The London chapter of the HNS was founded in February 2011 and meets once a month in central London to discuss topics of interest to all lovers of historical fiction. We welcome both readers and writers and, although many of our members are also writers, most of our meetings are focused on the reader experience. Recent topics for discussion include birth and death scenes in historical novels, dialogue, humour, and religion.

We usually meet on the first Saturday of each month over lunch at a friendly pub near South Kensington tube.

The chapter has its own Facebook group as well as a Yahoo Group for those not on Facebook.

For more information, please contact us.

Below are a couple of reports from recent meetings so you can see the sorts of things we are discussing.

HNS London Chapter meeting, 31 March 2012

The meeting was held at the Zetland Arms. 11 people attended.

The main topic was birth in historical fiction. The following books were discussed.

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Elizabeth Chadwick – a scene from the 13th Century involving a dying mother finding someone to look after her baby.

The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris by Leon Garfield – no childbirth scene in this one but a story about the abduction of a baby, set in Regency Brighton.

The Midwife’s Book by Jane Sharp – non fiction, a manual written in 1671. The midwife should be healthy and strong, of middle years, clean and cheerful. She should have small hands and short nails.

Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams – set in the 1790s, concerning a physician, who struggles to understand an outbreak of infection he has observed among mothers in childbirth, without having the scientific framework to back it up.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell – set in Japan, where a midwife learns new techniques from the Dutch.

Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas – in a prehistoric setting, a baby cannot survive after his mother’s death, because there is no substitute for her milk.

Burning Shore by Wilbur Smith – set in the early 20th Century – a woman gives birth in the desert, with the help of bushmen.

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfork Cross – set in the 9th century. When the Pope (a woman disguised as a man) goes into labour in the street, people believe they are witnessing possession by the devil.

My Antonia by Willa Cather – birth by a single mother on the American Frontier.

Cleopatra’s Heir by Gillian Bradshaw – a metaphorical birth, into a new kind of life, as an ordinary man, renouncing royal heritage.

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye – set around the time of the Indian Mutiny, a mother dies but her child lives.

Other books mentioned were the Ground beneath her Feet and Midnight’s Children, both by Salman Rushdie, a chapter about midwives in Antonia Fraser’s book on women in 17th Century England, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough.

We noted that it had been harder to identify scenes of birth than death scenes (last month’s topic) but those that had been found were on the whole even more harrowing and graphic.

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HNS London Chapter meeting 3rd March 2012

Fourteen of us gathered to discuss the topic of “death and death scenes in historical fiction” and it proved a popular topic with some great examples read out. Here is a short summary.

Jenny had wanted to bring Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” to read out the scene where Thomas Cromwell loses his wife (which really showed what an everyday occurrence death was in those days), but hadn’t been able to find her copy, so instead she brought “An Instance of the Fingerpost” by Iain Pears. She read out a passage about confronting imminent death, where a convicted criminal, condemned to death, is being asked to decide what should be done with his body after he is executed. An unscrupulous man is offering to have his body pickled (!) rather than given up for the usual dissection which was common at that time. Jenny said this was historical fiction at its best, transporting you back to another age.

Achilleas brought “The Way to Paradise” by Mario Vargas Llosa. It is the story of the post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin and also his grandmother Flora Tristan who was a social activist. Vargas Llosa is a historical writer more in the literary style and usually has an agenda in his novels aiming to undermine government and religion. Achilleas found Vargas Llosa’s writing technique a bit strange and disturbing as it alternated between first person, 3rd and an omniscient narrator, and the painter was not a very nice man (Gauguin apparently despised women and was in favour of cannibalism!). He read out the final scene, where Gauguin is dying and some of the people around him discuss him as if he’s already dead. (Achilleas said he’d recommend another of Vargas Llosa’s books more strongly – “The Feast of the Goat”.)

Carol recommended “The Apothecary’s Daughter” by Charlotte Betts. Set at the time of the plague in 1665, it is about a girl who longs to practise as an apothecary, but can’t because women weren’t allowed at that time. The scene Carol read out was of the heroine watching as her father is buried unceremoniously in a plague pit with lots of other victims, and this was described in very vivid detail. The reader could really identify with her grief and the feeling of losing someone close to you, it was very emotional and beautifully written.

Liz read out the last page of “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, in which a man allows himself to be killed because the woman he loves doesn’t love him back. Liz said the entire novel deals with death and the belief in the possibility of rebirth and redemption. Although written in 1859, it’s set during the time of the French revolution and is the story of two men who are redeemed and condemned by their love for the same woman. (It was apparently inspired by “The Frozen Deep” by Wilkie Collins where a man sacrifices his life for a woman both he and another man love). It’s one of only two historical novels by Dickens and the man’s sacrifice reminds us of the way Christ died and the reader is left with a feeling the man will be resurrected. He, himself, sees the French revolution as an essential part of the rebirth of France.

Barbara said that there was nothing that pulled at the heartstrings more than the death of a child, as children are so vulnerable and if they die you feel life has been cut down before it’s really begun, which is very moving. She read out the end of “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne (technically a children’s book, but suitable for adults too). The story is set in 1942 and is seen through the eyes of a 9-year old German boy. He befriends another little boy, who is wearing pyjamas, on the other side of a fence. Somehow, he manages to get inside the fence as well and borrows a set of pyjamas, but doesn’t understand when they are all led into a gas chamber … (this isn’t said outright, but adult readers know what it all means). An incredibly poignant scene!

Geoffrey had brought “The Winter Ghosts” by Kate Mosse and read out a scene where a 15 year old boy hears of his brother’s death on the Front during World War I. The boy has a child’s emotions when told this horrible news, but the reader feels it’s a life-changing moment, as it is for anyone who hears of the death of a loved one. There was a wonderful description of this, with lots of detail of a middle-class English household ca.1915. It almost felt as if it all happened in slow motion, the shock percolating through, and you see things as if at a distance. Very moving.

Mary read out a battle scene from Philippa Gregory’s “The Red Queen” (the story of Margaret Beaufort). It was from the well known battle of Bosworth, but given a new perspective by having an omniscient narrator who shows what is happening both to King Richard and to Henry Tudor. Henry is separated from the rest of his forces and Richard sees his chance to pounce while Henry is vulnerable. However, in the moment when they meet on the battlefield, the Stanleys arrive with 4000 men and turn the battle in favour of Henry, even though Richard had the upper hand. It’s very vividly described.

Natalie said that she was always annoyed by scenes in novels that show people with stomach wounds dying instantly, as that would never be the case in real life. Therefore she’d brought along “Sharpe’s Waterloo” by Bernard Cornwell, which contained a very long drawn out grisly death, where the poor wounded man takes over 80 pages to die! Definitely not a quick death.

Ouida read out a scene from Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” where a pregnant woman says goodbye to her husband as he’s going away. She is having her first child and is scared of childbirth (and in fact she dies soon after while giving birth). But her husband has fallen out of love with her and doesn’t care. It was very poignant and reminded us what a daily occurrence it was in the past to die in childbirth.

Justin had brought three books, starting with Cynthia Harrod-Eagle’s “The Princeling” (from her Morland series). Set during Tudor times, the scene he read out depicted a family coming home travelling by cart when they are set upon by thieves and robbed. A 13-year old girl is abducted and the others set off to look for her in a nearby forest. They find her with her throat slit in a horrendous way and Justin said that when he first read this story he was very young and hardly understood what had happened until the true horror dawned on him. His second book was “Creatures of the Kingdom” by James A Michener, a compilation of chapters from his various books featuring animals. Justin read from a chapter about a salmon called Nerca, who returns to the lake where he was born in order to die. He said that as humans we can try to divorce our minds from nature, but animals have to follow their “programming” and their instincts, and the scene showed how Nerca had fulfilled all his duties. It was very moving despite the fact that we were talking about a fish! Finally, he read a scene from “Helena” by Evelyn Waugh, a fictional tale of the life of the Emperor Constantine’s mother. Constantine’s wife Fausta, who was a bitch running rings round her husband, had managed to get him to kill his heir by his first wife, but then he realises her true nature and she receives her just punishment – dying slowly trapped in a very hot bathing chamber.

Amanda had brought “Gallow’s Thief” by Bernard Cornwell, which she said starts with a death scene, the hanging of four people in Newgate prison. The reader doesn’t know who these people are, but there was lots of detail showing the nature of justice and the severity of punishments in the 18th century for even minor transgressions. After these people have all died, the story itself begins, but the reader keeps the scene in his/her mind throughout.

Henri read out the scene from “Oliver Twist” where Sykes kills Nancy – the cold-blooded murder of a young girl makes for very chilling reading indeed and it was vividly described!

Pia had brought “The Winter Mantle” by Elizabeth Chadwick and read out part of the scene where Earl Waltheof (a Saxon) is beheaded for treason by the Normans, even though he is related by marriage to some of the most powerful ones. Pia said she’d found this scene harrowing as she had come to like Waltheof very much during the first half of the book and she’d kept hoping he would be spared somehow as he seemed not to have acted out of malice. The finality of the beheading was hard to accept when reading the rest of the story, but it was described with wonderful detail.The next meeting will be held on Saturday 31st March – usual time and place – and the theme will be “birth”.Thank you to everyone who came!Pia

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