. 2 Mary Tod, using lists of forthcoming titles compiled by Sarah Johnson and Sarah Cuthbertson. http://awriterofhistory. com/2013/01/03/historical-fiction-preferences/ 3 The browse buttons on the top right of our website allow you to explore novels by genre, period or century, as well as by author or publisher. To date we have 170 reviews of recent novels about Ancient Rome. 1
Richard Lee founded the Historical Novel Society in 1997 after trying to join it and finding that it didn’t exist. Since then his study has disappeared under a deluge of paper and books.
Recommendations, in no particular order, are from recent Editors’ Choices in The Historical Novels Review (you can read the full reviews of 500 Editors’ Choices at historicalnovelsociety.org).
The twentieth century
Stephen Gallagher, The Bedlam Detective (literary thriller set in Edwardian England investigating perceptions of crime and sanity: ‘fascinating... darkly comedic’).
James Aitcheson, The Splintered Kingdom (series about the Conquest told from the viewpoint of a Norman/Breton adventurer: ‘vigorously written, well researched and a protagonist/narrator who is a real pleasure to read’).
Kate Furnivall, The White Pearl (set in Malaya just before the Japanese invasion in World Wat Two: ‘relentless, action packed... great story telling’).
Iain Pears, Stone’s Fall (complex literary tale of spying and finance before and after the First World War: ‘serpentine twists... ultimately enjoyable and rewarding’)
The nineteenth century
A.L. Berridge, Into the Valley of Death (thriller set in the Crimean War: ‘opens at a cracking pace and accelerates’). Essie Fox, Elijah’s Mermaid (Victorian tale of art, foundlings, abuse, obsession and madness: ‘hugely enjoyable novel that constantly trips you up when you think you know what’s coming’). Lyndsay Faye, The Gods of Gotham (1845 and the establishment of New York City’s first police force, which quickly needs to hunt for a serial killer: ‘Faye is a plotting virtuoso’).
Jenny Barden, Mistress of the Sea (in both senses, a romantic novel of one of Drake’s voyages: ‘captivating tale of love, duty and the consequences of actions’).
Laurence Norfolk, John Saturnall’s Feast (literary and culinary novel set in the shadow of the English Civil War: ‘startling and entirely unputdownable new work from one of our most original living novelists’).
Amazon and e-publishing Linda Proud, A Gift For the Magus (A novel of Botticelli and Fra Lippo Lippi: ‘excellent writing with characters who live real lives with humour and selfreflection’).
Gordon Doherty, Strategos: Born in the Borderlands (Set on Byzantium’s Eastern border at the time of the rise of the Seljuk Turks: ‘extremely vivid, extremely violent action’). Dave Ebsworth, The Jacobites’ Apprentice (Set in 1744 Manchester, on the eve of the rebellion: ‘innovative, whirlwind and well-researched account of the complexities of the Stuart years’).
The Historian – Spring 2013
Historical fiction: engaging the young reader in the past Fiona M Collins ‘For me, writing a historical novel entails a one-way trip backwards into some particular point in time and space, and once there bringing it to life as convincingly as possible.’1
The development of historical fiction for children
The best historical fiction reconstructs the past so that readers can visualise the environment in which the story is set; become involved with the characters and experience the tension and drama of the narrative and, in so doing, painlessly it is to be hoped, absorb historical knowledge. The author’s role in writing for children is to interpret, and possibly
22 The Historian – Spring 2013
simplify, the past while keeping true to the period. The historical novelist may invent characters and circumstances but will, through the story, bring the period to life for the reader. Many historians have become interested in history through reading such fiction as it has given them a framework for their historical understanding. As Rosemary Sutcliff argues: ‘...children can surely get a truer picture of the past if something that breathes life into the bare bones is given to them, over and above the factual side of history’.2 Historical fiction written for children since the beginning of the 1950s is the topic of this article. However, to do
justice to the range is difficult and hard decisions have had to be made about which books to include and which to omit. Readers may lament the nonappearance of their favourites; but it is hoped they will be intrigued by any hitherto unknowns. The decade directly after the Second World War can be judged as a golden age of historical fiction which built on the achievements of Geoffrey Trease (Cue for Treason, 1940). In this golden age authors moved away from the romantic, heroic, general and idealised fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth century towards the more realistic, domestic, miniature and ordinary. Rosemary Sutcliff, one of our most significant historical novelists, started writing in this period
with her first novel The Chronicles of Robin Hood published in 1950. The novel is mainly based on traditional ballads featuring Robin Hood and his adventures. Sutcliff went on to write a further thirty novels. Her work covered a broad span of time from the Bronze Age, Warrior Scarlet (1958), to the Tudor period, The Armourer’s House (1951), on to the eighteenth century in Flame-Coloured Taffeta (1986). However, her best known stories are those set in Roman Britain: The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) which has been recently made into a film (2011) and The Lantern Bearers (1959) which won the Carnegie prize. These stories illustrate the complexities and ambiguities of invasion and occupation alongside themes of self-making, reconciliation and compromise. Sutcliffe’s characters are complex and sometimes have to contend with disability (as did Sutcliff herself). Marcus, the central character in The Eagle of the Ninth, is wounded in combat and as a result is invalided out of the army: ‘The ache of the old wound was changed to a jangling throb that seemed to beat through his whole body...’ (p. 111) and his servant, Esca, is emotionally damaged from having to be a slave. Likewise Drem, the central character in Warrior Scarlet (1958), suffers from a withered spear arm. This disability might hinder a weaker character but Sutcliff shows how Drem continually attempts, and succeeds, in overcoming his disability in a society where men have to show their manhood through physical strength. Cynthia Harnett was writing at the same time as Sutcliff. Her first successful novel was The Wool Pack (1951), an exciting story full of intrigue and suspense set in the fifteenth century and featuring the son of a Cotswold wool merchant. The novel won the Carnegie award in the same year. Eight years later Harnett wrote The Load of Unicorn (1959) which focuses on the rivalry between printers and scriveners in fifteenth century England, during the time of Caxton and the development of the printing press. Her description entices readers into the period and gives them detailed information whilst keeping the language accessible. Here is Caxton’s explanation of the printing technique: ‘Of course the press is no new thing,’ said Caxton. ‘It is the type which is new. The old way of pressing paper on to a carved block is useless for a book; ...Now we have all the letters of the alphabet cast in metal, each letter separate, and we build up a page word by word and letter by letter’.3
At the same time as Sutcliff and Harnett, Henry Treece began writing for children: from 1954 to his death in 1966. In this period he wrote thirty one historical novels. Most of the stories are set in Viking (the Vikings Saga 195560) or Roman times (The Legions of the Eagle 1954) although he did cover other periods such as ancient Greece and the medieval crusades. His books have fast moving plots and are full of detail because of his extensive historical knowledge.
The Heritage of War
The First and Second World Wars have been visited and re-visited many times in books for children since the 1950s. Mostly the authors strive for a more realistic and less flag-waving view of conflict. In the first highly respected book about the war, The Silver Sword (1956), Ian Serraillier tells the story of three Polish siblings who, with the waif Jan, travel across Europe trying to find their parents who have been taken away by the Nazis. Ruth, the eldest, is portrayed as a steady, intelligent, resourceful young woman. Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden (1973) is a very different and quieter book, which signals in its title its focus on the experience of Carrie, evacuated to Wales with her brother Nick. Carrie has to remain tactful but strong during a difficult time and she personally grows as she resists the meanness and bullying of Mr Evans with whom she is billeted. Willie, in Goodnight Mister Tom (Magorian, 1981), has to grow in mental and
physical health after his traumas during the bombing of London and Magorian shows how he recovers under the care of ‘Mister Tom’, the single man with whom he stays. Both Michael Morpurgo, in Friend or Foe (2007), and Robert Westall, in The Machine Gunners (1975), attempt to broaden the reader’s view of the Second World War by writing stories which focus on German pilots being shot down and found by English children and the dilemma the children find themselves in as a result of this. As well as books written in the English language, several books about the Second World War have been translated from German for the English speaking market. Friedrich (Richter, 1961), is one example of these and was the first West German children’s novel to tell the story of the Jews during the Third Reich. The story of a young Jewish boy, living in Germany, in the early 1930s, is told through his nameless friend’s eyes. The story is linked with the edicts that were passed against the Jews during this time as they affect both of these children. The reader is given a most vivid picture of the mistreatment that was suffered by the Jews and of ‘the fear of getting involved and the indecisiveness and inactivity of the German population’ (Lathey, 1999). Hitler’s Canary (2005) by Sandi Toksvig tells of the experiences of the Danish people during the Second World War. Toksvig based the story on her father’s experiences of occupation and endeavours to give the view of resistance against the German occupation. The Historian – Spring 2013
Migration and survival are significant joint themes of human experience. Rose Blanche (2004), a picturebook (illustrated by Roberto Innocenti and retold by Ian McEwan), is set in Germany during the Second World War and tells the story of a young girl who discovers a concentration camp on the outskirts of her town. The illustrated story follows her as she bravely smuggles food to the starving children. Through a focus on a brave young German girl this book attempts to address the negative view that some young readers in this country may develop through reading other books set in the Second World War. Although it has not been written about to the same extent, the Great War has been a popular setting for some writers. War Horse (1982), by Michael Morpurgo, is regularly read in primary schools. The story, unusually narrated by a horse, tells of the war from the horse’s perspective. Morpurgo was moved to write the story when he read about the vast number of horses that were killed in the First World War. The story has been adapted for stage and is an extremely successful National Theatre production with life size horse puppets and has also been made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg (2011). Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman have also written about the football game which was 24 The Historian – Spring 2013
played between the German and the British soldiers on the first Christmas Day of the Great War, The Best Christmas Present in the World (2004). This little illustrated book reflects the similarities between the two countries rather than the difference between two opposing armies. Teresa Breslin’s teenage novel, Remembrance, is initially set in a Scottish village in 1915 and focuses on two families from different social classes. This difference allows Breslin to give alternative viewpoints about the war: on the one hand patriotically fighting for one’s country, on the other the antiwar argument, as put forward by the landowners’ son: ‘The War should be stopped at once. The vast amounts of money maintaining the Army would be better spent at home feeding the poor.’4 This sentiment has echoes of Siegfried Sassoon’s disillusionment. Breslin puts the atrocities of war alongside the changing social fabric of society and the shifting role of women, with female characters working in munitions factories and nursing on the battlefields. Since the two great wars other wars have been fought and various novels have been written about these. Three novels are worth considering here in a little more detail. Life: An Explored Diagram (2011) by Mal Peet is a teenage
novel which covers a historical arc from the Second World war and ending on 11 September 2001, with a particular focus on the Cold War and the Cuban Missile crisis. Using first love as a focus, Peet portrays the significant points of the post-war period through the memories of the young male narrator, Clem Ackroyd. Although Clem is said to be ‘an unreliable historian’ by the author, this novel certainly provokes interest in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lynne Reid Banks uses her personal experiences of living in Israel to great effect in One More River (1973) in which she includes descriptions of the Six Day Israeli war in a story of Leslie Shelby, newly arrived in Israel from Canada. Within the story, the two opposing sides are linked by the delicate friendship that develops between Leslie and a young Palestinian boy. Gulf (Westall, 1992) gives the reader different perspectives on the first Gulf War. The story, narrated by Tom, tells of how his younger brother, Figgis, develops telepathic communications with a young Iraqi soldier, Latif. Through taking on the persona of this young soldier, Figgis tells his brother of the young soldier’s fears and distress in having to fight at such a young age. The brothers’ parents reflect British views about the war. The father is gripped by the war and watches the buildup on television nightly while the mother takes a more compassionate stance. Westall illustrates how easy it would be to think of war as a game, with no acknowledgment of the loss of life that would occur.
Survival: Touching all children
Surviving is clearly a central part of stories about war but it also features strongly in many historical novels for children, not only because of its basic over-riding importance but also because the effort to survive in difficult conditions provides many an adventure. Losing one’s parents and becoming an orphan is a regular feature of children’s books. For some authors, focusing on orphans reflects the reality of the period while the lack of parents allows other writers to give characters freedom. In such books mental, physical and emotional survival go hand in hand as the individual sets challenges for him/her or is driven by circumstance to overcome adversity which arrives in so many different forms in the historical novel. For instance twelve year old Smith in Garfield’s novel of the same name (1967) survives by sly pick-pocketing; Jim Jarvis in Street Child (Doherty, 1993) lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the nineteenth century streets of London until he encounters Dr.
The stage production War Horse. © Robert Wallace/Splash News/Corbis
Barnardo. Penelope Lively, in one of her historical books for younger children, Boy without a Name (1975), supplies the reader with small and convincing details of the life of an orphan in the time of Charles I who has to look out for himself as no-one else will. The society of the time did endeavour to look after such children by placing them into workhouses or orphanages which at times treated them in brutal and harsh ways. Ask Me No Question (Schlee, 1976) exposes the true story of child abuse and cruelty in such an institution. An outbreak of cholera in 1849 at Bartholomew Drouet’s workhouse school killed 180 children. Drouet was tried but acquitted of neglect. Ann Schlee tells this sad true story through her heroine, Laura, who cannot make her superiors believe her appalling stories. Jamila Gavin in Coram Boy (2001) tells the tale of one boy at least who survived the ‘dying houses’ which Thomas Coram strove to eradicate by opening his hospital in 1741. Jacqueline Wilson in Hetty Feather (2009), which won the Young Quills Award, also focuses on the Foundling Hospital and the experiences of the heroine. The matron’s comments about Hetty reflect a negative and brutal attitude to the young orphans in her care:
Gill Harvey, in her Egyptian Chronicles (The Sacred Scarab is one of the titles), uses sibling orphans, Hopsi and Isis, whose parents were killed by crocodiles, to explore life in Ancient Egypt for young readers. The books are stories which focus on the siblings’ struggle for existence. Through the adventure stories a young reader is clearly taken back to the time of Ancient Egypt without the reading being too demanding.
Social and class structure of society also has an impact on the survival of characters. The Canadian writer, Barbara Smucker follows, in Underground to Canada (1978), the perilous journey of two slave girls as they escape to freedom from slavery. In the next century, the Logan family in Mildred C. Taylor’s trilogy (which starts with Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, 1977, and is set in the Mississippi of the 1930s) are proud and dignified people who struggle together
‘I would watch this one. She’s got a very contrary way with her. Redheads are always little vixens. ...she needs that temper quelled. Spare the rod and spoil the child, remember!’ The Historian – Spring 2013
at their different levels in the face of the oppression and racial bigotry they encounter. In the novel the reader is introduced to spirited young Cassie, and, through her, to some of the injustices meted out to black people in the southern states of America during this period. Wanting to fight back after the racial insults she endures, Cassie learns a hard lesson from her father that she has to balance her own hurt against the possible violent repercussions there may be for the whole community. Migration and survival are significant joint themes of the human experience and feature in many novels set in different periods. In The Coldest Winter (1991) and Bound for America (2000), Elizabeth Lutzeier illustrates the hardships of the Irish potato famine of 1846 and the experiences of the Irish migrants who leave Ireland to find a new life across the Atlantic. In Judith O’Neill’s So Far from Skye (1992) the family who migrate together need each other to survive. This story of migration to Australia after the failure of the potato crop on the Scottish island of Skye draws on records kept by O’Neill’s family. Judith Kerr’s trilogy, starting with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), draws on the author’s first-hand experience of her family’s escape from Nazi atrocities and subsequent life as refugees.
Growing to political awareness
Ever since Dickon was unjustly whipped by the bailiff in the opening chapter of Bows against the Barons (Trease, 1934), 26 The Historian – Spring 2013
historical novels have brought issues of social and political justice to the fore: examples of these issues are three novels which group themselves around the subject of the highland clearances in Scotland in the first half of the nineteenth century. Land was wanted for sheep-grazing at this time and the rich, the law and the church combined to evict the people from their homes and land. Allan Campbell McLean’s Ribbon of Fire (1968), Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies (1970) and Mollie
Hunter’s A Pistol in the Graveyards (1975) all have a similar background and tell the stories of men and women as they come to realise and resist the ways in which they are being treated. Peter Carter’s novel A Black Lamp (1973), set in the iron forges of early nineteenth century Lancashire, Robert Swindells’ A Candle in the Night (1974) about children working in the coal mines of Yorkshire one hundred and fifty years ago and Susan Price’s Twopence a Tub (1975), which has similar setting, are three unflinching stories of young boys and men who grow to political awareness through their experience of poverty and oppression in some of the most appalling work conditions. The change in the lives of ordinary people, as they leave the land and start to manufacture goods in the mills, mines, factories and workshops of the industrial
world, has given us such novels as Granny was a Buffer Girl (Doherty, 1986), The Rope Carrier (Tomlinson, 1994) and A Chance Child (Paton Walsh, 1978).
Girls and women come into their own
Two women writers at work in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s who wrote well of women and girls in the historical past are Hester Burton and Barbara Willard. Burton creates, in Time of Trial (1963), In Spite of All Terror (1968) and To Ravensrigg (1976), pivotal and thoughtful heroines in Margaret Pargeter, loyal to her imprisoned father, the orphan evacuee Liz and bereaved Emmie carrying on her father’s antislavery mission. Barbara Willard’s heroines in her ‘Mantlemass’ novels, which cover the years between the death of Richard III and the end of the Civil War, are no less determined and principled, a ‘formidable tribe, expecting no pity or excuses, tender and loving and much more clear-sighted than the men’ (Meek, 1980). Lilias Rowan, in The Iron Lily (1973), is nothing less than the Master of the iron foundry. Many of the ‘war’ stories in the twentieth century have focused on girls’ experiences, including The Little Riders (Shemin, 1963), In Spite of All Terror (Burton, 1968), When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Kerr, 1971), The Upstairs Room (Reiss, 1972), Number the Stars (Lowry, 1989), Stepping on the Cracks (Hahn, 1991) and A Candle in the Dark (Geras, 1995). These titles speak variously of girls who have had to go into hiding, separate from their parents, re-establish lives in new countries, maintain friendships with those forbidden to them, conceal secrets, bear the unwanted effects of war and meet challenges which would be unimaginable in peace-time. It may be argued that the further one goes back in history the less is known about any lives, and least of all those of women. Henry Treece, Rosemary Sutcliff, and others, who wrote about Romans and Vikings and other distant periods, certainly have few women playing any sort of roles. However, Henrietta Branford, in The Fated Sky (1996), can paint a powerful picture of a young woman’s life during Viking times. Branford allows us to find out about Viking life, events and experiences through skilfully letting sixteen year old Ran tell us the story of her growth to womanhood via terror, loss, hardship, love and resignation. In Bracelet of Bones (2011) Kevin Crossley–Holland follows in the footsteps of Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece in writing a Viking quest to Miklagard (Constantinople). Fourteen
year-old Solveig follows her mercenary father to Miklagard. This is a story of bravery and strength as Solveig has to live on her wits in order to survive the journey. Gatty’s Tale, 2006, another novel by Crossley–Holland, also features a central female character girl. The plot follows Gatty, a young field girl, on a pilgrimage across Europe to Jerusalem in 1203 with the lady of the manor. Gatty is portrayed as a fiery, brave young girl who is not afraid to speak out and as a result has various adventures along the way. The novel is full of detailed information about the time, covering, for instance, Christian beliefs and the opposing views of Saracens held by the pilgrims and those who are limited in their travels. The different landscapes which the pilgrimage takes Gatty give the reader a glimpse not only of thirteenth century Europe but also North Africa. This article has attempted to illustrate the range of enjoyable historical fiction that is on offer to the young and teenage reader written since the 1950s. From Rosemary Sutcliff onwards, novelists have attempted and succeeded in transporting readers to different times and places. Through exploring a variety of themes, plots and events they remind readers that the past is made up of people and it is these characters which make the stories so enjoyable. Good historical fiction is the same as good fiction writing generally as it needs: a gripping opening, an intriguing plot alongside believable characters all set in another period. It is the role of the novelist, such as those discussed in this article, to create this historical illusion for the reader and ‘the achievement of that illusion is really the whole craft of the historical storyteller’.5
References 4 5 1 2 3
(Sutcliff, in Collins and Graham, 2001:113) (Sutcliff, in Collins and Graham, 2001: 112) (Harnett 1959: 74) Breslin, 2003: 96) (Trease, 1976: 51).
Collins, F. M. and Graham, J. (2001) (eds) Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past, London: David Fulton Publishers Lathey, G. (1999) The Impossible Legacy. Identity and Purpose in Autobiographical Children’s Literature set in the Third Reich and the Second World War, London: Peter Lang Sutcliff, R. (2001) ‘History and Time’ in Collins, F. M. and Graham, J. (2001) (eds) Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past, London: David Fulton Publishers Trease, G. (1976) ‘The Historical Novelist at Work’ in Fox, G. (ed) Writers, Critics and Children: Articles from ‘Children’s Literature in Education’, London: Heinemann Publishers An earlier version of this article appeared as The Twentieth Century – giving everybody a history by Fiona M. Collins and Judith Graham in Collins, F. M. and Graham, J. (2001) (eds) Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past, London: David Fulton Publishers Fiona M. Collins is a lecturer at the University of Roehampton where she teaches on a range of modules linked to English Education and children’s literature. In 2001 she co-edited Historical Fiction: Capturing the Past with Judith Graham. The Historian – Spring 2013
Judging a book by its cover Judith Graham
e have all been warned off making snap judgments based only on surface appearances and indeed ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is sound advice in a metaphorical sense. Where actual books are concerned, however, we are all powerfully influenced by book covers and children particularly so. A book’s cover illustration is critical in children’s choosing of a book and remains significant during their reading and subsequent reflection and recall1. This is well understood by designers and publishers’ marketing departments who seldom bring out a children’s novel without what they hope will be a telling and enticing front cover. What is also well understood by the publishing profession is the fact that a change of cover every now and again sparks potential reader interest so that sales pick up again. A more kindly interpretation of why publishers change book covers is that they perceive the Re-issue (1970) of Blackwell’s first edition (1940). datedness of the original or previous Cover artist: Beatrice Goldsmith. cover and that they are anxious that the book should not be forgotten. There may again and again by trade publishers also be times when an in-house designer over several titles. (I mention these in wants to try his or her hand with a fresh my penultimate paragraph.) Check cover, possibly because a TV or film the covers of your stock of historical adaptation has renewed interest in the fiction – any abstract images? Children’s title. historical fiction has been served by Children’s historical fiction, for the some well-known illustrators such as last half-century or more, has relied Charles Keeping, Anthony Maitland, P.J. on the cover image to do many things: Lynch, Victor Ambrus, C. Walter Hodges capture curiosity, introduce character(s), and William Stobbs and by some lessersuggest the period, clinch the theme, known but equally talented illustrators pinpoint the essence or a key moment such as Gareth Floyd, Garth Williams, of the book. Perhaps it is less common Robin Jaques, Margery Gill and Lotte to find abstract art work on covers of Reiniger. A surprising number of the children’s historical fiction such as the covers are by unknown illustrators and remarkable work one finds in some there are many covers whose illustrators modern adult fiction – I am thinking for are not credited. Perhaps unique are instance of some of the Penguin Pocket Cynthia Harnett’s covers as she was ‘70s designs – though I have found some her own illustrator and her distinctive minimalist and ‘still life’ covers, used 28 The Historian – Spring 2013
cover design of three horizontal panels, each telling some of the story, which she uses for all her historical novels, is complemented by the line drawings that she scattered through the text to help readers with historical detail. But even Cynthia Harnett is not immune from having her very special covers replaced time and time again. I have taken Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason as an illustrative example of covers and their changes. Trease is of course a key historical fiction writer for children, writing, from the mid 1930s onwards, hugely innovative books which were exciting, free from archaic language, about ordinary people having an extraordinary time. His books are popular, still available and, over the seventy odd years since Cue for Treason was published, there have been a good dozen cover illustrations. The very title, which is initially enigmatic to the reader, seems to have prompted a very wide range of different covers. In this respect, it is interesting to note that, for historical fiction with more closed titles, such as Eagle of the Ninth(Rosemary Sutcliffe) or Grace (about Grace Darling, Jill Paton Walsh), the range of illustrated covers is far more restricted. I will remind you of the fast-moving, adventure-packed story. The young boy, Peter Brownrigg, is on the run from the evil Sir Philip. He seeks refuge with a travelling theatre company where he encounters the feisty Kit Kirkstone, also fleeing, whom everyone thinks is a boy but whom we eventually learn is a girl in boy’s clothing. (Sorry about the spoiler.) The two young people eventually join Shakespeare’s theatre company where Kit makes a spectacular Juliet. They become involved in Lord Robert Cecil’s secret service and courageously foil a plot against Queen Elizabeth. (As a member of the audience, she was due to
be assassinated during Act 3 of Henry V when gunfire on stage would muffle the noise of the pistol, fired by the villain from the stage wings.) All’s well that ends well as we probably knew it would. Cue for Treason was published in 1940 by Blackwells, Oxford and was illustrated by Beatrice Goldsmith, who was known for romantic paintings of fairies. Disastrously, the whole print run was lost in the war. I have been unable to find any information about that first edition cover but Blackwell’s 1970 reissue in hardback has what I am hoping is the same cover. It shows Peter and Kit in the wings of the Globe theatre, both in theatrical costume and so Kit appears as a girl, possibly in role as Juliet. They appear to be whispering to each other and glancing at the actors on stage, amongst whom may be the assassin. This
cover is cunning as it has both a girl and a boy on the cover, widening the appeal to potential girl readers. It also hints at intrigue and has clear information that the theatre will be part of the story. The first Puffin paperback edition came out in 1965 with the cover and nine black and white illustrations in the body of the text by Lena Flax. The black line illustrations, which are informative, particularly with regard to costume and locations, have remained in all subsequent editions of the novel which is normal practice as changing illustrations within the book usually means resetting the text. Lena Flax makes good use of both back and front covers with the scene in the forest extending all round. Even the spine of the book appears as a tree trunk when the book is splayed open. Such full use of the covers was
typical of early Puffins (see if you can find your copy of Leon Garfield’s Black Jack or Roger Lancelyn Green’s Robin Hood); it meant that the promotional blurb appeared on the half-title page inside the cover. Later on, the blurb was overprinted on the back illustration, perhaps indicating that Penguin worried that their buyers might not open the book. This cover marks a moment very near the end of the book, on page 225 out of 240. In fact, young readers might become troubled that the scene has not appeared and wonder what their cover picture represents. They do have a long time to wait but all becomes clear eventually. Peter and Kit are still being hunted down by Sir Philip Morton but as luck would have it they come across the band of players who originally hid them.
Puffin’s first paperback edition (1965). Cover artist: Lena Flax.
The Historian – Spring 2013
The wonderful, warm-hearted Desmond conceives another plan in which the two young people are tied up, acting as bait whilst the rest of his troupe lies in wait in the trees, ready to ambush the villains. This is the moment the cover captures. There is much to commend in this cover. Firstly it is extremely accurate. The illustrator has read the text carefully and represents everybody, including Mrs Desmond and the six pike-men (all dressed in stage costumes) who emerge from the sombre wood, the tattoo drummer, the trumpeter and the tramping horse. Sir Philip is convinced that an army is about to arrive. Zena Flax also illustrates the two protagonists who are told to sit on the ground, looking as though they are tied up. ‘Have you any cord?’ asks Peter. ‘You don’t need cord,’ replies Mr Desmond. ‘You’re actors. Mime it.’ And that’s what we see them doing. They sit stiffly at the edge of
the wood, simulating discomfort. Another asset of this illustration is the clever portrait of the two young people. Readers have known for a long time at his point that Kit is a girl but they will be delighted to inspect this image and approve the very subtle hints of who is who. But there are problems. As already indicated, this moment is a very long way into the story. The text indicated that it was a dull day – no sunshine glints on the fake breastplates and helmets so the picture is dark, albeit correctly dark. But the main problem lies in Zena Flax’s honourable determination to make Peter and Kit look inert and bound; the result is that they look rather badly drawn. (Zena Flax went on to be a successful artist; there is no question that she can draw.) I have grown to like this illustration a great deal but I can see why it was eventually changed by Puffin.
Check the covers of your stock of historical fiction – any abstract designs?
A subsequent Puffin paperback edition (16th printing). Cover artist: Val Biro.
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The next Puffin edition has a cover illustration by Val Biro, an illustrator well known for his Gumdrop picture books for much younger children. We have lost the wrap-around cover (see above) of the previous Lena Flax edition but are given a very dramatic and tense moment. Once again, we have a definite difference in appearance of the two young people, Peter and Kit, with Kit looking slight and perhaps fearful (characteristics of a girl!!!) and Peter carrying a pistol. Readers will read these differences carefully. Both characters wear ‘Elizabethan’ dress and we also have an image of the peel-tower which is an important location in the book. This is the watch tower (built in the days when marauding Scots came over the border) that Sir Philip still owns but no longer occupies. We can see two well-dressed men on horseback in front of the peeltower and as Peter and Kit appear to be hiding from them, we assume they are villains. The composition is pleasing and not as ‘busy’ nor as enigmatic as the earlier 1965 cover of Zena Flax. One problem I have with Biro’s cover, however, is that the scene depicted does not appear in the novel. Chapter 15, just over half way trough the novel, is called The Lonely Tower. The peel-tower we
A subsequent Puffin paperback edition (undated). Cover artist: unknown.
see belongs to Sir Philip Morton and is the rendezvous for the plotting villains. Peter and Kit are observing the comings and goings from a camp higher up the hillside. They are with an experienced older man, a spy, called Tom Boyd, who is eventually killed, the villains having located him through his flashing (stateof-art) spy-glass. We must have our two main protagonists shown so these must be they but Peter is brandishing a pistol which we are told in the text is tucked into his doublet with only the brass butt showing. Maybe Val Biro, the illustrator, would argue that Peter might have wielded it at some stage but my suspicion is that the very visible pistol creates ‘cover appeal’ at the expense of fidelity to the text. Another problem is that the perspective on the cover suggests that the two protagonists would be fully visible if the villains looked their way. This upsets young readers who know full well the trouble that Tom and his two fellow spies have taken to remain hidden. Lastly, Peter is not much more than a slip of a boy according to the text. Here, he looks much too rugged and mature. Perhaps some of these concerns encouraged Puffin to bring out a new cover. This cover – whose originator I have been unable to discover – is well thought through, from the London skyline at the bottom of the picture, the silhouetted, perilously hanging boy, to the gothic font used for the title. I’ll come to the full moon in a moment. It is not the only front cover which picks the moment when Peter is scaling the back of the traitors’ Thames-side house to try to retrieve essential papers that have been stolen but it is the only one which shows how he makes his ascent. Peter uses daggers (taken from the theatre), thrust into the timbering of the house, to provide himself with hand and footholds. The empty hired boat bobs on the Thames below him. Kit is distracting the villains at the front of the house. One of the unsatisfactory front cover images of this moment shows Peter hanging on but no daggers and in full view of an occupied boat below him. This is such a dramatic image that I forgive the full moon. Peter is too canny to have undertaken this dangerous exploit in full moonlight. The text talks about Peter having to grope in the gloom for a mooring post and when he descends, darkness is gathering. When he drops a dagger in the Thames, the splash is heard by the traitors; he has to fake being both parties of a lovesick couple, smooching on the river, to allay their suspicions. He needed the darkness. This cover did sterling work for several years until Puffin brought out
the most recent of their covers. The gothic script remains, though smaller and against a black sky, and silhouetted characters appear again. But this time both protagonists are shown, galloping hell for leather down a mountainside, their horses kicking up the loose debris in their path. Kit is indicated by longer hair streaming out behind her. Shafts of light pierce the clouds and we know the pair is risking life and limb to escape the villains and alert the powers that be to their treachery. This image must have been greeted with delight by Puffin. It has all the drama of the previous cover but brings Kit back into the story, suggesting that she is as much an adventurer as Peter – something Geoffrey Trease, always ahead of his time, felt strongly should be part of his ‘new wave’ historical fiction. There are several other covers of this ever-popular novel that has been published in the United States and Canada, as well as in the UK, over the years. Galloping horses are very common but most are relegated to a corner of the front cover and the settings are not indicated. An elegant hardback edition (Addison Wesley) has a theatrical prop box with costumes, daggers, swords, masks spilling out of frame; two trade editions have their standard covers, in one case (Nabu Press) rather lovely old leather-bound volumes with a pear (sic) balanced on top; in the other (Hardpress Publishing), splashes of vertical colour which look more like candles than books. Neither book hints at what is within. A very early edition (Vanguard Press, New York, 1941) has detailed and rather wonderful end papers by L.F.Grant, showing scenes from Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. Another has a full colour glossy frontispiece, showing Peter being presented to Queen Elizabeth. Perhaps readers of this article have in their possession one or other of the editions described. You will be romantically attached to whichever volume you had in your youth. No doubt you hesitated when you saw a new cover on a re-print and stuck loyally to your own version. We all have to wonder what will happen now that Kindle versions only show cover images if you read them on an iPad. As it is, books are bought from the web with only a thumbnail image of the cover. If publishers lose their ‘hidden persuaders’, it could be serious for children’s fiction. As a teacher, I cannot count the times that children in my classes have turned back to the cover to re-examine the picture in the light of the unfolding story. Covers are illuminating in every sense of the word.
Puffin Modern Classics paperback edition (2009). Cover artist: unknown.
Collins, Fiona and Graham, Judith(eds): Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past, David Fulton Publishers, 2001 Graham, Judith: Venturesome Ways: Historical Fiction and the Novels of Henrietta Branford in Tales, Tellers and Texts ed. Hodges, Drummond and Styles, Cassell, 2000 Powers, Alan: Children’s Book Covers, Mitchell Beazley, 2003
Teachers reading fiction aloud to their classes will be well aware of how children check back to the cover all the time and of how they inspect illustrations within the book. Working with children struggling to learn to read, I became aware that their recall of a book was almost entirely shaped by illustrations.
Judith Graham lectured at Roehampton University and also in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, until retirement. Her interests are in literacy and children’s literature. Amongst her publications are books on illustration and teaching picturebooks (for NATE) and two titles, (with Alison Kelly), on literacy teaching (for Routledge). The Historian – Spring 2013
Downton Abbey Question and Answer
Award winning costume designer Susannah Buxton answers some of our questions about her award winning work on the very popular television series Downton Abbey (Carnival Films).
What is your background and how did you get into costume design? I have a degree in Graphic Design and a postgraduate diploma in Radio, Film and Television followed by twenty five years of studying and working in Costume Design. How did you go about the research for the programme in general, and then for specific costumes? I researched by looking at Costume Collections, Paintings and Photographic Collections. Some of the influences came from looking at the work of Paul Poiret, Chanel [particularly for Michelle Dockery], Jeanne Pacquin...Egon Schiele, Gwen John, Matisse and the costumes of the Ballet Russe. The starting point for Maggie Smith’s costumes came from looking at photographs of Queen Mary. Is it the detail or the ‘feel’ that you think is most important for convincing the audience that they are back in a particular period? I am not so interested in reproducing the era but of trying to get its atmosphere, and to design strong visual images that a contemporary audience can relate to. We then asked four more prosaic detail style questions. Roughly how many costumes have been made for Downton so far and how many rented? Only about a third of all the costumes are made from scratch, which is the same for most drama on television and also films, unless they have a huge budget. How many costumes might a main male character like the Earl and a main female character like Lady Mary need to wear in a single episode? The Earl probably has about 8 costumes in one episode, but Lady Mary could wear up to 20. 32 The Historian – Spring 2013
How much time goes into the making of a character’s costumes and how many people might work on that? An evening dress could take up to 2/3 weeks if you include the fitting time. The makers could include a corset maker, a seamstress, a tailor and a milliner…as well as the designer, of course. What sort of budget did you work to and to what extent do you have to compromise? It was about £19,000 per episode and many compromises were made. We then moved on to ask some wider questions. The first series is set before the First World War and in the third series we are now in 1920. Can you tell us more about how the style of clothing and hair changed during this period? In the second series more emphasis was placed on the cut of the clothes rather than the sumptuousness of the cloth. Fashion almost came to a standstill during the First World War, but skirts became fuller, the ankle was shown for the first time really and the corsets were less restricting...although still universally worn. Some of the corseted dresses and stiff starched shirt-bibs look rather uncomfortable. What was more important in 1920, the look or comfort of clothes? And do you think the actors need to experience that? After women of means volunteered to work in the war they realised that they needed more practical clothing and, if working on the land, wore trousers for the first time. By the 1920’s the hourglass figure popular in Edwardian England was completely out of fashion. Flat chests, short skirts and cropped hair, greatly influenced by the silent movies, became the fashion by the middle of the 1920’s.
We did try to make the actors as comfortable as we could but the corsets on the women and the stiff collars on the men were often a bit of a trial on a long filming day.
All images courtesy of Carnival Films & Television. Photographer: Nick Briggs
In series 3, we noticed that in some of the plot-lines mistakes were being made by new staff concerning the proper dress to be worn for dinner. Can you tell us more about dress etiquette among the aristocracy at this time and what should be worn for particular situations/occasions? It would take a long time to explain the etiquette of the day as it was so specific and we had a historical advisor to help us, and the actors on set. The costumes for upstairs are obviously very different from those worn by the cast portraying the below stairs domestic staff. Which was the most difficult to get right, upstairs or downstairs and why? Designing any uniform is a challenge, not only does it need to reflect the period but also the status of each person. Servants could not reflect the current fashion, unlike their masters. It was probably more complicated designing for the aristocracy, mostly because of the difficulty in finding suitable fabrics and trimming. Are all dimensions of the costume – design, fabric, cut, assembly, undergarments, accessories equally important in terms of authenticity? I think getting the silhouette right is very important, but the undergarments are only authentic if they are shown. Downton is referred to as a ‘Costume Drama’. Is the clue in the label, are the costumes more important than the drama? No, I think the drama should always be more important than the costumes, the clothes are designed to look good and to help reflect the personalities of the cast. What is your next project and what challenges will that present? My next project is not confirmed yet although I have been working on a pilot for a feature film, and some smaller projects. Susannah’s awards include : EMMY AWARD 2011 – Downton Abbey, Director Brian Percival COSTUME DESIGNERS GUILD (USA) AWARD 2012 – Downton Abbey
The Historian – Spring 2013
What is your period? Historical flash fiction competition
s this edition is devoted to historical fiction we thought it would be a good idea to invite Historical Association members to get involved in writing some historical fiction of their own. After all this is a route many professional historians have already followed – Saul David, Harry Sidebottom, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Kate Williams and Alison Weir, to name but a few. Apart perhaps from the lure of greater sales than for their history books, they have been motivated by the wider possibilities that historical fiction offers. And they have a head start on ordinary novelists with their detailed and deep historical knowledge of the places and periods in which they specialise. And not only do they have that advantage but so too will most Historical Association members who when asked: ‘What is your period?’ could actually give an answer. My own ‘period’ when I choose to admit it is the early nineteenth century, the Kidderminster Paving Commission 1813-56 to be precise. This early form of local government was the subject of my research whilst studying for an M.A. in West Midlands Historical Studies at Wolverhampton Polytechnic back in 1985.
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In 1801 only about 17 per cent of the population of England and Wales lived in towns and cities. By 1831 that had risen to 25 per cent and by 1891 it had jumped to 53.6 per cent. Such a rapid urban growth led to problems of poor and over crowded housing, inadequate sanitation with its attendant pollution and disease, an increase in crime and a need for planning and leadership. Unfortunately at the start of this period towns were ‘the playground, not the homes of the English upper class. To become a country gentleman was the aspiration of every successful town dweller.’1 The existing institutions of local government were not equal to the problems. Justices of the Peace were effective in rural areas but not in a growing industrial town. Moreover, there was a reluctance to appoint newly enriched manufacturers to the bench. At the same time the system of parish meetings or vestries became too large and unwieldy to function effectively and many of the old Municipal Corporations were corrupt and inefficient. One way to solve the problem was for the inhabitants of a town or city to apply for an act of parliament that allowed them to set up a Paving and Improvement Commission.
Between 1800 and 1840 more than 450 individual acts were passed.2 Amongst them, in 1813, was the one the carpet manufacturers of Kidderminster and their local allies had applied for. From then on, with a mixture of diligence and dilatoriness, they set out to improve Kidderminster. One dispute that illustrated the difficulty of their task, of local politics and of getting things done ran on in the years 1837 and 1838. On 31 May 1837 the Commissioners made the decision to paint the street names on houses, a seemingly simple task. However, at their next meeting they instructed their clerk to ‘lay an information’ against Isaac Heath for obliterating the name Blackwell Street painted on his house. A week later they ordered the street name to be repainted on Heath’s house and handbills printed offering a 20 shilling reward for information leading to the prosecution of anyone defacing street names. The fine was to be 40 shillings. Dave Martin
E. P. Hennock (1963), p.212. John West, Town Records, (1983) pp173-175.
My historical flash fiction The one that got away At least it’s not raining, I thought as I shivered in the alleyway. It was the fourth night in a row that I’d watched Isaac Heath’s house. And nothing had happened. No sign of life. Still the 3d an hour the Commissioners were paying me would buy warmer clothes for next winter. And the sky was lightening; I’d be able to call it a day soon. Wait a moment, was that a door bolt being drawn? Yes. Heath’s front door was opening and a pale dial appeared, peering up and down the street. It wasn’t Heath himself, looked a bit like that angler Roberts. I drew back, just in case. Next time I looked Roberts, it was him, was bringing a ladder out and was that a paint pot? So it was him that was doing Heath’s dirty work. Good. I could almost feel the 20 shillings in my hand. Careful now, don’t frighten him off. Let him climb the ladder and start painting the Blackwell Street name out first. Then you can nib him. Right, now’s the time. ‘Frank Roberts, get down that ladder. I’m arresting you for defacing a street name.’ ‘Shut your head.’ I gave the ladder a shake and that brought him down quick enough. ‘You come with me,’ I said getting a good grip on his arm and I shoulder clapped him down to the Night Constable’s. There was no one else about on the streets, no one to stop me. Factory morning shifts don’t start while 7.00. And then damn me, bloody Night Constable said he didn’t have the authority to lock Roberts up.
The competition is open to all Historical Association members. All you need to do is write your piece of Flash Fiction which must be no longer than 275 words including the title and send to: The Historical Association, 59a Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4JH by 4 June 2013. With your entry please include the story title, the number of words, your name, membership number and your email address. The winning entry will receive a prize of a Bath Aqua paperweight and a £30 book token and will be published in the next edition of The Historian and on the HA web site.
Six flash fiction writing tips Start in the middle – you don’t have much time for scene setting and character development. Only have a few characters – obvious. Write a story – you still need a problem for your character/s to resolve Make your title earn its keep – it should contribute to the story. Focus on that last line - it should leave the reader with something to ponder on. Write too much – editing down will enhance most stories.
Book Review Pure Andrew Miller Sceptre, 2012, 352p, ISBN 978-1-84901-667-4 £8.99
By the late eighteenth century the cemeteries of Paris were literally overflowing with corpses. In the medieval cemetery of Les Innocents over a million bodies were buried. The surrounding streets were plagued by noxious smells, hordes of flies, and epidemics. Eventually the cellar wall under a house bordering the cemetery gave way, and out poured a deluge of human remains. The authorities decided to close Les Innocents. In 1785 the process began of clearing out the cemetery and moving the dead into their new accommodation in subterranean galleries outside the city. In the book’s opening scene, an ambitious young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte,
is summoned by a nameless minister to Versailles and promptly lumbered with the gruesome task of removing all the human remains from Les Innocents. He finds that, on top of the logistical problems of such an undertaking, he has to grapple with the prejudices of the local residents, some of whom, to his surprise, prove to be deeply attached to Les Innocents. A symbolic as well as a literal confrontation ensues, between the old world and the new. Baratte represents the world of the Enlightenment, of progress, against the forces of the past; though he is no mere cipher, but a fullyrealised, awkward and self-doubting figure, struggling to make sense of himself and his life. Paris in 1785 is a world on the edge of revolution. Though the characters naturally are unaware of this, the shadow of the Revolution looms over the book. The fortress of the Bastille emerges momentarily out of the darkness as Baratte heads off on nocturnal ramblings with some newfound revolutionary acquaintances. Baratte and his friends visit the gardens, booths and cafés of the Palais Royal, that haven of hedonism, where people gather to forget the harshness of their daily lives and enjoy
the fleeting pleasures of drinking, gambling, and sex for sale. In those same cafés just four years later, crowds will gather to cheer on the opening salvos of revolution. Perhaps the hardest task when writing historical fiction is to get the voices right. The author must avoid both self-consciously antiquated language, and the temptation to dress their story up with artificially modernised ‘people like us’ ways of speaking and thinking. Very few authors of historical fiction succeed in this, but Miller does. His world feels right and natural. We can sink into it with confidence. He fills our senses with the sights, sounds, and especially the smells, of eighteenth-century Paris. Despite the macabre subject matter, it is a world that we leave with regret. As for the ultimate fate of Les Innocents, the site where it once stood is now dominated by the shopping complex of Les Halles. The triumph of progress? Perhaps. Marisa Linton, Reader in History at Kingston University. Author of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, Authenticity in the French Revolution (OUP forthcoming).
The Historian – Spring 2013
Shortlist for 2012 Young Quills revealed We all know how important it is to get young people interested in history, and see it as an important part of life, not just something you have to do in school. One really good way to do this, as this issue of the Historian clearly shows, is through historical fiction. Fiction can help to round out the detail of a period, and spark imagination and enquiry in young people. Good historical fiction makes students want to find out more – often they are hooked. And that is one of the reasons the Historical Association set up the Young Quills Awards for historical fiction. Now in their fourth year, the Young Quills asks students – both primary and secondary – to read and review books submitted by publishers, and so select a shortlist for the judges. Let’s be clear about this, the shortlist is drawn up based entirely on the reviews, thoughts and comments of the students and that, in our opinion, makes the Young Quills unique. Reviews are
posted on the HA website for all to see, and students enjoy the opportunity to write for an audience. Schools up and down the country email the HA asking to be included in the process – we have a waiting list for 2013 already! Some schools give books to individual students on request. Others have set up reading groups and have weekly feedback sessions where the merits of each book are discussed in great detail. One thing is obvious from the reviews – how much the students enjoy reading the books, and opening a window into a part of history they may not have studied before. Criteria for inclusion in the Young Quills award are: ff Books must be first published in the year of the award ff They must fall firmly into historical fiction ff A good read is important ff A sense of history is more important than precise factual information
Books shortlisted are: Primary: The Great Escape, by Megan Rix Titanic, Death on the Water, by Tom and Tony Bradman Hitler’s Angel, by William Osborne Road to London, by Barbara Mitchelhill Gods and Warriors, by Michelle Paver Secondary: Eleven Eleven, by Paul Dowswell After, by Morris Gleitzman A Skull in Shadow’s Lane, by Robert Swindells The Things We Did For Love, by Natasha Farrant Spy For The Queen Of Scots, by Theresa Breslin The winners will be announced in mid June and the awards will be presented at the Historical Association Awards Evening at the Institute of Education, London on 18 June. Previous winners of the Young Quills have been 2009 2010 2011 Primary: Primary: Primary: Jacqueline Gill Harvey, The Barbara Wilson, Sacred Scarab Mitchelhill, Run Hetty Feather Secondary: Rabbit Run Secondary: Theresa Breslin, Secondary: Mary Anne Rodman, Prisoner of the Paul Dowswell, Jimmy’s Stars Inquisition Sektion 20 Reviews of all the winning books are on the HA website
The shortlist for the 2012
Dave Martin, guest editor of this edition of the Historian, presenting the Young Quills Awards 2011.
36 The Historian – Spring 2013
This is what some of our student reviewers said about the shortlisted books:
The Great Escape, by Megan Rix
Hitler’s Angel, by William Osborne
Gods and Warriors, by Michelle Paver
After, by Morris Gleitzman
‘The Great Escape is a fantastic book based in the Second World War’
‘I loved reading every page of this book. Every chapter has its own great adventure. The fabulous description makes it a book to enjoy.‘
‘The history comes from Bronze Age. I thought it was very realistic because the author made it come to life with brilliant words to describe the characters in the setting.’
‘I really enjoyed reading this book because it had a brilliant sense of hope and adventure throughout the novel. It was good, not only for the enjoyment of reading it, but it was also very interesting as a historical book and I learnt many things from it.’
Eleven Eleven, by Paul Dowswell
A Skull in Shadow’s Lane, by Robert Swindells ‘I really enjoyed this book because it makes you want to read more and more. The chapters end with a cliffhanger so it makes you eager to know what happens next.’
‘My favourite character would most definitely be Rose, the faithful collie. She is the cleverest out of the bunch and leads them away from danger in London and to safety in the Devon countryside.’
‘Just another book about World War 2? Yes this may be true, however this book will keep you on your toes until the very last word.’
Titanic, Death on the Water, by Tom and Tony Bradman
Road to London, by Barbara Mitchelhill
‘The main character Billy was a young lad who was brave and strong. He puts others before himself and enjoyed being the man of the family.’
‘Road to London’ is an adventurous, historical children’s novel set in Elizabethan times. It was a very gripping book that I could not put down until the final full stop.
‘I really enjoyed reading Titanic. Tom and Tony Bradman are amazing authors. It transports you aboard the sinking ship and it allows you to feel the fear, which those on the Titanic felt.’
‘I really enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to somebody who really likes historical characters like Shakespeare’.
‘It’s a good book and it has three characters – Eddie, an American pilot; Will, from England; and Erich from Germany. It’s very tense and leaves you on the edge of your seat, but overall I think it’s a fantastic book and I strongly recommend it.’ ‘What I really enjoyed about this book is the way in which the author linked the characters together, it was so clever.’
‘Despite the creepiness of the story I really did enjoy the book and it took me into the era of the Second World War and the lives of both the British and their enemies.’
The Things We Did For Love, by Natasha Farrant ‘The story is based on fact and what happened in a little French village during the war, there’s love and betrayal, Natasha Farrant’s characters are totally believable. I loved this book, it will make you cry.’
Spy For The Queen Of Scots, by Theresa Breslin ‘This book is exciting. I like how Jenny finds out things that could threaten Mary, but isn’t sure who she can trust. I also like the love story element between her and Duncan Alexander, a young Scottish noble.’ ‘Spy for the Queen of Scots has made it into my top 5 fav books!’
The Historian – Spring 2013
My Favourite History Place David Pearse explores St Petersburg If you want to understand Russian history from Peter the Great up to at least the 1917 Revolutions, you have to visit St Petersburg. Like Versailles, St Petersburg was built for an absolute monarch, on an unsuitable site, at the cost of many labourers’ lives. Unlike Versailles, it was designed to have practical aspects, as a port with a fortress, In fact the SS Peter and Paul Fortress was never attacked. It is, however, a good place to start a visit, not only because it was one of the first important constructions in St Petersburg but also because rising from within its walls is the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul. Containing the tombs of Peter the Great and his successors (including the recently interred remains of Nicholas II and his family), the Cathedral is topped by a golden spire. This was one way Peter the Great indicated that his plans to westernise included an Orthodox Church that would be more “protestant”.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
After Peter the Great, perhaps the most famous modern ruler of Russia was Catherine II. Russian by marriage and Empress by virtue of a coup d’etat, Catherine the Great was keen to be associated with Peter and as a tribute commissioned a statue, the Bronze Horseman, erected near the Admiralty looking towards the Neva. Next to the Admiralty (with another golden spire) stands the dramatically grand Winter Palace and its adjoining Hemitages. Here you can wander through rooms filled with paintings from the thirteenth century onwards, many acquired by Catherine to prove she was cultured – as well as enlightened. Alternatively, you could stop to admire the ingenuity of the Paradise Hall with its “hanging garden” and the green and gold splendour of the Malachite Hall or you could follow the imperial family down the Jordan Staircase, formerly used for the celebration in the Neva of Christ’s baptism.
Church of the Savior on Blood
St Nicolas Cathedral
38 The Historian – Spring 2013
Chiefly perhaps, the Winter Palace is now associated with the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution, overthrowing the Provisional Government that had assumed power after Nicholas II’s abdication in February 1917. There are, however, other places in St Petersburg associated with the developments of 1917 that should be visited. The Tauride Palace (once owned by Potemkin, Catherine’s lover and possibly husband) became in 1906 the home of the Duma, Russia’s first parliament, joined rather uncomfortably in February 1917 by the Petrograd Soviet led by Trotsky. The Finland Station is where Lenin arrived back in April. The Smolny Institute was taken over as their headquarters by the Bolsheviks. Now moored permanently in the Neva, the cruiser Aurora fired at the Winter Palace, while Bolshevik supporters infiltrated the building, apprehended ministers of the Provisional Government and despatched them to the SS Peter and Paul Fortress. 1968 was the first time I visited St Petersburg. Having been Petrograd 1914-24, it was then in its third incarnation as Leningrad and had just celebrated fifty years of Soviet rule. Most people looked poor. Food in the restaurants was plain. Failures and deficiencies were still being blamed on the Second World War. There was a black market in jeans and ballpoint pens. The production at the Mariinsky Theatre was
propaganda;.and St Isaac’s was a museum promoting atheism. On my first night with no roubles (and currency exchange still has to be done inside Russia) I walked through drab suburban streets. Using a dictionary, I got into conversation with an elderly Russian who, ignoring people in uniform circling around us, bought me ice cream. During my second visit to St Petersburg in 2005 I got lost. I went into what turned out to be a university building and said to a man on duty at the door with my best Russian accent: “Yusupov? Rasputin?” He went to find someone, who gave me directions in good English to the place where Rasputin was murdered by Felix Yusupov. I said: “Spasiba” (Thank you) and watched two stony Soviet faces become human. To understand a little about St Petersburg’s climate, visit in March, when the Neva still has ice and many of the canals are frozen. To understand Russia’s past start with St Petersburg
but, more importantly, arrive with an open mind. Many Russians have hated St Petersburg for being too westernised. In my opinion, however, as a piece of evidence it is more complete and straightforward than, say, Moscow and the people are much warmer. David Pearse studied History at Liverpool University, securing a BA and a PhD. He recently retired from teaching. [Editor’s note] For Historical Fiction set in St Petersburg in 1916 try Sashenka (2009) by Simon Montefiore or for Leningrad in 1941 try The Siege (2001) by Helen Dunmore.
If you would like to tell us about your history place in a future edition of The Historian, in about 700 words, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Henry VIII in ten tweets Summarising an event or person using ten statements of only 140 characters (including spaces!). Compiled by Paula Kitching Henry VIII – why? Because you can’t move for historical literature retelling his story or that of his family or members of court. Henry was 2nd son of Henry VII, who had become the Tudor king by defeating Richard III at Bosworth Field, ending War of the Roses. Henry’s brother Arthur was married to the princess Catherine of Aragon, who Henry fell in love with and married after Arthur’s death. That marriage its legitimacy or not caused endless problems with the Catholic Church and helped lead to England’s break with Rome. Earlier Henry gained the title ‘Defender of Faith’ from Pope Leo X for writing “Defence of the Seven Sacraments”, a critical text of Luther Despite breaking with Rome launching the Eng reformation (seizing religious land & cash) he kept the title, British monarchs still use it. The reformation became one of the most tumultuous periods in English history creating the Anglican church & keeping the executioners busy He was a keen musician, sportsman and military enthusiast, building Britain’s navy. He also liked acquiring houses & palaces. King Henry VIII
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Henry is best remembered by school children for his 6 wives recalled thus – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, outlived. 6 wives led only to 3 legitimate children. He was succeeded by all 3 children: Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I (& many books!) Follow the HA on Twitter @histassoc
The Historian – Spring 2013
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