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.1
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In this blog, I am illustrating my ideas with extracts from my as yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things.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.
Fourteenth-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.
A 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.
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/>)
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.