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Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” opens with the sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is one of the best written and best known opening lines of any novel. It is also one of the best examples of “comic irony” because, as Austen makes clear throughout the novel, it is primarily the women (or more particularly their mothers) who are desperately in search of a rich single man as husband-material.

Historically Bath was undoubtedly one of the most favoured locations for such match-making, both in fact and in fiction. Though the city is relatively small today, it had grown faster than almost any other in Britain during the 17 th Century.  In 1801, when Jane moved to the city it was the ninth largest conurbation in England with a population of 35,000. Its spa facilities and entertainments were renowned throughout Europe and visitors flocked to the city for “The Season” (roughly from the beginning of May to mid-September). This was the ideal time for husband-hunting.

There were balls and gatherings, concerts and card games in the Upper and Lower Assembly Rooms. Each day people met in The Pump Rooms (see Rowlanson’s image above – Wikimedia) to see who was newly arrived in the city, to make introductions (and to be introduced) and perhaps most importantly to exchange gossip, and arrange social events. The theatre too, was well attended with a continually changing programme of popular contemporary productions, drawing some of the finest actors and performers of the age.

People also entertained at home, and yet one of the most favoured social events (weather permitting) was simply “promenading” in the popular shopping areas like Milsom Street, or the many purpose-built, Parades and Parks, like Jane’s favourite, Sydney Gardens. These were the places to see and be seen, the places where accidental meetings might be expected, or could be contrived. As Catherine Morland remarks in “Northanger Abbey”

a fine Sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.

It would be easy to be swept away by images of “beautiful people” in a social whirl of high society events, set against a back-drop of some of the finest Georgian architecture in the world. Indeed that is the world that Jane Austen seems to present in her novels, yet that was not the whole truth, at least for Jane. The notorious British weather certainly often made promenading, or even attending events or visiting friends, difficult. As Jane said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

 It must also be remembered that Jane lived in Bath continuously (throughout the years) from 1801 to 1805, and the city was a very different place, out of Season. Being primarily a Spa, many of the resident population of Bath were of retirement age and not always in the best of health. As for eligible young men, only 39% of Bath’s population were male in 1801, and it is safe to assume that relatively few of these were eligible, and that even fewer were young. As Sir Walter Elliot observes in “Persuasion” –

“There certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced.”

Many of the eligible young men were of course in the army or navy and away fighting the Napoleonic Wars for much of the time that Jane was living in Bath. And while officers in the services were expected to be at least literate, they came from vary varied educational and social backgrounds. Contrary to popular opinion, although an officer was supposed also to be a “gentleman”, this usually referred to an expectation rather than a predisposition. And often officers fell short of those expectations, which perhaps accounts for Jane’s portrayal of characters like George Wickham, the ne’er-do-well seducer in “Pride and Prejudice.

I’m sure there were lots of George Wickhams in Bath. It was, and still is, the perfect setting for a novel. It was a place where, given enough money or access to credit, all the trappings of wealth and position could be rented or hired or borrowed for The Season, and where people were often not who they appeared to be. As Jane observed in “Persuasion

“Sir Walter had at first thought more of London; but Mr Shepherd felt that he could not be trusted in London, and had been skillful enough to dissuade him from it, and make Bath preferred. It was a much safer place for a gentleman in his predicament: he might there be important at comparatively little expense.”

Very few of Jane’s letters survive from her time in Bath and some say that she wrote very little while she was there. Yet it’s well known that Jane was a consummate editor; writing and re-writing, polishing and refining her work until she was satisfied it was good enough. She may well have been working on drafts of her later novels even then. She was certainly observing and remembering what she saw.

We do know that Jane wrote the beginning of her unfinished novel, “The Watsons” while in Bath. Some say it remained unfinished because it was a time of upheaval in her life (with the death of her father). Others believe it so clearly mirrored her own experience (particularly the financial precariousness of the family) at the time that she found it too painful to continue. And perhaps the chapters that she did complete lack some of the refinement and polish of her later novels, yet I find them very poignant and touching. I can’t help thinking that someone of Jane’s intelligence and sensitivity must at times have been hurt by a Society where people were judged so much in terms of title, wealth and appearance; as opposed to their true nature and accomplishments.

In my novel, “AVON STREET” I have tried to explore aspects of the City of Bath that lay hidden and forgotten behind its romantic Georgian image. Jane Austen recognised that all was not always as it seemed in the City. Perhaps it’s little wonder then that she makes such good use of comic irony.

This piece was kindly hosted on the Jane Austen’s World blog on May 11th 2013.

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"A View of Pulteney Bridge" by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery  (Bath) Collection

“A View of Pulteney Bridge” by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Any author owes a big debt to their readers. Not just because they’ve chosen their book amongst so many others, but because they have spent time reading it. There are so many competing forms of more “instant” entertainment now, and time is precious.  The cover and blurb and opening page may be what initially appeals, but a writer has to earn their readers’  time by creating characters that they will care about and by devising a plot that will make them want to keep turning the pages.

But the historical novel, perhaps like science fiction, demands something more. It requires the reader to suspend their disbelief, to ignore everything around them, and to imagine that they are living in another place, another time. For a writer that’s where the research comes in. A writer has to understand what life was like in another time – fashions, transport, medicine, work, education, politics, crime and a host of other things. But as a novelist they also have to ensure that they include just the right amount of historical detail in the novel – Too little and it doesn’t feel real – Too much and it becomes a history lecture. It’s a difficult balance, particularly as reader-tastes differ.

What I love about historical novels is that they can help us challenge perceptions of the past, to better understand the lives of “ordinary” people and what it might have been like to have lived in another time. History often, seems to emphasise how different people were to us in the past, as in the famous opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The Go Between”

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Yet it’s a poor traveller who visits a foreign country and has no interest in their culture. In historical novels you have to acknowledge those differences of culture, science, technology, education, religion, economics and all the other external influences that make us different. But while those “differences” cannot be ignored, neither should they be allowed to make caricatures out of characters. The author needs to make the culture of the past understandable and believable if the reader is to engage with it in their imagination.

The Victorian era particularly appeals to me because we know so much about it and because, perhaps more than any other era it mirrors our modern world. It was an era of great change and the first age of consumerism. The Industrial Revolution was in some ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. And it was the age of popular novels, which allow us, perhaps for the first time a real glimpse into the lives of “ordinary” people.

Perhaps more importantly the Victorian Era was the time when the struggle really began for democracy and basic human rights. Universal suffrage, equality under the law, safe working conditions, decent housing, education , basic sanitation and clean drinking water were not granted through the benevolence of governments – each was fought for over many years and usually stubbornly resisted by the powers to be. It is a struggle which is just beginning in many parts of the world as the process of  industrialision takes hold. It is a struggle which never seems to end. These things which many now take for granted, shape who we are, yet they were each fought for by people who we sometimes imagine to be very different to ourselves. It’s perhaps strange to think that the very changes they fought for and brought about now make them seem so very different to us.

My novel, “Avon Street” is set in Bath in 1850.  It’s a city whose image is defined even today by the novels of Jane Austen, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was to challenge (much as I love Austen’s writing) the romanticisation of the past.  I wanted to explore the darker side of the city that Jane Austen only ever hinted at – to go behind the Georgian facades – to show the streets of a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. To me, history is like a detective story. We have to sweep aside the images and pre-conceptions to truly understand the people of the past. And perhaps then we can better understand this foreign country, that we all came from.

(This piece is based on a post originally written for, and kindly hosted by Carol Hedges on her blog  on 5th April 2013.)

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The demands a writer makes on a reader are quite incredible. Embarking on a new novel the reader is expected to suspend their own life, to ignore their surroundings, and to use their imagination to enter the writer’s imaginary world – and the world of the novel is constructed entirely of words.

Every sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste, is entirely imaginary. Each emotion the reader feels is triggered (or not) by imagined experiences. Every character is a figment of the writer’s imagination. There are no actors, sound-track, special effects, atmospheric lighting, or carefully directed camera work to assist them, simply words arranged on a page. And the reader has to translate those words into moving pictures and see them from a new perspective, to empathise with the characters, to care about what might happen to them, and to react to what does.

Yet no two readers will see that imagined world in quite the same way. They will often see it differently than the writer intended, bringing their own perspectives and expectations and experiences to bear. And while it’s naturally exciting to see my book published,  I have also come to realise that the world of “Avon Street,” that I spent so long creating is no longer mine. Now the book is out there I have no say in how it should be read, or what people should think of my characters, or their stories, or my ability to convey them.

The use of plot, sub-plot, pace, characterisation, dialogue, settings, atmosphere, style, and use of language are all finalised now. They are set in print and cannot be changed. Whether I have got the balance is right is for the reader to judge. I just hope that those who read it, enjoy it; and that the world of “Avon Street”  and its inhabitants feels real, and stays with it’s readers, at least for a while.

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“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”

George Orwell

It sounds a little harsh, but anyone who writes will recognise at least some truth in what Orwell says. To an extent writing is vain, if only in having the belief that you can write something that is worth reading. It is certainly selfish. Writing is a totally absorbing activity. You can be sitting in a room surrounded by people you love, but when you are writing your mind is somewhere else and you are cut-off, in your own world. So why write?

Orwell  identified four reasons as to why writers write, and what determines how they write or what they write about. Again he didn’t mince his words:-

  •  “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one…
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story…
  • Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  • Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Having just had my first novel, “Avon Street” published, perhaps it’s an odd time to wonder why I write?  But at the moment I’m trying to publicise my book and wondering how far I want to go, and how much I’m willing to let my goals change, when all I really want to do is get on with the next book.  But family and friends keep asking how the book is doing, and it’s made think again about what people expect – and what I expect?

Much as I admire George Orwell, I think his list, perhaps intentionally (to make a point) ignores many other motives . Some writers, also feel a basic need to form bridges of communication with others to overcome the feeling of “separateness” that comes from being an individual human being. For others writing is a coming to terms with what has happened in the past.  For many, writing is a form of exploration, of challenging their own perceptions, of trying to empathise with others and to understand a complex world which sometimes makes little sense – and to define for themselves what it is to be a human being with a sense of consciousness.

Perhaps Orwell was too noble-minded to identify money  in his list of motivations, or perhaps times have changed, but it  cannot be ignored nowadays, though many see writing as a more spiritual quest, in search of the Muse, or God, or some higher purpose in our nature. For others it is a way of exploring thought processes and the relationship between conscious and unconscious mind. And let’s not forget the sheer sense of enjoyment that the process of writing can bring.

Other writers have their own definitions. Monica Dickens said,

“Writing is a cop-out. An excuse to live perpetually in fantasy land, where you can create, direct and watch the products of your own head. Very selfish.”

Some write, because through writing they can build new worlds, worlds in which, at least for a while, they have some sense of control. As John Fowles said,

“There are many reasons why novelists write – but they all have one thing in common: a need to create an alternative world.”

There is also the question of when are you entitled to call yourself a writer. When I started writing fiction, I honestly had no interest in being published, yet as soon as I had finished the first draft of my novel it seemed pointless simply leaving it in a drawer, so I started sending it off to publishers and agents. Slowly publication became almost an obsession, and so my goals and expectations began changing. As Lee Child asked,

“If you write a book and no one reads it, is it really a book?’

Yet if you write, you are a writer and publication is often just a matter of luck or fortuitous circumstance. As Kate Mosse said,

“There’s only one difference between published and unpublished writers and it is this – the first group see their work in print on the shelves of Waterstone’s or Tesco or online at Amazon; the second group are yet to have physical evidence of the hours, weeks, years spent fashioning words into their patterns.  You are already a writer.”

Perhaps some or all of thes motives for writing (above) are common to every writer, but the strength of their influence will be different from writer to writer and they will rarely remain the same. Orwell was right when he said,

“It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.”

Each individual writer’s motivation is complex and personal – and it changes over time as expectations change. In truth there are as many reasons for writing as there are writers – and writing will always have something new to say, or find a new way of saying it. But it seems important to remember why you started writing and what you expected then, rather than chasing new rainbows.

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