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.
Glastonbury – the town rather than the festival – is a unique place both geographically and socially. Although there are other kindred locations across England which act as magnets for folk of a countercultural mystical metaphysical bent, such as Totnes and Hebden Bridge, none of them quite match Glastonbury’s mystique. Neither do they equal its quotient of hemp, crystal nor fairy based business acumen, as is plainly evident from the host of independent businesses that line its High Street. If you pop into a bookshop, you will discover more volumes devoted to aligning your chakras than to fixing your plumbing, although water has played as much a role in the town’s history as has mysticism.
The profile of the Tor, topped by the ruined tower of St Michael’s Church, arrests the eye of the first-time visitor to the Somerset Levels, its drama and aesthetic appeal self-evident, even when shorn of the myths and legends that have attached themselves to this spot over the centuries. Set amidst the low-lying swamps and marshes that remained hereabouts until being drained by the efforts of mediaeval monks, its former status as a peninsula would initially have attracted settlers, being both defensible, and possessed of a reliable source of good drinking water from Chalice Well. It would likely also have appealed to any aesthetic or ‘spiritual’ sensibilities possessed by those who set up home in this supposed Avalon.
Historically, Glastonbury has been a place of Christian pilgrimage, but it would seem that the publicity of canny monks, eager to raise funds to assist in the reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey following the fire of 1184, unintentionally gave birth, many centuries later, to the town’s association with myth and all manner of New Age beliefs. Their alleged discovery of the graves of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191 put the town firmly on the map as a place of pilgrimage, even going so far as to attract royalty, but the lead cross said to have been found along with the grave vanished during the turbulence of the English Reformation. Furthermore, the first mention of another key element of Glastonbury’s myth – the ‘Holy Thorn’ – appears later than many might suppose, for the first reference to it did not come to light, in print, until the early sixteenth century, not long before the Abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution.
‘And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green’?
I would hazard a guess that they did not. Still, it is not Christianity that dominates the town’s ‘spiritual’ life today, but an unclassifiable melange of eastern mysticism, magic and Neopaganism, most of those subscribing to these beliefs possessing a generally benign intent, whilst being innocuously ineffectual. If you should care to walk its streets today, you may not find Gwydion Turner himself, but you might well find someone with views not a million miles from those held by the character, and expressed in equally pretentious and portentous tones. His creation arose from my own personal observations of people immersed in the ‘alternative’ hippie subculture as it then stood some thirty years or so ago, of their attitudes, beliefs and mannerisms. He is representative of a type that seems intent to impose unnecessary complexity upon life, whilst pretending to some closely-guarded esoteric knowledge that transpires to amount to nothing more than a combination of solemn verbiage and a self-professed belief in some ‘deeper reality hidden behind the veil’. Such attitudes are ripe for satire, although they are so theatrical and outlandish, that those who possess them frequently lapse into self-parody without being conscious of the fact.
Many years ago, I recall happening upon a building in one of the back streets of Weston-Super-Mare that had once served as a temple for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but whether it remains there now, I cannot say. Given the absence of any pictures of the Osiris Temple on the internet, perhaps it was demolished some time ago. Still, the former presence of this occult network in Somerset suggested that it could provide fertile material with which to work in creating a Glastonbury mystery: an occult mystery at that, so doubly mysterious.
I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’is primarily a mystery or a comedy, but it was written with the intent of being both. You may, perhaps, detect a nod or two to Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Magician’ (which I read so long ago that I cannot honestly say I recall a great deal), with a touch of ‘Spinal Tap’ in Gwydion’s musical recollections, and ‘Hot Fuzz’ in the nature of local policing. Wells, after all, almost shares equal billing with Glastonbury in terms of where the action unfolds, and if you should ever find South Pennard, do let me know. I have heard it said that the peat has long since swallowed up the ‘Royal Oak’.
The heading of this blog post relates not to the launch time of the book, but to its title: ‘3:05 am’. As previous visitors to this blog may be aware, I had next planned to release ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’, which I have been working on for some time, but on occasion my plans are disrupted by the course of events. This time, however, it just so happened that this proved to be an entirely positive disruption, which occurred in the form of a dream (or, more accurately, nightmare), from which I awoke during the early hours of last Monday morning. So vivid was it, and such an impression did the scenario make upon me, that I immediately set to work jotting down the details of the story in my bedside notebook, and by the time that the alarm went off, ‘3:05 am’ was fully plotted.
The final form taken by the tale has been that of a wry mystery novelette, a little over 7,500 words in length, set – like ‘Old Crotchet’ and ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ – in the West Country. The village of Horrabridge is real enough, although the address referred to is fictitious, and readers familiar with Plymouth will recognise a number of the city centre locations in which much of the action unfolds, although the events referred to are entirely of my own invention.
Its protagonist – Mark Hillier – stands upon the brink of realising two major life goals in terms of fatherhood and career progression, but then there is a third change in his circumstances that is as unanticipated as it is inexplicable: his portable television set goes and develops a nocturnal mind of its own. There are consequences, and although one person with whom he is acquainted seems to have some knowledge of what these might be, he does not.
The past week has thus been spent putting flesh upon the bones of the plot, with the initial draft going through two substantial revisions. I therefore hope that the reader should find it to his or her taste, and that some amusement, as well as some intrigue, is derived from it. ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’, to which the final amendments are being made, will be published within the coming week.
The instant that I saw her and her companion, I knew that I would have to write about her. It was not only her face, but also her mode of dress and stature, as well as her stiff deportment, which invited comment. I cannot say that I fell in love with her, for I do not generally find women with thick leathery skin and unprepossessing looks topped off by a sinister expression appealing, but she did intrigue me. She also appeared to be somewhere in the region of four hundred years old. Whether the two of them are Jacobean or late Elizabethan, or merely fashioned to appear of that age, it is hard to say, but what can be said of them with some certainty is this: their appearance is singular.
Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset, the seat of the Lyte family from the 13th to the 18th centuries, was restored to its present charming state under the ownership of Sir Walter Jenner, who purchased the estate in 1907, but since 1949 it has been under the stewardship of the National Trust. It has served as home to these two antiquated ladies for an unspecified period of time, and who brought them into the house, and for what reason, has been long lost to memory. The guides at the house refer to these two figures as ‘the good companions’, and although their purpose is uncertain, it has been suggested that they were employed on those inauspicious occasions when thirteen diners were expected for dinner, with one, or both of them, being brought to table to make up the numbers. This detail was the germ around which the story of Old Crotchet was to coalesce.
Both the mannequins and their residence invited something of a supernatural treatment, and it was with a nod or two to M.R. James, that the idea of penning a ghostly tale against a festive backdrop suggested itself. That it has been published in the height of summer – insofar as it may be termed as such, given the autumnal feel to the weather of late – is somewhat inapposite, yet unavoidable, for having completed it in April, I did not wish to wait until winter to make it available to the public. This does however remain, in many respects, ‘a ghost story for Christmas.’
It seemed apt to set it at a moment in the past when the old rural order was reaching its point of dissolution, and longstanding customs and folkways – such as wassailing, as detailed by Ronald Hutton in his ‘The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain’ – were dying out, or almost dead. There was no period of social disjuncture greater than that occasioned by the Great War of the last century, a conflict that hastened the decline of the country house and social deference, as well as accelerating technological development. It is thus the clash of the modern with the traditional, the urban with the rural, symbolised by the arrival of George with his young wife Celia in their Talbot Tourer, which awakens Old Crotchet, like some domestic guardian spirit, from her many centuries of slumber.
Hinton St Cuthbert Manor exists in the imagination alone; it is something of a composite, an amalgam of the imaginary and the real, drawing elements and features from a number of historic houses in the south of Somerset. From Lytes Cary it takes its relatively modest dimensions and Great Hall, the latter with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, wooden panelling and stained glass windows providing the perfect setting for a Twelfth Night dinner. Other aspects of its appearance – its honeyed Hamstone exterior, barley twist chimneys and plasterwork ceilings for example – were drawn from Barrington Court and Montacute House, both of which are open to the public, and under the care of the National Trust.
Although the publication of Old Crotchet is out of season given its midwinter setting, it appears to be in step with an appetite to revive the ghost story for a contemporary television audience, as evidenced by the current screening of a new supernatural drama series by the BBC – ‘The Living and the Dead.’ This, coincidentally, also happens to be set in Somerset, albeit some three decades earlier in 1894. Like ‘Old Crotchet’, it focuses upon the theme of the intrusion of the modern and the metropolitan – in the form of Nathan and Charlotte Appleby – into the world of the traditional and the rural, and its coming leading to the awakening of a supernatural presence that has long lain dormant. That is where the similarities between the two come to an end, for the tone employed in each differs significantly, with Old Crotchet being shot through with a strong vein of wry humour, which is absent from the BBC production.
From what I have seen thus far, ‘The Living and the Dead’ is handsomely filmed, and in terms of its look manages to capture its era successfully, although some of the characterisation is perhaps better placed in the 1990s rather than the 1890s. If you do not find its initial instalments engaging, it is worth persevering with, for it truly gets into its stride by the third episode. I shall reserve judgement on its overall merit until I have watched the entire series. Clearly, a considerable amount of investment has been ploughed into its production, yet for all that, a big budget need not be necessary to create a piece of television that elicits a sense of psychological unease in the viewer. One need look no further than Christopher Lee’s masterful delivery of a number of M.R. James’s tales in his ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’, originally screened in 2000, for an example of what can be achieved using relatively modest resources. It is a great pity that he is no longer with us, and given that I have mentioned him, it would be remiss of me not to note that some reviewers have drawn parallels between ‘The Living and the Dead’ and ‘The Wicker Man.’
Although the writers of the former appear to have drawn upon some elements of the latter, it falls far short of approaching the 1973 cult classic’s atmosphere, originality and deranged air of menace, so eloquently embodied in Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle. ‘The Wicker Man’,whose director Robin Hardy has just passed away, was a unique cultural artefact, very much of its time, with its texture being enriched by its idiosyncratic soundtrack. ‘The Living and the Dead’ should thus also be considered on its own terms, and seen as a reworking of certain supernatural themes with a contemporary audience in mind.
Old Crotchet is the first in a series of West Country Tales, many of which will possess a supernatural or occult element, as well as a marked streak of wry humour. To preview, or purchase Old Crotchet for 99p or 99c, please click here. This novelette is free to download for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.