Friday, 7 October 2011

How does a card carrying history hater write two historical novels?

When I was a kid, I hated history. No, that's not quite right; I loathed it, I despised it.

So how come here I am, 20 years since my last history lesson, having just written two historical novels? (Northern Light and one still in the editing stage).

That's quite a transformation!

The problem I had with history was that my lessons focused on names, dates and places. As a dyslexic, these things are my idea of hell. It took me over two years to learn my mobile phone number. I have a brother called Paul, an uncle called Paul and an ex-boyfriend called Paul. When I met my last boyfriend for the second time, do you think I could remember that his name was Paul?

In short, history lessons were my own personal hell and aged 14 I was quite happy to give the subject up without a backwards glance. Tarred with the same brush, I also avoided historical TV dramas, documentaries and novels.

How did this change? Well I was living in Spain at the time, I had no English TV, no computer at home and I'd run out of books to read and so in desperation, I picked up a historical romance by Audrey Howard. I was enthralled and read it in one sitting. Gradually I came to the realisation that history wasn't about names, dates and places, or at least not only about that; it was also about experiences and that was what I found so interesting, reading about what day to day life was like for people back then.

Since then I have read many historical novels, some by modern authors like Howard, some classics like Elizabeth Gaskell and just about everything Jane Austin has written. Some were better than others, of course.

Sometimes when I had read about or seen something that interested me, I'd educate myself further on that subject. Yes, you read that right, I voluntarily learned about history! After watching the adaptation of North and South, for example, I looked up the Great Exhibition and from there went on to learn about the Crystal Palace. It's all fascinating stuff, providing a glimpse into a world that is both beautiful and barbaric.

Of course, when I embarked on Northern Light, I had a lot more than just light reading to do. I had Gaskells original novel to draw from, of course, but there were many things missing from that book that today's readers (not to mention me) would expect from a modern book.

For example, the details about Mr Thornton's Mill were sketchy to say the least; and let's be fair here, what middle class woman in the 1850's would know about cotton mills? So I looked into the machinery, the individual jobs and the process of turning cotton bolls into thread and fabric. The wages were also glossed over in North and South, so I looked into not only cotton mill wages but wages for lawyers, doctors, clergymen, clerks etc, so that I could have an understanding of what exactly was a fair wage for manual labour was and how that compared with the various social classes.

Not all of that information made it into the book of course. Did you know, for example, that there are 14 different species of cotton plant? No, but then while mildly interesting in an abstract sense, it's not exactly going to keep you turning the page!

Then of course, came the tricky part of my research, the minefield that is Victorian etiquette! Not only are there a thousand and one do's and don'ts, the Victorian era spanned 64 years, during which time some standards changed drastically.

For example, many people will tell you that Victorian widows spent the rest of their lives wearing black and it was considered unseemly for a woman to remarry. Which is true... after 1861 when Prince Albert died. Following the example of their Queen, who mourned for her husband for the rest of her reign and practically withdrew from public life, it became very unseemly for a lady to remarry.

Prior to 1961 though, mourning periods were dictated more by the rules of the Georgian era when it was normal for a woman to be in mourning for around one year. At six months she could enter half mourning, when she could wear lilac shades; then at a year she was free to return to her regular wardrobe if she wanted to, free from censure.

With North and South and Northern Light being set in the 1850's it was clearly the latter rules that I had to follow when dealing with mourning, even though most people would attribute the first set of rules to the Victorian era.

As as if the strict rules of etiquette weren't enough to make my head spin, I then had to enter an even more sensitive area, Victorian morals. If you believe everything you read there were no public displays of affection and married couples sleept in separate rooms. In fact, the Victorians seem like such a puritanical and prudish bunch that quite honestly, it's amazing that anyone ever reproduced!

It's probably worth mentioning here that Victorian morality stemmed from Queen Victoria herself. When the monarchy was finally restored after the civil wars, especially in the Georgian era, they were noted for their hedonism and debauchery. It is thought likely that Victoria's strict moral code was a reaction to what she saw in her youth and that as Queen, her moral code filtered down to and was adopted by the rest of society.

But of course, one must always remember that with things like etiquette books, they were generally written by upper middle class women who were generally not very worldly and tend to say how things should be (or how they would like them to be) not necessarily how things actually were. Which is not to say that men and women were constantly all over each other with public displays of affection, but there are enough tales of unwed mothers and shotgun weddings to belie this outwardly prudish appearance.

Not to mention a very interesting array of artefacts from this time which prove that while frowned upon and certainly not easily available, contraception was around. Examples include condoms (usually made form animal intestines and secured with a ribbon at the base) sea sponges soaked in vinegar, quinine or olive oil which were thought to act as spermicide, vaginal douches and even diaphragms (usually called rubber pessaries). Then of course there was the withdrawal method and the rhythm method (although that could be very ineffective, depending on which school of thought you followed on when a woman was most fertile).

In Northern Light I mention birth control in a very round about way but out of respect for Victorian sensibilities, I'll leave my readers decide which method John and Margaret used!

The difference in birth rates between the working classes and upper classes makes it clear that contraception was usually something only available to either the wealthy or the educated, though probably a combination of both factors.

However, despite the above, it must also be remembered that some words that are perfectly normal today were positively obscene in the 1800's. Pregnant, for example, a perfectly harmless adjective today, was not a word one would ever speak back then! I confess, I missed that one and it was something picked up upon by my editor. I still find it hard to believe pregnant was ever considered obscene, but alas she is right and I was wrong. The word still appears in my narrative since I am writing for a modern day readership and to be frank, there are only so many euphemisms for pregnancy and I was getting slightly tired of calling it 'with child'! However in keeping with the time period, none of the characters utter the word.

As you've probably gathered by now, I have become something of a history nut! These days I find it fascinating, all the nuances and differences, though I confess that my favourite period in history is probably from the industrial age onwards.

I suppose if there's one lesson I wanted anyone to take away from this blog, it's that history is not what your school made it seem. History isn't about facts, history is about people. People pressing for change, people inventing new things, people falling in love, people dying, people cheating and people struggling to survive in a harsh world.

I've been asked in the past, would I ever want to go back in time and my answer has always been very definitive. Yes... but ONLY if I was wealthy!

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1 comment:

  1. Lovely reading this! And I totally agree: history is about people!