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.

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.

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

But why don’t they just TALK to each other?

Yes, why didn’t they just TALK to each other about the ham before this?

I haven’t yet got my act together to buy, let alone read, Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell. I did, however, read it in its previous incarnation as an original work on Archive Of Our Own, so have been following other people’s reviews with interest. Some of them have been ‘loved it when it was The Course of Honour, love it now.’ Some have been: ‘argh! Miscommunication plot! Why don’t they just TALK to each other?’

Myself, I don’t mind a miscommunication plot. Some of them, of course, are just implausible: the classic example is ‘I saw my young lady embracing another man and I am not going to bother wondering whether it might have been her brother, let alone asking her.’ Sometimes it hits my embarrassment squick and I have to give up, but if I can grit my teeth and get through that, and the miscommunication is because of something that actually makes sense, I have no problem with it.

After all, humans are not all that good at communication. We get stuck in our own assumptions. Last year, for example, I discovered that my husband and I had fundamentally different ideas about the ownership of food in the fridge. And we’ve been together since 2005, and living in the same house as each other since 2004. (That was where the problem arose: I was still operating under university housemate rules, in which you don’t eat it if you didn’t buy it; he’d moved on to couple rules, where if it’s in the fridge it’s there for the eating.)

We’d never talked about it, because why would we? We’d never talked about it, because it had never been a problem until we both started eating lunch at home every day of the week. Once we did talk about it – beginning with a hurt ‘YOU ATE MY HAM!’ – we sorted it out fast.

And OK, maybe in some books the miscommunication plot would be more like fifteen years of inadvertent ham theft on one side and martyred ham-buying and deep sighs on the other. (Though even that might make a running gag in a sitcom.) But more often it’s something that nobody involved has ever thought to question, because why would they, until bam! there it is.

Ham is something that you can JUST talk about. But it might be that the issue is too fraught, too painful, for you to even know where to start talking about it. Some people really didn’t like the Doctor Who episode where we discovered that Amy and Rory had broken up because she couldn’t have children because of ‘what they did to me at Demon’s Run’. It was never made clear whether the whole doppelganger memory bending assassin pregnancy business had left her physically infertile, or had just (‘just’) been so traumatic that she had never been able to face the idea of childbirth again. ‘Why didn’t they just TALK about it?’, people demanded. For me, the fact that they never had was one of the most convincing aspects of the whole series.

Writing the sort of books that I write, I’m always a bit worried about someone coming back with a ‘But why don’t they just TALK to each other?’ I ended up hanging a lampshade on it in the last book:

Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling like this? No, sorry, that’s a stupid question, you’ve only just worked it out. Why did you think you weren’t allowed to feel like this?

I’m not going to tell you what ‘it’ is, because it’s not really good practice to spoil one’s own books, but I can assure you that I put the work in to get us all there. This conversation comes on page 292. And it’s not as if nobody’s been talking up until that point, either.

The Course of Honour worked for me. The assumptions that underpinned the miscommunication were plausible, stemming from one protagonist’s history and the other’s genuine attempt to respect that. Sometimes it was painful, often it was frustrating, but it worked. I expect Winter’s Orbit will work for me too, assuming Maxwell hasn’t changed that element significantly.

So for me, no, they don’t have to talk to each other. Not straight away. In fact, a book about a relationship where every problem was immediately sorted by talking to each other would be boring as well as implausible. Because it’s never JUST talking.

But WHY don’t they just talk to each other? Ah, that’s the interesting question. Answer that question to my satisfaction, and I’m happy to spend 320 pages finding out.

The Reader’s Gazetteer Special: Inventing Ruritania (Vesna Goldsworthy)

A paperback copy of 'Inventing Ruritania: the imperialism of the imagination' lies on a map of Europe

Something of a departure from the main scope of this series, Inventing Ruritania is, despite the title, about real places. And it’s non-fiction. However, it’s very relevant to the theme. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this for Christmas, and ambled through it a chapter at a time.

I don’t read much academic writing these days, but found this perfectly easy to follow. The main thrust of Vesna Goldsworthy’s argument is that the global understanding of the Balkans has been shaped by Anglophone, primarily British, literature about the region, arguably to the detriment of its standing. The subtitle tells the story: the imperialism of the imagination. Because our primary interaction with the Balkans is in fiction in which the public-school-educated British traveller sorts the country out – or finds the task impossible – we assume that the real thing needs sorting out by us, too. Something that of course rings particularly hollow at the moment, when the public-school-educated British men appear incapable of running their own country.

(I’m paraphrasing severely here. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I work – or don’t – on my own Ruritanian effort.)

Goldsworthy’s examples are wide-ranging; she begins with Byron’s account of Greece and progresses through nineteenth century British political interest in Bulgaria before getting to the popular fiction from which she gets her title. The Prisoner of Zenda and Dracula are joined by a whole library’s worth of books that didn’t make it to Penguin Classics. Moving into the twentieth century, we get Buchan and Christie, the ‘comic’ literature of Durrell and Waugh, and the non-fiction of Rebecca West and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Some of these books set their action in a fictional country that is explicitly located in the Balkans. Some are set in real-life Balkan countries.

While writers all over the world are prone to appropriating other people’s cultures to make an exotic backdrop (nothing that I have heard about Red, White and Royal Blue, for example, persuades me that I would be able to read it without throwing the book at the wall), it’s true that the dominance of the English language puts what one might now call ‘own voices’ Balkan literature at a disadvantage. It’s true, too, that I know embarrassingly little about the region, and much of what I do know comes from English literature. (For years, all I knew of Romania was from Song For A Tattered Flag.) I’ve learned rather more just from reading this book.

‘Ruritania’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer: as we established a few posts ago, and as Goldsworthy points out herself, going on the evidence that Anthony Hope gives us, the place can’t be any further south than real-life Bohemia. Still, it can’t be denied that when most people say ‘Ruritania’ they mean ‘somewhere in the Balkans’. My own feeling is that many authors, particularly contemporary ones, who use Ruritanian settings, do so to avoid appropriating real-life cultures while still having a government and maybe a monarchy to play with: the number of fictional tiny principalities squeezed in between real-life borders, I would argue, bear me out. Many seem to be borrowing Monaco or Liechtenstein rather than anywhere further south and east. But of course Goldsworthy’s talking about books that explicitly set their action either in named Balkan countries or in countries explicitly stated to be in the Balkan region: in this, the book doesn’t fit quite so well into this blog series after all.

More seriously, I do not have the author’s confidence that ‘the sort of generalised, open condescension [applied to Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians] would appal [the authors] if applied to Somalis or the peoples of Zaire’. In my experience, white people who are racist about other white people are perfectly capable about being racist about black people too.

However, I can’t truthfully say that either of these nitpicks undermine Goldsworthy’s point to any significant extent, and it’s left me with plenty to think about. And a few more books to add to my reading list.

December Reflections 20: best book of 2020

Trumpet - Jackie Kay
Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
Giovanni's Room - James Baldwin
How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff
Between The Woods And The Water - Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Gospel Of Eve - Rachel Mann i Madam, Will You Talk? - Mary Stewart
The Real World - Kathleen Jowitt
My Year In Small Drawings - Matilda Tristram

I’ve read a lot this year, and taken a lot of pleasure in reading. I’ve enjoyed many books. Even after excluding rereads, I had a lot left to choose from, and I think I’d present this photo more as a representative sample than any sort of top picks.

These aren’t in any particular order, though the top three were all begun and finished before the pandemic really hit the UK. I have a particularly vivid memory of standing on the platform on Cambridge station some time in February, overhearing two men discussing what was going on in China, before I boarded my train and went back to Station Eleven (Emily St John Mandel). It’s one of the least depressing post-apocalyptic books I’ve ever read, and I was glad to have read it going in: it made the first national lockdown seem tame by comparison.

Trumpet (Jackie Kay) follows the family and friends of a trans man who’s outed after his death: a really good book with a convincing (and often infuriating) array of voices.

Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin) gets points for having not one but two scenes including a proper Paris bus; but it also made me think a lot about relationships, and about what impossible expectations people can place on each other.

Had someone warned me that The Way I Live Now (Meg Rosoff) takes place in World War Three, I would probably not have picked it up. It made for a heavy afternoon, given the circumstances. But it’s so good that I can’t regret it: it has the eccentric, matter-of-fact quality of I Capture The Castle followed up with the devastation of the war narrative.

I read a lot of travel writing early on in lockdown, particularly older work, finding it refreshing to move in time as well as in space. Patrick Leigh Fermor gets the slot here, for the lovely luminous character of his writing.

I was in three book groups/readalongs at one point. One folded after the first book, and I’ve got behind on reading for both of the other two, but it was an absolute joy to read Madam, Will You Talk? (Mary Stewart) with perceptive and witty people on the internet. I even bought a dress because of it.

I’m generally behind everyone else in getting round to reading new releases, and several books that I thought might have been published this year actually date back to 2018 or 2019. But 2020 books that I enjoyed in 2020 included the first two of the Will Darling Adventures (K J Charles) and, particularly, The Gospel of Eve (Rachel Mann), which was a dark, twisty, theological college romp.

I only published one book this year, so obviously The Real World must be simultaneously my best and my worst book of 2020. Actually I think it’s probably the best book I’ve ever written.

Technically a book, although not one to be read as such: My Year in Small Drawings (Matilda Tristram). I’ve had enormous fun with this. There’s something very liberating about allowing yourself to not be very good at something.

Not pictured, because not a book, are any of the issues of hidden europe that I’ve read this year. Not pictured, because I haven’t finished it, is Women and Angels, a Virago anthology of women’s spirituality. Not pictured, because I never read it all in one go, is any of the poetry. Not pictured are the books I bought but haven’t yet got around to. My reading brain has been more or less shot recently; I’ve mostly been watching the skiing instead. Nor have I been doing much writing, apart from this blogging, obviously. I hope to catch up with all of this over the Christmas break and in 2021.

December Reflections 2: my favourite hobby

three shelves of books; authors include Arthur Ransome, John le Carré, Eva Ibbotson, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, C. S. Lewis, Charlotte Brontë, and others

I’m never quite sure what makes something a hobby rather than a mere pastime. How seriously does one have to follow it? Does it have to be creative? And of course, one person’s hobby is another person’s livelihood.

So I’m going to go for the very broadest definition and say something that I do because I enjoy it, that nobody pays me for.

I have plenty of hobbies, and I have most of them because I saw something in a book, thought, ‘I could do that’, and tried it. Some of them (crochet) I abandoned again; some (knitting) I do very intermittently; some (making bead jewellery) I do quite often.

Some (teaching myself to play the piano) are part of my regular routine; some (teaching myself to ice skate) have been scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic; some (gardening) have been made very much easier by lockdown; some (doing small drawings) I even do daily.

But really, all of those feel like quite a lot of effort at present. Indeed, at this point in post-launch torpor, I find myself thinking that I only write books because nobody else is writing the precise thing that I want to read. And so I go back to reading.

I’ve read quite a lot in 2020. I note that there’s a ‘best book’ prompt coming up later in the month, so I won’t talk about preferences, but I will recall…

  • taking a folding chair out into the garden to read Julian of Norwich over Holy Week
  • lounging on a blanket on the lawn, reading Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings
  • turning my ebook reader back on after lights out to finish Slippery Creatures
  • sitting in an armchair, legs tucked under me, working through the first seven Bond novels
  • picking up Busman’s Honeymoon to take a photo of it, and the rest of the day just disappearing
  • reading all of Four Quartets out loud to myself, with the rain beating at the roof of the conservatory
  • unable to sleep, making myself a late night cup of peppermint tea, and reading Spiderweb For Two for the first time
  • starting off a Saturday morning by inhaling a Jae or a Jill Mansell
  • bickering amiably online about Madam Will You Talk and The Man In The Brown Suit

I’ve read for research, both for other people’s blogs and my own, to finish things I’ve been meaning to read, and for sheer fun.

I have until the 20th to decide which was my favourite. I’ll let you know.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: S

Stack of books: Principal Role by Lorna Hill (with a dustjacket with a ballerina in front of a backdrop showing an Alpine village), Peril at End House by Agatha Christie, and The Rose and the Yew Tree by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.

And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)

Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.

A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.

He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…

The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:

“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”

Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.

When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.

(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)

Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.

Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.

… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.

No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).

As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.

While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.

We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:

The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.

(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.

In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:

It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.

In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:

There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.

This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.

The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.

Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia (not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.

Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.

Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.

Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.

Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.

Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:

The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.

If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.

There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.

detail of a relief map showing Ilchester at the top, Yeovil at the bottom, and, in faint red type, 'STANCHESTER' a third of the way up

Books mentioned in this post

The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie

King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell

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