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.
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, 6 December 2014
The theme of the meeting was ‘Constructing the Medieval Mind’.
Antoine opened the meeting by discussing the work of Zoe Oldenbourg, who wrote novels set in medieval France, as well as non-fiction. In particular, he recommended Destiny of Fire, a novel about the Albigensian Crusade from the point of view of the Cathars. Antoine felt that the novel was written entirely from the medieval perspective, without the intrusion of a twentieth-century mindset. The novel focuses on the nature of human love, the value of human life, and the terrifying experience of being part of a persecuted minority. It recreates a worldview without science, in which religion is all-important and characters have little knowledge of things outside their immediate sphere.
This led to a discussion on the following points:
- How far is it possible for modern authors to inhabit the mindset of the past? Justin suggested that all novels are filtered through the prism of the author’s own times, although their portrayal of the past can be based on well-grounded research and can be convincing to varying degrees.
- There is a balance to be struck between realistic depictions of the past and viewpoints that are acceptable to modern readers. For example, in the nineteenth century it was considered wrong to treat your social ‘inferiors’ as equals, and so a character exhibiting behaviour that would be considered correct in the nineteenth century context might be unsympathetic to modern readers.
- In constructing an internally consistent world, how is historical fiction different from fantasy? How important is factual accuracy? Mark drew out the contrast between Zoe Oldenbourg, whose novels are set in a very particular time and place, and Jim Crace, whose historical fiction creates a consistent world but one which is not pinpointed to a specific setting.
- There was discussion as to how far ‘human nature’ remains consistent over time. Are there universal constants in terms of morality, and do people of different periods feel the same, for example when they suffer tragedies such as the death of a child?
- The majority of humans do act in ways that make sense to them within their own worldview, and are not setting out to be ‘wrong/evil’, even if their actions may be judged that way by people from other times or cultures. Mary commented that in Oldenbourg’s novel The World is Not Enough, the barons are a law unto themselves and commit atrocities as part of blood feuds between families, but this makes sense to them based on their notions of family honour.
- The idea was raised that there is no one ‘medieval mind’, any more than people of the current day all share the same views. At any point in time, there is a multiplicity of ways of seeing the world.
- Mary read a passage from The World is Not Enough which illustrated how a medieval noblewoman’s function was the production of male heirs. The character Alice’s pregnancy lessened her father-in-law’s hostility towards her – provided the child was a boy, of course.
- Natalie read from Oldenbourg’s novel The Heirs of the Kingdom, which is concerned with the experience of peasants who joined the First Crusade. She was struck by the atmosphere of sexual violence and the attitude that any woman who did not cover herself up was ‘asking for it.’ A socially acceptable solution to a rape having taken place was for the rapist to marry his victim.
HNS Conference 2016
Carol announced that the 2016 HNS Conference was now in the planning stages and asked for volunteers to help with conference organisation. The following roles are required: conference managers; secretary; short story judges; treasurer/bursar; bookselling; hospitality; reader liaison; indie books; pitch sessions; programme organisation. Please contact Carol if you would like to become involved (firstname.lastname@example.org). The venue may be London or Oxford – please let Carol know your thoughts if you have a preference for one over the other.
The next meeting will be on 10th January and the theme will be the Gothic in historical fiction. It is recommended that you visit the current exhibition at the British Library in advance of the meeting, but this is by no means essential. Please bring along examples in which the Gothic and the supernatural in general have played an important role in historical novels. (Please note that this meeting will be on the second, not first, Saturday of the month, due to the Christmas break.)
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 1 November 2014
The theme of the meeting was Weather in Historical Novels.
Emma brought along Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, which follows the progress of a motley company travelling through England in the plague year. Emma read an early scene in which a rainstorm is used as a device to bring several of the main characters together, as they gather around a cart stuck in the mud.
Rachel’s choice was After by Morris Gleitzman, about a 13-year-old Jewish boy called Felix in wartime Poland. Felix decides to leave the partisan troupe with whom he is camped in the forest, but falls asleep as he prepares to leave with his horse Dom. When he wakes, he is surrounded by freshly-fallen snow and his feet are in agony from frostbite. We see it dawn on Felix that if he had made his escape attempt, his footprints in the snow would have been plain for the Nazis to see.
Sandra read from My Lady Judge by Cora Harrison, the first in a series of historical novels set in the Burren, Ireland, in the sixteenth century. The ‘detective’ character is a female judge in the tradition of Brehon law. Sandra read a passage from early in the novel, depicting a beautiful summer scene in the limestone landscape of the region. The novel is full of descriptions of place that pinpoint the novel in its particular, distinctive landscape.
Ouida mentioned that she was intending to read In These Times by Jenny Uglow, a non-fiction work about Britain in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. This was a period of particularly harsh winters.
Natalie’s example was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. This is an experimental novel in which the main character, Ursula Todd, dies repeatedly but then the narrative returns to the beginning of her life; slight changes in circumstance in each version lead her life on a different course. In the first iteration of her life, she dies immediately after birth as the doctor and midwife cannot make it to her mother due to the heavy snow. After the explicit imagery of darkness around each of her deaths, we return to the snowy birth scene, the snow acting as a blank page on which her life can begin again.
The next meeting is on 6th December with the theme of Constructing the Mediaeval Mind – the session will focus on Zoe Oldenbourg’s novels set in the mediaeval period, and her success in depicting the mediaeval mindset. It is recommended to read one of her mediaeval period novels in advance of the meeting, but this is not essential. Examples are Destiny of Fire and The Heirs of the Kingdom. These are readily available second hand on Amazon. Please also bring along any other examples of depictions of the mediaeval worldview in historical fiction. We will also have a Secret Santa, as this will be our Christmas meeting. Please bring along an anonymously wrapped historical novel (second hand is fine) to exchange at the meeting.
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 4 October 2014
The theme of the discussion was how we should organise future chapter meetings.
Purpose of the meetings
We agreed that the purpose was to have fun, to facilitate networking, and swap book recommendations. The social aspect was very important, bringing together a diversity of people who might not otherwise meet.
We decided to keep the meeting on a monthly footing for the time being (this can be reviewed in future), continuing to meet on the first Saturday of the month at the Zetland Arms.
The possibility of an additional weekday meeting was raised, to open the group up to those who find it difficult to make Saturdays. Please let me know if you would be interested in attending a weekday meeting, and we will explore the options for this. It would be in the early evening in a central London location. I will also survey the Facebook group to assess interest in this. We would need to identify someone to organise and chair these meetings.
Topics for future meetings
We set the topics for the next three monthly Saturday meetings:
November 1st: Weather in historical novels – please bring along an example/passage showing the use of weather in historical novels. We will explore its use in creating settings and influencing characters’ actions.
December 6th: Constructing the mediaeval mind – the session will focus on Zoe Oldenbourg’s novels set in the mediaeval period, and her success in depicting the mediaeval mindset. It is recommended to read one of her mediaeval period novels in advance of the meeting, but this is not essential. Examples are Destiny of Fire and The Heirs of the Kingdom. These are readily available second hand on Amazon. Please also bring along any other examples of depictions of the mediaeval worldview in historical fiction. Antoine will help to lead the session. We will also have a Secret Santa, as this will be our Christmas meeting.
January 10th: The Gothic – this session will focus on the gothic in historical novels. It is recommended that you attend the current exhibition at the British Library in advance of the meeting, but this is by no means essential. Please bring along examples in which the gothic and the supernatural in general have played an important role in historical novels. (Please note that this meeting will be on the second, not first, Saturday of the month, due to the Christmas break.)
There were also many other ideas for future meetings that we can use next year:
• Setting in historical novels – how is characters’ experience structured by their context in time and place? What forms of knowledge would these characters have, and lack? How do you avoid anachronism?
• How do you create narrative tension? How do you keep the reader turning the pages?
• Villains in historical fiction. How do you prevent the villain being more attractive than the hero?
• Historical fantasy (Sandra kindly suggested by email that she would be happy to lead a workshop on this). What is it, and why should we read it?
• The process of self-publishing and marketing. Antoine would be happy to give a talk on his experience early next year.
• Dreams and the supernatural. How do we handle the mismatch between our own sense of reality, and past understandings in which magic/the supernatural played an active and real role in the course of events?
• The clash of civilisations. Historical novels in which, for example, Europeans meet other peoples for the first time.
• Research. As a writer, how do you know when to stop researching? How do you avoid info-dumping?
• Medicine in historical fiction
• Visits to historical houses, etc. This would be a weekend activity separate from the monthly meetings. Mary offered to look into potential dates next spring.
• Writing from the viewpoint of the opposite sex. Can a man write from a female character’s viewpoint, and vice versa? If so, how do you go about this? Attendees could bring along examples where this has been done well (or badly…). This could also be considered from the perspective of race – is it valid/possible to write from the viewpoint of a character of another race?
• A historical novel quiz.
• Female characters who have broken the mould and escaped the confines of their historical context.
Broadening the membership
We briefly discussed how to advertise the group more widely. I will email Richard Lee to see if we could have a space on the HNS website. Other possibilities were to ask Foyles if we could put an advert next to their historical fiction section. We could also create a Meet-Up group, although there would be a cost associated with this.
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.
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