I have a theory.
(It’s probably rubbish, but I thought I’d take it out for a spin…)
It’s about history and how, over time, historians and/or authors of historical fiction, develop a specialism. (Some might call it a mania.)
I think it has to do with having an affinity with a certain era. With understanding instinctively how they thought and felt. With ‘getting it.’
It’s to do with reading a novel or a work from that era or that country and just naturally getting the jokes and appreciating their perceptions without needing to question it. And it just is. It’s not something that one does anything to create or even foster.
Now despite the fact that there are those who believe I know everything about history and am a walking encyclopaedia… (This by the way is not true and as proof I’ll tell you plainly, I know nothing about alchemy at the court of James VI of Scotland…) Or that I have a brain the size of a planet and whatever it is, the truth is I cannot abide the Victorians.
I cannot even look upon the word Victorian without a feeling like I’m gazing upon this vast boiled suet pudding (I’m thinking Spotted Dick or Boiled Baby here) and knowing I’m going to have to eat a bowlful of the stuff, which will then sit, flaccid and leaden in my stomach for the better part of the next fortnight.
(Balump, balump, baaah-lump as I trot round the dressage ring.)
And although I know there are many fine historians and authors writing many superb books about things that occurred between the years of 1837-1901, I can’t help myself. The thought that I might have to read them (spend thought-time in the company of all those Victorian men and their bizarre sexual hang-ups and their equally bizarre side-whiskers) sends me heading for the hills while I plan an anti-stodge diet of fresh fruit, yoghurt and muesli…
Now the reason I mention all of this is that I awoke last night in the middle of a dream about the theatre. And not just any theatre. A theatre during the Regency–as in specifically a performance given on Boxing Day 1810. Even more specifically about the first and foremost and greatest of all clowns, Joe Grimaldi, whom, as it happens I had been writing about for another blog post on another site.
What was curious about this is that I had been dreaming that I was in the audience during this absolutely brilliant mock fight between Grimaldi and a man made of vegetables…It was utterly real to me. About me the crowd were roaring with laughter, Grimaldi was trying to punch the veggie-man with huge turnips which he was wearing as boxing gloves and in the end, being defeated and running all over the stage–pursued by, well, vegetables. Which is what actually happened.
But the point is and that which got me thinking about this is why this dream? I’ve never been a huge fan of clowns really. I’d rather study paint samples or watch slugs eat my delphiniums.
And why this period?
Yes, yes, absolutely I know more about early 19th century European history than other periods–I’m a specialist in it or whatever they call it these days.
But why has this period of history always ‘made sense’ to me? Why don’t I have to stretch to understand how they perceived their world? Why do I take such delight in them to the exclusion of others?
(I can’t stand their version of radicalism and if I ever meet that otiose gabble-grinder, John Cam Hobhouse, I’m going to punch his daylights out…though I suspect there’s a bit of a queue.)
And why do I feel their pains and the traumas of that First Great War (1792-1815) so intimately, as if it had only happened yesterday and to my dearest friends?
I don’t know. Except I do honestly believe that there’s a natural affinity there. An affinity which I did nothing to create. Nevertheless, an affinity which allows me to perceive their world almost as from within…
I’m told I write as though I’m in the room with them. I can’t tell you if this is true. I don’t know.
All I know is that when I do write of the early 19th century, I see in my mind’s eye their world. As if it were a painting or a film and I’m there. I smell it too. And taste the grit of it between my teeth as well.
I do, of course, know the difference between then and now.
Though I don’t always have control over which world I’m in in my mind, any more than I can control the music that plays constantly in my head. (It’s Missa Praeter rerum serieum by Cipriano de Rore at the moment, interwoven with a thing by Ludovico Einaudi for maximum confusion–for those of you who like to know these things…)
But the thing is, I know other authors have this kind of affinity too. They just ‘get it’. And when one reads their histories or novels, it’s crystal. They don’t know a separation of time and/or space between them and whomever they’re writing about. It’s as vivid and tangible to them as what’s outside their front doors.
Curious, isn’t it? Still, maybe it goes some way to explaining some of the great historical fiction that’s being produced today. And that faraway look in the eyes of the authors…