Posts Tagged ‘Historical Novel’

"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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Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci - Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci – Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Beau Nash made the city of Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. In his role as Master of Ceremonies he organised the premier social events in the city and chose who should, and should not be invited. He established a select list of people who he defined as the cream of Society, and more importantly he changed the social conventions of the city.

Nash broke down the old order dominated by the nobility and gentry, and promoted the nouveaux- riches. Whereas in other cities the growing number of wealthy industrialists and tradespeople were still looked down on because of their background, in Bath, Nash welcomed them as elite members of society.

The affluent tourists rented houses and apartments and all the trappings that went with them; crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. For years the city thrived on the wealth of visitors who stayed for the Season. Prominent architects designed fine buildings and the city grew. Milsom Street became one of the most prestigious shopping areas in the country. The City also had a fine theatre and there were regular costume balls in the Assembly Rooms and the Guildhall. Visitors “took the waters” in the spa baths and the social elite met daily in The Pump Rooms.

By 1801, when Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was the 9th largest in England, with a population of 33,000. Yet the city’s fortunes had already begun to decline. Bath had changed in character and atmosphere. It was becoming less fashionable and the wealthy were visiting less often, and their stays were becoming shorter. Built in a bowl of seven hills, Bath’s ever-growing population became increasingly crowded into a relatively small area. It’s little wonder that when Jane Austen moved to the city, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra saying,

“The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; … the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that it seemed, “all smoke” when every household depended on coal fires for warmth, that it was “all confusion” when its roads were congested with carts and carriages. And in Georgian cities, once you set foot on the streets there was no escaping the bad drainage and lack of decent sanitation and sewerage systems. As Austen said in another letter to her sister,

“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.”

By the time “Persuasion” was published in 1817, the larger part of Bath’s population was working class. Industry was thriving in the city, supplying the shops in Milsom Street and drawing people from the countryside to fill the jobs created. Yet the servants and the people who worked in the factories and sweat-shops, the costermongers and shop-assistants, the building labourers and hotel staff were, for the most part, poorly paid – and the poor did not fit neatly into the City’s image.

The only housing they could afford was overcrowded and poorly maintained, and the slum areas around Avon Street were increasing in size, as quickly as they were deteriorating in quality and appearance. By 1850, the rookery of hovels and cheap boarding-houses in and around Avon Street were home to almost a quarter of the Bath’s population though the City and its visitors did their best to ignore the area.

In “Persuasion” Anne Elliot visits a friend in Westgate Buildings, despite Sir Walter’s warning of its unsuitableness –

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.”

In my novel, “Avon Street,” I set out to explore the two very different aspects of the City of Bath that co-existed uneasilly in the Victorian era. Since Westgate Buildings is on the border of the Avon Street area it seemed only fitting that I set the first chapter of my book in the same location where Austen hinted at the dual nature of the city.

Much of this piece was originally hosted on the Jane Austen’s World Blog on June 10, 2012.

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Jane Austen's Aunt - Jane Perrot

Jane Austen’s Aunt – Jane Perrot

On the 8th August 1799, Jane Leigh-Perrot was accused of stealing a card of white lace from a millinery shop in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots, a wealthy couple, were Jane Austen’s mother’s brother and sister-in-law (Jane’s Uncle and Aunt). The white lace valued at £1 was found in Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s possession together with a card of black lace that she had bought and paid for from the same shop. Mrs Leigh-Perrot denied stealing the lace, saying that the sales clerk must have given it her by mistake when he handed over her purchase.

There was no organised police force in 18th Century England, apart from the Bow Street Runners in London . The capture and prosecution of criminals was largely left to their victims to deal with. Every parish was obliged to have one or two constables, but they were unpaid volunteers working only in their spare time. And a victim of crime who wanted a constable to track down and arrest the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of their doing so.

Sometimes victims of crime hired a thief-taker to pursue the wrong-doer. Again, they were private individuals working much like latter day bounty hunters. Sometimes, thief-takers would act as go-betweens, negotiating the return of stolen goods for a fee. Many though were corrupt, actually initiating and organising the original theft in order to claim the reward for the return of goods, or extorting protection money from the criminals they were supposed to catch.

For the most part, unless a criminal was “caught in the act” (usually by their intended victim) it was unlikely they would be brought to justice. In the absence of a police force, the maintenance of “Law and Order” therefore came to depend more on deterrence rather than apprehension. The harshest penalty of all was brought in to cover more and more crimes in what came to be known as the “Bloody Code.”  In 1688 there were 50 offences on the statute book that carried the death sentence. By 1776 the number had quadrupled, and reached 220 by the end of the century, including the crime of “Grand Larceny,” or the theft of items with a monetary value that exceeded one shilling (later increased to five shillings).

In practice, some judges, advocates and juries often recognised the barbarity of the punishment in relation to the crime. Advocates would sometimes plead for mercy. Juries might determine that goods were over-priced and bring their value down below the five shilling threshold. Defendants might claim “benefit of clergy” which by virtue of stating religious belief and reading out an oath allowed the judge to exercise leniency. In other cases the Government could review the sentence by appeal, and often did.

Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7000 executions were actually carried out. The alternatives, however, included branding or transportation to the Australian Colonies with the prospect of forced labour for 14 years. One-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867, it is estimated, were transported to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Others were “allowed” to join the army as an alternative to transportation, many fighting in the Napoleonic wars.

Although Mrs Leigh-Perrot (Jane Austen’s aunt) denied stealing the lace in August 1799 she was nevertheless arrested on a charge of “grand theft.” The lace, to the value of £1, she was said to have stolen was worth four times the five shillings that carried the death sentence.

In practice it was unlikely (given her standing) that if she had been found guilty she would have been sentenced to death. Jane Leigh-Perrot was though refused bail and committed to prison on the sworn depositions of the shopkeeper. Due to her wealth, social standing and age she was allowed to stay in the house of the prison keeper, Mr Scadding, at the Somerset County Gaol in Ilchester, rather than being kept in a cell. Mrs Leigh-Perrot still wrote though that she suffered ‘Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from morning till night’. James Leigh-Perrot insisted on remaining with her in prison.

During her trial Jane Leigh-Perrot spoke eloquently for herself.  Several testimonials as to her character were also read out to the court. At the conclusion of the trial the jury took only 10 minutes to find her “Not Guilty.” It does, however, make you wonder how someone less well refined, less well-connected,  less eloquent, less educated, less wealthy might have fared. The evidence of her guilt, might have been quite sufficient to send someone else to the gallows, or transported, or branded with a hot iron. She was after all caught in possession of the item and identified by the shop-keeper. In “Persuasion” Captain Harville asks Anne Elliot, ‘But how shall we prove anything?’ Anne replies, ‘We never shall.

As the system of justice developed, the “Bloody Code” came under increasing challenge from advocates like William Garrow (as dramatised in the BBC series “Garrow’s Law“). In 1823 the “Judgement of Death Act” made the mandatory death penalty discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder. Gradually the emphasis changed from deterrence by penalty, to deterrence by likelihood of capture. The first organised police forces were gradually established in major cities with the dual objectives of preventing crime and apprehending criminals.

This is an update of a post hosted on the Jane Austen’s World website on 24th July 2012. An extract of it (“Law and Order in the Georgian Era”)  was included on The Jane Austen Forum on 9th August 2012. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and similarities to modern life, and to take the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.

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It’s finally arrived. I opened the parcel this morning, and there it was – my book – “Avon Street”  Seeing the cover, holding the book, thumbing the pages, it all felt suddenly real and I finally allowed myself to feel excited.

I had known for months that “Avon Street” was going to be published. After all, I had signed a contract, checked the proofs seen it for sale on Amazon, Waterstones, and the Guardian Bookshop. Yet still it hadn’t felt real, or at least I hadn’t allowed myself to get too excited. You see, there had been publishers before, contracts signed; it had even been listed on Amazon, yet in the past things had gone wrong at the last moment and the book never made it to the bookshops. It’s a difficult industry, publishing.

There were years before that too, when writing was confined to reports and studies; policy documents and business strategies. Writing a novel was just a dream then, but now it is a reality. The “effort” was always worthwhile, even before I thought I had a chance of being published. I love writing, whatever form it takes. Yet now, seeing my book sitting there on the table, I can’t resist the smile that keeps insisting on taking over my face.

I am no longer  Unpublished Writer, but a Published Author. To be honest it’s hard to take in, but all in all it feels great.

And to any Unpublished Writer who reads this, the two lessons I’ve learned are to keep trying and exploring publishing opportunities – but more importantly – Keep Enjoying Writing.

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On the bi-centenary of the birth of Charles Dickens it seems appropriate to write a piece on plots and plotting.  Dickens gave us some of the most memorable characters in Fiction, the most popular being (according to a Penguin Books poll) Ebenezer Scrooge –


But Dickens also left us with plots that have become almost part of the U.K.’s  and even International, folk-lore. The many screen and TV adaptations prove, if any proof was needed, the power of his story-telling. We watch the stories unfold on screen though many know them and their endings already. New generations discover the tales and find that they still have something to say over a hundred years after they were written.

Dickens knew what his readers wanted from him and he always delivered, yet not always in the ways they expected.  “The Old Curiosity Shop” was written in the form of a newspaper serial. In America, fans of the story waited at the piers in New York City harbour, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the last instalment in Britain) “Is Little Nell alive?” Popular demand was that she should live and find happiness, yet Dickens had her die, just when her rescue from poverty seemed certain. Lucie Manette never returns Sydney Carton’s love in “A Tale of Two Cities” and the hero dies on the guillotine, but not before saying,

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Dickens was master of the “Ironic Plot” where the hero/heroine fails to achieve what they are seeking (the happy ending that the reader wants).  Yet in the process the character always achieves true heroism and leaves their world a better place.

Here are some other plotting ideas I found helpful in deciding on how to tell the story of “Avon Street.”  They may not be of much help in writing the initial story, but they were helpful to me in going through the many edits and re-writes. Dickens, of course needed no such guidance.

  • The plot begins before the story starts – wherever possible the story should begin as near as possible to the crisis point, the time when circumstances change and the train of events that follow is set in motion. Back-stories and depth of character can all be developed later, but the reader has to be drawn in from the beginning.
  • Challenge and Conflict – The plot usually involves characters facing adversity. Each character must meet those challenges in a believable way, behaving in keeping with they way they have been drawn, rather than suddenly becoming a super-hero.
  • Nothing is Random – Each character, setting, and piece of dialogue should be significant in terms of advancing the plot, establishing roles, defining motivations, creating atmosphere, conveying theme or fore-shadowing what might happen.
  • Plot is Many Stories in One – Even minor characters have a story to tell, or why are they there? The plot should generate and feed off sub-plots to maintain the reader’s interest when the main plot is slowing and to develop the characters that the sory depends on.
  • Foreshadow but don’t Predict – The arrival of major events or characters shouldn’t just happen “out of the blue.” Too many coincidences strain belief. The trick is to warn the reader, but subtly enough that when it happens it is still a surprise.
  • Plot is Character in Motion – Events and relationships, as the story progresses, are all opportunities to test the characters, to show how they react and to reflect their emotional journey – a good opportunity for the famous “show don’t tell.”
  • Hero in Charge – At times in the story the main Characters should lose control of events, otherwise the story is boring. But towards the end they have to demonstrate that they are taking back that control, or at least trying to, before the final challenge.

These aren’t rules – more things to be aware of.  I can’t pretend that I used them much in writing the first draft of “Avon Street.” They were though very helpful as “touch-stones,” or reference points when I came to re-write and edit.

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“Inheritance and upbringing might make us who we are, but it is the decisions we make that determine who we become.”

I did not understand what a “writer’s voice” was when I started writing. I thought it was a term that academics and literary people used to create some sort of mystique around the process of writing. It sounded arty, and pretentious, and unreal. I could write stories that people found entertaining, and that was all that seemed to matter. But the writer’s voice is important. In a sense it’s what makes a book unique, what makes any writing unique. I just hadn’t realised it.

Wikipedia defines the writer’s voice as:-

“The literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author… As a trumpet has a different voice than a tuba, or a violin has a different voice than a cello, so the words of one author have a different sound than the words of another. One author may have a voice that is light and fast paced while another may have a dark voice.”

That may true, but only in part. It’s not simply the style that determines the writer’s voice, but also plot, subject matter, characters, dialogue, settings, pace, atmosphere, and themes. All of these are just as important as style in asserting the writer’s voice, in allowing the book to speak.  In part I think the writer’s voice is a confidence issue – knowing what you want to say, what story you want to tell, what “insight” or experience or perspective you want  share; and having the confidence that it is worth sharing and that you have the ability to do it justice.

Defining the writer’s voice get’s even more confused nowadays because the writer is often regarded as a brand – the stronger the brand identity, the more books are sold. And people expect the writer to be like their books, or for their books to be like the writer, which in most cases I suspect, they are not. The writer’s voice will rarely be a true representation of the writer’s personality, you only need to look at the biographies of past writers for confirmation.

Al Alvarez, the English poet, critic and writer said,

‘For a writer, voice is a problem that never lets you go…a writer doesn’t properly begin until he has a voice of his own.”

A fortunate few seem to be born with a strong voice, a huge talent, and the necessary confidence in their voice. For others, like me, it was about working with what talent I had, and “finding” my voice through constant practice, and experimenting with different styles and genres and challenging what and how I wrote. Gradually I began to recognise the writing that worked, and the writing that didn’t, began pushing my own boundaries, but I was still largely concerned about style and technique.

When I had finished the first draft of “Avon Street” I asked a few family and friends to read it. They seemed to find it enjoyable, and easy reading, but it still seemed to me as though something was missing. It still wasn’t the book I had wanted to write. It didn’t say what I wanted it to say. In short there was little to distinguish it from other historical novels. Then it struck me that I hadn’t started the book with any real idea of what I wanted it to say. It was just a story, a compelling story I hoped, but just a story. Yet towards the end of the book, one of the lead characters, Richard Daunton, says, “Inheritance and upbringing might make us who we are, but it is the decisions we make that determine who we become.” As I wrote the words I realised what the book was actually about, and what I had been trying to say without really realising it.

I began re-writing, but this time knowing what the book was about – the ability to shape who we become (for good or bad), to escape the confines of what is expected of us, and the terrible loss of potential that often goes unrecognised. I tested the opening chapters on websites where writers criticise each other’s work and tried to address the issues they raised. My confidence increased because I believed more in the story I was telling and it began to show in the writing. The characters became more real, more rounded, they began to dictate changes in the plot, sub-plots developed, other themes emerged, the pace took on a new tempo, and my style and technique seemed to evolve.

You can say it was the writer’s voice emerging, but it felt to me almost like I was  finding the voice of the book. Or perhaps it was part writer’s voice, part the book’s? Or perhaps I’m just over-thinking the whole thing and contributing to the mystique?

But “Avon Street” now, is a very different book that when it started, just as I am a different writer than when I began.

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The Avon Street area of Bath was a bad place to live in the 19th Century and not a safe place to visit. There are few surviving pictures of the area. The one above is of one of the more salubrious parts  which survived into the 20th Century. It’s hard to imagine that Avon Street appealed to many artists of the time with so much georgian grandeur on offer in other parts of the city.

My book, “Avon Street” started as a short story.  Its setting was almost incidental. Bath was simply the right sort of back-drop for an historical story which I had initially intended would be set in the Georgian era. Yet the more research I did, the stronger the role of the city became and the greater grew my interest in the Avon Street area.  Bath became a character in its own right, but it was a character with a split personality. Gradually fact began to merge with fiction and the story took on new meaning as the time-frame moved from Georgian, to Victorian Bath.

Bath has always been a city of illusion, as I have tried to demonstrate in previous posts. The magnificent, honey-coloured, bath-stone facades hid poorly finished buildings. The ostentatious trappings of wealth were all available for hire.  The right address, furniture, crockery, silverware and servants could all be hired by the month provided a person had the right accent, manners, clothes, and money. Bath was a city where you could be whoever you wanted to be, provided you had the money or the appearance of of money . The conventions, manners and rules of polite society masked motives and emotions that were sometimes far from genteel.

Jane Austen a writer uniquely associated with the City, only ever hinted at the more unpleasant aspects of Bath. It is apparent from her letters that her personal feelings regarding  the city were at odds with the way she depicted it in her books. In writing “Avon Street” I wanted to take the reader beyond the Georgian facades and polite society of the city and reveal some of its darker secrets – and the Avon Street area of the city was the darkest secret of all.

By 1850, industry was thriving in the city whilst its traditional role as a spa and watering-hole for polite society was declining. The Avon Street area of the city had grown into a sprawling, disease-ridden slum and was subject to frequent flooding. Though it occupied a relatively small part of the city geographically, it was home to twenty per cent of Bath’s population. It was abhorred and for the most part ignored by the city and its visitors, yet the two sides of the city co-existed uneasily, one dependent on the other. Avon Street provided the servants, the labourers, the factory workers and sweat-shop employees. High society employed the servants and bought the goods they made.

Bath as a city did its best to keep Avon Street, the factories and sweat-shops largely out of sight and as far away as possible from the minds of visitors and wealthy residents. The cholera outbreak in 1849 (largely confined to Avon Street) had been the second largest in the country, yet it too was kept out of the public eye. When disreputable behaviour spilled out into the city, it was usually put down to the ethnic origin of the ‘sinner’ or the influence of alcohol and was punished as harshly as the law would permit, and the law permitted a great deal of harshness.

Most of the Avon Street Area is now occupied by Bath Spa University, various commercial properties, bus depots and sundry car parks. The houses are gone: the past, its people and their stories lie buried. Yet their struggles deserve to be remembered. In my book I have tried to explore the tensions that existed between the two aspects of the city, to separate the city from the illusion. I have also tried to give a voice to the forgotten people of Avon Street.

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