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, 10 January 2015
The theme of the meeting was The Gothic, inspired by the current exhibition at the British Library, Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination.
Those who had attended the exhibition commented on how it was better structured in the early sections, with rooms focussed on Henry Walpole and Mary Shelley, for example. It then broadened out and ended with many disparate examples from the modern horror genre. It was suggested that this move from structured to less structured exhibits could be a function of the smaller range of material available from the early days of Gothic literature, compared with the modern profusion of Gothic/horror themes.
Mary commented on how Gothic literature began with an inclination towards the historical, with novels focused on castles, maidens in distress and corrupt monks, etc, with a strong element of the supernatural. As the nineteenth century progressed, Gothic elements were incorporated into novels set in the contemporary world, as in the works of the Bronte sisters. The Victorian trend towards sensational fiction, with a stronger focus on crime and poverty, then developed. The Victorian Gothic has been self-consciously echoed in the work of modern writers such as Sarah Waters.
There was discussion as to how ‘the Gothic’ should be defined and delimited:
- Where is the line between ‘the Gothic’ and ‘horror’?
- ‘Gothic’ originally referred to a particular style of medieval architecture, and relates to the setting of many of the earliest Gothic novels, for example Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Walpole self-consciously modelled his house at Strawberry Hill on this architectural style. However, many ‘Gothic’ novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula do not have this architectural focus.
- There was a feeling that Gothic literature has reference to ‘the soul’. For example, vampires such as Dracula may have lost their souls, and Frankenstein is not able to give his creation a soul.
- There may also be a focus on the battle between good and evil, although often villains can be attractively charismatic. For example, Tom felt Dracula himself to be the most interesting character in Bram Stoker’s novel.
We also explored why the theme of the Gothic emerged at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. In the dawn of a rational, atheistic and scientific age, people were drawn by way of contrast to explorations of the irrational and supernatural. Scientific exploration, in the form of public demonstrations of the ‘reanimation’ of corpses by electricity, directly influenced Mary Shelley. This was also a time when people were moving away from having real belief in magic and the supernatural, and so it was becoming a ‘safe’ theme to play with. Further, as condemnation of Catholicism and the medieval period with which it was associated became less severe, the Gothic in architecture could come to be seen as an attractive style again.
Specific examples of ‘Gothic’ novels were also discussed:
- Justin mentioned The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd, which appears to be a standard historical novel set in two time periods, until you realise halfway through that one of the characters has become immortal. This is unsatisfying and causes a sort of ‘genre confusion’, as what you thought was straight historical fiction turns out to have strong fantasy elements.
- Mark read a story in which a haunted house is rented by a stranger. The stranger works out where the restless spirit’s remains are buried, and ends the haunting by giving it decent burial. Mark revealed at the end that the story was recorded by the Roman author Pliny, showing that interest in ghost stories is much older than the start of ‘the Gothic.’
- Mary read from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a novel set in an alternative version of nineteenth century England, in which magic is real but has become an academic discipline. The scene was set in York Minster, an archetypally ‘Gothic’ setting, and as a local group of magicians looks on, the stones themselves began to speak of the crimes they have witnessed.
- Tom showed us the graphic novel Batman Gothic, which draws on Gothic imagery and colour schemes, and has a classical Gothic focus on the fate of the soul. He also said that he had enjoyed reading The Castle of Otranto, in which the tension is successfully maintained by including dramatic incidents on almost every page.
There will not be a meeting in February (due to the fact that the pub is not available on 7th, and 14th is Valentine’s day). The next meeting will be on 7th March with the theme of Historical Fantasy. This will be a discussion of historical novels which include elements of magic, time travel, supernatural creatures, etc. Please bring along examples to share, and think about questions such as: Where is the line between mainstream historical fiction and historical fantasy? Do you enjoy both, or prefer strict realism? Is historical fantasy within the remit of the HNS? etc.
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.