The present is another country: N M Browne

I am currently working on an historical novel set in England in the mid sixth century. I have written
historical novels before - sort of. My Warriors series: Warriors of Alavna, Warriors of Camlann, Warriors of Ethandun’ and the stand alone ‘Wolfblood,’ were all set between the first and ninth centuries. I have always done my research  but, as these books have always included fantastical elements, my brain has allowed me a little wriggle room with the facts. I still angsted over the kind of sword that would have been available to my protagonists but permitted magic, and metamorphosis and, yep, I admit it, I’ve made a lot of things up.
 This time it is different. This is history not fantasy and I am in dire need of magic. This England is  a muddled kind of period, or at least I’m muddled about it.  
  It has been enormously helpful to hear Hilary Mantel reflect on the writing of history in her Reith Lectures. They are brilliant if you haven’t caught them yet.  She points out  that ‘Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past - it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.’ Wise words indeed, especially for a period when the record is relatively small and contradictory.  Like all writers, my job is to get to the place where the facts, what we know about the time, disappear into an understanding of what it is like to be a particular person at a particular moment, but it is hard. The written word and the archeological record speak of different worlds. I cannot hold the contradictions in my head. I am struggling to reimagine a world that makes sense to me. Each book I read is like a biopsy of a different organ and it does not seem to belong to the same body. 
  At Sutton Hoo, I see the incredible artefacts produced by craftsman of enormous skill which utilise an elaborate iconography. I picture a complex hierarchical culture, in which trade with the continent still features, the pagan gods of Woden and Thunor still dominate, in which men feast in meadhalls and die glorious deaths on the battle field. I imagine Beowulf. As Hilary Mantel  says ‘We hear the facts, and our brains print the legend.’ 
   Then I discover the evidence of extreme poverty and malnutrition found in other burials from the same period. They indicate a very high maternal death rate, which suggests a large number of orphaned children and a lack of mothers and grandmothers. The drainage systems of the Romans are not maintained, agricultural yields were likely to be poor and in many places only the most basic kind of housebuilding occurred. I read extracts from Gildas, a sixth century Christian monk, existing within an apparently well established church hierarchy and once more I am lost. How can all these snapshots of a time suggest such radically different life experiences?
  And then  the horror of Grenfell Tower occurs and shows us all how extreme and atomised our own time is. How extreme wealth and desperate poverty live side beside, but inhabit different worlds, how neighbours eat different food, use different artefacts, believe different things and have such different life experiences that their inequalities would show up in their bones, their teeth, their age at death. How would some future writer imaginatively accommodate what might be found in the archeological record of Grenfell with what might survive from the homes of the super rich living almost next door? 
Our present is contradictory, complex, impossible to grasp, and so, inevitably, is our past. 
 It doesn’t help me much, but then no one said writing was easy.



JO said…
I know exactly what you mean. My novel. The Planter's Daughter, was about a woman who emigrated from Ireland during the famine in the nineteenth century. She wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms. And - at the same time - thousands of refugees and migrants are coming to Europe, met (often) with comparable unkindness. I only wish more people read history (however we construct it) and learn - maybe we wouldn't repeat the same mistakes over and over.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Fascinating post. I agree, the same need and greed can be seen through every generation. History does, in fact, repeat itself
Bill Kirton said…
Absolutely fascinating. The frustrations I felt when writing 2 novels set in Scotland in the 1840s which, relative to the periods you're speaking of, is a pretty accessible and well documented period, shrink when set alongside the amount of informed guesswork you face. When I needed to get the feel of the place again, I could walk down streets that were being built then, see the actual houses in which my characters lived, read the journals they read. I hope your compensation for that is that the satisfaction when you overcome the difficulties you face is correspondingly that much greater than mine.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for letting us ride a while on your magical mystery tour of that other England. I know the feeling - part being lost, part being enchanted. I wandered through magical and bloody late 16th-century Denmark and northern Europe with my protagonist, Ophelia Rising for well over a year - through volumes of history and contemporary writings. I shudder - both in awe and dread - at the prospect of going back there when I get around to writing that sequel I keep planning. Good luck with your project!

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