I was delighted recently to have a guest spot on Anne Williams’s lovely blog, Being Anne, talking about ways of trying to make historical fiction seem “authentic”…
In the post, Anne herself made a very interesting comment about historical fiction, which I would like to explore a little further. Anne said that she has:
“a well-advertised aversion to kings and queens, generally prefer a dual time thread, and there are distinct periods to which [she] naturally gravitate[s]. The fourteenth century isn’t one of those periods…”
So, you might well think, there’s not much chance of Anne ever wanting to read one of my books!!
But not so. For she went on to say that:
“everything Carolyn has told me about this book [Fortune’s Wheel] and her approach to historical fiction has made me really want to sample the Meonbridge Chronicles. Much as I’d love to, I sadly just can’t find the reading space for this one – but I guarantee I’ll be reviewing the second in the series, A Woman’s Lot.”
Thank you so much, Anne!
But Anne is not the only one to feel that maybe historical fiction isn’t for them. A few reviewers of Fortune’s Wheel have said how much they enjoyed the book, despite not being fans of historical fiction…
“…I don’t normally opt for historical fiction, but Fortune’s Wheel was captivating and has opened my eyes to a personally unexplored genre.”
“For some reason, I’m always a bit apprehensive when I start to read an historical novel because I can’t always cope with strategic plots involving kings and earls and knights of the realm and so on, especially when I know they are taken from real life. Also, I don’t want every book I read to be full of wars and bloodshed, again, especially when I know it’s real history. There was none of that in this book…”
“This book was recommended to me and, although normally I am not a fan of fiction about the middle ages, I was very surprised how much I enjoyed it. Carolyn Hughes has done a great deal of research and created wonderful descriptions of life for the working classes (and the elite) at that period in time in a feudal village in Hampshire….Well done – an excellent novel. I recommend it.”
Of course I’m delighted that Fortune’s Wheel might have “converted” one or two readers to historical fiction, though obviously it can’t be everyone’s favourite read! However, I do think it might be true that quite a few people avoid it because they feel it’s all about “kings and queens” or “wars and bloodshed”. But of course, as with other genres, there isn’t only one kind of “historical fiction”.
When I came to write Fortune’s Wheel, the first of the Meonbridge Chronicles, I wasn’t immediately sure what kind of story I would write, what sort of historical novel it would be.
I did know in which period it would be set – the Middle Ages! I had long been intrigued by the mediaeval period, for its relative remoteness in time and understanding, and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the present-day perception of life in the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the period’s art and literature. I wanted to know more about the period, and, through writing an historical novel, I would have the opportunity both to discover the mediaeval past and to interpret it, to bring both learning and imagination to my writing, which is I suppose what all historical novelists want to do.
So, yes, a mediaeval novel… But which sort of mediaeval novel? I somehow knew that it wouldn’t be a mediaeval mystery, or crime, or romance (although mystery, crime and romance would surely all play a part…). Nor would it be alternative history, or alternative biography, or dual period/time slip. But, if it were none of these, what would it be?
What I did know was that I wanted to write a “naturalistic” novel, one that portrayed the lives of mediaeval people – and, in particular, “ordinary” people – as naturally and “authentically” as I possibly could. (There are potential issues with such an objective, which, if you are interested, I have explored in earlier blogs: “The problem with historical fiction” (I to III) in November 2016, and “Authenticity in historical fiction” (I to VI) in January-March this year.) I soon became excited by the idea of building an imaginary mediaeval English village society and populating it with a variety of interesting and hopefully engaging, albeit “ordinary”, characters.
To make a story, I would of course have to give them challenges to meet and problems to solve, private agonies to bear and public disasters to face. And also pleasures and joys – it couldn’t be all misery and doom! But my novel would certainly be more about people than events, more about their interactions with each other than the twists and turns of whatever situations I put them in.
The challenge I chose for Fortune’s Wheel was the aftermath of what we called the Black Death, the plague that swept across Asia and Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, killing between a third and a half of all people, in the most hideous, terrifying way imaginable. Its particular terror lay in that the disease – like other natural (or perhaps man-made) disasters – was presumed then to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. People might have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so cruelly…
But it was the aftermath of the calamity that I was particularly interested in – how ordinary people put their devastated lives back together again. Imagine the sheer turmoil that must have ensued, not only in society as a whole, but also at a personal level. For those of us who live in village or small town communities, we may know, or at least be acquainted with, a great many of our neighbours. But we in the twenty-first century generally live quite dispersed lives, having our homes in these communities but probably working elsewhere. But in former centuries, when communities worked together too, the death of half of your neighbours must have been truly devastating.
Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves. Workers realised they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their so-called sinful lives.
Yet, amidst all this turmoil and fear, normal life must have continued: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made. People fell in and out of love. Babies were born and children cherished. Friendships and families were sometimes put under strain. Resentments boiled, some of which found reconciliation, while others ended in treachery.
And all of that is the story of Fortune’s Wheel. A story about people. Or, as one of my reviewers once said, “an everyday story of country folk”.
I sometimes think of Fortune’s Wheel as a kind of “relationship” novel, but set in the fourteenth century. It is focuses mostly on the relationships of women, and the story is told through the voices of women. Although we do hear the words of men, it was, and still is, the women’s viewpoints that interested me most, if only because women in history often do not get much opportunity to “speak”. In future Meonbridge Chronicles, of which A Woman’s Lot is the next novel (hopefully to be published early in 2018), it will continue to be mostly the women of fictional Meonbridge who will be revealing their lives to us, and whose voices I hope many, many readers will come to know – and perhaps even love.