Yesterday, whilst rolling my eyes for the nth time over a tome I’m currently reading…
Can I just stop here?
You need to understand how badly this book is written.
We’re talking dessicated prose here. We’re talking genius of a historian who absolutely cannot write in plain English, who cannot say what he means with anything approaching engagement and relies on words like periphery and atomised and transhumance. These, I swear to you, are his favourite words.
To say that he has rendered a human story, a story of great tragedy, of loss of life and culture, of oppression and imperialism, bloodless doesn’t begin to tell you how dry this stuff is.
I read a passage or two out to a friend last night and after the initial shock, he collapsed into fits of laughter and said it reminded him of the stuff they write about music theory–where the writer clearly has forgot there’s any music involved.
That’s how bad it is.
Right. So where was I?
Oh, yes, this book.
Well, obviously, I’m reading the blighter as (no, not torture…) research. Because there’s a wealth of information to be found therein, though it is rather difficult to separate out the valuable from the excruciating pedantry. Still. It’s my job…
And when I’ve done, somehow…somehow, all or some of this information will synthesise into something which I trust will be interesting, fascinating, thrilling, engaging and human–otherwise known as the story for book three.
Which reminded me of a thing which occurred a few weeks ago.
I was at the Chalke Valley History Festival. And during the conversation between four historical fiction writers, one of them mentioned that she’d been giving a talk at Cambridge University recently and had been asked what she’d thought about Wolf Hall, the Booker-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, by Hilary Mantel.
She replied that she’d found it quite interesting, etc.
Whereupon it emerged that the dons all hated it. Loathed it. Despised it. And lots more besides.
There were historical inaccuracies found therein, you see. And how dare a novelist think that she could possibly speak for someone like Cromwell? How dare a novelist imagine that he or she could possibly understand what a 16th century churchman/courtier thought or felt like?
The ferocity of the reaction surprised this novelist. As did the academics’ undisguised contempt for historical fiction in general.
She then raised a point to the audience which I have been thinking for some years now–ever since I got a similar brush-off/mouthful from a, er, well, yes, it was a Cambridge don too.
She said she’d wished to say something along the lines of: “You should actually be thanking us. You should be thanking Mantel. Because without us, you wouldn’t have a next generation of students. We’re the people who engage people with the past. We’re keeping bums on your seats.”
And that’s exactly it.
The novels of Dorothy Dunnett and Hilary Mantel and Robert Low and Simon Scarrow and Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian and hosts of other historical fiction novelists are responsible for generations of people getting caught up in the drama, pageantry and disasters of the past.
Historical fiction writers take the works of academics–such as the book I am currently reading, which can only have been intended for other academics–and put the people, the characters, back. We put the colour back, we tell these breath-taking and brilliant stories, all set in the past. We keep it alive and vivid and real. And as a result, people get hooked on history.
And the young ones, many of them go on to university, go on to read…yes, history.
(It’s certainly how I got started down this path…)
(And now I shall go back to the tortured prose of a man–I’m sure he’s a delightful old fossil, really–who needs to get out even more than I do.)