Monday, 31 January 2011

A Man's World?

In the comments to the 23 January post Why the Tudors?, DorsetGirl said re: Cecily Neville, ‘a drama series with her as the protagonist would be epic, but I can imagine programme commissioners going, “Somebody’s mother?”’
Thinking about that, it occurred to me that, although the Middle Ages are seen as very much a man’s world, the story of the Wars of the Roses could very well be told from the point of view of the women. Many of them were powerful and influential in their own right, not merely the tools of their male relatives.

On the Lancastrian side:

Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, possibly the most ineffectual  king England ever had.

Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, the eventual winner.

Among the Yorkists, in addition to Cecily Neville:

Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV. There were sound political reasons  for Edward to marry her, or someone like her - it was just unfortunate that she had so many relatives. Was she a rapacious woman, or did she have little choice but to build up her own power base at court, for protection against her enemies?

Isabel Neville, Duchess of Clarence, who might have been queen if her husband’s plotting had succeeded, and her sister Anne, who might have been a Lancastrian queen but in the end was a Yorkist one. Were they as ambitious as their father the Kingmaker, or were they merely  pawns?

Was Anne’s marriage to Richard of Gloucester a love match, as is usually shown in fiction, or was he just trying to acquire her estates?

Then there are the more shadowy characters - Eleanor Butler, Jane Shore, Margaret of Burgundy.

And finally Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and wife of Henry  VII.  Of all these women, possibly the one who had the least control over her life.

The fifteenth century isn’t my period, so I won’t be writing it. But it would be a good subject for someone.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

What's in a name?

Yes, an over-used quotation. And is it even true to say 'that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’? Would Romeo and Juliet’s story have the same impact if they’d been called Ron and Mabel? Would Margaret Mitchell’s heroine be so memorable if she’d kept her original name, Pansy O’Hara? Would Archie Leach and Maurice Micklewhite have been so successful if they hadn’t changed their names?

I’m thinking about this because I’m trying to decide on a surname for a character. This character’s surname is only mentioned once, not long after he’s introduced, just so the reader knows what it is. The setting is contemporary, and he’s never in a situation when his surname would be used. But he’s a major character; he ought to have a full name.

I don’t know why I’m struggling with this. I only want an ordinary name of one or two syllables that goes with his first name and isn’t too similar to any of the other characters’ names.

Sometimes I have trouble finding a name because I’m not yet ‘seeing’ the character clearly, but that’s not the case this time.

Sometimes, as I’m writing, I find that the name I originally chose doesn’t fit the character as he or she develops, and I have to change it.

The name has to fit the character. But a child’s name is chosen by its parents, so the name must reflect their personalities too. Amaryllis Jacinta Marigold might be the perfect name for a spirited red haired heroine. But if her parents are supposed to be very staid, unimaginative people, wouldn’t Ann or Jane be more likely?

And as for some of the unsuitable names given to characters in historical fiction - that’s a whole other post!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Why the Tudors?

What is it about the Tudors that makes them so popular with writers of both fiction and non-fiction and makers of films and television programmes?

Yes, there were larger than life characters around in the Tudor era, but so there were in other centuries.

Yes, big and important events occurred, that had a lasting impact on the nation - but again, so they did in other centuries.

And yes, the dresses were pretty - but so they were at other times.

Why not a television series on the life and times of Cecily Neville?

A family saga on the grandest scale. Plenty of drama, several battles, and enough good meaty roles to employ a fair proportion of Equity.

Or what about the life and loves of Charles II

Lots of sex, as well as all the political stuff. And yes, the dresses were pretty.

I suppose eventually the fashion for all things Tudor will pass, and the headless females on the book covers will be wearing some other style of dress.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Victorian 'peasant boys' and the school leaving age

The final episode of Edwardian Farm this week. I’ve enjoyed it as much as, if not more than, Victorian Farm.

One thing that’s been made clear is the very high level of skill required of farm workers in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Someone attempting to acquire these skills in adulthood, as Alex, Peter and Ruth were, would find it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a high level of proficiency.

The programmes have made me rethink some of our assumptions about Victorian attitudes to social questions. For example, education.

Rev. James Fraser, giving evidence to the Newcastle Commission on Education, set up in 1858, said:

'Even if it were possible, I doubt whether it would be desirable, with a view to the real interests of the peasant boy, to keep him at school until he was 14 or 15 years of age.  But it is not possible. We must make up our minds to see the last of him, as far as day school is concerned, at 10 or 11. We must frame our system of education upon this hypothesis.'

Our immediate 21st century reaction is to say that of course it’s ’desirable’ to keep ‘peasant boys’ (a very outdated term, even in the 19th century) at school beyond the age of ten or eleven. Of course it would be in their interests. Mr Fraser‘s remarks, and other similar comments, suggest to us that country children were not thought worth educating.

But I wonder if we are perhaps misinterpreting them. It’s perhaps not that they didn’t consider schooling worthwhile for country boys and girls. Mr Fraser’s ‘as far as day school is concerned’ suggests that he did think the boy might continue his education at evening school or Sunday school.

Perhaps the Victorians considered other types of learning as important as, or more important than, ’book learning’. The Victorian country boy who left school at ten or eleven would start to learn the skills of a waggoner or a ploughman or a shepherd or a cow man. These skills took years to acquire. So too did the crafts such as lacemaking practised by girls and women. It was commonly believed that boys who had not begun to work on the farm by the age of ten or twelve would never ‘thoroughly learn their business’.

Agriculture was still the single biggest employer in the mid Victorian period. It produced the food essential to feed the populations of the fast growing towns and cities. Ensuring a supply of skilled labour was important.

The Victorians might perhaps have undervalued the benefits of formal schooling for some children. But we perhaps undervalue the things those children were learning instead of going to school.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Shotgun wedding, seventeenth century style?

Application for a marriage licence:

Pettyt, John, of Graveney, husbandman, and Margaret Martin, same parish, spinster. At same.

Before this licence was granted, the said Margaret appeared and alleged that whereas Peter Keyne of Graveney, husbandman, hath heeretofore obteyned a license to marry with her, truth yt is that she was never contracted in matrimony unto the said Peter, but longe before … she … was contracted in marriage unto John Pettyt, whose fathers maid servant she was, and by him, the said John, begotten with child wherewith she is now great; and upon some agreement made between the said John Pettyt and Peter Keyne (to salve the said John Pettyt’s credit) viz. for the som of ten pounds, the said Keyne undertook to marry with her the said Margaret, which she utterly disliked and yett disliketh; and now at the length hath persuaded the said John Pettyt (god soe putting yt into his mynde) to be as good as his word, and to marry her.’ April 1 1612
J.M. Cowper (ed.) Canterbury Diocese Marriage Licences Volume 1 1568-1618

John Pettyt was a husbandman, a farmer, so this is not a case of the serving maid being seduced by the young gentleman. Margaret might be from a very similar background to John.

Margaret is to be admired for insisting that John Pettyt kept his word and married her, but how successful would the marriage have been, given that each of them must have felt resentment towards the other?

And what about Peter Keyne? Ten pounds might have seemed like a nice lump sum to have in his hand, when a day’s wages was about 1s 2d-1s 6d, but in the long term would it really be sufficient incentive to get married and take on another man’s child as his own? Unless he really did want to marry Margaret. If that was the case, one has to feel a little sorry for him.

One has to wonder how often agreements such as John Pettyt's with Peter Keyne were actually carried through, and in consequence present day family historians end up tracing a completely wrong line of descent.

The fact that a licence was applied for doesn't mean that the marriage actually took place. It would be interesting to discover, if possible, whether John and Margaret did get married and what happened to them subsequently.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Well, of course she did!

Prof. Kathryn Sutherland of the University of Oxford has been working on a project to digitise and make available online the surviving manuscripts of Jane Austen's novels.

According to Prof. Sutherland, Jane Austen had a regional accent, ‘She wrote "tomatoes" as "tomatas" and "arraroot" for "arrowroot" - peculiarities of spelling that reflect Austen's regional accent …. In some of her writing, her Hampshire accent is very strong. She had an Archers-like voice with a definite Hampshire burr.’

 Well, of course she had a regional accent. Everyone must have had a regional accent, back then. There was no BBC around two hundred years ago to show people how they were ‘supposed’ to speak. Other than, perhaps, the Welsh or Scottish accents of transient drovers or harvest workers, most people outside London and other big cities would only hear speech similar to their own.

Fifty years before Jane Austen was born, Daniel Defoe wrote of Somerset ‘when we are come this length from London, the dialect of the English tongue, or the country way of expressing themselves, is not easily understood, it is so strangely altered. It is true, that it is so in many parts of England besides, but in none in so gross a degree as in this part.… Tho' the tongue be all meer natural English, yet those that are but a little acquainted with  them, cannot understand one half of what they say.’

Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) spoke with a Lancashire accent, despite having been educated at Harrow and Oxford.

So Miss Deborah and Miss Matty probably did not sound like Dame Eileen and Dame Judi. Jane Eyre probably had a Yorkshire accent (her creator apparently had an Irish accent, picked up from her Irish father). And historical novelists should not necessarily imagine that anyone who wasn’t a servant or a labourer spoke standard BBC English.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Isn't it all creative?

Someone asked me recently if I 'did creative writing'. I know she knows I've done academic, non-fiction writing, so I assumed that by 'creative writing' she meant fiction.

But isn't all writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, creative? Whether it's a novel, a scholarly article, a letter or a shopping list, the person who wrote it created something that didn't exist before. A novelist creates characters and situations, but a non-fiction writer creates ideas and interpretations.

Universities and other education providers call their courses  'Creative Writing'. But if I were ever to teach a course for writers, I think I'd find a different name for it. 

Monday, 10 January 2011

The London Underground is born

On this day, 10 January, in 1863, the Metropolitan Railway, the first part of the London Underground, and the worlds first underground railway, was opened to passenger traffic. The line (which is now part of the Hammersmith and City Line) ran for three and three quarter miles from Farringdon to Paddington.

‘Many prophets started with the positive assurance that it would be a failure; that it would never be commenced, or if commenced, never finished; that London would be undermined, blown up, or collapse on each side of the tunnelling.’

Nevertheless the work was completed, at a cost of around £1.5m, despite ‘immense difficulties, of shifting grounds, swelling clay, falling houses, bursting drains, and continued incursions of the Fleet Ditch.’

At least 25,000 people travelled on the line on its first day of operation. Such was the demand that at Kings Cross the sale of tickets to eastbound passengers was suspended for an hour or more around midday, as the trains coming from Paddington were full to capacity.

The intention was that the Metropolitan Railway would eventually link the London, Chatham & Dover (then under contsruction), the Great Western and the Great Northern railways.
It will afford a direct and expeditious means of conveyance for the enormous traffic between the east and west ends of London,’ said The Times. ‘If the traffic of our main thoroughfares continued to increase as it has done for the last few years locomotion would, without some relief, become impracticable. The time has come when some means were absolutely required for removing a great part of the traffic entirely from the streets, and that great object will, we hope, be secured by the opening of the Metropolitan Railway.

As well as reducing congestion on the roads, the Underground, and other forms of public transport, played an important part in easing overcrowding in inner London. Large numbers of people could now be moved quickly over long distances. Men and women no longer had to live within walking distance of their workplaces. The Tube, railways and electric trams stimulated suburban development, and the cheap ‘workman’s ticket’ brought suburban life, and healthier, less crowded living conditions within the reach of the less well off white collar workers and the skilled working classes.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Speaking of Fukuyama -

- which I was in my previous post; when I was checking to see what he actually said about the end of history, I found this. Fukuyama says, of his initial article on the subject, ‘I argued that a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism.’

Excuse me? Hereditary monarchy is not an 'ideology' to be mentioned in the same breath as fascism and communism as something that needs to be  ‘conquered', and is not a 'rival' to liberal democracy. The two can coexist quite happily,
thank you. 

Saturday, 8 January 2011

When does history end?

When does a novel cease to be historical, and become contemporary? The Historical Novel Society defines historical fiction as novels 'written at least fifty years after the events described, or written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events.'

In 1930, Sellar and Yeatman said that history ended in 1918 when America became Top Nation and history came to a.

More recently, Francis Fukuyama suggested that history ended with the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989.

My personal definition is that history is events that are not within the  memory of the person who is reading or writing about them, or studying them. But as a lecturer in adult education, I sometimes find myself teaching subjects that are history to me, but that some of my students lived through.

Conversely, the Cold War is part of the history curriculum in English schools. No-one now of school age was alive at the time of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. But for many who teach the subject,  the Cold War was central to their view of world affairs in their childhood and early adulthood. Few, if any, of the post-war generation expected the Wall to come down in their lifetimes. 

Yet the Berlin Wall existed for just 28 years. It is barely a blip in the whole history of Europe. It will probably hardly rate a mention in the history books of the future.

There’s an important point here for historians, and especially for writers of historical fiction. We lump together several centuries and call them ‘the Anglo Saxon period’ or ‘the Middle Ages.’ But these are not homogeneous periods, any more than the twentieth century was. Change was slower in the past, but it happened. A seventy year old, in any century, will not have the same life experiences, or the same perceptions of his or her world, as a twenty year old. And events which may have had a major impact on the lives of people in the past may barely be mentioned in the history books.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

To Prologue or not to Prologue?

Am I the only person who skips prologues in novels? I’ve never really understood what they were for. There’s usually nothing in them that’s essential to understanding the plot, and I just want to get on to the real beginning of the story.

Recently, though, I’ve been experimenting with adding a prologue to the novel I’m working on. There’s quite a bit of moving around between different time periods in this novel (though it isn’t time travel or time slip) and the prologue establishes characters that aren’t part of the main, contemporary, narrative. It also (I hope) creates a greater sense of drama and mystery than the first chapter, which is when the story begins for the main characters. But it still would be possible to follow the story without reading the prologue. I don’t know, I might end up taking it out again.

Among today’s birthdays - King Richard II, born 1367, and Gustave DorĂ©, born 1832. Yes, DorĂ© was French, but he’s relevant because of his illustrations for London: A Pilgrimage, 1872. This is ‘Over London by Rail’. Search Google Images to see more.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The continuous history of England begins in 455 AD, when the first of the English kingdoms was founded. The history of English as a written language, and of English law, begin in about 600 AD. The English language and English legal system have gone on to have a worldwide impact.

Of course the histories of the other nations of the United Kingdom are worth studying. But I don't know enough to do them justice, so I'll leave them for people who are more expert in those areas than I am.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

I'm English, and I'm a historian. My area of interest is the history of England. Hence the title of this blog.

There are blogs and forums and websites dedicated to British history, and to particular eras and subjects within English and British history. These are a few of them:

Regia Anglorum is primarily a re-enactment group. Their site has a very large collection of articles on Anglo Saxon England and related topics.

A Web of English History, despite its name,  focuses on British political history from 1760 to 1850.

The Victorian Web  covers many aspects of life in Victorian Britain.

However, there seems to be a shortage of places specifically for discussion of the history of England as a whole. So that's what I plan to do here.

I'm also a writer,  so I'll be posting about writing, too.

Thanks for reading so far. I hope you'll come back, and add a comment on any topic that catches your attention.