Ok. So here’s the thing. I’m currently on holiday on Cornwall, staying on a farm and enjoying the typical British weather. There’s almost zero phone reception and no WiFi. The guest post for this post didn’t arrive before I left so I’m standing with my arms on the air trying to get reception enough to do this post. Now to me the guest post looks like a bunch of emojis, I’ve tried and failed to get letters but it isn’t happening. So I hope that when it posts you get words instead of yellow people but if not I’ll have to fix it next week when I’m home.
WHAT I’M READING
Sexism and gender inequality were so rampant in the nineteenth century that poor put-upon female writers adopted masculine pseudonyms. The Bronte sisters were Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell while Mary Ann Evans called herself George Eliot. Now the literary wheel has turned half circle and I am seriously thinking of writing my next novel under an empowering pen name like Meghan Middleton. Short of conjuring up Harry Potter-like magical realism in children’s literature or whipping through Fifty Shades of erotica, a novelist is most likely to achieve best-selling success by being a young female graduate churning out psychological thrillers with the word ‘Girl’ in the title.
Putting gender to one side, I think fluctuating literary taste is a fascinating subject. Why have novels with a domestic setting suddenly become so popular? Is domestic noir a way of escaping from our safe and mundane lives into a fictional world of dysfunctional family relationships where those we love, betray us? Do we really want a dead body in our garage and the police inspector knocking at the door?
The person best qualified to answer these questions is Minette Walters who made herself the queen of the psychological crime by composing a series of chilling thrillers in the nineties about murderous villages in which unholy passions lurked behind drawn curtains. But Walters is no longer writing this kind of book, preferring to swim against the tide she helped to create by pursuing the less fashionable literary genre of historical fiction. Her latest novel The Last Hours is a sweeping saga about a small Dorset community’s struggle to survive the Black Death and I must say I am really enjoying it.
I always seem to learn something from reading this kind of novel, particularly when its set in a far-off age about which I know very little. The other thing historical fiction always seems to do is to stimulate the imagination. It is, after all, a kind of mental time travelling. In Walters’s novel, the reader is taken back to 1348 when the ‘great pestilence’ decimated Dorset before killing off more than half the population of England. At that time, we were a rural and agrarian society bound by the iron-clad hierarchies of the feudal system and the equally rigid certainties of the Catholic faith. People led simple lives. They had little idea of personal hygiene and no understanding of how a disease like the bubonic plague might be transmitted. All they saw was the result: the swollen lymph nodes, the large suppurating boils, the gangrene and the black blood leading to death within a matter of days. Since nothing happened that was not God’s will, it was obvious that He had sent this plague to punish sinful men. But if that was true why hadn’t the church warned everyone it was coming?
In writing about this utter catastrophe Minette Walters imagines a Dorset demesne in which, to avoid the disease, everyone withdraws inside the boundary walls of the moated manor house. This self-imposed isolation works for a while until supplies run short whereupon the class system breaks down and Jack is seen to be as good as his master. Walters has been criticised for giving her serfs an oddly modern awareness but I would dispute this. Who knows what fourteenth century peasants thought or how they behaved when their social structure collapsed around them. Their views are not recorded in history. That’s why we need fiction.
I had exactly the same feeling when I wrote my most recent novel The Man Who Lived Twice. The record revealed that Colonel George St Leger Grenfell was an amazing fellow; a military hero who was also a complete rogue. But evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it. History told me what Grenfell did but it didn’t tell me what he thought or felt, and that’s what really mattered. My chief concern as a novelist has to be with the interior drama of my characters’ lives.
I had been wondering whether to change my literary genre but perhaps, after all, I will stick with what I know. If your heart isn’t in what you are writing, you will only make yourself miserable. It’s better to write what you care about which, in my case, is the kind of biographical history that offers the reader a bit of adventure and romance. But I am still thinking of softening my rough edges by writing as a woman.
WHAT I’M READING
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!The Last Hours .5+
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The Man Who Lived Twice is a panoramic novel that follows the exploits of Colonel George St Leger Grenfell, a courageous but deeply flawed Cornish cavalryman who was the highest ranked British officer in the Confederate army in the American Civil War.
A hero to General Robert E Lee and a legend to the gullible hillbillies under his command, Ole St Lege charged with the Light Brigade in the Crimea, hacked his way through the Opium War and defended the bullet-strewn barricades in the Indian Mutiny. Yet the mercenary that performed these feats of derring-do was a wanted criminal, a fraudster who bankrupted his own father.
In his search for redemption, Grenfell faces the raw realities of late nineteenth century America. He is frequently shot at and brutally tortured by prison guards, soars precariously over enemy lines in a balloon and rides the rails to the Old West, meeting the characters who made, marred and mythologised the American century: the beautiful spies and back-shooting gunslingers as well as the business tycoons and Lincoln conspirators. And somehow he survives to lead a better life.
About the Author:
David Taylor was educated at the Royal Grammar School Newcastle and at University College London where he read history and was president of the students’ union. He has won national and international awards for print, radio and television journalism. His book Web of Corruption was published by Granada. He wrote for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, reported for Panorama and World in Action, presented BBC2 series on defence and civil nuclear power, edited Radio 4’s current affairs programme File on 4 and BBC2’s Brass Tacks and On The Line, produced several series of Great Railway Journeys and of the Wainwright and Fred Dibnah programmes and was head of BBC Features before forming an independent production company called Triple Echo which has won scores of awards, mainly for adventure broadcasting. His book Web of Corruption was published by Granada.