Getting It Right…

Over the past couple of days I have had the immense pleasure of sitting in the audience at the inaugural talks of the Chalke Valley History Festival (, where–on Thursday evening–I heard Andrew Lambert and Peter Snow talking about Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

And may I say that Professor Lambert was every bit as superb, as precise, informative and thoughtful as I remembered from his lectures during the conferences leading up to the bicentenary of Trafalgar.

Today, I had the privilege of hearing Katie Hickman, Katharine McMahon, Simon Scarrow and Guy Walters discussing Fact and Fiction–all about historical fiction writing.  Which I found immensely helpful too.

All had found themselves carried off by research which had led not where they thought they were going.  Ha ha.  All had found it necessary to leave some of their favourite discoveries out.  All were passionate about history and historical fiction.  (As was the audience!)  And all mentioned the difficulties of conveying the past without getting bogged down in concepts that contemporary readers may find difficult–religion being one. 

Simon Scarrow also told a very funny story about Roman obscenities which he had not been allowed to use in his novels.  (And no, I won’t repeat what he said.  You’re all too young to hear that kind of language!)

But every bit as fascinating–and this did come as a surprise to me because I’m not much of a 20th century buff–was the afternoon’s discussion on The English at Home with Amanda Vickery, Juliet Gardiner and Juliet Nicolson.

Many will recognise Amanda Vickery’s name from her BBC2 series, At Home with the Georgians, and she was the magnet which drew me in the first instance

Her work has turned on its head so many of our notions about women and the home in a pre-Victorian era–particularly the Victorian projection of the woman as the weaker vessel or child-woman, confined to her rooms or her bed with perpetual ill-health, uneducated because her brain might explode with learning, essentially useless and unable to cope with life.

Vickery’s work has uncovered a veritable army of well-educated, supremely competent, hard-working women, savvy at holding house and farm and estate, and not just expected to cope with the challenges of life, but to flourish.

But Juliet Nicolson spoke most movingly too about the First World War–about how here was this nation in grief, this nation which had lost so many sons, fathers, husbands and yet there had been no outward signs of death.  The bodies of those killed had not been repatriated.  There were no full cemeteries.  There had been no funerals, with or without military honours.  Nothing.  And it had been a clergyman who had come up with the idea of burying an unknown soldier–he didn’t know what a fine idea it was at the time–and how it had provided a channel, if you will, for the grief and sense of loss to be expressed.  At last.

It quite took me aback.  And I believe I was not the only one.

Subsequently, I found myself speaking with all three authors and found myself asking Vickery about a difficulty I’ve encountered here and there, which is this:  how often has she found herself at odds with say someone who loves Jane Austen’s work, because her research and findings differ from how Austen described various domestic situations?

Vickery laughed and admitted, “all the time”, adding that such disagreements could happen anywhere.  At which point, Juliet Gardiner piped up that it was even worse if you wrote about the 20th century, as she did.  They were both quite cheerful about it too.  Which I found most reassuring.

Because, to me, one of the great things about Vickery’s BBC2 series and recent book, At Home in Georgian England, was that I discovered that I had got it right.  That those elements and situations which I had extrapolated when I was writing May 1812 (basing my conclusions both on her previous book, The Gentleman’s Daughter, and other research) were right.

(Despite the occasional mouthful of criticism that it couldn’t possibly have been like that!)

So, in all, a perfect few days.  Superlative, informed historians and writers talking about what they do, what they have learned and what they love, surrounded by the rising hills of the Chalke Valley…

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