Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Medieval Princesses Are Wimps????

There was an interesting article in the Daily Mail t'other day in which Hilary Mantel explains the popularity of the Tudor era.

Speaking of earlier periods she says: 'It's because women -apart from a very few outstanding individuals - make no mark on it.' (History, that is.)
'They are passive princesses, to be married or given in marriage. We know little about their personalities and it's hard to imagine their feelings.
'Then with the age of Henry VIII everything changes. Women come to the fore as never before, and indeed as rarely since - no longer just love or lust objects, they become power players.'

Really? Well, I'll see your six wives of Henry the Butcher and raise you Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily Neville, Margaret Beaufort, Margaret of York, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Yolande of Aragon, Isabelle the Fair (Edward II's wife), Empress Matilda, Queen Maud (King Stephen's wife) and Katherine Swynford. These women all (in their own ways) made a significant mark on history, and we know at least as much about their personalities and feelings as we do of those of (say) Katherine Howard, about whom we know virtually nothing.

Among the lower ranks? There were plenty of formidable matrons running businesses in 15th century London for a start. We've Margery Kempe the visionary. My personal nomination would be Margaret Paston. A woman who could defend her home from a small army with the same casual aplomb she applied to ordering herrings for Lent.

You may say these only add up to 'outstanding individuals' as charged. My answer is that this is true in any age, and by the way it covers men too. For every Field Marshal Montgomery there are an awful lot of Tommy Atkins focused on beer, fags, women and football and leaving very little mark at all, except in the hearts of their families.

I think we shall have to find another reason for the popularity of the Tudors. I must admit, it baffles me, but I'm rather pleased too as I'd hate to see what TV would do to the York family!

Hilary Mantel has published a new novel Wolf Hall set in Henry VIII's reign - natch. I've had a glance at it and it looks interesting if you're into that era. One thing I particularly noticed was that it follows the modern trend of placing direct speech in the present tense. So you get this sort of effect:

'It is a very strange way of writing,' says Alianore.
The Duke of Gloucester says, 'If it was our normal writer, I would think he was taking the piss to some tune.'
'Aye, my lord,' Alianore says, 'but this appears to be serious historical fiction.'
'No doubt it is a new fashion, like short doublets that reveal the top of one's hose,' says the duke.

I notice that Philippa Gregory has done the same thing in The White Queen. I think it's meant to give a feeling of immediacy or something, and it might be appropriate in a contemporary story, but immediacy is not really the thing for historical fiction. In my opinion, anyway, but obviously my opinion is not shared in some high editorial places.

I can only say that if I ever write HF in this style (other than in parody) you may call me 'Muller'.

Talking lamp posts

I had a strange experience in Llandudno the other day. A lamp post spoke to me!

I mean Joan of Arc had her saints, and Bernadette had the Virgin Mary, while Derek Acorah gets half of Southern Cemetery - I get a lamp post.

To be precise, it told me that this was a 'safe area' and that I was being monitored by CCTV. Why it picked me out for this revelation I have no idea. If I'd been swinging a chain about my head while wearing a swastika armband there might have been some justification. I was simply tootling along minding my own business, and although I'm rather large I don't think my aspect is particularly threatening these days.

The UK (that is the united Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is actually one of the most surveillance-intensive countries in the world. That includes all countries, including ones run by tin-pot tyrants of one stamp and another. Scary, isn't it? After all, it's not as though Llandudno High Street is a secret naval base or something. (Or if it is, the camouflage is superb.)

The Government probably thinks it makes us feel safe. It doesn't, it makes me feel spied-upon, and I don't like that one bit. What would make me feel safe would be some substantive action against the terrorists and other criminals that throng our country. But that, I suspect, would involve rather more effort, imagination and finance than arranging for a lamp post to shout at a balding scribbler on one of his days off.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

A break through?

Yesterday, apart from being my wedding anniversary, was something of a break through for me. For the first time in a long time I worked hard enough to produce what a normal, sane, professional writer would consider a day's work. What's more, I enjoyed it!

It's quite a while since I've enjoyed writing. Occasionally my little comedy scribblings have given me a grin, but to be writing a serious novel and enjoying the process, rather than feeling like I'm writing another boring report for work, well, that's a step forward.

I have mentioned by new technique, haven't I? Having drawn up a plan for the book, I am writing the bits I feel like writing on a particular day, not banging away consecutively from the beginning to the end. This will take a lot of editing when it's finished, but novels take a lot of editing anyway.

If I can only keep up this progress all will be well.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Historical Accuracy

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I suppose one prompt is the latest series of The Tudors. I find it impossible to watch, not least because the actor playing Henry VIII looks nothing like Henry would have done at the age he had reached at the time depicted. It's just unreal, so totally divorced from my image of Henry that I can't relate to it.

Yet the series is popular, and I suppose it's interesting people in history, even if it's only the overdone era of Tudor history. (I can't image why this particular period seems so glorious to so many, but only World War Two and the nasty Nazis get more TV/movie coverage.) I don't really want to slag off The Tudors but talk about the issue of accuracy in general.

First, as I've said before, I think it's impossible to write a 100% accurate historical novel, and if by some miracle one could, the chances are that the result would be quite boring. Fiction is fiction. Even the best-researched novels are still novels, they tend to simplify events - let alone things like bureaucratic processes! - and in the last analysis they are written by people who are living in the present - post-Enlightenment thinkers. I can't really get inside the head of a medieval person. I can try, I can even explain the processes involved, talk about the social background, religious beliefs, upbringing, and so on. But at the end of the day, it's a best guess.

But granting all that, does it mean we shouldn't even try? For me, the first thing is not to knowingly change historical events. They are the scaffolding around which the story is told. I will not change the known outcomes of battles, jousts or parliaments, or make someone live significantly longer than they actually did. I'm extremely reluctant even to change a name, though it does get hard to differentiate between multiple blokes with the same moniker.

If you don't know, for a fact, where your character was on a particular day, then I think it's quite legitimate to move him or her someplace else. I've been trying quite hard to find where Richard of Gloucester went in 1469 after leaving Edward IV at Oundle, and before meeting up with him again in Yorkshire. I have some suspicions, but no proof. So I'm sending him to places that suit the story I am telling, one at least of which is inprobable, but not impossible. But it would be quite wrong to send him to Spain, for example, as he would not have time to get back. Equally, if he's known to be at Westminster on such and such a date, I don't really want to place him at Barnard Castle unless the story line makes it absolutely inescapable. Does it really matter in the context of a novel? Arguably it doesn't, but I prefer it that way.

Of course some historical events are disputed. Who kills the princes in the Tower, for example? One can gloss over this in a work of history. You can list three or four alternatives and come down on what you think is most probable. Or you can leave it entirely open. In a novel this is less straightforward. If you're writing from Elizabeth Woodville's point of view, for example, you may not have to give an outright answer. You can say what was reported to her and what she believed about it. It's highly unlikely that she knew what had happened. Richard III, on the other hand, almost certainly did know. A novel about him really does have to come up with an answer, one way or the other. (One about Elizabeth probably does as well, or the readers are going to be dreadfully disappointed. They will expect to 'know' possibly more than Elizabeth herself did!)

Background is also important. Medieval attitudes to marriage, for example, were quite different to ours. People of property did not expect to marry for love. Love was a bonus, a very desirable bonus admittedly, but definitely a bonus. Most people today would see Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth as romantic - assuming he was not already married of course, and even then our modern attitudes might still forgive the power of love. His mother and Warwick almost certainly regarded the marriage as self-indulgent and irresponsible, and their attitude, not ours, would have been the commonplace one at the time. We may find their viewpoint unsympathetic, but we at least have to try to understand why they held it.

Then there's the little matter of religion. Religion was absolutely central to the lives of medieval people. We may be cynical, and suppose some of them at least didn't actually believe in it, but that's irrelevant. It still shaped their lives, impacted on the way they though, restricted what they could eat. Yet in so many novels of the middle ages this little matter is scarcely touched upon.

Fiction is fiction - but historical fiction needs to take into account the historical context. It would be absurd to write a contemporary novel about hill walkers in which everyone climbed the fells wearing carpet slippers and made up as clowns. Yet some historical novels are rather like that...

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

More excuses

I am sorry that I haven't posted much on here lately. I have been a bit ill - for the last couple of weeks I have felt more or less or exactly doped. It's very odd, but I seem to be coming out of it.

The other thing is that I've been busy writing. Primarily the Richard III thing - a monkey that I long to have off my back - but also one of my little side projects. Whether these sundry side projects will ever turn into full books remains to be seen, but at least they are giving me writing exercise. Which I need.