Nature red in tooth and claw (part deux)

My blog today is not much – well, nothing, actually – to do with writing historical fiction, or with medieval history. Instead it is a bit of an addendum to my post last month, Nature red in tooth and claw. If you follow my posts, you have probably realised by now that, as well as writing novels set in the fourteenth century, I am also pretty keen on observing the natural world, and especially birds…

So, today, I am offering a relatively short blog, and one that is not only short but also, I’m afraid, not very “sweet”. So you might want to look away now if you’re squeamish…

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Bésayes, Drôme, France. View towards the Vercors mountains. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

How very tranquil the countryside seems as we sit here on the terrace of our gîte in Drôme, south-eastern France, looking across the fields towards the Vercors mountains, watching a tractor trundle up and down the rows of corn or sunflowers in the distance, listening to the crickets chirruping, thrilling to the sight of the locally-nesting bee-eaters swooping and gliding, noticing the lengthening of the evening shadows… With a glass of rosé at one’s elbow, and the barbecue coals burning nicely in anticipation of pork and aubergines and fat red peppers, it’s all quite relaxing and delightful.

Well, yes, I am putting a shamelessly romantic spin upon it all, but only really to point up the contrast between what we see out there with our rose-tinted eyes, and what we know is actually going on…

For, of course, at the micro level, the countryside is anything but tranquil, and you can be sure that, each day, many creatures, small and larger, meet their – often gruesome – ends, mostly in the service of another creature’s belly (or, at this time of year especially, those of their growing young).

It’s not often one has the opportunity to observe this playing out of nature – perhaps indeed you wouldn’t want to? But, yesterday evening, we did observe it, and admittedly it wasn’t pretty. However, what we saw was not just a death but, more intriguingly, a display of social interaction between different species of bird, which was grimly fascinating to watch, and yet we felt somehow privileged to be doing so.

Unfortunately (or, you might think, fortunately) I can’t show you photos of what we actually saw, for the scene was played out just a little too far away, even for a bird-watcher’s excellent long lens camera. But here are the actors in this everyday drama of French country life…

(Images courtesy of the RSPB website)

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Photo © Chris Shields for RSPB

It was early evening and dinner preparation was under way – apéritif, barbecue and so on –  when we suddenly heard the raucous squawks of crows and the harsh rasp of magpies, somewhere not all that far away. Looking from the terrace across to the fields just beyond the hedge, a gaggle of birds – four magpies and six carrion crows – was flapping and hopping noisily around a buzzard, clearly safeguarding its recently captured prey. It seemed clear that the poor thing – from its size and colouring, a rabbit – had been recently captured from the continued jerking of its hind legs. This might have been its death throes, but the movements were vigorous enough to suggest an, albeit hopeless, attempt to escape its grisly fate.

Horribly voyeuristic as it might seem, I’m afraid that we set up the tripod and telescope for a better view. Because what was happening was not just “nature red…” but also a stand-off between the buzzard and the would-be purloiners of its dinner, and we were intrigued to know which of them would win the day. Ten to one seemed poor odds against the buzzard, but the other birds (and I’m going anthropomorphic here!) seemed to be all talk and no trousers, as they flapped and swooped and barked at the buzzard, but most definitely kept their distance.

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© Spencer Wright, North Walsham, England (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

They were undoubtedly safe enough from the raptor’s talons, which were keeping tight hold of the hapless rabbit. But one imagines that just one peck from that vicious beak could do a huge amount of damage to a magpie, or even a crow.
 

Buzzards are a good deal bigger than crows and magpies. The smaller birds are similar to each other in length, approximately 45cm, although the carrion crow has a wingspan half as much again as the magpie, and is twice its weight, at about half a kilo. But the buzzard – and I think the one we had here was a fairly large example – is more than a quarter longer than the others, with an additional 20cm or so of wingspan than the crow, but it weighs twice as much as the crow and four times as much as the magpie. And it’s got that scimitar of a beak!

So it’s hardly a surprise that, despite the greater numbers of their posse, the aspiring thieves were exceedingly cautious about getting too close to their target.

Nonetheless, they didn’t stop their harassment. The buzzard might have been the big kid on the block, but perhaps the crows and magpies knew that, precious as its meal was, it wouldn’t risk a physical confrontation with them.

Buzzard and Carrion Crows, Bough Beech
Photo RSPB

You see this also in the air, where it’s very common to see crows mobbing a buzzard, presumably because the buzzard got too close to their nest or had simply invaded their territory, although I think it’s rare that physical contact is ever made, as it could be very damaging to all involved. Usually the buzzard just seems to fly off, presumably to look elsewhere for easier, less taxing, pickings.

So crows – and magpies – are brave, but presumably know from experience that, if they keep up the pressure long enough, they stand a good chance of winning.

And that is actually what happened, although not for a good fifteen or twenty minutes…

The poor rabbit struggled on a while, and the buzzard tried to eat a little something of its dinner. But, with the constant interruptions from its tormentors and its own failed attempts to see them off – we could see quite clearly that, beak open, it was shouting at them, telling them to scram – it didn’t seem to be enjoying its meal very much, and was perhaps already thinking better of bothering to defend it.

In fact, some of the crows and magpies did scram, but there remained a persistent few of both species that weren’t going to let this potential free meal go.

I thought the buzzard might try taking off with whatever was left of its dinner in its talons, but the rabbit might well have weighed as much as its captor, or even more – it did look quite big – so maybe that wasn’t a practical possibility.

And, in the end, leaving the remains behind, the buzzard did simply fly away, with a parting bark at the victorious corvids, who then pounced upon their prize and tucked in.

So, for them – the crows and magpies – there was such a thing as a free lunch (dinner). All they had to do was have a degree of courage and a fair amount of patience, and be really, really irritating for long enough to force their bigger rival to feel the effort of the fight was greater than the reward.

Thus, in this case, the underdog(bird)s won out over the top dog(bird). But I imagine it doesn’t always work out that way…

After the Black Death

I first posted this in The History Girls blog, but I thought I would like to share it again here.

“It is June 1349. In the Hampshire village of Meonbridge, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population…”

So goes the blurb for my historical novel Fortune’s Wheel.

“Meonbridge” is broadly somewhere in the upper reaches of the valley of Hampshire’s River Meon. The Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and for much of that length is a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

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Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

The plague referred to in the novel’s blurb is what we call the Black Death, the plague that struck England in 1348-50. At the time they referred to it as the Great Death, the mortality or the pestilence. Having spread across the world from Asia and throughout Europe, it arrived in England in June 1348, or thereabouts. Famously, it was once thought to have entered the country at Melcombe in Dorset, although some believe it might have come in closer to Southampton, or Bristol, but it’s also possible that it arrived in several places at about the same time. The disease lasted a matter of months in any one location, although overall, as it spread relentlessly across the country, it persisted for the best part of two years.

 

In Hampshire, it was in October 1348 that the effects of the plague began to be seen. We know that partly because William Edyngdon, the Bishop of Winchester, issued a letter to the clergy in his diocese…

“We report with anguish the serious news which has come to our ears: that this cruel plague has now begun a savage attack on the coastal areas of England. We are struck by terrors lest (may God avert it!) this brutal disease should rage in any part of our city of diocese.”1

Sadly, the bishop’s prayers were not answered, for the diocese of Winchester suffered gravely, with 48.8% of its clergy dying, the highest proportion for any diocese in England where figures were available.2

Meon Valley map 1695
Extract from a Map of Hampshire, by Robert Morden, published in an edition of Britannia by William Camden, 1695. Source: Portsmouth University. http://www.geog.port.ac.uk

In southern Hampshire as a whole, including the Meon Valley, roughly half of the populations of the towns and villages lost their lives.

Titchfield is at the sea end of the Meon Valley. There, in the year January 1349 to January 1350, 423 tenant deaths were recorded on the manor, compared to 56 in the previous year. In all, Titchfield might have lost perhaps as much as 80% of its population. In Corhampton, closer to the part of the Meon Valley where I think that “Meonbridge” is located, 55% of people died. In Bishops Waltham, a market town some five miles south west of Corhampton, it was more like 65%. In Funtley, further down the Meon Valley towards Titchfield, the numbers were not large (21 deaths) but it represented a huge percentage of the tenant population, and in Crofton, closer still to Titchfield, there appear to have been perhaps 92.5% mortality among tenants in the 1349-50 plague year.

But losses were not evenly distributed. Although the places I have mentioned had relatively high losses, the plague apparently skirted some places altogether, while a few communities died out completely for a while. An example of the latter is Quob, a tiny hamlet near Funtley, where a manorial court statement in the plague year indicated that no-one survived in that community. However, as Tom Beaumont James says, in The Black Death in Hampshire, while there is a popular belief that many communities in England died out as a result of the Black Death, this is probably not true, but rather that the high mortality caused by the plague started a decline that was completed as much as a century or two later. Quob was tiny, perhaps just a few families, so it was undoubtedly easy enough for the plague to kill them all, but the little community did recover some years later. Whether or not a community recovered was undoubtedly affected by factors other than the Black Death, including the later outbreaks of plague, and perhaps the increasing mobility of working people, driving some away from the countryside and into towns.

It’s not unreasonable to extrapolate from what is recorded for real Hampshire to what might have happened in the fictional Meonbridge. There, I have the plague arriving in December and being more or less over in early summer, which accords reasonably well with the evidence. The high levels of mortality among clergy in the Winchester diocese show that the plague was at its worst there during the first half of 1349. Evidence of the devastation in this part of Hampshire comes also from the records of the Bishop of Winchester’s manors, where much higher than normal deaths among tenants meant that many holdings became vacant and large tracts of agricultural land were therefore uncultivated.

But, whatever the numbers, it is surely very hard to imagine how shattering the plague’s arrival must have been. The disease was of course quite terrible enough in itself, but it followed in the wake of two other appalling disasters: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade of the century, ruinous weather, disastrous harvests and devastating famines in the second.

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Probably not as cute as he looks!

We know now that this terrifying disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, carried by a flea that lives on the black rat, although exactly how it was transmitted to people remains a matter of some debate.

The particular hideousness of the disease was described by many contemporary chroniclers. One, Gabriele de’ Mussis, a lawyer from Piacenza in Italy, in his Historia de Morbo, wrote thus:

“First, out of the blue, a kind of chilly stiffness…a tingling sensation, as if they were being pricked by the points of arrows. [Then]…a fearsome attack which took the form of an extremely hard, solid boil [typically in the armpit or groin]. As it grew more solid, its burning heat caused the patients to fall into an acute and putrid fever, with severe headaches….In some cases it gave rise to an intolerable stench. In others it brought the vomiting of blood…Some died on the very day the illness took possession of them…the majority between the third and fifth day….Those who fell into a coma, or suffered a swelling or the stink of corruption, very rarely escaped.”3

It sounds decidedly grim. The “boils” of course were the black pustules that we call “buboes”, giving the term bubonic plague, though not all victims suffered from this form of the disease. Some caught the pneumonic variety, which attacked the lungs, causing pain and an inability to breathe, then coughing up of blood and sputum. Apparently this form of the disease was invariably fatal, and quickly so, whereas it wasn’t unknown for bubonic plague victims to recover.

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Seems they may be fortunate enough to have a priest to shrive them… Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

But whichever form of the disease friends and family members suffered, it must have been almost beyond horrifying to witness. And how fearful people must have been when they saw how randomly the plague seem to find its victims – rich and poor, old and young, reprobate and innocent, any and all were taken. Moreover, the very scale of affliction in a community often meant that there was no priest available to give the last rites to a dying victim – the priest being either simply too occupied with others, already dead himself, or perhaps he’d even abandoned his flock to try and save himself – bringing the added terror that your loved one might be about to die in sin, unconfessed, unshriven.

 

The particular terror of the plague undoubtedly tested relationships and familial bonds to the utmost. With a lack of understanding of how the disease was spread, and the terrifying speed with which it invariably dispatched its victims, some people did abandon loved ones in an attempt to escape the same fate. Indeed, when some thought that the disease could be communicated through the gaze or breath or clothes of victims, it is perhaps unsurprising that many were left to die, not only in extreme agony and terror, but entirely alone. However, not everyone abandoned their loved ones to their fate – some stayed to care for them, and it is perhaps one of the mysteries of the disease that, given its apparent virulence, not everyone in a household was necessarily afflicted.

And how much more frightening was it to be told that this disease – like other natural (and perhaps man-made) disasters – was God’s punishment for man’s sin, for your sin? This was presumably what priests would have taught their congregations. In September 1348, at the original behest of the king, Edward III, a letter was sent from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the bishops in the southern counties, ordering them to arrange urgent prayers to be offered up against the plague. It is clear from the letter that the plague was seen as a punishment for sin.4

“Terrible is God towards the sons of men… Those whom he loves he censures and chastises;…he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways… He…allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.”

Yet people might well have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so severely.

But it is what happened after the Black Death had moved on that is the underlying premise of Fortune’s Wheel. I didn’t want to write a novel about the Black Death. Rather, I was interested in what happened after it had passed on, leaving communities with fewer neighbours, empty houses, unfarmed land. How on earth did people cope with such calamity? I suppose that medieval society was more hardened to natural and human disasters than many of us are today, and it seems that people in fact rebuilt their lives quite quickly.

Social change had already begun in rural manorial communities, with the feudal system of lords and peasants starting to break down. But the huge demographic shift that resulted from the simultaneous deaths of so many people during the plague accelerated that change. It is an interesting period of social history.

For those who survived, opportunities presented themselves for demanding higher wages and taking on untenanted land, which generally brought benefits to ordinary people and caused problems for the wealthier landowners. The old rules about tenants not being allowed to leave their manor were largely swept away, giving peasants more freedom to choose where to work and for what price. Women too had improved opportunities, which lasted for perhaps the next 150 years or so. On the whole, conditions improved for many ordinary English men and women: with higher wages, and fewer mouths to feed, they ate better, and could afford better homes.

In 1351, the government, worried that the old way of life was being overturned, brought in the Statute of Labourers, which attempted to curb the demands of peasants for higher wages, attacking both the peasants themselves and those employers (manor lords) who were willing to meet their demands. But it didn’t really work. Wages did rise, and some who’d been previously landless were able to become tenant farmers but paying money rent for their land rather than giving feudal service. Indeed, the feudal system eventually broke down completely, giving peasant populations a greater degree of freedom to manage their own lives.

Nonetheless, imagine the heartache that people must have felt, the turmoil they must have faced, in society as a whole, and also at a personal level. Those of us who, today, live in villages or small town communities 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 unimaginably devastating.

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Death surely never looked so jolly!

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 sinful lives.

Yet, amidst all this turmoil and undoubted continuing fear, normal life simply had to continue: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made, animals nurtured. People would still fall in and out of love. Babies would still be born and children cherished. The wheel of fortune forever turns…

References

  1. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.115
  2. I owe my information about the 1348-50 plague in Hampshire to the excellent pamphlet The Black Death in Hampshire by Tom Beaumont James (Hampshire Papers, No.18, Hampshire County Council, 1999).
  3. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, pp.24-5.
  4. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.113.

 

 

Nature red in tooth and claw

My blog today is a bit of a diversion from the usual topic of historical fiction, if not entirely without reference to it… But it’s mostly an excuse to share a few photographs of some of the wonderful birds of prey we’ve seen, in this country and elsewhere…

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Sparrow hawk Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Can you imagine how thrilled and excited I was when this beautiful sparrow hawk (probably a juvenile male) landed on the fence literally a few feet from my office window…

What a magnificent bird it was! And I have never before been as close to one as this, apart from at those birds of prey displays they have at country houses, which somehow don’t seem quite the same. This was a truly wild bird, and it was a wonderful privilege to be able to watch him for a while at such close quarters.

Although I’m afraid it was a bit gruesome, as he was clearly digesting his lunch – an unlucky blackbird. You can just see bits of something or other in his beak! I think his excessive meal – feeling a little bloated perhaps? – was partly the reason why he just sat there and let us photograph him and then sit quietly and watch…

Sparrow hawk portrait - Longcroft
Sparrow hawk Photo © Carolyn Hughes

But seeing him up close like that put me in mind of medieval hawking. I know that people enjoy working with birds of prey today, but somehow hawking seems a very “medieval” type of pastime. Although, of course, it was enjoyed then only by the wealthy, because the cost of acquiring and training the birds was very high.

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Codex Manesse, a German illuminated manuscript of poetry, c.1300-1340. Folio 69r: accompanies poetry by Wernher von Teufen (fl. 1220).

However, it seems to have been a pastime that was enjoyed by both men and women, who used a variety of trained birds of prey – falcons, peregrines, merlins – to hunt small game, rabbits and the like, and other birds, anything, in principle, that the birds might hunt naturally. Falconry was, apparently, deemed a suitable sport for ladies because it was less dangerous than, for example, hunting a deer or wild boar with excitable dogs, and was less energetic and bloody for the hunters, as I suppose the birds were doing all the work.

 

 

These wealthy folk employed professional falconers to train their birds, which was – and is – a difficult and time-consuming activity that requires great expertise. Birds had to be trained from very young, both to get used to people and to go after the prey and return with it without tearing it apart (unlike my sparrow hawk). One imagines the whole training process took a great deal of time and patience.

Falconers+with+horse+from+De+arte+venandi+cum+avibus+1240s+1250+–+Holy+Roman+Emperor+Frederick+II+wrote+a+treatise+on+The+Art+of+Hunting+with+Birds
Falconers, from a treatise by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, De arte venandi cum avibus, (The Art of Hunting with Birds), 1240-1250

But even these wealthy people could not, apparently, just buy any bird they took a fancy to. The fifteenth century Booke of Hawkyng after Prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande (BL Harley Collection 2340) is one of a number of medieval guides on hawking and, like some others, it provides a hierarchy of birds of prey and a list of which birds could be used by which members of society.

So, for example, an emperor was allowed an eagle or a vulture, and a king, a gyrfalcon (a large falcon), whereas an earl could only use a smaller peregrine. A knight could use a saker (smaller still) and a lady might have a little merlin. Even further down the pecking order (sorry…), a priest was permitted a sparrow hawk, and a knave or servant might be allowed a kestrel, although it does seem unlikely that such lowly people would really have had the wherewithal to own any sort of bird.

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Photo of Lesser Kestrel, Tarifa, Spain
© Carolyn Hughes

 

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Saker Falcon
Photo by Marek Szczepanek (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Peregrine falcon
Photo by Will Mayall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
 

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Gyrfalcon
Photo by Ólafur Larsen. Derivative work: Bogbumper (Falco_rusticolus_white.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But if all those fierce-looking creatures seem “small” enough to train, can you imagine attempting to bend a much larger one to your will? Best of luck with that vulture, if you’re an emperor!

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Photo of Black Kite, Bésayes, France © David Hughes
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Photo of Griffon Vulture, Tarifa, Spain © David Hughes

Anyway, given my close encounter with “my” sparrow hawk, and our frequent more distant encounters with many other types of bird of prey, I cannot imagine wanting to constrain these wonderful birds’ natural instinct to hunt by forcing them to return the prey intact. Any more than I begrudged my sparrow hawk his lunch, despite my regret that it was one of our garden’s blackbirds. All “nature red in tooth and claw”is gruesome, but it is the way of things – the nature of things.

And so it seems fitting to close with an extract from my as yet unpublished novel called, indeed, The Nature of Things. This passage illustrates the mingled excitement and regret experienced by a young woman on her first exposure to hunting with falcons.

Extract from The Nature of Things, Part 5

It was supposed to be a treat for us, all those years ago, to stay at the chateau of Monsieur de Martigny, a friend and business partner of Papa’s, for two or three months while they travelled around northern France, seeking out new suppliers. It was so romantic there, and I just loved the elegant French ladies and their fashionable clothes. I was twelve, my sisters younger, and we had such fun with the Monsieur’s daughters, Katherine and Marguerite, playing in the chateau gardens, going for picnics on the banks of the Loire, and riding in the huge forests surrounding the estate. And Katherine and I, being older than the others, were even allowed to go hunting with falcons. 

Katherine’s brother, Estienne, sometimes joined us for the picnics, and always for the hawking. He had the prettiest of falcons – her name was Ysabeau – with a blue-grey back and white speckled breast and the brightest of black eyes. He carried her so proudly on his wrist, attached by a little silver chain to his glove. 

How I loved to watch Estienne release her and cast her up into the sky, where she spread her wings, wheeled and sped off after the poor frightened ducks that the servants had beaten up from the lake. I didn’t like that part of it – when Ysabeau flew back to her master with a drooping bird clasped in her claws. But Estienne loved the hunt and I wanted to show him I loved it too, so I clapped my hands and laughed, trying not to look at the duck’s dead eyes.

1.  From “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, completed in 1849.

Everyday lives of country folk…?

“‘An everyday story of country folk’. No, not Ambridge but Meonbridge. And not in recent times either, but in the middle of the fourteenth century. A tale covering a single year; one of twists and turns too. The Black Death has recently passed over the village reaping a harvest of dead adults, children, and infants; tearing holes in the fabric of village life, as well, of course, as causing holes in the ground – so many the old churchyard cannot take them all… …Those who tune-in with anticipation to Radio 4 at six-thirty in the evening, will probably love this book.”
From a review of Fortune’s Wheel by Alan Hamilton on Amazon on 11th February 2017.

When I first read this review of Fortune’s Wheel, I have to confess to feeling slightly put out. He was comparing TheArchersLogomy “literary masterpiece” to The Archers – a soap opera, for heaven’s sake! – although he didn’t actually call it that…

But then I recalled that, in my own blog of just a few weeks before, I had myself referred to Fortune’s Wheel as “more the ‘everyday lives of country folk’”. What I meant then was that my novels’ plots are based on social history, the stories of ordinary people, and their everyday lives, rather than high-level politics, war, or the antics of royals and the nobility.

Stories that are, essentially, much like fourteenth century versions of those in The Archers

What’s more (I told myself once I had climbed down from my high horse), I actually love that everyday story of country folk, and I’m definitely one of those who tunes in eagerly to BBC Radio 4 at six-thirty (or, actually, two minutes past seven!) every evening…

And I am not alone. Even John Banville loves The Archers. In an article in the Mail Online, on 4th September 2010, Banville “a lifelong Archers fan, explain[ed] the draw of the world’s longest-running radio soap opera”. But, he said, “soap opera is much too sudsy and urban a term to apply to this awesomely impressive phenomenon.…” He went on to say that the programme was garnering a new crop of younger listeners, and (in 2010) “a listenership of almost five million…a lot of eager ears.”1 Of course eager eyes are what authors want for their books!

So if my novel proved to be wildly popular, what possible reason could I have to feel miffed? Well, of course, I wouldn’t.

Nonetheless, I do still feel bound to contemplate to what extent Fortune’s Wheel might be a form of soap opera…

soap operaWikipedia defines soap opera as “…a serial drama on television or radio that examines the lives of many characters, usually focusing on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama.

The Free Dictionary says: “A drama, typically performed as a serial on daytime television or radio, characterised by stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama.

Oh dear – I don’t at all like the sound of “stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama”! Of course, the term “soap opera” is often (invariably?) used pejoratively, to imply something trashy and trivial – which is obviously why, at first, I was rather put out at the suggestion that my work was of that ilk. But whereas, obviously, Fortune’s Wheel doesn’t exactly fit the definitions, because it is a book and not a television or radio drama, it does have one or two of the same elements as such dramas, which I thought might perhaps be worth exploring.

cast_thousandFor example, The Archers has a large cast of characters, and the storylines alternate between them. Not all of the characters appear in every episode, indeed some don’t appear for months.

Fortune’s Wheel too has quite a large cast, which a few readers don’t seem to care for very much. Some because they find it hard to remember who everyone is, others perhaps because they simply can’t identify with any of them properly or, as my reviewer Alan Hamilton put it, find it “hard to feel particularly strongly about any of them”. But other readers love having lots of characters – or at least don’t find it too daunting as, said one reviewer, with the “list of all the important characters at the beginning of the novel… I soon acquainted myself with them all.” I too like a large cast, as long as it’s not too difficult to  distinguish between the characters…

I guess that particular preference is horses for courses…horses for courses

A major challenge of having a mega-cast, however, is controlling multiple protagonists, and weaving together their many different story threads. We are often told as writers that we “should” have a single strong main protagonist, one character for readers to identify with or root for (or indeed loathe). But I have three “main protagonists” in Fortune’s Wheel, four in its sequel, seven in The Nature of Things… And there are very many protagonists in The Archers, some undoubtedly more significant than others.

So how do readers/listeners cope with such a plethora of people to love (or hate)? Do they in fact fail to find anyone to root for? I suppose some do fail – those people, perhaps, who don’t like a cast of thousands?

But I suspect that many listeners to The Archers are simply drawn to one or more characters in particular, and follow their stories with more interest than others. That’s certainly true for me. I invariably find myself listening eagerly to the next instalment of so-and-so’s story, but switching off (my ears) when the scene changes to someone else’s story in which I’m not quite so interested.

Interestingly, in Fortune’s Wheel, if it seemed initially, from the early pages of the novel, that Alice atte Wode was the “main” main protagonist, in fact it seems to have turned out that Eleanor Titherige is the character to whom readers (or at least those who have mentioned it) have been most drawn, and whose continuing story they are most eager to discover…

relationshipsIn both Fortune’s Wheel and The Archers, storylines alternate between the protagonists. Stories in soap operas tend to be about relationships between the characters, and the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. Occasionally, a storyline might draw on a topic of national or political importance, and sometimes a story will be full of drama and tension, even horror, as one or more of the characters has to face an extraordinary event that is beyond everyday experience. But these dramatic storylines are  interspersed between the more gentle, commonplace incidents of normal life. Some storylines are relatively short and insignificant, while others are major, sometimes harrowing – and authentic-seeming, partly because they seem to be playing out in real time – dramas that spin out over many episodes, sometimes lasting for months.

The effect is not dissimilar in Fortune’s Wheel. It is the first in a novel series, “The Meonbridge Chronicles”, where individual characters’ storylines may not be concluded in one novel, but will continue in a subsequent one. The stories are also essentially about relationships, some joyful, some troubling, others challenging and even devastating. There are of course far fewer storylines than in The Archers (if only because its scope is so very much more restricted), but certainly there is at least one, and sometimes more than one, storyline for each main protagonist. Dramatic events are interspersed between the minutiae of everyday life. Weaving together the different story threads in a way that maintains interest in the storyline that is centre stage without detracting from those waiting in the wings is one of the challenges of both a soap opera and this type of novel.

Another of the challenges of having lots of characters is, of course, distinguishing between them. Obviously, this is relevant to all forms of drama and fiction, but is perhaps of particular pertinence here…

On the radio, it is true of any drama but, I think, particularly women talking
so with something like The Archers, that one has to tune one’s ear to the different voices, and there are certainly times when I can’t distinguish between the young men – is that Tom Archer or Chris Carter or one of the Fairbrother brothers? Or indeed, between the young women – is that Helen? Pip? Alice?

For a radio drama, it is especially important – if tricky – to ensure that different characters have different, distinctive, voices. This is partly an issue of actors. But language is also a factor. And so it is in a novel.

A writer has to try and ensure that all her characters’ voices don’t just “sound” the same, with the same vocabulary, the same turns of phrase, the same intonations. And I actually think this is quite difficult to achieve, particularly if your novel does have a large cast with, say, two or three characters of the same gender and age, and from broadly the same social background. In my novel The Nature of Things, for example, two of the principal narrators, Tom Godewryght and Peter atte Hyl, are young men, essentially from the same sort of background – relatively lowly peasant stock – both of whom, in their different ways, go “up in the world” and get a modicum of education. Although their narratives are decades apart in the novel, so that they never do actually “appear” together, it still seemed important to try and make sure that they “sounded” like quite different, and therefore more distinctively “real”, people.

In the sequel to Fortune’s Wheel, I have a similar problem with two of the young women, both of whom appeared in Fortune’s Wheel but, in the sequel, are two of the four principal  narrators. Emma Ward and Susanna Miller are of similar age and both cottars, so how do I make each sound distinctively herself?

CommunicationA good test of voice differentiation is, I think, when each voice is sufficiently distinctive that the dialogue could be written without attributions. If the voices are adequately differentiated – especially when the characters are talking to each other – you should be able to “hear” which of them is speaking even if their names are not tagged on the page. That’s the theory, anyway – and certainly what I aim to achieve.

So, three ways in which Fortune’s Wheel might possibly be considered a form of soap opera: a large cast of main characters; multiple, interwoven storylines, with a mix of everyday and high drama; and the challenge of creating many distinctive and “real”-seeming voices.

It’s hardly a tightly-argued analysis! But interesting, I think.

But I still might ask, is Fortune’s Wheel a form of soap opera? And, if so, should I mind? It’s true that I might have preferred my magnum opus to be regarded as a work of “literature” but, when all is said and done, if Fortune’s Wheel ever turned out to be even as remotely popular as The Archers, why on earth should I object? As long as, I suppose – and this is very important! – it is not simply dismissed as trite or trivial or melodramatic, which, so far, is certainly not the case. Even the reviewer who sparked off this train of thought didn’t say that.

So, what do you think? If you’ve read Fortune’s Wheel, do you have a thought or two? And even if you haven’t read it…

  1. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1308908/Fresh-crop-Archers-giving-Ambridge-unexpected-sex-appeal.html#ixzz4fGM3VovU

Bringing characters to life – not quite literally…

MacbookIt’s a very strange thing, being a novelist. You give life to people who don’t actually exist… It’s a bit like being a parent except that, in that case, the person you give life to is a flesh-and-blood, breathing, demanding being, whereas the characters in your novel no longer exist once you close your laptop lid…

Except that, of course, they do. They hang around inside your head. They talk to you in the middle of the night. They even tell you what’s going to happen in your novel, for goodness’ sake!

I have written creatively on and off all of my adult life. But it was only when I started woman writingwriting seriously, in a more focussed, structured, conscious way, that I discovered how very “real” invented characters can turn out to be. I don’t know if all novelists find this, but I rather imagine that many of them do.

In my own case, the way I write my characters – or at least the main narrator characters – is very consciously intimate. I like to have a number of narrators, who take it in turn (though not rigidly) to “relate” their part of the story, so that each chapter is told entirely from one character’s point of view. This is the style I find myself falling into with each new novel. In my Meonbridge Chronicles, including the recently published Fortune’s Wheel, I write in the past tense, third person – close third person, I think it would be called.

In my as-yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, for the first time, I tried writing in the first person and the present tense, thinking it would bring greater intimacy. John Mullan has said that this style has the effect of  “replicating the immediacy of experience” (How Novels Work, p.72). And, in fact, I felt that, for The Nature of Things, the first person present did work well, as it seemed really immediate and engaging, which was what I wanted to achieve – capturing the characters’ voices in a way that might enable readers to feel they were inside their heads – or, indeed, were them. In truth, though, I agonised over that decision, if only because I had read so often of readers who “hated” first person present, and I feared that I might alienate potential readers. But I did it anyway, simply because – for that particular book – it felt right. Only time, and publication, will tell if it was the correct decision! But it was an experiment – one that I think worked well – but nonetheless I am sticking with the  third person past for all the Meonbridge Chronicles.

medieval women talkingPerson and tense aside, my narrative style demands that my characters sometimes talk to the reader about what they are thinking and feeling, about their anxieties and their dreams. I’m not suggesting that there is anything unusual in this sort of introspection – this “inner dialogue” – because it’s a great way of developing fully-rounded, complex characters, and writers of every genre use it, though some writers are a great deal more introspective than others. I’m sure I’m among the former. And I wonder to what extent the intimacy of the writing style an author uses actually contributes to the sense of intimacy that she develops with her characters?

Anyway, where is this is all leading? What I really set out to say in this blog post is this…

It is interesting to contemplate how it is that a character evolves from being just a name with a set of invented features and traits into a corporeal-seeming person with thoughts and feelings, worries and aspirations? And how does that person then seem to acquire sufficient “agency” to determine events in the novel that I have created?

Perhaps it’s worth me explaining how I create – no, give life to – my characters…

Once I have an underlying premise and a setting for the novel, a few characters somehow present themselves to me, although I’m not quite sure how that happens. Generally, at the early stage, they are rather vague, 2-D, not much rounded or fleshed out. They quickly enough acquire a name (although it might well change) and a set of physical characteristics, and I know their family relationships, but possibly little of their friendships or antipathies. Before I start writing a draft of the novel, alongside the broad outline of the whole story that I always write, I also flesh out my characters – or at least the narrator characters – by writing a profile for each of them. This will include obvious things such as what they look like, what they do for a living, where/how they live, their families and friends and so on. But, most importantly, also my initial thoughts about their anxieties and motivations. I do write profiles for minor characters too – my novels tend to have a large cast – although they are generally not quite as detailed, or as intimate, as for the main ones.

Medieval woman writingI find that writing a few paragraphs or more of an imagined journal for each main character works quite well too (even though, of course, most of my fourteenth century characters wouldn’t be able to write such a thing). It helps me to see those anxieties and motivations through their eyes, and also to build a picture of their relationships – good and bad – with other characters.

As I write the first draft of the novel, I consult the character profiles as often as I need to, adjusting them where necessary as my acquaintance with, and understanding of, the characters develop. I don’t set out knowing all of their innermost thoughts and feelings, but find that they emerge little by little as the story proceeds, just as you gradually learn about a real friend’s thoughts and feelings as your relationship with them develops.

Theatre stage
Image courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 387, fol.3r

As I write, I do of course put words into my characters’ mouths, and thoughts into their heads, and I move them about on the stage I have set, in the role that I have planned for them.

I should just say that, right now, I am writing the first of a number of sequels to my published novel, Fortune’s Wheel. What this means for the characters is that I already know some of them quite well – including, for this first sequel, all the main narrator characters. Even so, I have still reviewed, and indeed updated, the profiles I wrote for those characters for Fortune’s Wheel. Because, although they must of course remain essentially the same people, with a new storyline, a fresh set of events, and indeed the passage of time, they will experience new anxieties and motivations, and perhaps interact with different characters. Intriguingly, new sides to their personality or temperament might even be revealed…

I’m pretty sure that, as I write the novel, for a while at least, the characters do what I say. But then, perhaps without much warning, I realise that I’m writing something that I hadn’t really planned – typically, a passage of dialogue, or one of those introspections – that will almost certainly change some aspect of the story. The characters, it seems, have become strong enough – real enough – to decide for themselves what to do or say or think, rather than simply letting me decide for them. I mustn’t overstate the case – they don’t completely take over. But they do seem to take on a sufficiently real existence to enable them to share the telling of their story. Can you believe it? Well, I never would have, had I not experienced it.

But I have read about this phenomenon many times in authors’ blogs and articles, writers who say that their characters sometimes do seem to take over and direct proceedings. So I know that I’m in good company with other novelists, although some people do insist it’s all hogwash and those authors are letting their imaginations run  away with them…

Dianne DoubtfireHowever, in her short but excellent little book of thirty-plus years ago, The Craft of Novel-Writing, Dianne Doubtfire said:

“Sometimes a character becomes so real that he refuses to do what you have planned for him. When this happens, don’t coerce him; it means you have created a real person with a will of his own and this is a marvellous moment in any novelist’s life.”

And that is what I think. I don’t really believe that novel-writing is an obscure “mystery”, so much as a craft that needs time and practice. But I do feel that, when my characters somehow become people, real enough to make their views and innermost thoughts quite plain, I have stumbled across a moment of mystery, and even magic, in my novel-writing life, and that is indeed a marvellous thing.

Authenticity in historical fiction (VI)

In this, my final blog post on the ways in which an historical novelist can achieve authenticity in their writing, I am completing my previous post looking at how to introduce a sense of “otherness” into an historical novel.

Superstition, in particular, but also a belief in charms and spells and in the possibility of monsters, are elements of the “other” that I have found I can incorporate naturally into my stories.

midsummer bonfireThe traditions and rituals of the Midsummer Eve celebrations are important in both Fortune’s Wheel and in the second “Meonbridge Chronicle” that I am currently writing. When bonfires (“bonefires”) were lit across a village, they provided a focus for the merrymaking but also had a superstitious purpose.

Yesterday evening the customary Midsummer bonfires were set around the village, for the flames to ward off evil spirits and the smoke to purify the air. Fortune’s Wheel, p 19

Superstition often seems to be an extension of religious belief. So if a man was so sinful that he’d  be assumed to be bound for Hell, as a criminal – an outlaw – he’d also be buried beyond the village boundaries, and at a cross-roads, where his ghost would be prevented from returning to haunt his accusers by the confusion of knowing which road to take.

‘I’m glad he died without being shriven, so he’ll be forever in mortal sin and go straight to Hell.’ … …

Some hours later Sir Richard sent the sexton and a couple of manor servants to the cross-roads outside Meonbridge, where they buried [his] body. None but those three witnessed the burial and Sir Richard gave instructions that no sign was to be left to mark the spot. Fortune’s Wheel, p238

crossroads
Carsten Tolkmit, Keil, Germany        [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Suicides too were buried at cross-roads where, seeming to be considered dangerous – something like the “undead” perhaps? – they’d also be confused and unable to return.

Suicide was a sin: she knew those who took their own lives couldn’t be buried in the churchyard; and she’d heard in some places their sinful bodies were mutilated before they were buried, to ward away the Devil. Fortune’s Wheel, p 173

In The Nature of Things, one woman’s understanding of the nature of lovemaking and another’s fears about the results of her sinful sexual relationships as a prostitute show different perspectives on the same superstition.

I’ve always thought a woman must enjoy the act of love as much as her husband if she’s to conceive a child, but now I know that’s just something people say. For though in truth I shrink from Richard’s nightly ploughing, and have to grit my teeth to bear it, yet a child’s growing inside me, conceived, I think, not long after our wedding night. Already, it’s kicking against my belly. The Nature of Things, p.102

… as I lie each night next to my beloved husband, worry stops me sleeping: we’ve been married months and still there’s no baby in my belly. And now I wonder why, since that first time with Gilbert, I’ve never got with child, despite all those men I’ve been with. … …

‘Everyone knows,’ [she] used to say, ‘unless a woman enjoys it as much as the man, she’ll not get a child. So you just make sure it’s them getting the comfort, dear, and not yourself, and you’ll be safe enough.’

I believed her, because I always hated what those men did to me and certainly got no pleasure from it. But, now, I love what Tom and me do together. So why isn’t there a child growing in my belly? The Nature of Things, p.391

1_3_2_mansel-smlBut how far beyond superstition is a belief in the power of magic charms? Perhaps not very much… In Fortune’s Wheel, a young pregnant wife, fearing that her growing belly is encouraging her husband’s eyes to wander, turns to a wise woman for a love potion to prevent him straying.

‘Foolish Isabella,’ said Margaret, raising her eyes to the heavens. ‘Oh, she was a stupid girl, Alice. She told her maid that she thought Philip’s eyes were straying because her belly had become so distorted with her growing baby. The maid, a simple wretch of a girl I should never have allowed to be a manor servant, told her that Mistress Kemp could give her a love potion, which she could slip into Philip’s wine. Isabella of course believed her. And she chose to ignore Richard’s rule that no-one was to leave the manor and go into the village. She slipped out without anyone noticing, and soon after she returned she fell ill and died within a few days.’ Fortune’s Wheel, p.88

In The Nature of Things, a man casts what he considers a magic spell, following the example of his mother – presumably a wise woman or witch. But his purpose is much darker than that of the unhappy young wife above.

His old Ma knew how to hurt people. When he was a lad, he watched her from his hiding place, listening to her mutterings. She filled a jar with pins and something her victim owned: a trinket or a scrap of clothing. Then she pissed into the jar, stoppered it and hid it beneath the hearth. What happened then? He is not quite sure, but thinks that, when the fire was lit and heated up the jar, the victim’s skin would prick all over, his guts burn with searing pain. The Nature of Things, p.27

It is worth noting that many modern depictions of “the Middle Ages”, particularly in film, draw as much on fantasy as on history, and conversely much fantasy fiction (The Game of Thrones among many, many others), and many films and computer games, draw on what is perceived as “mediaeval” as the apparently natural setting for fantasy worlds.

However, in some ways, this tendency seems more than simply natural, for the mediaeval world was full of “fantasy”: the fantastical images in, for example, the thirteenth-century mappa mundi housed in Hereford Cathedral, or the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter, or the writings of, for example, “Sir John Mandeville” about his travels to supposedly real countries. And then there are the terrifying paintings on church walls – fantastical certainly to our eyes –put there to chasten the congregation’s wicked hearts.

In The Nature of Things, a priest, fleeing from a catastrophic fire broken out in a decrepit ale-house, recognises in the inferno the images of Hell he’s seen in church murals.

As I near the door, I turn my head once more to look on what is truly a vision of Hell. I have seen demonic visions such as this in church wall paintings, put there to terrify and teach. And I am no less susceptible to their lesson than is the smallest child. The Nature of Things, p.10

church wall painting
12th c. wall painting in Church of St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon, Surrey (http://wealdanddownlandchurches.co.uk/chaldon-church/)

A woman, knowing that her greedy husband has died unshriven, and fearful for his soul, recalls another church mural that exacerbates her fear.

At her prie-dieu, Alys began to shiver as well as weep. An image slipped into her mind, from the painting on the wall in Saint Nicholas’s church, a painting that had alarmed her as a child and still made her tremble: a naked man, fat moneybags suspended from his neck and coins pouring from his gaping mouth, was squatting over fiery flames, while horned devils prodded at him with their forks. The Nature of Things, p.16

The priest mentioned above (who in fact escaped the fire), more educated than the average village clergyman, has seen a map – perhaps something like Hereford’s mappa mundi – and was struck by the marginalia depicting strange creatures. Readers might question whether such a man would believe such creatures really existed, but perhaps he simply doesn’t know.

Sir Philip is not a noble man – or at least not in his bearing…Yet it is Philip’s face that detracts most from his lordly mien, for it is very long, his nose uncommonly sharp, his dark eyes prominent and widely spaced, his mottled beard poorly clipped and straggling over the neck of his crimson velvet hood. When I look at Philip, I am reminded of drawings I once saw upon a map, of men called cynocephali, dog-headed men, who some say live at the far edges of the Earth. The Nature of Things, p.19

Nuremberg_chronicles_-_Strange_People_-_Headless_(XIIr)
By Hartmann Schedule (1440-1514) (Beloit College) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
A boy has heard about monsters living in the seas and at the edges of the world, as has his patron, a much older, well-travelled merchant. Do either of them believe in the existence of these creatures? The boy is young and naïve enough perhaps to imagine that they could exist. But the older man, like the priest, doesn’t know the truth, but perhaps he shares the mediaeval delight in the fantastical and wants the monsters to be there.

‘But now I know the sea doesn’t end, but just goes on and on, further than you can ever see.’ I pause for a moment. ‘How far d’you think it does go, Master Godfrey? The edge of the world? And what happens then?’

Master Godfrey laughs and shakes his head. ‘Some say monsters lurk at the edges of the world.’

I nod. ‘When I was little, my Ma told us a story about sea monsters, great fearsome beasts with scales and claws.’

He laughs. ‘Ah, yes, but these monsters are not dragons, but men with their faces in their chests, and men with one foot so large they can use it to shield their heads from the sun.’

My skin tingles at the thought of meeting such strange creatures. ‘Are they dangerous?’ The Nature of Things, pp.202-203

However, some novels are both historically accurate and suitably religious and full of superstition and yet, without really including anything particularly fantastical or supernatural, move beyond superstition into something somehow a little stranger. I’d like to mention two such novels, both of which I admire greatly for achieving a strong sense of otherness. (I have in fact mentioned them both before in earlier blogs!)

cover-of-hoddAt the very beginning of Hodd, by Adam Thorpe, it is hard to be sure what the narrator is thinking, but it is certainly strange. I do not know where Thorpe found the idea of birds as flying fish, perhaps from bestiary lore, or perhaps it alludes to the belief that swallows hibernated under water?

The seas are folded over us, above our heads, the lower sea becoming the upper sea and yet still blue when not girt with sea mist, which is grey and melancholy. Some men when they look up see birds, but I see only a kind of fish… These fish are beaked and feathered, as we all know, and return to dry land to nest in trees… Hodd, p.1

morality-playIn this passage from Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth, despite appearances, there is no beast; the narrator has mistaken what he thinks he has seen because his mindset tells him to expect the supernatural. But the image, and the fear it engenders, are strikingly “other”:

The snow made a mist…dark shapes in it…a great black beast…[with] red eyes and above its head there moved a shape of red, dark red in the white of snow, and I knew this for the flame of the Beast’s breath and I knew what Beast it was…and I crossed myself and groaned aloud in my fear, seeing that the Beast had come and my soul was unprepared. Morality Play, p.58

I feel that both these writers found their “otherness” by absorbing what Unsworth once referred to as “the spirit of the age”1 and interpreting it in a way that produces, for me, novels with a deep sense of mystery and mediaevalness.

As I have been attempting to show in this series of blog posts, the historical novelist has many ways to try and achieve a sense of authenticity: narrative form and recorded history, social context and physical details, the historical thought-world, including religion and superstition, and a sense of otherness. In respect of most of those ways, I feel that Fortune’s Wheel does achieve a fair sense of authenticity (although of course my readers will pass their own judgement on that), but it does not, perhaps, have a very strong sense of otherness. The Nature of Things incorporates a little more of the “other”, though not, I hope, so much that it has lost its naturalistic tone.

My readers cannot of course yet judge The Nature of Things, but I might ask those who have read Fortune’s Wheel, does its relative lack of “otherness” mean that it presents a less “authentic” mediaeval picture than it could or should?

I’d welcome views from other authors – how essential is otherness to the authenticity of an historical novel?

(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/>)

Reference

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].

Authenticity in historical fiction (V)

Continuing from my previous blog posts on the ways in which an historical novelist can achieve authenticity in their writing, today I am looking at the matter of “alterity”, “otherness”, the essence of what makes the past “a foreign country” and which, in a novel, can bring the reader that delightful frisson of unfamiliarity and strangeness…

(Because I have rather a lot to say on this topic, I’m going to split it into two, so the next post (22nd March) will be the final one in this sequence of posts about authenticity.)

In a previous post (16th November 2016, The problem with historical fiction (III)) I referred to one of the so-called “problems” of historical fiction, that it often fails to portray the strangeness of the past. This strangeness – I like the term “otherness” – refers to those aspects of life in the past, in particular mindsets and behaviours, that are unfamiliar or obscure to the modern reader. So it will include differences in attitudes and beliefs but also, for an historical novel set in the mediaeval period, such things as superstition, religious charms and relics, dreams, magic and spells, monsters and mediaeval art (illuminations, misericords, church paintings), strange ideas and seemingly fantastical happenings that today could be readily explained or dismissed – all of which seemed normal to people of the time. In other historical periods, the list might be a bit different, but would still include those things that make that period seem “other” to our own.

Yet, when I embarked upon writing Fortune’s Wheel, and then later, The Nature of Things, because my declared intention was to write “naturalistic” novels, novels that portrayed what I thought of as everyday life, strange and fantastical elements did not seem to have a place. I felt that such elements might somehow detract from the naturalism I wanted to achieve. For, although “magic and monsters” may have been part of the mediaeval person’s ordinary experience or belief, they are the opposite for us – we tend to consider them fanciful or fantastical, not commonplace. When writing an historical novel, one must be conscious of how certain aspects of the past might be perceived by a modern reader. A potential danger of introducing “magical” elements – however authentic they might be to the mediaeval mind – would be that the novel might appear less naturalistic historical fiction than fantasy.

A balance must be drawn between the authentic past and the sceptical present.

Fortune’s Wheel does not, however, eschew otherness entirely – the religious thinking of the time, often strange to us, and superstition are there. For The Nature of Things, however, I pushed the boundary of otherness a little further, while still trying to maintain a naturalistic tone. The characters in my novels are normal, everyday kind of fourteenth century people, who would be likely to hold at least some strange (to us) views of the world. Alongside their belief in God and the teachings of the Church, some people, maybe most, would have embraced a variety of superstitions, and believed in or feared monsters, and might consider potions and charms (if not actual witchcraft) a natural way of curing ailments or influencing behaviour. I do not want the supernatural to be a major influence in my novels, but I cannot deny that bringing a sense of otherness to them might well contribute to their authenticity.

I would like to explore these aspects of “otherness” a little further, by illustrating where I have found it in other historical novels, and where and how I have included it in my own work.

First, two examples of novels that I do feel embrace otherness…

company of liarsI greatly enjoy reading the novels of Karen Maitland, an expert at writing novels redolent with “mediaeval” atmosphere, dark and suffused with weirdness. In Company of Liars, set against the spread of the Black Death, the principal characters are mostly rather uncommon people, including a magician, a one-armed storyteller and a child witch, and the story has elements of the fantastic and the supernatural. For example, the storyteller, who has a swan’s wing where his missing arm should be, describes his childhood:

‘One day my mother found me in a corner of the byre, beating my little stump with a stick and sobbing. It was then that she…explained that my little buds would soon sprout feathers and grow into a beautiful white wing just like a swan’s.’ Company of Liars, p.158

It is by no means unrelievedly fantastical, but, while the otherness of Company of Liars certainly lends it a real sense of the “mediaeval”, the novel does not evoke (for me) the naturalistic everyday atmosphere that I wanted for my own novels.

the-lepers-companioins-coverThe Leper’s Companions by Julia Blackburn seems largely fantastical. It has the strange premise of a modern woman suddenly, and inexplicably, transported back to the fifteenth century to live as an unseen ghost among the villagers. Initially, the picture of mediaeval life painted by Blackburn appears normal enough, yet superstition and strange ideas soon pervade the novel to a degree that makes it appear more fantastical than naturalistic. It is perhaps difficult to draw the line between the simple otherness of the time and the introduction of magical elements into an otherwise normal setting.

On the following morning a cow died for no good reason and the shoemaker’s wife gave birth to a baby with the head of a monstrous fish. The Leper’s Companions, p.13

She ate the map entirely…it made her feel she now contained the knowledge of distant lands growing inside her like a new baby. The Leper’s Companions, p.62

Whatever Blackburn’s intention, it is disconcertingly strange and detracts sufficiently from the naturalistic to be a form that, again, I did not want to emulate.

By contrast, there are many novels with settings in the Middle Ages that do not seem to include much of what I might consider fantastical, but have, for example, no lack of the commonplace superstitions of the time.

scarlet-lionElizabeth Chadwick’s novels about real mediaeval historical figures seem essentially naturalistic; all her novels are noted for their historical accuracy and sense of period. If any of them have more fantastical elements (I have not read them all), I imagine that these elements would be incidental, rather than fundamental, to the story. Superstition, however, was perhaps too normal for the time to be overlooked. Here, the ship’s master’s reference to a superstition is not derided by the well-born lady, Isabelle – it is presumably as normal an idea to her as it is to him.

[The ship’s master] nodded with grim approval at their prayers, shouted something about being fortunate if you were born in the caul and returned to his crew.

‘What’s “born in the caul”?’ Richard wanted to know.

‘It means that you were born inside the bag that held you in the womb,’ Isabelle told him, ‘and that you’ll never drown.’ The Scarlet Lion, p.73

vein of deceitSusanna Gregory’s mediaeval mystery novels manage to achieve what seems like a very naturalistic portrayal of fourteenth-century life: all the characters seem perfectly of the time, with superstition, as well as religion, prominent in their everyday thinking. In A Vein of Deceit, there is nothing especially other, and yet mediaevalness is somehow on every page, making the slightly other seem utterly normal.

‘Tell him, sir,’ Risleye cried, outraged. ‘Tell Valence that garden mint should not be given to teething children, because it is a herb of Venus, and so stirs up bodily desires. That is bad for babies.’ A Vein of Deceit, p.32

The_Clerkenwell_TalesThe same could be said of The Clerkenwell Tales. Here, Peter Ackroyd’s leech – a doctor – has some quite strange ideas. They are essentially superstitious rather than fantastical, but really do lend a tone of otherness.

‘Comb your hair each morning with an ivory comb, since nothing recreates the memory more. Walnuts are hurtful to the memory. And so are onions. Avoid them. Do not stay in the house of a red-haired or red-faced person.’ The Clerkenwell Tales, p.10

The balance of naturalism and otherness achieved in these three novels is closer to what I also wanted to achieve in my own writing. Superstition, in particular, but also a belief in charms and spells and in the possibility of monsters, are elements of the “other” that I have found I can incorporate naturally into my stories, and I will illustrate some of them in my next and final blog post on authenticity in historical fiction.

(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/>)