Historical fiction, knowns and unknowns

Three herring gulls on a shingle beach

This year I’ve read more historical fiction than I thought. I’ve just looked back down my booklist and found that about 20% of 2021’s reading has been historical fiction; it’s just that there are a couple of historical fiction books that have stuck in my head for the wrong reasons and they’re crowding out the other, really well researched, well written, ones.

The third somehow manages to be both. Last night I sat up until midnight (well, 23:57 if we’re going to be pedantic, which I am) to finish The Heiress (Molly Greeley). Which, if you can get past the Britpicky Angliquibbling gripes that I’ll get to in a bit, I do recommend.

The problem with both The Quickening (Rhiannon Ward) and Turn Again To Life (A. Zukowski) was that they knew they were historical fiction. The characters didn’t live in their now; they lived in the author’s nineteen-twenties. We get lines like this:

A wonderful story, except the fairies were dressed in 1920s clothes, copied probably from a magazine.

At this point it’s 1925. Now, I might describe the dress I wore yesterday as ‘a bit eighties’ or the one I wore on Tuesday as ‘vaguely fifties’. I wouldn’t call the one I’m wearing today ‘2020s’, or even ‘twenty-tens’. I might say ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’, or just skip straight to calling it ‘a v-necked cotton jersey dress with a flared skirt’. And the reason for this is that I am living in the twenty-twenties. For me, it’s now.

In the case of Turn Again To Life, it was a case of too much research and insufficient mixing. One kept coming up against solid lumps of history: a summary of the suffrage movement plonked into the middle of a love letter, for example. I couldn’t decide whether the book needed to be twice as long or to have half as much plot, but either way it needed a better editor. A pity, because it had a really intriguing premise.

This was not at all a problem in The Heiress. This is a riff on Pride and Prejudice in which Anne de Bourgh’s invalid state is caused by involuntary laudanum addiction: a great premise, and one which is delivered on. It’s a peculiarly immersive book, and the immersion in Anne’s surreal mental landscape is a neat escape from having either to pastiche Austen or explain one’s more departure from her voice. Anne felt at once very human and very much of her time.

However, I got thrown out quite violently when she mentioned having read the Book of Common Prayer through several times and finding it ‘dull’. There are two problems with that. Firstly, I have never known anyone read the BCP cover to cover: that’s not what it’s for. The only scenario I can think of is someone who has nothing else to read: in which case it surely shouldn’t be as dull as not reading it.

The second is this: it isn’t dull. Parts of it are, yes, and if you’re reading the Calendar and the General Rubricks straight through then you deserve everything you get. But there’s an awful lot more in there, and the author just didn’t seem to know about it. One wouldn’t even need to have an unequivocally positive view of it. One could be horrified by the Commination or perplexed by the Athanasian Creed just as well as charmed by Psalm 19. Anne’s aunt dies giving birth, and yet the pain and peril of child-birth doesn’t come to mind. The Book of Common Prayer (she always calls it that, not the Prayer Book) just doesn’t live in Anne’s head the way you’d expect it to if she’d read it several times. And yet she reads The Seasons and suddenly discovers the joy of words.

It was at this point I nearly DNFed. It felt very much as if it was heading straight for Not Like Other Girls Anachronistic Atheist Feminist territory. (It didn’t get there.)

And all that made me a lot less inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt when Brighton beach was sandy and when they came back from Brighton it was snowing. The snow is just about possible. The sand… well, see the picture at the top. That was Brighton in June 2016. There will have been some geological upheaval, but still…

The problem here is not so much the historical research as the geographical research. And that’s social geography, religious geography, as well as physical geography. I know the landscape that Greeley is trying to write in, and every mistake jars. Not, admittedly, as much as that Alyssa Cole book where the hero turns out to be the Duke of Edinburgh (now that’s something you really should look up before you start writing), but it jars.

Fortunately, things got a lot better after that, and I got to the end with only a couple of hiccups: wondering when the word ‘orange’ was used to describe the colour (the 16th century apparently, so that’s a pass) and thinking that it’s slightly odd to talk about Kent being ‘only forty miles away from London’. I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at those if I hadn’t been so annoyed about the BCP thing. And everything else about it really was very good. The depiction of addiction and coercion, the challenges of entering society a decade late and massively underprepared, the convincing depiction of a same-sex relationship in that particular context, the physicality… I do recommend it. But.

All this gives me much to think about as I embark on long-form historical fiction for the first time. Can my Yorkshire Quaker shop steward call his much younger boss ‘thou’ in 1919? (Actually, he probably would, and get away with it, but I can’t have him doing it, because it will throw the reader out for as long as it takes them to wonder the same thing – which might be all the rest of the book.) I was going to send my main characters to Hastings on honeymoon, but it turns out there was a blooming great U-boat cluttering up the beach all that summer. Which I think might be a bit too, er, metaphorical. I think I’ll send them a mile or so down the coast to repent at St Leonards instead.

Briarley (Aster Glenn Gray)

Paperback copy of 'Briarley' by Aster Glenn Gray, in a rosebush.

The books that I add to my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations don’t usually get their own posts, but this one felt almost as if it was written especially for me. Which is not something that I thought I’d ever say about a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but here we are. (Nothing against fairy tale retellings; it’s just that I haven’t happened to read one since rereading Adèle Géras’ Egerton Hall series, over a decade ago now. I shouldn’t have got rid of my copy. Actually, it occurs to me now that The Tower Room is what introduced me to St John of the Cross, so perhaps there’s a connection after all.)

Anyway, it’s 1940, the father is a country parson and Great War veteran, the daughter is a nurse, and the beast is a dragon. The parson (his name is Edward Harper, but the narrative mostly calls him ‘the parson’) does the rose-stealing thing, but refuses to let the dragon abduct his daughter, on the grounds that a) she has her war work to be doing; b) it’s wrong to punish the daughter for the father’s misdeeds; c) if the dragon needs to be freed from his enchantment by the power of love then it’s the parson’s Christian duty; d) 1 Corinthians 13.

That’s not how you learn to love, not at all. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it does not kidnap –

One thing that I’d forgotten in all my years of not really reading retellings was that what’s interesting is not what the story does, it’s how it does it. It’s the setting; it’s the twists; it’s the characterisation. We all know where we’re going, but the journey might be surprising. In this case it was a very good surprise.

The portrayal of wartime rural England wasn’t bad at all; the enchanted house stuff was all in line with the fairy tale. More to the point, from my point of view, was that there was a real sense of theological literacy, and that was refreshing. I only put books on my recs post if they get to a point where they acknowledge the possible coexistence of Christianity and queerness within one individual, but several of them never get much beyond a superficial (and often borderline antisemitic) rebuttal of Leviticus 18 (“but prawns!!!”). This one felt much more comfortable in its arguments. It helped that one of the main characters had already done the thinking, yes, but it went beyond that. I very much got the sense of faith and/or religion as something in which these characters lived and thought. There’s a throwaway reference to David and Jonathan and a long-running, sophisticated riff on hospitality and the sin of Sodom. (Had OT scholarship got that far by 1940? I’m not sure, but it works in the book, which tends to rely on experience rather than scholarship.) There’s a committed, personal, engaged wrestling with 1 Corinthians 6. And this was true for the minor characters, too: I particularly liked the moment when one of the servants (invisible, not transfigured into household objects, in this version) responds to a “doubting Thomas” reference with, “Ma’am, I haven’t spear wounds you can probe.” Ownership of scripture isn’t restricted to the clergy here. This inhabiting of a common religious inheritance never felt heavy-handed or out of character, but it was always taken seriously.

One thing that was missing was the immersion in the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version, such as you’d find in Streatfeild or Sayers or other mid twentieth century British authors writing about this sort of milieu. This didn’t bother me on the first read (straight through, last night) but struck me when I was thinking about it this morning. The 1 Corinthians 13 bit, for example: really it should have been ‘Charity kidnappeth not.’ But that would have rather undermined the lovely quibble on the different sorts of love (of course the enchantment is picky about the sort of love required to break it) and so I’ll let it off.

Other nitpicks: there was a moment towards the end of the book that didn’t quite sit right with me, but I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t talk about it. Only one out-of-place Americanism (a “gotten”) tripped me up. There was a cricketing detail that felt slightly off, but may well have been plausible for the mid nineteenth century; I have no idea. Finally I was a bit worried about the parson’s poor neglected parishioners, but he did at least feel bad about neglecting his duty (unlike some fictional clergy we could mention), and had a reasonable excuse.

This is a short book – 165 pages in the paperback edition. I would have loved to read more of the parson’s backstory, but at the same time it felt like exactly the right length; we knew as much as we needed to. And it meant that I could finish it at a reasonable hour and might read it all over again tonight; who knows?

Anyway, if you like my stuff and you like dragons you’ll probably like this one. Very much recommended.

Briarley

Landing (Emma Donoghue) #EU27 project

Paperback copy of 'Landing' by Emma Donoghue, with a coastal scene and wooden blocks with pictures of an aeroplane, a compass rose, and a maple leaf

Four books into the #EU27 challenge, and for the first time I’ve managed to read something that was actually written in the European Union. Except, according to the cover, Emma Donoghue now lives in Canada. Oh well. She’s Irish, much of this book is set in Ireland, and people pay for things in euros. I’m going to count it. I’m also going to count it towards the Sapphic Reading Challenge, which I’ve been keeping up with but not, as yet, posting about.

Published in 2007 (the year in which I last travelled by plane, incidentally), this is a complicated romance between an Irish-Asian flight attendant and a Canadian museum archivist. And, while I’ve been doing a lot of escapist travel reading throughout the pandemic, I wouldn’t say that this was a book to induce wanderlust: it’s too clear-sighted about the trials of travel, and of being in love with someone who’s thousands of miles away. Though there’s a real affection for the real Ireland and for the fictional ‘Ireland, Ontario’ I didn’t find myself planning an expedition, the way I have with some other places.

I could add all sorts of tropey genre tags – long distance relationship, age gap romance, opposites attract – but they wouldn’t come close to conveying the depth of the novel. I would want to say that all of them add up to make for two interesting, complex characters. (And the supporting cast on both sides of the Atlantic deserves a mention, too: from the stoner ex-husband to the obnoxiously precocious god-daughter.) I wasn’t convinced that their relationship was going to last beyond the end of the book, but watching it get as far as it did was fascinating.

Fragment (consider revising)

Seedlings in small pots of composts

Jack Kerouac famously stuck hundreds of sheets of paper to make one long roll so that he could write On The Road all in one go. This is not an approach that would have worked for me.

As I’ve remarked before, I’ve never been one to start at the beginning of a story, and go on until I get to the end, and then stop. And it seems that over the last year I’ve become even less inclined to do that. At the moment I have six documents open:

  • an experimental anthology that may or may not be going somewhere (4,532 words since summer 2019)
  • the Ruritanian thing (30,642 words since summer 2018)
  • the historical novel (13,659 words since this February)
  • a how-to-write-your-book-while-holding-down-a-job workbook (7,886 words since summer 2020)
  • and two short stories (6,851 words and 631 words respectively)

Not to mention, of course, this post.

My current approach is, every day except Sundays, to open up everything I’m working on and add a sentence to each of them. Depending on where we are in the month and how knackered I am, I might then keep going on whichever one or ones of them take my fancy.

Sometimes I manage whole paragraphs; very rarely, whole scenes. Sometimes I come back from a walk with the next scene in my head. Sometimes I write it. More often it was my morning walk and I have to do my day job, and so I write myself a note at the breakfast table:

Cherry Ripe – the garden at the Beaumont house – resolves the Parry question

crisis: factory brawl, domestic brawl

Ben & Mack could go to Paris?

Which gives me something to start from later in the day.

(Please do not suggest that I get up earlier. Getting up earlier does not work for me.)

I do not always add complete sentences. I have a feeling that I used to add complete sentences, but lately I’ve found it easier just to write the words that are in my head and come back to the other ones later.

Blame pandemic brain, or else the fact that I’m doing all my writing on the laptop at the moment and can get away with this sort of approach. Either way, it results in a lot of my writing looking something like this:

[He leaves]

Did I feel weird about sleeping in Amelia’s pyjamas in Amelia’s bed? Not remotely. I was far too tired to have scruples about something like that. I slipped between those smooth, white, hotel sheets,

It would have been nice if it had been a dreamless, untroubled, refreshing sleep. I thought I deserved some peace and quiet. I didn’t get it.

[nightmare]

[phone ringing]

All except the alarm, which turned out to be the phone. Automatically, I reached for the receiver.

There’s a lot that isn’t there yet, and what is there isn’t exactly inspired. It leaves me a lot to sort out later, of course. But, weirdly enough, that turns out to be an advantage. When I open up my six (or however many) documents it’s quite handy to find a pair of square brackets that I can fill in, or half a sentence that I suddenly know how finish off. And sometimes I keep on going.

It probably isn’t the most efficient way to write a novel. (Or, in this case, two novels, an anthology, two short stories, a workbook, and a blog post.) I’ve no idea when or if I’m going to finish any of them (except the blog post). But at the moment it seems to be the only way that I’m writing anything at all. And it adds up. And it keeps the pilot light on. So let’s go with it.

The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) #EU27project

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, in a three volume Penguin paperback edition

I was somewhere in Purgatory when I realised that I could count The Divine Comedy towards the EU27 Project.

A tradition of mine (it’s been two years now: I can call it a tradition) is to attempt a daunting Christian book over the Easter weekend. Last year it was Julian of Norwich. Easter was a little later last year, and spring was a little earlier, and there were no services in church, and there was all the time in the world to take a folding chair out into the back garden and read. Result: I would no longer call Julian of Norwich ‘daunting’.

This year I thought I’d try Dante. I stayed on the sofa, though. I finished Paradise on Sunday morning. In the afternoon it was just about warm enough to read outside.

This is the third book I’ve read for the EU27 Project, and all of them were written outside the European Union. (The next one up breaks the pattern and actually mentions euros.) The Divine Comedy is, of course, the oldest. When Dante was writing the unification of Italy was centuries away, and the idea of a unified Europe was – well, I don’t want to say utterly foreign, because of course there was the Holy Roman Empire and the memory of the Roman Empire to work with. And he does. But he’s writing as an exile from a bitterly divided Florence.

My medieval history is extremely shaky, particularly outside England, and I had no idea who about 70% of the personages we encounter. The notes were useful here; so, too, was giving up worrying about which corrupt Pope was which and just going with it.

Dorothy L. Sayers isn’t afraid either to be a vigorous Dante apologist or to relate the people and politics of his context to her own. This helped a lot. He’s writing at the beginning of the fourteenth century, having experienced first hand the bitterness of civic feuds. She’s writing in the middle of the twentieth century, in a world that has just been brought face to face with the fact of how utterly depraved humanity can be.

And this was something that I, reading in the early twenty-first century, found very comforting. We do, in fact, live in precedented times. The world has been a mess since we left Eden; it’s a mess in a different way this time round, and I don’t always agree with either Dante or Sayers about the appropriate response to that – but it resonates. The anger resonates, the despair resonates, the hope resonates. And then that leap into a bigger picture which none of us is actually qualified to see, whose portrayal is wonderful in its own inadequacy… I loved it. Dante’s worldview is very different from my own, but that really didn’t seem to matter.

Reading The Divine Comedy over the Easter weekend allowed me to follow it in real time, sort of. I didn’t start until the morning of Good Friday (Dante gets lost in the wood on Maundy Thursday), managed to keep up through Hell, and then had to sprint a bit in various parts of Purgatory owing to the demands of Easter socialising and the fact that I had work to do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Once he gets into Paradise we lose the time markers, and so I slowed right down again until Sunday morning, when I finished it all off at once. The momentum helps. The notes are intimidating, particularly in the thickness they add to the books, but helpful. I might read up on some medieval popes and Holy Roman Emperors and go back to it in a bit. As for next Easter, I’m thinking of St Augustine.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: T

West front of a cathedral with two west towers and one central one in yellow-grey stone, seen across a broad grass green
Wells, standing in for Torminster. We’ll get there shortly…

Tarta is purely a place to spend the night, so I return to The House of the Four Winds and Evallonia for the sake of the inn, which is another of those wonderful Buchan establishments:

Part of it was as old as the oldest part of the Schloss, and indeed at one time it may have formed an outlying appendage of the castle. In the eighteenth century, in the heyday of the Odalchinis, it was a cheerful place, where great men came with their retinues, and where in the vast kitchen the Prince’s servitors and foresters drank with the town folk of Tarta. It still remained the principal inn of the little borough, but Tarta had decayed, and it stood on no main road, so while its tap-room was commonly full, its guest-rooms were commonly empty. But the landlord had been valet in his youth to the Prince’s father, and he had a memory of past glories and an honest pride in his profession; besides, he was a wealthy man, the owner of the best vineyard in the neighbourhood. So the inn had never been allowed to get into disrepair; its rambling galleries, though they echoed to the tread of few guests, were kept clean and fresh; the empty stalls in the big stables were ready at a moment’s notice for the horses that never came; there was good wine in the cellars against the advent of a connoisseur. It stood in an alley before you reached the market-place, and its courtyard and back parts lay directly under the shadow of the castle walls.

You could come by horse, as implied here, but it’s the 1930s and this party is travelling by car. Start in the Tirol (more on that next time), drive all day, cross the Rave, pass through the village of Zutpha, and follow the boundary of the Odalchini estate. Dinner will be worth it.

Alyssa Cole’s Thesolo takes us to Africa for the first time in this series. (In fact, reading her Reluctant Royals series earlier would have solved my problem finding a place for the letter N, since we also visit a country called Njaza.)

I have to say that I think the way that Cole introduces the country is absolute genius: our heroine Naledi receives an email headed Salutations from the Royal Family of Thesolo. No wonder she thinks it’s a scam. The reader, more familiar with the conventions of the genre, knows better, and into that gap between the character’s suspicions and the reader’s knowledge Cole slips an entire country.

Much of the action takes place in the USA, and we learn about Thesolo little by little. It’s in the south of Africa. (In fact, a little anagram work makes it seem plausible that it’s modelled on Lesotho.) There is ‘an above ground light rail system in the main city’. (This is the sort of detail I like. I am always here for fictional public transport infrastructure.)

It’s at about the two thirds mark that we arrive in Thesolo, and it is perhaps not what we expect:

Your current location is fifteen hundred feet above sea level, nestled in the mountains, and it is winter. It’s ski season here.

You can get there by private jet, getting a good view of the mountains and waterfalls, if you are a reluctant royal. There seems to be a reasonable commercial service, too. And of course the longer we spend there the more we learn about the culture, the scenery – and the politics. Of which there are plenty. Delicious.

And T has a cathedral city, too, in Torminster. Elizabeth Goudge says in the foreword to my edition:

Torminster is not an entirely accurate picture of Wells in Somerset, where I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life, but I think it is an accurate picture of a small west-country cathedral city in those safe, motorless days.

I have a soft spot for Wells; I was there for a week with a visiting choir in the summer of 2013, and spent most of the time when I wasn’t rehearsing finally getting Speak Its Name into a coherent shape. Here is Torminster in the narrative:

The train swung round a bend, the blue hills parted like a curtain and the city of Torminster was visible. Seen from a little distance it had a curiously insubstantial air, as though it were something real yet intangible, a thing you could see but not touch. It lay in a hollow of the hills like a child in its mother’s lap, and it seemed that as it lay there it slept. It looked so quiet that it was hard to believe the ordinary life of men and women went on in its streets. Rather it seemed a buried city sunk at the bottom of the sea, where no life stirred and no sound was heard but the ringing of the bells as the tide surged through forgotten towers and steeples. Jocelyn could see a confused mass of roofs and chimneys and church spires, some high and some low, weather-stained and twisted by age into fantastic shapes. The smoke from the chimneys went straight up into the windless air and then seemed to dissolve into a mist that lay over the city like the waves of the sea that had drowned it, and out of this sea rose a grey rock with three towers… The cathedral… It stood there gloriously, its majesty softened by the warm day but not diminished, its towers a little withdrawn in the sky but no less watchful.

Gorgeous.

Books mentioned in this post

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole

A Prince on Paper, Alyssa Cole

City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge

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The Real World: a bisexual book, as it turns out

'The Real World' with two pin badges, one reading 'EMBRACE THE POWER OF "AND"' and the other, 'ASSUME NOTHING'

If you’d asked me, say two years ago, what I was writing about, I would have said, Marriage. And academia. And the Church of England. I might have been clever and summed it up as Institutions. Then I might have added, Impossible choices. And Disillusionment. Six months further on, Vocation. And it is true. The Real World is about all of those things.

What I didn’t quite appreciate until a couple of my beta readers remarked on it was how very much it is a bisexual book. I suppose I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised: two things I knew all along were that Colette, the point of view character, is bisexual, and we spend the whole novel inside her head. And this appears to be one of those things where personal experience does help, because it didn’t take too much work to make it feel right. (Unlike some other things in the book.)

It isn’t really about bisexuality – not as a theme, anyway – but there’s plenty of it in there.

There’s the Invisible Bisexual Blogger, who shows up (in this book, anyway) only in the chapter headings. In an early draft she came to Lydia’s birthday party, but I was introducing too many characters there as it was. She serves the same purpose as she did in the first book, where she was in the main narrative rather than the chapter headings: to demonstrate that there are plenty of LGBTQ Christians hiding in plain sight (and possibly feeling somewhat ambivalent about that fact).

There’s the correlation between bisexuality and depression (which is a statistic I myself resemble, yes). There’s the second-guessing and the self-questioning.

There’s the scene with the celebrity ex-vicar. I regret to say that this is only slightly exaggerated from something that I witnessed in real life. I needed that scene in order to explore one possible future for Lydia and Colette. I didn’t have to make the speaker as biphobic as the real one was, didn’t have to push it that bit further to provoke a minor walkout. But it felt truthful. That sense of never being quite sure whether a putatively LGBTQ space is in fact just LG, whether the welcome that has just been extended to you might be withdrawn when you can’t produce a gold star, that’s something I’m very familiar with. It works in the trajectory of the book, too. This is a point where sources of support are dropping away from Colette, and she’s becoming increasingly isolated; this space that’s a source of support for Lydia turns out not to work for Colette at all.

And then, on the flip side of that, there’s the spontaneous little gathering outside the meeting, where the angry bi people come together to rant. My experience of the bi community, online and offline, has been similar: that wonderful holiday from having to explain yourself.

I didn’t set out to write a bi novel. That happened without my knowing. I didn’t have to wrestle with it, the way I had to wrestle with vocation (in and out of the writing). Actually, those aren’t so very far apart. I have a post to write about my experience of vocation as a queerness, but that’s for another day. If someone asked me today what The Real World is about, maybe I’d say, Institutions. And identity.

Badges in the photo above came from Biscuit (‘Embrace the power of ‘And’) and Uncharted Worlds (‘Assume nothing’).

Hyperlocal travel writing: the sofa

I have been in Verona.

Not literally.

Well, technically, yes, I’ve stood in a very long queue for the ladies’ at the railway station between getting off a train from Venice and getting on one to Brenner(o). Technically, I have been in Verona. But that wasn’t my point.

Figuratively, I have been in Verona.

Dark screen showing DVD covers for three different versions of Romeo and Juliet, plus other Shakespeare plays

I started off in January in kitschy, fictional, Verona Beach, because I needed to remind myself of Romeo and Juliet in a hurry, and the version that was at that moment the most accessible was the Baz Luhrmann one.

Now, I am just the age to have hit compulsory school Shakespeare when Romeo+Juliet had been out long enough to become the version that English teachers turned to (and Titanic was just out, and Leonardo DiCaprio was a very big thing indeed). My teens are a bit of blur at this point (not for any sex/drugs/rock’n’roll reasons; it’s just that we spent an entire year moving house) but I’m reasonably sure that I studied Romeo and Juliet three times running at three different schools. I only really remember one of those with any clarity (it was, interestingly enough, the school I struggled with the most, but I did enjoy English): we watched the Luhrmann version; we watched the Zeffirelli version, too, but it was the tat-tastic, somewhere-on-the-American-West-Coast, Verona Beach that’s stuck in my memory.

Anyway, that was January. I finished off the thing I’d watched it for in the first place, and I thought no more about it. Then I fell down the rabbit hole. It was the discovery that Alan Rickman had played Tybalt (BBC, 1978) that had me leaving scorched rubber in the search bar and resulted in the delivery of a parcel of DVDs (it comes in a set with the major tragedies, and I thought I might as well add in the Zeffirelli version, not to mention the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing, and make the most of the postage charge).

BBC Verona is much like other BBC sets of the seventies: very much a stage set, earnestly reproducing balconies and battlements in painted plywood. Alan Rickman as Tybalt is pretty much exactly how you’d expect Alan Rickman to be as Tybalt. Perfect casting, to my mind.

Reminding myself of Zeffirelli’s Verona, I suddenly saw what the BBC had been going for, how much it owed to the earlier production. It wasn’t filmed in the real Verona but I had to look it up to check. (It’s not like I would know from the railway station lavatories, after all.) This Verona is made of stone: it’s all walls and pavements and battlements, and feels at once very authentic and very claustrophobic.

Then I remembered the existence of the musical. Musicals, plural, if you count West Side Story, which to my mind is one of the best musicals in existence, but is very much not set in any sort of Verona. The Presgurvic musical, though, very much is. Welcome to Verona, my beautiful Verona, the city where the families make the law, the city where everyone hates everyone else. (Translation mine, from the earworm: the original actually rhymes and scans and is probably in a different order.)

I’d watched the Hungarian version years ago and had vague memories of a grungy, punky set and a heart-breakingly optimistic Romeo. It’s still up on Youtube, so I watched it again. My memories were correct; also, there’s a lot of fire. There’s also a real sense of a city that runs on hatred. This isn’t the Sharks and the Jets floating on top of a city that doesn’t know much about them and doesn’t care at all; this is somewhere that wouldn’t even know what it was if it didn’t have the feud. I found the Italian version, too. That’s less fiery, more gothic. This Verona is somewhere between the Middle Ages and the apocalypse.

One cannot watch videos all the time, but one of the great things about working from home is that one can have whatever music one likes in the background (and so can one’s partner, at the other end of the landing). So I’ve been listening to the French version a lot. I have yet to fork out for Spotify Premium, so I get the government popping up and telling me what to do if I’m an EU citizen (alas!) in between Mercutio yelling ‘Je maudit vos familles! Je maudit vos maisons!’ and Romeo losing it. But then I also get people popping up to ask me to sort out their login problems, so somebody’s death scene is always going to get interrupted sooner or later.

Then I found my CD of the Bellini opera. Actually, I found the libretto booklet, which had somehow got separated from the CDs. Flicking through it, I discovered something that made me go, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’

… A grave reason spurs Capulet to this urgency. Maybe a sudden storm hangs over the heads of the Guelphs: maybe the Montagues are rising again in enmity! May they perish, ah! perish, those savage, insolent Ghibellines!

Now, all I know about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines comes from reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ introduction to her translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy several years ago, and about all I had remembered was that they were opposing parties. It hadn’t occurred to me that the feud in Shakespeare might have had anything to do with real world partisanship, but it seemed really insultingly obvious now. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and there it was staring me in the face: Ghibelline swallow-tailed merlons on the ‘Casa di Romeo’, of the Montecchi family of Verona.

Small collection of clutter including a battered paperback copy of 'The Divine Comedy: Hell' by Dante, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, and the insert from a CD of I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini.

I picked up Dante again – I’d been thinking of reading it over Easter anyway – and reread the introduction. I hadn’t remembered entirely accurately: there were plenty of family feuds going on alongside the Guelph-Ghibelline stuff:

… the Italian nobility was violently divided by internecine clan feuds like those of the Campbells and MacGregors, so that each great family was a law unto itself and its followers, overriding the native constitution, bearing rule according to its own tribal custom, and indulging in perpetual raids and vendettas against its rivals…

After setting out the broader political context, Sayers focuses on Dante’s life, following him from Florence into exile in (wouldn’t you know) Verona and, ultimately, Ravenna. Then I spent three quarters of an hour listening to Dr Eleanor Janega tell me about Boccaccio’s Florence, and now I’m trying to remember why it is that Ravenna’s stuck in my memory. Maybe the Diarmaid McCullough History of Christianity…?

Meanwhile, cycling season has been getting underway. I like watching the cycling: often it’s two hours of scenery followed by ten minutes of excitement, but the scenery’s worth it. Strade Bianche: the white roads around Siena. Tirreno-Adriatico: west to east, sea to sea, cypress trees and red roofs, hilltop villages, Roman ruins… This weekend, it’s Milan-Sanremo. Par for the course for a spring in which I’ve been seeing a rather lot of Italy, not to mention a whole lot of Veronas, from my sofa.

Map showing main rail lines in northern Italy

Read An Ebook Week

Ebook reader showing the first page of 'The Real World'

Apparently it is Read An Ebook Week. I would not have known this had Smashwords not sent me an email to say so, and to invite me to put my books in their sale. I thought I was doing impressively well to remember that both Mothering Sunday and my father’s birthday were approaching; I can’t keep up with anything invented more recently than that.

Anyway, if reading an ebook is a thing you might wish to do this week, you can find both of my Stancester books in the sale. The Real World is at 25% off; Speak Its Name is free. Get them here.

Hyperlocal travel writing: West Fen Road

A very flat green field dotted with large white birds under a pearly grey sky

The name is a little misleading. Oh, it’s the road that takes you into the West Fen, but there’s as much north as there is west in the direction.

I take my life in my hands and cross the A10, and immediately drop down below sea level. This is a low, flat land. At this time of year it’s deep brown or bright green: vast breadths of ploughed soil, and young shoots. The sky above is an inverted bowl of cloud, pearly grey, dull.

It was a Dutchman who drained the marshes. Cornelius Vermuyden. The last time I walked down to the quay there was a paper picture of him in the window of the art gallery, armed with shovel and plans, and staring down Hereward the Wake across a broad drain. Hereward wouldn’t recognise the place. Vermuyden wins. For the moment. The Netherlands aren’t that far away, across the North Sea, but everything’s that far away, these days. In my head, Jacques Brel sings about the towers of Bruges and Ghent, mijn platte land, mijn Vlaanderland. Ahead of me, there’s Coveney church; behind me, the cathedral and St Mary’s.

The road surface is broken again and again by grooves in the tarmac. If I were on a bike, they’d be murder on the wrists; in a car, they’d induce motion sickness; on foot, I only notice them by eye. To my right is a ditch deeper than I am tall. Every now and again I have to hop up onto the verge to show willing when the cars pass. I don’t entirely trust it. On the other side of the road, an intermittent hedge provides some shelter from the wind. It’s hard to judge distance. Those white blobs: swans or sheep?

The tractors are big here. I remarked to a friend who grew up in Devon how big tractors have become; she thinks they were always big here. There’s room for them to be. The fields and roads of my childhood (the Marches, and then the Isle of Wight) wouldn’t fit these monsters.

I get a little closer to the white blobs. Swans. They’re too clean, their edges too well-defined, to be sheep. Big, though. Are the swans bigger here, too?

The road progresses in a series of right angles. Every now and again there’s a farm. Ebenezer (O, the deep, deep love of Jesus – but I can’t remember any more of the words than that, and wander off into Here is love vast as the ocean), Hale Fen Farm, the one that’s marked on the map as Frogs Abbey but which doesn’t have a name board. Tall willow trees, mud-spattered, and a mud-sodden teddy bear abandoned underneath them. I really cannot go rescuing muddy teddy bears from the side of the road, but I’m only just sufficiently hard-hearted to leave it.

It’s only a few days into Lent. I think about the wilderness. No barren land, this; its featurelessness is what makes it such hospitable farmland. Forty days and forty nights. My mind still switches from the harsh fifths of Aus der Tiefe to the gentle thirds and tones of Buckland at verse four, and it’s six years since I’ve been in a choir that had that trick. So shall we have peace divine…

There’s plenty of warning of the sharp steep hill into Coveney: you can see it from miles away, but it calls for some adjustment in pace, effort. Because I’m not on a bike today, I can saunter along the pavement and stop to read the information board. Coveney: Old English: village in the bay. Before all this was fields, the higher ground that Little Downham and Ely and Sutton sit on a ridge in the marsh, a horseshoe-shaped cove, with Coveney an island in the middle of it.

If I were on a bike, I’d go on, follow my nose, follow a drove until it petered out into a sharp-stoned path and I gave up for fear of a puncture, or until it met a main road. As it is, I sit on a bench to eat a couple of ginger biscuits and drink some water before turning back towards home. The daffodils are coming out. Down the hill again, and south-east, or, at least, what averages out to south-east, between all this right-angled corners. From this dead straight road through dead flat fields I suddenly see what the Old English meant. Ely crowns the ridge ahead of me, and there I am in the bay, down on the seabed. Little by little, walk by walk, I’m beginning to get my head around it, this platte land.

Deep grass-edged ditch alongside a single-track road running along flat arable farmland. Cathedral tower on the horizon.