Loyalty House and Mr Collins
Like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, some of my friends shun novels, historical novels in particular, disapproving of them as not being real history. As a writer of historical fiction who strives for authenticity, I roll my eyes.
Novels are after all an art form, with writers throwing words at the page like paint at a canvas and hoping they will stick. Would anyone complain at the deliberate historical inaccuracies in Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire?
There are a few historians who, writing for a wider audience, manage to inform and entertain simultaneously. But many, writing for a more serious or academic readership, don’t try to entertain. In a previous blog I wrote about ‘bringing the dead to life’. It’s a big part of why I write, certainly a huge part of why I write fiction set in the past. I want readers to be entertained and soak up a few facts at the same time. ‘As a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’ to quote Mary Poppins.
I recently watched Anatomy of a Scandal, a tv series about a corrupt politician who justifies his lies by saying he has stuck to the ‘core truth’. Maybe that’s what I, and other historical novelists, are trying to achieve. If we omit some facts, manipulate others and mix in a large dollop of pure fantasy, known as the plot, we are still trying to convey some core truth about life in a historical period.
Most novelists specialise in one or two particular times and places. I must admit there is an advantage to this. Having spent as long on the research as writers of contemporary fiction spend on writing the first draft of a full length novel, there is a strong incentive to stick with the same period! And the same country. This is not true of all novelists, but I have a strong preference for visiting the places I write about. Setting scenes inside Warwick Castle and Oxford Castle for example as I did in The Welsh Linnet, I felt compelled to visit them to capture the atmosphere. It is just not possible from viewing online.
During Melbourne’s lengthy lock down last year, we bought a house on Zoom. The real estate website had a selection of photos and a short video. Our buyers’ agent walked around it talking to us while he filmed. But it was only when we were released from captivity and able to explore our new home in person, that we discovered what the house felt like.
I should point out that not every novelist has this particular compulsion with place. Erica Robuck’s novel about Virginia Hall, The Invisible Woman, written during Covid, was successfully completed without Robuck setting foot in France. I, on the other hand, am having great difficulty finalising the manuscript of my second novel The Tawny Sash, completed during Covid. This is because I have not yet been able to get on a plane to visit Ebrington in Gloucestershire where a section of the story is set!
Immersing ourselves in a world that is part fact, part fantasy sometimes throws up unexpected ‘core truths’. Well known historian Jessie Childs recently published a book about my favourite civil war site, Basing House. Since my copy of The Siege of Loyalty House has not yet arrived in Australia, I have not read it, but the introduction mentions a wedding during the siege. I wonder if it is the wedding I imagined in Welsh Linnet? Stranger things have happened on my writing journey.
Dame Edna and the English Civil Wars
From pantomime dames to principal boys, from drag queens to Dame Edna, cross dressing has a long history, Using it as a form of entertainment is not new. The first pantomime dame in the UK dates back to 1806 when a Mr Simmons played Mother Goose in Harlequin, and the Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.
But travel back in time and while it was ok, indeed compulsory, for boys to play all the female roles in plays in Shakespeare’s time, women dressing as men was considered outrageous.
This didn’t stop a minority of women deciding not only to follow the English Civil War armies on campaign but to dress as men and become “she soldiers” as they became known. In 1643, King Charles’s army was drawing up written standards of behaviour for soldiers. With typical attention to detail the king reviewed the draft himself and made notes in the margin, ‘lett no woman presume to counterfeit her sex by wearing mans apparall under payne of the severest punishment’.
But as in so many other things, the king was doomed to disappointment if he expected his ban on women soldiers to be observed. The fact that he considered it worthy of comment suggests that this may have been commonplace. Armies throughout history have been followed by camp followers – women, families, dependents of the soldiers who either had no way to survive if left behind or who preferred to stay with their men, cooking for them and tending them if they were sick or wounded. It seems probable that many of the she soldiers who fought would have been accompanying a man (family member or lover). The disguise would have made it considerably more likely they would be able to spend their days and nights with their men, rather than left behind with the baggage train. It is not clear what proportion of these female soldiers simply wished to fight and had chosen a different method of helping the war effort to the many women who acted as spies and messengers.
In circumstances where changing clothes, undressing or washing anything but hands or face was difficult, it may have been relatively easy for women to remain undetected. The long shirts, baggy breeches and thick coats the men wore would also have helped. And both sides of the conflict were constantly losing soldiers through desertion, so officers may have turned a blind eye to a practice which helped fill the constant gaps in their ranks. But when captured or seriously wounded, the deception, if it so was, would come to light. Jane Ingleby, daughter of a Yorkshire yeoman is said to have been wounded fighting in the royalist cavalry at Marston Moor. One young soldier in the parliamentary garrison of Gloucester went undetected for a year before being discovered and reported when visiting a tailor.
It was not just the poorer sort of woman who followed the armies dressed as a man. When the royalist Lord Henry Percy was captured by Oliver Cromwell in the course of a raid at Andover in 1645, the raiding party included his mistress, dressed as a man. The youth being “of so fair a countenance” Cromwell ingeniously requested that he sing “which he did with such a daintiness” that Cromwell confronted Lord Percy who admitted that the youth was in fact a “damsel”.
Tempting as it is, I have not included any female soldiers in my civil war novels – not yet.
Sources – Going to the Wars by Charles Carlton and ‘Give mee a Souldier’s Coat’: Female Cross-Dressing during the English Civil War by Mark Stoyle
The Path to Inverness – an interview with SG MacLean
Shona MacLean, award-winning author of the Alexander Seaton and Seeker detective series, might have remained in academia had it not been for the logistics of family life. Her third child was born six weeks after submitting her PhD thesis to Aberdeen University, and the prospect of chasing short-term academic contracts around the country was not enticing. Her husband had opportunities for promotion and they had to “go with the career that was going to put and keep a roof over their heads”. His job took them to Banff on the Moray coast where MacLean found herself “in a rented, mouse-friendly farm cottage with a baby who cried all afternoon”. She would drive to the seafront where the baby would sleep, and she would look at the sea and think. “That’s when the ideas that eventually became The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, started to take over my head,” MacLean says. A notepad and pen began accompanying them to the seafront.
Maclean chose to set both series in the 17th century, where she feels at home. Her PhD research had focussed on education in late 16th century and 17th century Scotland. Aberdeen has magnificent public records dating back to the 14th century, some written in Scots, a tremendously evocative language she says. “Burgh court and kirk session records open a window onto the man and woman in the street, with all their woes, animosities, loves, hopes and flaws. It’s like eavesdropping.” It was hearing those voices that fired her imagination, as her interest in “kings, queens and high politics” is limited. This was the period where in Scotland, following the Reformation, and in England, particularly from the Civil War of the 1640s onwards, ordinary people begin to make their voices heard and to “rattle the cage of history”.
The choice of detective stories as a sub-genre came about by accident. While she has always enjoyed reading them, “when I started my first book, I had a story of the relationship between two young men (Alexander Seaton and Archie Hay) … in mind. I needed a catalyst for something that changed the course of their lives, and decided I would have a murder. It changed the plot and nature of the book completely, and set the course for me as a writer”.
Many modern authors of historical fiction shy away from protagonists with religious or political passions out of step with our own times. Alexander Seaton and Damian Seeker both buck the trend. Alexander Seaton’s most important struggle was the spiritual struggle with himself, Maclean says. From Scottish diaries, letters, sermons, she knew this struggle was real for very many people; and it was fundamental to the character she wanted to write about. “I had to stick to my guns.”
Damian Seeker is a very different character, but with equally strong beliefs – in his case in the fledgling English republic of Oliver Cromwell. “It mattered a great deal that (he) believed in something, and to me the republic seemed to offer a more fundamental and admirable set of beliefs for a strong character to cling to.” She adds that “My biggest challenge, as a Scot of Irish Catholic descent, was writing a character devoted to Cromwell!”
Alexander Seaton evolved as a character during those afternoons at Banff seafront, and the story came later; but Damian Seeker arrived after the overarching plot for the series was established and MacLean’s editor enquired who the detective was going to be. “A stomp in the woods on a dreich December afternoon” came up with Seeker, captain of Cromwell’s guard.
Plots for individual novels are usually sparked by something she comes across that takes her interest. Destroying Angel, set in the North Yorkshire Moors around a fatal mushroom poisoning, was inspired by funghi she spotted in her local woods. Sometimes, the idea springs from something interesting that happened in a particular year. The plot of The Bear Pit came from the co-incidence of the Bankside bears being ordered to be destroyed in the same year that there was a series of spectacularly bungled plots against Cromwell.
Despite having a PhD in 17th century Scottish history, MacLean says that she knew very little about the English history of that period. Persuading her to write a book set in London took her publisher years, she says! “I had hardly ever been to London and knew practically nothing of its history or topography.” The spark of the idea for the first Seeker book, where much of the action revolves around a London coffee house, was a documentary about the first coffee houses arriving in the 1650s.
Research, both reading and physical, is an integral part of every book. Her methods and sources are “a function of the art of the possible” but include archives, printed records and (for Seeker) walking the unfamiliar streets of London.
For her latest book, MacLean returns to Scotland, and her hometown of Inverness.
The Bookseller of Inverness is a standalone tale set in 1752, amongst Jacobites looking for revenge, six years after the battle of Culloden. Close to home in every sense, MacLean says at times she found it hard to write about this challenging period in Scottish history.
As to the future, Maclean and her husband are brand new empty nesters, but that new freedom is slightly impeded by “a dependent dog”. In terms of her writing, possible future projects include a contemporary novel (not detective), and an early 19th century non-crime novel. Despite reminders from her editor that “you’re an historical crime novelist, Shona” she has started work on both in her spare time. While driving to the seafront with the dog, perhaps?
The Bookseller of Inverness is due out in the UK on 4th August 2022.
Why Cromwell didn’t kill Christmas (and other stories)
A growing number of people believe (especially British kids who have learnt this at school or at historic “attractions” ) that Oliver Cromwell abolished Christmas when he became Lord Protector. Except he didn’t. It was Parliament who in June 1647 declared Christmas should be a day for fasting and that shops should remain open while the population must go to work as if it were any other day. Cromwell undoubtedly supported this but it was not his idea. Traditional Christmas celebrations had for hundreds of years featured feasting, drinking and unruly behaviour throughout the 12 days of Christmas. On Plough Monday celebrations concluded and work in the fields resumed, presumably with a lot of sore heads!
Opposition to this had been growing among the stricter Protestants, particularly in Scotland, for decades. In 1643 on the second Christmas Day of the civil war, London Puritans opened their shops and the apprentices rioted.
Cromwell seems to have slept in an improbable number of inns and other locations across England. “Cromwell’s soldiers” apparently stayed at the Plume of Feathers Inn in Crondall outside Farnham. (They have a copy of the above picture hanging on their wall). Farnham Castle was a parliamentary garrison during the civil war, but under Sir William Waller, not Cromwell. Cromwell did stay at an inn in Basingstoke in 1645 but Crondall?
He is also credited with the destruction of just about every ruined castle, country house and cathedral in England and Wales. This apparently includes examples such as demolishing the tower of Ely Cathedral (which collapsed in the 14th century) and vandalising Winchester cathedral (that was Sir William Waller’s soldiers). Undeniably he was personally present on many occasions such as the storming and destruction of Basing House in 1645, but much of the “bad press” earlier in the war was literally that – Royalist propaganda in the news sheet Mercurius Aulicus. Storming of towns, castles and other strongholds, frequently followed by mistreatment of the defenders, was carried out by both sides in the war with equal enthusiasm.
It is often assumed that he won/lost (or at least was an important participant in) the first great battle of the civil war, Edgehill. In fact he was only a troop captain at the time (October 1642) and although he was officially part of the Earl of Essex’s force at the battle it appears that he arrived late and only participated in its final stages, if at all.
And finally, Oliver Cromwell, strictly speaking was not even a Cromwell. Readers of the “Wolf Hall” books may remember young Richard Williams, Thomas Cromwell’s nephew, who changed his name from Williams to Cromwell. Oliver was descended from him while descendants of Gregory Cromwell in fact fought on the Royalist side.
(Source: Antonia Fraser “Cromwell our chief of men”)
5 things you thought you knew about – The Gunpowder Plot
- Remembered as Bonfire Night – known as Guy Fawkes Night until late 20th century – but originally known as Gunpowder Treason Day
- Guy Fawkes led the plot – well no, the plot was led by Robert Catesby. Guy (or Guido) was a relatively minor conspirator, a soldier who had been in Europe for the previous decade.
- Why the bonfires? This was not a new idea. Bonfires were lit as beacons and in celebration (remember the Spanish Armada?) for centuries before. But this one stuck. They were lit on this occasion to celebrate the foiling of the plot.
- You won’t find Parliament commemorating the events of 5 November any more – actually they do. Presumably due to some nervousness that the same thing might be tried again, guards began searching the cellars the night before the State Opening of Parliament. In 1682 Sir Christopher Wren was ordered “forthwith to cleer and cause to be cleered the Sellars & vaultes under and neer adjoyning the house of Peers, Painted Chamber & Court of Requests of all Timber, firewood, coales & other materialls of what kind soever and that passages be made throughout… & hightes be opened where they may that Gardes may passe throughout the day or night”. and the tradition continues – an official search of the Palace of Westminster’s cellars takes place every year before the State Opening.
- And the significance of the date 5th November? None. Due to calendar changes the 5 November would be later. And the only reason for the state opening of Parliament being on 5 November in 1605 was that it had been postponed twice, from February, to July and finally to November – due to plague. Sadly, that sounds familiar.
I Could Do Angels – An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets
BY AJ LYNDON
Jude Deveraux is the author of forty-three New York Times bestsellers, including Sweet Liar, the Nantucket series, and A Knight in Shining Armor. While she was first known for historical and contemporary romance novels, she also writes murder mysteries, time travel and paranormal.
When her agent suggested the multi-award-winning author might like to write a trilogy, he said that he would get her a co-writer if she came up with an outline. The stumbling block was his suggestion that it should feature vampires and she declined. “He said, ‘Zombies?’ Nope. I don’t like them either. I said, ‘I could do angels.’”
Within hours Deveraux had come up with the basic idea that a person had done something bad but for a good reason, so angels let him/her have a second chance. She could already see where the story was set. “Plotting has always been easy for me,” Deveraux says. Her mind was working so fast that she didn’t sleep that night. At 3 a.m. she started typing the outline of the series. Thus began the story of the Providence Falls trilogy, featuring a romance set in two different centuries, two different countries – and angels.
Keeping to his half of the bargain, her agent gave her a shortlist of three different authors to work with. Deveraux chose Tara Sheets, whose debut novel, Don’t Call Me Cupcake (Zebra Shout 2018) received the 2016 Golden Heart® sponsored by Romance Writers of America. Its plot also featured the paranormal.
Sheets, who has always been fascinated with “fables and fairy tales” says working together on the trilogy is “a fascinating collaborative journey. Jude has a wonderfully vivid imagination, and she’s the one who came up with the idea of Liam and Cora’s star-crossed love story as well as the setting in 1844 Ireland”. Deveraux laughs when she says that she believed her “outline was perfect. Tara had the wisdom to see that it had several plot holes. The list of questions and suggestions she sent me made so much sense that I did a major overhaul of the plot. Also, she came up with names for people and places — something that I struggle with.”
An Impossible Promise (MIRA 2021) is the second book featuring Irish rogue Liam. Transplanted from 19th century Ireland to 21st century North Carolina, he has one purpose in this life—to push Cora (the woman he loved in their previous life) into the arms of another man, Finn. The angels have warned him this is the last chance to save his soul. Cora doesn’t remember Liam or their past lives, nor is she impressed with his attempts to guide her in any way. In An Impossible Promise, Liam and Cora, now police officers, are partners on a murder investigation, drawing them closer together —exactly what Liam is supposed to avoid. There will be a final book, tying up the series and filling in the past of Finn, himself an intriguing character.
Sheets had not written a novel set in 19th century Ireland before, but she “jumped at the chance to help bring Liam O’Connor’s character to life” when Deveraux told her the premise. The small town of Kinsley, Ireland immediately began taking shape, and “the rest was, well, history”. Deveraux provided Sheets with “photos of houses and clothes, things that I love”. Sheets did most of the research, scouring historical records, news articles, and artists’ renderings from that time period.
Given their shared interest in the supernatural, it is no surprise to discover that both Deveraux and Sheets have been influenced by strange things happening in real life. Sheets describes her family living in a house in Cairo. “Lights turning on and off by themselves. Footsteps in empty bedrooms and hallways. The scent of old-fashioned rose perfume wafting through the library when no one was there. That experience definitely helped shape my interest in supernatural elements later when I began writing.”
Deveraux has also lived in Cairo, but in her case it was a 1709 house in England where she experienced “a ghost that made us all crazy for 3 days at April Fools. Tom thought it was hilarious to play annoying tricks on us. We got used to him, but he scared the daylights out of workmen. Telling them, ‘Tom will turn off the lights at 4,’ made them roll their eyes. Gravel flew as they sped out at 4:05.”
This romance/thriller/fantasy trilogy has perhaps created a new subgenre of historical novel. Sheets calls spinning so many elements together “an interesting challenge” but says that she would be happy if there were more books that straddled the line the way this trilogy does.
“I love mixing fantasy in my stories,” Deveraux adds. “Spirits from the past and angels helping people suits me completely!”
About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th century England during the English Civil Wars. She has recently completed writing her second novel, The Tawny Sash. You can follow updates on her blog.
This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website https://historicalnovelsociety.org/i-could-do-angels-an-impossible-promise-by-jude-deveraux-and-tara-sheets/
The other wooden horse
We’ve all heard of darkest dungeons and may have visited a few. At Warwick Castle, one of the tourist “experiences” is the dungeon complex featuring a spiral stair case and live witch trials etc. All calculated to give you delicious goose bumps. But reality? To my great disappointment I was told they had been the castle store rooms. The real dungeon was a hole in the ground – short on visuals. Its sole memorable feature was a carving of a cross done by some unfortunate long-dead prisoner. An aid to prayer? Presumably it gave him some comfort. I preferred the dramatic possibilities of the store rooms so ended up using them (as store rooms/emergency dungeons) in The Welsh Linnet.
Clutching hopelessly at thin air, Harry fell headlong down a flight of spiral stairs. Shaken and hurt, he lay trying to catch his breath at the bottom while the guards laughed. They pulled him roughly to his feet, placed the torch in a metal sconce and unlocked a door. By the flickering light of the torch, Harry saw a small room, empty but for a few discarded sacks. The air was dank and musty. (The Welsh Linnet)
At Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, the 15th century Dungeon Tower has three dungeons on top of each other. A skeleton was discovered there in the 19th century. Could it be some forgotten prisoner from the civil wars? Sudeley was “slighted” ie partially demolished in 1649 at the orders of Parliament to ensure that its royalist owner could not use it again as a fortress, so perhaps?
The discovery of forgotten skeletons tends to get everyone from archaeologists to historical novelists very excited. I have stored the Sudeley one away for possible future use. However Daphne du Maurier may have monopolised this particular gem of an idea, using the 19th century discovery of a skeleton in a secret room at her Cornish house Menabilly in her civil war novel The King’s General.
And so to the wooden horse. Not the Trojan one, needless to say, but slightly sinister and definitely painful. It was a popular punishment device in the army. The ‘horse’ was a sawhorse with a sharpened apex. ‘Riding’ it entailed being tied onto it, sometimes with muskets or other heavy weights strapped to the legs. The weights stopped the soldier falling off, but the main purpose was to increase the pressure and the pain.
Charles’s chubby face became earnest, his brow puckering. “Alexander, your father will flay your hide if you take a dispatch he is meant to carry.”
“He would never do so, Charles,” Alexander argued. “Not a flogging. An hour riding the wooden horse, perhaps. It is worth the risk.” Charles groaned. If his friend was happy to contemplate an hour astride the sharpened apex of the army’s punishment device known as the wooden horse, heavy muskets tied to his legs, there was clearly no point in remonstrating further. (The Tawny Sash).
The wooden horse was also known as the Spanish donkey among other names and was still in use during the American Civil War.
Another oddity, which gradually went out of fashion during the following century was “tying neck and heels” for a specified period of time such as a quarter hour. This involved being bent over a board backwards. One court martial proceeding from June 1644 prescribed this punishment – presumably for somewhat longer as the prisoner was to “be fed with no other food than bread and water” until the army marched.
Eighty years later, regimental courts martial were still prescribing a wide variety of punishments. Some sound fairly innocuous but (Running) the gauntlet could apparently result in serious injury and death. All of which may have persuaded some reluctant combatants that the battlefield was preferable to life in the army camp…
Sources: Gilbert, A. N. (1976). The Regimental Courts Martial in the Eighteenth Century British Army. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 8(1), 50–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/4048155
The Court Martial Papers of Sir William Waller’s Army, 1644
Why churches are better than pubs
Nothing to do with praying although, back in lockdown for the sixth time in Melbourne, we could all do with a little prayer. But this is, of course, about writing. And, specifically, about recreating the past. Most churches, especially in Europe, have been there a very long time, 5,6, 7 hundred years and more. There are quite a few old pubs too but, unlike the pubs, churches usually retain their original names.
Cue repeated moans about the Globe Inn, Lostwithiel in Cornwall. Definitely old, 16th century without dispute. Was there when the roundhead army of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, arrived in 1644 in the middle of the civil war. Next to the bridge over the Fowey. Appearing in my second book as itself. But had to be “the inn by the river”, because the owner told me it had only been The Globe for a couple of hundred years. Then there is The Reindeer in Banbury, dating from 1570. In the absence of evidence of a name change I have assumed The Reindeer is the original name. But I have my doubts, and feel a little anxious whenever I reread the scene in my first book, The Welsh Linnet.
Even churches can be problematic. I have found quite a few that were rebuilt at some point. Usually the tower which may now be square and previously had a spire, that sort of thing. Fonts and pulpits may look ancient- but are they the originals? If only all churches had been left untouched with the original bullet holes, like St Lawrence in Alton.
As for the changing shape of old houses- probably one of the most famous is Hampton Court which has a Tudor front and a William and Mary back. Two totally different styles. Many owners of stately homes decided to improve and modernise, losing all trace of the original features in the process. In the late 17th century (Charles II era) a wave of Restoration optimism (or the damage of the civil war) caused the knocking about of many gentlemen’s houses. The better off remodelled and expanded (Boconnoc House for example) while many others such as Loseley House demolished a wing, either through dilapidation or to cut costs.
Basing House, pulled down on Cromwell’s orders after its capture in 1645, was ironically, falling down at the time. Its owner the Marquess of Winchester had been living elsewhere and only moved back into the immense Basing House when the civil war made him seek a more secure and defensible residence.
Using Boconnoc House as a setting for part of the plot would have been impossible if it hadn’t been for the kindness of the present owner and a recently written book on the history of the house. Writing a novel set in 1644 entailed reconstructing a house which faced west rather than east and was s-shaped with towers instead of square with no towers. But it is still surrounded by the deer park which was clearly visible on a contemporary map.
The mass of the house, a tower at each end, loomed as a dark and silent presence in the night…Gabriel and the remaining men crept in single file up the southern slope from the deer park (The Tawny Sash)
Sometimes I strike gold. The staff at Loseley House showed me a painting of the house with the west wing intact. The details of the layout are quite clear so that I was able to write things like
First removing their shoes so they would not make a clatter on the wooden floors, the brothers crept through the door from the west wing into the stables. They were crowded with tenants’ horses and wagons. (The Tawny Sash)
At Cardiff Castle a helpful guide was a bit surprised when I showed very little interest in the beautiful rebuilding and decoration from the 19th century but insisted in climbing to the top of the spartan but intact Norman keep and taking photos of it from all directions.
Terrain can be just as frustrating. Google maps is wonderful (especially satellite view) and where possible I tramp or drive around a location. But even visiting a location doesn’t always help. Trees for example are a perennial problem. The view from Edgehill in 2016
Apparently in 1642 there was a good clear view from the top. Sometimes a river has silted up (Fowey in Cornwall) or a canal has been driven through an area (Basingstoke Canal at Basing House in 1794). After all the mucking around in the Basingstoke area over the last 200+ years, the River Loddon is little more than a stream. But in 1644, wider, deeper and dammed to stop the enemy crossing, it would have been different. How different? After all the research, in the end I must fall back on my imagination.
This was no great stretch of water like the Severn. In summer it ran clear, and children picked the wild watercress, but not since damming the river had muddied its crystal waters, not since the war began. (The Tawny Sash)
How the Great Plague might change your writing
For a writer, no experience is worthless, however bad. No more immune from tragedy than the rest of us, writers can at least share that experience with readers, hoping that by doing so they may dull their pain, or that of others. Shakespeare lost his only son and in her enthralling novel Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell suggests it inspired him to write his greatest play, Hamlet.
Not long before Covid hit, I was reading another historical novel set during London’s Great Plague outbreak in 1665. Growing up in the UK I had learnt in primary school of the bare facts, the date, the Great Fire which followed in 1666, but it had no particular emotional significance for me. And reading that novel in the heady days of 2019, the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since 1348 was no more than an interesting backdrop to a murder mystery. I shuddered at gruesome and heart rending facts, thrown in as historical colour- the mass burials, the nailing up of doors of infected houses, condemning the healthy to die with the sick. But it had happened so long ago in another world. Nothing lingers in British folk lore other than (perhaps) a grim glimmer of memory filtering down the centuries through the prism of the nursery rhyme “Ring a ring of roses”.
And now, in the stark light of this 2021 day? I picked up my first novel The Welsh Linnet recently and reread the sections on “camp fever” (probably typhus) in 1643 Oxford.
“Stanley’s small and gloomy room stank of sickness… I would not have recognised Matthew … His eyes were immense in his face with the fever. There were tell- tale purple spots on his chest and arms. He felt very hot to the touch... As it began to grow dark, … the sick man spoke his first coherent words. “Nicholas, don’t die. Hold on, I’m here.”The Welsh Linnet by AJ Lyndon
The deadly sickness brought by armies to Oxford during the civil war was a convenient tool I used for development of the characters’ personal relationships, but if I were writing the book now, I believe those nursing the sick would be more fearful; and would spend time brooding on the random nature of the pestilence and praying for its end.
Perhaps it is natural that the reality of outbreaks of dangerous contagion, common throughout the world until discovery of vaccines, should have been forgotten by most people, even those born before the last polio epidemic in the 1950s.
Somehow I doubt that when this war against the 21st century plague is over, those of us who lived through it and survived will spend time reminiscing about the “good old days” of Covid. But for those of us who write fiction, whether we choose to omit any reference to these events from our fictional worlds or include them as a backdrop to thriller or romance, I do not think our stories will mirror those we might have penned in that parallel universe where Covid-19 did not exist.
It’s not only memories of diseases which disappear from collective memory. I have often wondered why the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the usual subject of this blog, have been forgotten more completely than Plague or Fire, almost as if airbrushed from history. They killed a greater percentage of the British population than the First World War.
Was it fear that dredging up any talk of the recent conflict might reignite the smouldering embers of discontent and revolution? Might bring back the days of daily fears – that today would be the day that brought death or starvation to their town or village in the shape of marching troops from either side. Or was it relief that with the Restoration of Charles II it was all over and best forgotten? An “enemy” had been defeated, but it was an enemy within and a brief flirtation with republicanism – the short-lived English Revolution which preceded those in America and France by a hundred years, had failed.
A literary critic, writing during the Franco era, dismissed George Orwell’s passionate account of the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia with the comment that “the Spanish are a fine people” and it did not do to dwell on the past. That patronising comment made me cringe. Yet I think I am a little more able to understand than I was 18 months ago, why those in England, Wales and Scotland who lived through the horrors of brother killing brother and friend friend, wanted only to resume whatever remained for them of “normal” life. Why they kept their memories to themselves and did not pass them down the generations.