The Duke and Duchess of Somerset lie in peaceful repose at Wimborne Minster; he died in 1444, and she in 1482, but here they rest, hand clasped in hand, reunited in death. The tomb has managed to survive the ages, but their effigies have not escaped the attentions of those who have etched their marks into the alabaster, and broken the Duke’s sword. It reminds me a little of the tomb of a certain Mortimer de Peverell, the fallen knight in Agnes of Grimstone Peverell – beware the old lady!
Dim and ill-remembered shades of blood-soaked pagan fertility rites suppressed by the Church, sanitised and repackaged for a Christian age; attenuated echoes of a timeless, agrarian traditionalism surviving into the urban and rapidly industrialising present. This was the vision of the folk customs and festivals of the British Isles as refracted through the prism of late Victorian and early twentieth-century folklore and anthropology, disseminated and popularised by writers such as J.G. Frazer and Margaret Murray. It reached its popular apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, finding its ultimate cinematic expression in ‘The Wicker Man’, a film which, rather appropriately, held that Lord Summerisle’s Victorian grandfather – an educated, enlightened, yet somewhat cynical man – had reinstituted a reconstructed ‘lost’ paganism amongst the islanders as a matter of expediency in encouraging them to grow cultivars of crops otherwise unsuited to the Scottish island. He seems a character who would have been very much at home with the theories propounded by Frazer and Murray, but enough of this digression into pagan romanticism and cinematic trivia.
Professor Hutton’s investigation into the traditions of the ritual year in Britain is carried out with commendable objectivity. Claims of survivals from the pagan past are placed under rigorous scrutiny, and in almost every instance are found wanting, with the very notion of the ‘Celtic’ year and its structure being called into question. What emerges instead is not some dim survival of a lost paganism, but of the lost world of pre-Reformation Britain; it is mediaeval Catholicism, rather than paganism, that would appear to give form to much of our ritual year and its associated customs, although not to all of them. Furthermore, the evidence that he unearths suggests that a number of folk customs that were once taken to be traditions drawn from a timeless agrarian society prove to be nothing of the sort, with many – such as some aspects of mumming – being of a much more recent provenance. Some practices, it would seem, were spontaneous creations of popular culture in a largely pre-literate age, in which a socially licensed breaking of social norms was accepted on the part of the younger members of the community. Halloween and ‘Mischief Night’ are the two notable contemporary manifestations of this tradition of youthful social transgression.
The most detailed studies into the history of Morris dancing suggest that its first appearance was not in some Arcadian English setting, but in fifteenth-century London. This entertainment was popular at the early Tudor court, but by the mid-1520s Henry VIII had already grown tired of the dance, and had it dropped from his Christmas courtly revels. From London and high society, it disseminated outwards geographically, and downwards socially, so that by the early seventeenth century it had spread to many regions of England as a popular pastime. It is not the survival of a prehistoric pagan fertility dance.
Hutton’s book thus reveals as much about the preoccupations of late-Victorian and early twentieth-century British society – an obsession with sex, fertility and paganism born, perhaps, of the disintegration of traditional Christian norms of sexual repression thanks to the challenges of Darwinism and the findings of anthropology in colonial cultures – as it does about the origins of our ritual year and its associated customs. Any reader interested in these themes will take much from this book, although dogmatic neopagans may not warm to it greatly.
The only minor gripe that I have with the publication is that its font size is rather small.
Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Although my first reading of this was as an undergraduate many years ago, I have lately re-read it for the first time since, and enjoyed it even more than the first time around.
One of the pleasures of this book is that it provides a window into the everyday beliefs and practices of ordinary people, rather than those on the upper rungs of the social order, although they are not completely neglected. Furthermore, the many anecdotes and incidents that it relates provide rich pickings for the author, and it is one of these bizarre incidents, reported by Thomas, that furnished me with the idea for my occult tale The Cleft Owl.
Whereas beliefs relating to these matters during the period in question – a period of great social, political and intellectual upheaval – were far from uniform, towards its end in particular, the beliefs of the educated elite had diverged greatly from those still adhered to by the uneducated mass of the people. By 1700, Aristotelian scholasticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the attendant paraphernalia of beliefs in astrology, occult forces and mystical correspondences had largely been consigned to the intellectual fringes, where they have since remained, supplanted by the rationalistic natural philosophy. Advances in science, technology and – perhaps surprisingly, insurance – served as the solvents in the dissolution of the old beliefs, which still lingered on in the remoter rural communities into the nineteenth century.
Magic, prophecy, witchcraft and astrology – the outmoded, discredited, untenable intellectual debris of a former era; so one would think, but during the past half century in particular, there has been a recrudescence of interest in each of these, and as for religion, it hardly needs me to draw the reader’s attention to the revival of its poisonous fanaticism across the globe.
To end on a lighter note, reading this book has, seemingly, and very surprisingly, led me to find an effective remedy for hiccups. As befitting a superstitious folk practice, it sounds ridiculous, and what makes it seem even more so is the fact that it stipulates that the remedy only works for men. This latter assertion with respect to its efficacy I have yet to put to the test, as my other half hasn’t had hiccups since I discovered the remedy, but what I can say is what has happened on the three occasions that I have tried it: my hiccups stopped instantly. Was I surprised? I most certainly was. What is the cure? Well chaps, the next time that you are beset with hiccups, grasp your left thumb in your right hand, and wait. If any ladies amongst you would care to test this remedy, I should be most interested to hear of your results.
Yesterday, I finished the final edit of ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell’ – a wry-humoured ghost story for Christmas – and submitted it to Amazon, which, for some unfathomable reason, has listed H.E. Bulstrode as the author twice over: perhaps the company has seen it fit to gift me with a doppelganger. To celebrate its publication I treated myself to a viewing of Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit,’ which in its light and witty tone treats the subject of the supernatural very much in the same vein as my own humble offering. The blurb follows below. I hope that you enjoy it.
Agnes of Grimstone Peverell
On a bitterly cold day in December 2009, the Smallwoods find themselves enjoying the Victorian Christmas market in the little-known Dorset town of Grimstone Peverell. Chilled to the marrow, they retire to the town’s minster where they are accosted by an enthusiastic guide, who knows a great deal about some things, yet next to nothing about that which would, to most people, seem obvious; she seems keen not to let them go, but return to London they must – Lionel has a play to review. That, at least, is his intention.
For a preview (or to purchase, for the very modest price of 99p, or to read free of charge if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber), please click on one of the following links:
I was delighted to rediscover this book at a second-hand bookstall in a Somerset market earlier this year, having not peered between its covers in well over thirty years, a copy of it having belonged to an elderly member of my family, now sadly no longer with us.
This is a gem of a book, and in its tone and execution very much an artefact of the time in which it was written; the product of a late-Victorian scholar with wide-ranging intellectual interests, possessed of a deep attachment to his local patch of native soil, paralleled by an equally extensive knowledge of its people and their stories. Within these pages, the reader will encounter a mixture of history, antiquarianism, natural history, geography and the occasional ghost story. It is the sort of work that one is unlikely to encounter today, insofar as its compass is intensely local – covering only eleven Somerset parishes – yet the author sees it fit to devote 520 pages of text to the stories of these villages and hamlets (and, technically speaking, a town in the case of Axbridge). This allows the author both the opportunity to deal with a diverse subject matter, and yet afford an in-depth treatment for each of his chosen elements.
F.A. Knight was born in 1852, and died in the year of the publication of this book – 1915 (readers will note from the cover picture that the version I refer to is a reprint published in 1971). It thus marked the culmination of a life’s interests and research into the local history of this area of Somerset, with the opening chapter being devoted to the parish of Winscombe, which is both where Knight was schooled – at Sidcote – and where he later served as a schoolmaster. Those unfamiliar with the area are likely to know the name of only one of the villages dealt with – Cheddar – which is covered in the penultimate chapter of the book, where a good overview of the development of the world-renowned cheese and its production is provided. Knight trawls through the local parish records to tease out the shadows of events and people long since lost to memory, including a local cunning man and wizard whose spirit reputedly returned in the form of a poltergeist (although the term is not employed), and those who met an unnatural fate thanks to participation in the Sedgemoor Rebellion of 1685, or owing to acts of murderous criminality. The gibbet features on more than one occasion.
This book will be of particular interest to people with an affection for the villages and landscapes that form the focus of this study, although it will possess a wider general appeal for those interested in some of the minutiae of times gone by. We thus encounter, for example, accounts relating to how much churchwardens used to pay for the eradication of ‘pests’ as foxes, ‘grays’ (badgers), polecats, sparrows, moles, magpies and hedgehogs. Knight – unconsciously – tells us a great deal about how attitudes to the natural world have changed since his own day, given that his writing is filled with frequent references to rare birds of one kind or another having been ‘shot’ or stuffed, or having had their eggs taken, without reference to the wisdom, or otherwise, of killing representatives of rare species. He does at least acknowledge the barbarity of bull and badger baiting, and notes with approval that these ‘sports’ were last witnessed in Axbridge during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
We also catch a glimpse of more turbulent national events that reverberated down to the parish level, such as the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, the scourge of ‘the Turk’ in the form of Algerine piracy and slavery (a peculiar lacuna in the national memory, doubtless today deemed too politically sensitive owing to the thin-skinned sensibilities of their co-religionists who have taken up residence amongst us), and the large numbers of roving Irish displaced by events in their home country during the seventeenth century. There is much in this volume, in the form of anecdotes and the detail of daily life glossed over by grander political histories, that will stimulate the imagination of the author. Some of the names recorded in the local parish registers – such as Blandina, Sexa and Choroty – are a little unorthodox, although a number of them prove to be indicative of imperfect spelling, rather than peculiar local naming conventions. Much charm is to be found in the phonetic rendering of the names as they were once spoken, in a dialect that even Knight acknowledged had been diluted since the coming of the railway to the district in 1869.
Keen speleologists will also find something of worth here, as Knight himself was an eager participant in some of the early caving on Mendip, and he records a number of the archaeological finds made in the caverns, as well as stories of their discovery and on at least one occasion, of the unfortunate demise of one of the local explorers.
A general reader, if he or she were to find this to their taste, might award this book four stars, but as I hold a special regard for this part of the country, I hereby declare my partiality and award it a five. I look forward to tracking down Knight’s ‘The Sea-Board of Mendip’, originally published in 1902.
One thorny challenge for the writer of historical fiction is how to capture and convey the language of a particular time and place in history, or indeed, whether to bother at all. To what extent should an author seek to reproduce past patterns and modes of speech, bearing in mind that they should be comprehensible and engaging for the modern reader?
This has prompted much discussion over the years, particularly with respect to the language of Shakespearian English, for it is striking to any speaker of English today that many of his sonnets do not rhyme, and his comedy is often desperately short on laughs. Why should this be so? It would seem that this is largely down to shifts in the spoken form of the language, and the following discussion of how it has changed – featuring examples of lines from Shakespeare rendered in both Received Pronunciation and ‘Original Pronunciation’ – is both illuminating and entertaining. There is an earthy rusticity to Shakespeare’s language in its originally accented form that is missing from its contemporary delivery which greatly enhances its comprehensibility, restoring missing rhymes and puns. It’s well worth listening to: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/10/31/listen-shakespeare-sounded-original-pronunciation/
On a bitterly cold day in December 2009, the Smallwoods find themselves enjoying the Victorian Christmas market in the little-known Dorset town of Grimstone Peverell. Sapped by the cold, they retire to the town’s minster where they are accosted by an enthusiastic guide, who knows a great deal about some things, yet next to nothing about that which would, to most people, seem obvious; she seems keen not to let them go, but return to London they must – Lionel has a play to review. That, at least, is his intention.
It had originally been my intention to next release ‘The Cleft Owl’, but upon reflection, ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell’ seems to fit more naturally into the sequence of releases,not only because its action unfolds in the period immediately before Christmas, but also because it is stylistically more in keeping with the tales that have preceded it. It is, essentially, a comic tale with a supernatural element, whereas ‘The Cleft Owl’ marks a move into darker, more lyrical territory, with its seventeenth-century setting further distancing it from its predecessors. This shift backwards into Restoration England also ties in with next summer’s release of ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return’, which opens in the late 1670s; the former piece unfolding in Devon, and the latter in Cornwall and beyond.
At last, The Rude Woman of Cerne is live on Amazon and free to read for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The blurb for this satirical novella with a supernatural thread finds itself very much in keeping with the season, although readers may be relieved to learn that it does not contain anything as tedious as people dressed in clown masks or other such Halloween tat imported from the US of A. This is a distinctly English tale, albeit one still accessible to those possessed of an English sensibility who might find themselves living in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, or even . . . the US? The blurb follows below:
The Rude Woman of Cerne
The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but Beatrice Clemens is determined to make this adage more ‘relevant’ to today’s society by blithely driving an eight-lane superhighway straight through the heart of rural England. Dubbed the ‘Conscience of Dorset’ by a newly launched progressive broadsheet, one could be forgiven for forgetting that this doughty campaigner for social justice in its multifarious forms is actually a B&B hostess (although she would much prefer the non-gender specific term ‘host’). Alas for her guests, her values and preoccupations are never far from her lips, and her inclusive zeal is something in which she enjoins all to share, even if they are only trying to order a full English breakfast, and enjoy a country break far from the clamour of the madding crowd.
Just as Beatrice stands upon the brink of receiving the acclamation that she believes her work with ‘Diversity from the City’ deserves, something, or someone, is glimpsed amidst the hedgerows and within the banks of the Trendle; shadowy, furtive – the embodiment of old Dorset? Whoever it may be, he does not, it would seem, share her enthusiasms.
You can preview and purchase The Rude Woman of Cerne at Amazon by clicking on the image above, or here.
With prose pedestrian and dialogue stilted, is it any wonder that my attention wilted?
By the time that I had read thirty or so pages of this book, I had a hunch that getting through it was going to be something of a slog. For the first 220 pages or so, it read like a second draft rather than a polished final product, but to be fair, Sansom thereafter made some effort at fleshing out the rather two-dimensional characters thus far encountered. As this was his first novel, I will be charitable and own that he must have been learning his craft as he went, but there were a number of features of this novel that jarred, including the manner in which the author crowbarred his twenty-first-century preoccupations and outlook into the world of Reformation England.
Yes, the protagonist Matthew Shardlake may not have been ‘shaped for sportive tricks’, but just how many times did the author need to hammer home the fact that he shared his defining trait with old Crookback himself? It was monotonous. Moreover, beyond the dominating presence of the hump, Shardlake appeared to possess little to distinguish himself from the other underdeveloped characters who populated this work, other than a seeming compulsion to explain the obvious to his younger sidekick. The presence of the latter appears to have been engineered as a clumsy device for explaining aspects of everyday life in Tudor England to the historically unaware reader. Why otherwise, for example, would Shardlake have found it necessary to explain to Mark Poer the significance of All Hallows Eve? Given that church attendance was compulsory during this period and Poer was part of this society and no suckling babe, he would have fully understood what it meant, as well as have been conversant with the customs and rituals observed on this day.
As for the idealisation of Brother Guy, the blameless, persecuted Moor, and the soon-to-be ‘mud-coloured ex-monk’ befriended by Shardlake, there could be no clearer illustration of anachronistic attitudes being shoehorned into Henrician England. Anachronism also occasionally slipped into the dialogue, with the use of the term ‘pressure point’ making me wince; clumsy evidence of this being an unpolished draft, rather than a finished product. Although I have been reassured that further books in this series are better written, I am not sure that I will read anything else by Sansom, for his style did not grab me, po-faced and humourless as it was. If, however, you are looking for a novel in which a Tudor hunchbacked lawyer endowed with twenty-first-sensibilities finds himself hanging on to a clanging bell in a monastery bell tower, then this is the book for you.
‘Write what you know’ is one of the cardinal commandments that hangs over the heads of aspirant authors, and if taken too literally, could be fatally crippling to the imagination, particularly with respect to the venture of writing historical fiction, for what do you, I, or anyone else living today, know of, for example, the nineteenth century? Nothing, in terms of direct experience of course. That said, there is still a great deal that we can ‘know’, should we care to take the trouble to find out, and it is this process of investigation, this uncovering and reconstruction of worlds long since lost, that makes the writing of this particular type of fiction doubly rewarding, if your interests happen to incline in this direction.
We can never fully immerse ourselves in first-century Rome, fifth-century Gaul, the Russia of Peter the Great, or seventeenth-century England, but neither can we truly know what it is like to have grown up in a country, or culture, of which we have no direct first-hand experience; the nature of the author’s abstraction from a particular context – whether it be geographical, cultural, temporal, or a combination of all three – is only a matter of degree. The interposition of time serves to make this exercise of ‘retrieving’ or ‘recreating’ human experience more difficult, but not impossible, and it is important to recall at this point that the author is creating a work of fiction, rather than a history. The author of historical fiction seeks to create characters, scenarios and behaviours that are historically plausible, rather than necessarily entirely accurate. The primary challenge could be said to be that of producing a work that is both authentic to its period, yet engaging for the contemporary reader, given the transformations in attitudes and beliefs that have occurred over the centuries and millennia that might render the reader unsympathetic to the characters depicted. One thing, however, appears to remain constant across the ages: the foibles of human character.
There are many ways in which we can access past experience and the worldviews that bounded the horizons of our ancestors, the most obvious of these being the use of contemporaneous written sources in the form of books, letters, official documents and archives. These do, however, possess their limitations, particularly as we travel further back in time, for within a couple of centuries we already arrive at a point when only a minority of the population was literate, resulting in a narrowing of perspective that becomes increasingly filtered through the attitudes and preoccupations of elites. Thus, although seventeenth-century England was a relatively literate society by historical standards, the level of literacy varied greatly between class, gender and region, and whereas we are at this point able to directly access the written reflections of the upper classes and many of the middling sort of folk – particularly of men – the voices of the lower orders of society and women are largely lost to us.
There are also the material remains of the past, some of which survive in something approximating their original form, and others which have been updated or repurposed. Architecture, monuments, the visual arts, furniture, personal effects and costume, even the landscape itself, all provide sources of information and inspiration relating to different periods and aspects of our past. The more places that you visit and the more attention that you pay to what you see, the more finely attuned you become to the flow of time and changes in architectural forms, interior decoration, style and the attitudes and beliefs that fashioned them. In the UK for example, visiting properties and sites owned by the National Trust or English Heritage will provide an insight into the lives of the wealthy elite in particular, although a glimpse into the everyday world of the lower orders can be had in the kitchens, stables and working buildings such as watermills, windmills and forges. If you are lucky, your visit will coincide with a day during which corn may be milled, metal worked or re-enactments of different aspects of everyday life staged. Should you have children, the latter will soften the ‘ordeal’ of being dragged around a historic property on a day out, and, hopefully, stimulate their imaginations.
There are also museums of course, which house invaluable collections of artefacts from the past, and a number of which are classed as ‘living museums’, meaning that they attempt to demonstrate a number of crafts, industries and agricultural practices that have now passed away. To witness a defunct or rare craft being demonstrated provides the author with an invaluable aid to the imagination, even should that craft itself not be described in writing. Knowledge of a character having engaged in a particular line of work will have an impact upon how he or she carries and expresses themselves, as well as, potentially, upon the types of aches and ailments that they may suffer from.
London’s Geffrye Museum, whose focus is the domestic sphere, contains a series of reconstructed interiors spanning the period from 1630 to 1998, and is well worth a visit if you are on a trip to London (who knows, a visit may even provide you with the inspiration to remodel your own domestic surrounds). Many living museums tend to focus upon one particular time period, although often also possess exhibits relating to other periods, thus Butser Farm spans a vast expanse of time from the Stone Age to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, whereas Morwhellam Quay focuses upon the Victorian era. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, and St Fagan’s National History Museum in Wales both feature collections of vernacular architecture reassembled onsite. Londoners are spoilt for choice, home as their city is to the great national art collections in the National Gallery, Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, but there are also many provincial art galleries that are worth visiting. One quirky establishment worth visiting if you should be in the vicinity is Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which caused quite a furore when it initially opened in the village in 1960. However, it should be borne in mind that much of its content focuses upon the distinctly modern English invention that is Wicca (or it did when I last visited many years ago. I shall give an update on my impressions following a forthcoming visit early in 2017).
One of the most important concerns for the author writing about the past is avoiding anachronism, which can be difficult. A good rule of thumb with respect to diet is to remember that all of those foodstuffs originating in the New World would not have been available to the inhabitants of Europe, Asia and Africa before 1492. There should thus be no mention of potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, chocolate or chillies, to name but a few, in any work set before the European discovery of the Americas, nor indeed of that noxious stinking weed named tobacco, unless that is your piece should be set in the Americas. Diets around the world have changed greatly since the golden age of European exploration.
Technology is another sphere in which we encounter much potential for anachronism. It is particularly important to note that people’s sense of time has changed greatly since the introduction of the clock, for thinking in the sense of seconds, minutes and even hours, would have been alien to our forebears for the greater part of history. One’s sense of space, time and the wider world has changed greatly, with unified national time not coming into existence until the spread of the railways, communications being far slower during the era of poorly maintained roads than during that of steam and the telegraph.
Our forebears were attuned to the rhythms of the seasons, from which we have, to a greater or lesser degree, been largely insulated since the introduction of gas and then electric light and heating. Our bond with the natural world and sense of place within it has become increasingly attenuated on a practical day-to-day level.
The warp and weft of everyday life, which usually escaped specific thematic documentation and treatment in days gone by, is particularly challenging to reconstruct. What rituals of personal hygiene did people observe? How often did they bathe? How did they look after their teeth? How many changes of clothes did they possess, and how frequently were they laundered? If you are naturally inclined to writer’s block, writing historical fiction, throwing up so many questions as it does, may engender complete and protracted paralysis. Beware.
Once we have done our research and are satisfied that we have gleaned sufficient knowledge to commence writing our tale, the next task is how to create a text that is both ‘authentic’ and yet engaging and comprehensible. It is something of a conundrum, to which I shall return in a later post when I reflect upon creating the characters and voices that inhabit my forthcoming novel set in seventeenth-century Cornwall. Before closing, it may be worth mentioning that I find it helpful to track down and listen to music from the period about which I am writing. Even should it not be successful in eliciting an appropriate mood, it is at least enjoyable.