“Chop, chop…” said the Carpenter to the Oak Tree – How do Authors use Heritage?

I wasn’t old enough to watch the television adaptations of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series when it first aired on ITV between 1993 and 1997. I was only really just aware of the later additions to the pantheon in the early 2000s. It was actually a University that one discovered the series, via an impulse purchase from HMV after a particularly heavy night of drinking. One needed something simple to watch, to fill the silent void left by Rum, bad decisions and a kebab that had somehow left it’s scent on the bedclothes. Purchasing a boxset of all of the Sharpe episodes felt like a natural action for an Historian. How right I was. How quickly one fell in love, with the uniforms, the sound of cannons and Sean Bean’s beautifully crafted rough Yorkshireman and his remarkable ability to make the word “Bastard!” rattle windows and the soul of the watcher. Eventually, after creating a drinking game, looking into what we shamefully called “Sharpe at Sea” – Hornblower… – I began to read the source material. I found a complex and well researched narrative, rich with reference and smothered in adventure. It wasn’t the first time i’d read Historical fiction, far from it but it was a turning point. Now as I get more and more involved in the narrative of our shared heritage, discovering what individuals and groups consider to the most important aspects of the meta narrative and equally how we “Get in to History” – That’s not a subject for one blog post believe me, I have an entire post just about how I found History and Heritage, let alone those who I know, love and talked to. It is of Historical fiction that we now turn our eye.

*A note of appreciation to all those who have contributed to my slim research for this post. Twitter has allowed me to connect with some of the most remarkable people and there words are featured below, with respect and thanks.

With Historical fiction we have a multiple routes of access. Is it the style of the Author? Well that is incredibly important, this Author has opened books and despite a claim that he never leaves a book unfinished, there are books that technically are unfinished, mainly because despite the interest in the subject or the idea of the book’s overall narrative, the eyes cannot make the brain comprehend bad writing… I have just noted as well that the subject is sometimes the lure. I work in a building formerly occupied by Oliver Cromwell so of course I have an interest in any fiction around his life and times, equally I am a Victorian Historian when it comes down to it so my love of that era in both contemporary fiction and modern fiction is a big lure. These facts are not, however, the subject of this particular post – I’m not a book-blogger, that’s the realm of friends of mine and the many other excellent bloggers out there. I’m here to consider HOW author’s of Historical Fiction use history. Where better to start than with an Author?

I reached out to a number of Authors via Twitter and many responded. The first was L J Trafford, who writes on a subject of which my understanding and awareness extends to when I studied the Roman Empire during my Primary School education. For L J Trafford however, it is an all encompassing subject matter but like all good Historians, they have reached in to a particular area and focused on it; specifically the year 68 to 69ad – described as the Year of 4 Emperors. A small amount of background information is as follows – “The Roman emperor Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  During his rule, he was disdained by his people because of his vanity and inadequacies as leader.  He had one wife executed and he murdered another with a fatal kick.  All this resulted in a great conspiracy against him and he was forced to commit suicide on June 9, AD 68.  What followed was a year of chaos as four different men of high social standing declared themselves emperor, each with his own army of loyal supporters.  They clashed until only one remained, a man who would become the head of a new dynasty.” – It almost begs to be turned into Fiction!

L J Trafford says of the subject – “I write about 68/69 ad The Year of the 4 emperors so it’s pretty dramatic stuff to write a book about. I also wanted for myself to understand the machinations and swirling alliances of the era. I like writing Romans because they have a very different morality, views and lives to us and I find that interesting to explore.” – It is perhaps the last line that interests this Author the most – I like writing Romans because they have a very different morality, views and lives to us and I find that interesting to explore. – This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of why Historical Fiction is so important – with fiction, with the lure of escapism, we can drift off into a different world – one inhabited by goblins, elves and dragons or one where an event has changed our own accepted narrative – post-apocalyptic or steampunk perhaps. with Historical fiction alas we don’t have that – it is our history and it is real – Perhaps we can recreate that though? The Past is a Different Country…. We can perhaps look back with such an amount of removal from the subject and the ways and practises…. That is perhaps the fiction that we find – “It is so different to now, it’s almost unreal…”

It is on the note of escapism that we must continue. The next author I spoke with happens to be someone I know, alas not extensively, in reality and beyond Twitter or Facebook. His name is Jemahl Evans and the main reason we spoke was entirely built on a monetary footing – Not only did and does Jemahl use Heritage and History in his works, set in the 17th Century, but he directly referenced my beloved Oliver Cromwell’s House! “An old vicarage with a leaky roof….” is a badly worded quote from “This Deceitful  Light” which is the second in his Blandford Candy which is a fabulous romp, worth your time! I asked Jemahl to launch his book at Oliver’s Old Vicarage (NB the day we spoke on the telephone, we had a torrential rain storm in Ely, the House leaked….) When I eventually met Jemahl, I discovered a warm and witty Welshman, and I knew when I began considering Historical fiction that I had to talk to him.

“I am not overly concerned with the process of historical change as an author, but I am fixated by the personal stories of the past no matter how biased, anecdotal or apocryphal. That is what really drives my reading and research. The Seventeenth Century is also not a period I have studied academically, and that was quite deliberate. I felt that retreading ground as an author that I researched for my degrees would only lead to me getting sidetracked by the ‘History’. It is fiction.”

The concept that takes some time to consider, in my opinion. Jemahl, to give extra context, to discuss how much he uses Primary resources, how his Kindle is packed full of contemporary histories. He also talks about the huge glut of research that is available and which has been used. Is it perhaps one of the greatest honours to Historians that many years on, an author uses their hard work to create a fictional text that can allow for the subject to be accessed by a much wider audience? Yes, I think it is. We are all to often assaulted by great and worthy historical texts that are written to be read by individuals who are academic and knowledge seekers, wishing to rehash a subject, an argument and a perception. (My Medieval Historian is a frequent single voice chorus of Revisionist history.) Alas, as much as this is hugely important, it can be intimidating to an individual who is seeking an understanding on many levels, but who have encountered a negative front from academics. Information and knowledge should be shared and Fiction allows that to happen. The works of authors such as Jemahl Evan and L J Trafford do just that. Long may they continue.

My final note, on History and Fiction, comes from an unexpected source. I have used two examples of Author’s using connection to some of the greatest era’s of global history, utilising information from Historians and evidence. The last point comes from Robert Rankin. Robert Rankin, the Father of Far Fetched Fiction, may seem like an unusual choice for a comment on the subject of Heritage and History but having read nearly all of his books, there is a constant theme. Brentford and it’s inhabitants, it’s buildings and it’s very soul are crafted in to something truly remarkable. When I approached Robert for a comment, I received this.

“I would say that I use my heritage and memories constantly, my fiction is built upon my fact, the things I have seen, experienced and love. Such really is the nature of my being. But, that said, surely it is the nature of everyone’s being.”

If nothing else can be taken from this rambling text, if nothing else can be gleaned from reading anything I’ve written here to date, I hope that the above can be crafted by better wordsmiths than me, comprehended by better minds than mine. In the above quote, we see the true spirit of Heritage. “My fiction is built upon my fact, the things I have seen, experienced and love. Such really is the nature of my being. But, that said, surely it is the nature of everyone’s being.” Our heritage should be deeply personal. It should sing to our souls and it should evoke thoughts and feelings, it should challenge us. Heritage is wide and wonderful and the concept of channelling it into a creative art form, be it writing, be it theatrical (NB that’s another blog post Dear Reader, as yet unwritten) or song (NB equally another unwritten blog post) should be supported. To allow us to understand our rich past, to allow us to become aware of our shared humanity, we need fictional characters and narratives, rooted in our past; be that the Roman Empire which is a concept far removed, a culture so disjointed in comparison to ours, or be it 1960’s Brighton viewed through the kaleidoscope of an Author’s personal inner eye, it should all be celebrated in equal measure for this is one of the easiest routes in to our shared Heritage.

Reading List

Jemahl Evans’ Blandford Candy Series – “The Last Roundhead”, “This Deceitful Light” and “Davenant’s Egg and Other Tales”

L J Trafford’s Four Emperors Series – “Palpatine”, “Galba’s Men” and “Otho’s Regret”

Robert Rankin’s back catalogue is extensive and wonderful – a personal favourite is “The Brightonomicon”