Authenticity in historical fiction (IV)

Continuing from my previous blog, looking at ways in which an historical novelist can try and achieve authenticity in their writing, today I am looking at depicting the historical thought-world, including such aspects as religion and superstition.

 

As I showed in an earlier blog post (The problem with historical fiction (I), 2nd November 2016), Henry James distrusted historical novelists’ ability to imagine the gaps between their own inner lives and those of people who lived in earlier times, whose experience of the world was so much more limited than ours. It was this that he thought made historical fiction impossible to write with any degree of authenticity. But this is surely the very essence of historical fiction – to portray what Barry Unsworth once called the “spirit of the age”. He thought that authenticity could be found in the way a novel sensed the past, the way readers experienced what it was like to be alive at that time.

I have found that portraying the intangible aspects of my characters’ thought-worlds, such as sexuality and gender, religion, superstition, belief in magic and monsters, peoples’ sensibilities and mindsets in general, is more difficult than getting right either the social context or the physical details. Although there is no shortage of academic writing about these subjects, the difficulty lies in transporting oneself as a writer into a very different thought-world. Fourteenth-century people must have been like us in many ways, yet also unlike us in many others, and tapping into these dissimilarities is both a challenge and, perhaps, one of the principal points – and indeed pleasures – of writing historical fiction.

In this blog, I am illustrating my ideas with extracts from my as yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things.

Sexuality and gender

My novels tend to focus on the lives of relatively ordinary people, although I do want all my characters, both male and female, to be quite strong, more ambitious perhaps than many of their real counterparts would have been. I think that is partly what makes them engaging as characters. Female characters are at the heart of their narratives and, although most of them are “strong”, and perhaps thoughtful and even argumentative, they are not “feminist”, and I have striven to portray them as more or less conforming to the norms of the day in terms of they think and do. It is important for the sake of authenticity that all the characters, and their behaviours, are not anachronistic.

1_3_2_mansel-smlFourteenth-century sexual relationships were undoubtedly different from the norms of modern day Britain. Sex outside marriage and adultery were sins in the eyes of the Church. Even sex inside marriage was a sin if it was not knowingly for the procreation of children. However, I feel sure that women experienced the same desires and passions as modern women, even if they knew they were “sinful”. Despite their undoubted fears, my female characters are generally as eager for love and enthralled by sexual passion as any modern woman. And, like women throughout time until the contraceptive pill brought them unprecedented sexual freedom, some of them engage in “illicit” sex despite the risk of pregnancy and therefore discovery, and despite their fears about sin.

Despite the risks, mediaeval literature and court records make it clear that adultery was common enough, if by no means socially acceptable. But, unsurprisingly, in the following extract, the woman’s behaviour gets her into trouble, and she realises it is the result of her hunger for a different sort of life.

Later, when he’s gone, I’m in an agony of conflict. I’m racked with terror at my sin but unable to confess it for the shame of seeing Master Anselm’s shocked and disappointed eyes. Yet I’m quite powerless to tell Tom not to come to me again. For the truth is my hunger for the pleasure Tom brings me is far stronger than my fear.
The Nature of Things, pp.111-112

She has dreams, but they are not – indeed, cannot be – fulfilled: in the end ordinary life gets in the way and her role as wife, and especially mother, prevents her from leaving. Instead, her desire for a different life turns into a hunger for love, love that proves perilous as well as sinful. I see her as like any modern woman who longs for something “more” in life, although, in this case, her “more” is limited to what was likely in the fourteenth century, constrained as she is by social mores as well as circumstance.

adulteryA priest’s illicit relationship could be equally risky, when he is consciously flouting the Church’s rules on the celibacy of the priesthood. However, as I understand it, mediaeval priests often had mistresses, and even wives and children. Yet neither my priest nor his mistress is truly comfortable with their decision to become lovers – they are not modern people. It is perhaps surprising that they – indeed mediaeval people generally – would commit these “sins” at all whilst apparently so fearing punishment in the next life but, perhaps, as Sarah Johnson says, “human nature doesn’t change”.2

The bond is sealed, but the nature of it remains unsettled. I feel yet unable to make a public denial of the rules of clergy by taking Alys as my wife, and yet I cannot shake off the conviction that I am sinning – and forcing her to sin – when we share my bed without the sanctity of marriage. Alys, for her part, is patiently risking her mortal soul for the sake of our nights of joyful – and guilty – pleasure.
The Nature of Things, p.41

Another female character in The Nature of Things is coquettish, high-spirited and a little rebellious – both against tradition and against her mother. Her mother thinks her recklessly headstrong when she refuses her father’s advice and, as a consequence, loses two of her sons to the plague.

‘Your father told you what you should do,’ she says, her eyes narrowed and steely, ‘but you ignored his advice. You think you are so modern and independent, and do not need the advice of your elders.’

I shake my head, weeping still. ‘That is not true, Mama,’ I whisper. ‘I just thought—’

She flies at me. ‘You just thought you could defy God’s will – you arrogant, irresponsible girl.’
The Nature of Things, p.234

Despite appalling setbacks, she maintains her defiance and ultimately absorbs ideas about society that were undoubtedly unusual for women of her time, about equality, the power and wealth of the Church, and the freedom of women to manage their own lives. Yet, in truth, she barely acts on them – perhaps, in the end, tied by the constraints of that society.

Religious views

exton-church-009-002
Corhampton church, Hampshire’s Meon Valley. Photo: www.intriguing-history.com

The central role of religion in the lives of fourteenth-century people is perhaps difficult for many – but not of course all – people living in twenty-first century, science-focussed, largely secular Britain to fully appreciate. Yet I am sure that my anticipated readership would be surprised if mediaeval religious sensibilities did not permeate my characters’ thought-worlds.

In the fourteenth century, God was central to daily life: in prayers and oaths, in how people thought of their position in the world and of life after death, in the way they behaved. The Church directed how people ran their lives, to an extent that we would undoubtedly consider deeply interfering. As Eamon Duffy says, ‘The Christian calendar determined the pattern of work and rest, fasting and feasting, and influenced even the privacies of the bedchamber, deciding…when husbands and wives might sleep together or must abstain. Everyone, in principle [my italics] at least, subscribed to the Christian creed.’3 However, Duffy’s “in principle” makes me think that perhaps strong faith was not quite as universal as we might suppose. I imagine that most people believed in God, and in Heaven and Hell, and may have feared the consequences of committing too many sins, yet many probably had the most simplistic understanding of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. But I imagine too that most were happy enough to engage in the main events of the Church year – the many Christian feast days and the annual confession at Lent or Easter – and to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and marriage, and I suppose most went to church on Sundays.

However, if most people believed something, at least a few must surely have eschewed religion altogether, although they might well have kept their scepticism to themselves. In The Nature of Things, I have drawn a character who has lost his faith, principally because God continues to ignore his (indeed everyone’s) prayers for help in the midst of devastating famine. His apostasy frightens his wife and family, who fear God may punish him, and also that those in authority on the manor may regard him as subversive.

Ma says we must believe our suffering is God’s will. But I don’t understand at all why He’s making our life so hard, for I don’t think me, or Ma, or Pa, or my brothers, or anyone in Broadham, has been so wicked we can possibly deserve such punishment.

Ma tries to comfort me. ‘Think of it as part of God’s great plan. He’s testing us—’

‘But why, Ma?’ I cry. ‘Why do we need to be so tested?’

She shrugs. ‘Master Anselm says God wants us to understand we’re weak and must trust in Him alone.’ She wrings her apron for a few moments. ‘Which is why I worry so about your Pa,’ she says, in a whisper. ‘He thinks he’s no need of God at all – can manage by himself.’

‘But he can’t, can he?’ I say, thinking of how thin and frail Pa’s become. ‘So will God think badly of Pa?’

Ma shakes her head. ‘I don’t know, Agnes,’ she says, wiping her face with the edge of her apron. ‘He’s a loving and merciful God, Master Anselm says, but all the same I’m fearful for Pa’s soul.’
The Nature of Things, p.84

The fourteenth century was a world where what we now consider natural (or perhaps man-made) disasters, such as ruinous weather, famine, plague, were presumed to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. This would, I think, have been what priests taught their congregations. In the following passage, the character “knows” that God has sent their suffering – in this case, death of a whole family from plague – without understanding why.

The loss of my brother and his family is hard too for me to bear, despite Will and me not always seeing eye-to-eye. I think of what Isabel said – what cause did God have to punish them? Will was a good man, hard working, honest, a loving husband and father. Isabel was vexing but hardly a sinner. And the children’d had no time to sin! No one, not even Master Nicholas, understood why God must be so cruel.
The Nature of Things, p.185

 

In my final blog of this series, I will look beyond the relative strangeness of medieval thought-worlds to the matter of “alterity” or “otherness”, the essence of what makes the past even more of a “foreign country”.

(Note: I have discussed this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/383484/>)

References

1  Arlo Haskell, ‘Barry Unsworth: The Economy of Truth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Audio Archives (7th October 2009) <www.kwls.org/podcasts/barry_unsworth_the_economy_of/> [accessed 25th March 2014].

2  Johnson, p.5. Sarah L. Johnson, Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (Westport: Libraries Unlimited Inc., 2005), p.5.

3  Eamon Duffy, ‘Religious belief’, in A Social History of England 1200 – 1500, ed. by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.293.

Authenticity in historical fiction (III)

Continuing from my previous blog, looking at ways in which an historical novelist can try and achieve authenticity in their writing, today I am looking at portraying the social context of the time, and describing physical details, such as clothes and food.

Social context

What was it like to live in the fourteenth century? The popular modern view might well be “nasty, brutish and short”, which, while bearing some measure of truth, suggests an unrelenting grimness that I feel unreasonably excludes everyday humanity and emotion.

It is true that life expectancy at birth was short, children being in constant peril from accidents, untreatable illnesses, the effects of poverty, and natural disasters. But if an individual survived childhood and reached the age of around twenty or so, he or she might then hope to live until at least middle, if not old, age.

Perhaps most people did live in environments that, to us, would seem horribly dirty, foul-smelling and dark – the image of a gloomy, dank and stinking hovel comes to mind. Sometimes historical novels or films are criticised for presenting too clean a picture, and it is also true that, in my novels, I don’t dwell at length on the nastiness of people’s living conditions, but I also don’t shy away from it when appropriate. It is undoubtedly correct that peasant houses were generally dark from a lack of windows, and smoky from the central hearth, and even great houses would be cold and draughty, but there seems to be no reason to imagine that people of every station in life did not make every effort to ensure their homes were as comfortable as possible.

In my descriptions of peasants’ homes, I think I show clearly enough that they are cramped, dhaus2ark and smoky, and, in bad weather, cold and damp. But my readers might think I have some sort of obsession with the problems of “laundry”… For, aware that peasants would be unlikely to have more than a couple of sets of clothes, and imagining what it must have been like to be outside in the rain and then coming home all wet, with just a small fire in the hearth (no radiators or tumble dryer…), I concluded that drying clothes must have been a nightmare! No history book I have read so far has told me how they handled it, so I deduced that they would have made some attempt at drying their clothes around the fire, on some sort of rack, perhaps, and that they possibly slept in their clothes, sometimes at least, to help them dry out a bit. It seems a pretty ghastly prospect! Yet what else might they have done? (If anyone does have some information, I would love to read it.)

If we time-travelled into a mediaeval town or village, we would undoubtedly find the whole environment pretty unpleasant. However, in my novels, the narrative is seen through the eyes of the characters, so, even if their homes and general environment were smelly and uncomfortable by our standards, they surely would not recognise it as worthy of remark, unless it was in some way unusual. So, any lack of reference to unpleasant environments is deliberate, as we are looking at life through the characters’ eyes – eyes that surely would not notice what was commonplace.

Many of my characters in all my novels do refer to the commonplace difficulty of walking out of doors, because of course medieval roads were generally not well-maintained, particularly in rural areas, and one can only begin to imagine the devastation to roads and pathways wrought by winter weather and constant rain.

It might be summer, and dry today, but it had been raining on and off for weeks and the gulleys at the sides of the road still ran fast with rainwater. The road itself was muddy and tricky to negotiate, and she picked her way carefully to avoid slipping into the deep ditches. It was not far, but by the time she reached the manor gate, Alice’s boots were soaked through to the inside.
Fortune’s Wheel p.37

It was not, presumably, always quite so bad, although it must be true that, without paved roads, travel in the Middle Ages, especially in wet weather, would often be an arduous, uncomfortable affair, and I have always borne this in mind.

Indeed, weather plays a strong role throughout my novels, for it must have affected the daily lives of medieval people far more than it does us (here in England, at any rate). In some cases, especially in parts of my as yet unpublished novel The Nature of Things, it is fundamental to events. A very useful book for understanding historical weather is John Kington’s Climate and Weather, which contains detailed descriptions of weather from the first century BC to 2000 AD, and has a summary for each year of the fourteenth century.1 It is perhaps unlikely that many readers would know what the weather was like in, say, 1305, but being able to draw on a “factual” description of it does, I feel, bring a sense of authenticity.

The warm, dry summers of recent years continued the run of good harvests. But, this year, the sun’s heat is not warm but oppressive, the hay crop has failed and beasts are dying in the fields from a lack of fodder. Tempers are fraying and, despite my efforts with the village youths, the very heat seems to spur them on to even more ill-tempered brawling.
The Nature of Things p.48

Trying to imagine myself into my characters’ shoes, into the minutiae of the context of their daily lives, is part of what I find so fascinating about writing about the past, and is what I hope brings a sense of authenticity to the story.

Physical details

Describing accurately what we know or can deduce about how people lived, their homes, clothes, food, tools, working practices, is perhaps not too hard to achieve. If writers read enough history, visit museums and, where appropriate, study contemporary documents, they stand a fair chance of getting the physical picture of a period right, although even the most careful researcher might slip up, or choose one version of the “historical truth” over another, which some readers might question. That is true of any fiction, of any period.

So what happens if a writer gets a detail wrong?

Noticeable anachronisms – events not yet happened, artefacts not yet invented, ideas not likely to have entered anybody’s mind – must be avoided. However, I would guess that many readers do not always recognise anachronisms. Some evidence for this can be found in book reviews, where 5* reviewers may say nothing negative about a book, while 1* critics of the same book appear to exult in pointing out every historical failing. The fact is that, for readers who do notice problems, the writer’s credibility as a portrayer of authenticity may be immediately compromised.

As an example, I was surprised to find mention of potatoes in Julia Blackburn’s The Leper’s Companions, a novel (shortlisted for the Orange Prize) set in England in the year 1410. This may seem cavilling, but potatoes did not arrive in Europe until the mid-sixteenth century. Blackburn also refers to a ‘shift…with the lace around the sleeves and neck’, apparently belonging to a peasant woman, which seems unlikely for the time. Yet, it seems, if a reader likes a story enough, these details may not matter, even if they are recognised. On the back cover of The Leper’s Companions, an anonymous critic described it as ‘profoundly researched as all [her] work’; and an Amazon reviewer said ‘It is exquisitely written in lean & learned detail…’2 Indeed I found myself happy enough to overlook apparent glitches in research because of the other qualities of Blackburn’s book. It is an intriguing story, and the strangeness of the world she created is fascinating, if not very naturalistic, thus showing that the balance of acceptability is different for different readers.

However, my novels are intended to be naturalistic, and I wanted to show the physical details of “everyday life”, with food and clothing just two aspects of the physical that can help lend an air of naturalism and authenticity.

For example, here, the narrator describes a meagre meal taken during the privations of the famine.

Ma ladles pottage into a large serving bowl, and puts it down in front of him. ‘There’s a scrap of that good bacon in there,’ she says, ‘so eat up, husband.’

He turns to look at her and smiles. ‘A little,’ he says, picking up his spoon. He dips it into the pottage and, filling it with the gravy, raises it slowly to his mouth and tips it in. ‘It’s good,’ he says and smiles again.

‘But you took none of the bacon,’ says Ma, standing over him like she used to when we were children. ‘Nor any of the turnip.’

‘Let the children have some first,’ says Pa, signalling to us to dip our spoons and take our share. […]

When the bowl is almost empty, Ma fetches a small hunk of the coarse bread she’s made from barley mixed with ground up peas and beans, and cuts it into five pieces, three larger and two smaller, and, handing one to each of us, bids us wipe the big bowl clean.
The Nature of Things pp.85-86

There are many references throughout my novels to clothing: kirtles, cloaks and headdresses, cotehardies and surcoats, boots and wooden pattens, fleece hoods and workmen’s coifs. Most items of clothing are mentioned more or less in passing, but one or two are described in a little more detail.

shepherdsFor example, when I discovered a suggestion that peasants might have used hoods made of fleece to keep off the rain, I realised it might not be “true”, but it seemed likely enough and had an authentic ring.

 

Then I pull on one of the sheepskin hoods Ma’s laboured to make us all. It made her fingers bleed stitching through the skins, and Pa complained at the waste of fleeces. […]

It’s true the fleece hood keeps my head dry, though I hate the sheepy smell and scratchy itch of the unwashed, oily wool so near my face.
The Nature of Things p.75

However, although physical details are hugely important, it is not usually factual (in)authenticity that is the main concern of historical fiction’s detractors. As I will show in my next blog, it is the depiction of historical thought-worlds that can be trickier to write.

(Note: I have discussed this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/383484/>)

References

1  John Kington, Climate and Weather (London: Harper Collins, 2010), pp.221-232.

2  Reviewer “A Customer” (2002), Amazon Customer Reviews, The Leper’s Companions <http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/022405127X/&gt; [accessed 25th June 2014].