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 Knightsbridge 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, 6 February 2016

The theme of the meeting was open – participants were asked to bring along any novel or other item of historical interest to share with the group.

Rachel read from The Year It All Ended by Kirsty Murray, a young adult novel about WW1 from the Australian perspective.  Towards the end of the novel, the main character Tiny and her friend Ida visit the graves of their relatives in France.  Although it is now 1920, the area is still dangerous, and the German prisoners and Chinese work gangs who are exhuming the bodies for identification keep running into unexploded munitions.

Tom spoke about his father’s experience as a clerk in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in WW1.  He showed us his call up papers from 1916, and also his collection of cigarette cards to commemorate George V’s Silver Jubilee.  Despite his disillusionment at what he witnessed of injury and death in the war, Tom’s father still maintained his patriotism in terms of support for the Royal Family.

Mary told us about the Burma Campaign Memorial Library at SOAS: This is an archive of materials about the Burma campaign, including both novels and unpublished materials such as memoirs.  Much of the collection is made up of items given as personal bequests by veterans.

Justin read from Lust for Life by Irvine Stone, a novel of the life of Vincent van Gogh.  The novel spans the whole of van Gogh’s life and is on the whole dark and intense, but Justin presented a more light-hearted scene in which a group of not-yet-famous artists try to sell their work in a Parisian working men’s restaurant, without much success.

Justin also discussed a trilogy of Spanish novels about Isabella I, which are a novelisation of a very successful TV series.  The novels are long (600-700 pages) and go into meticulous detail.  Disconcertingly, the second novel has a different author from the first and is written in the present tense, whereas the first was in past tense.  The books try to present a sympathetic portrait of Isabella, while acknowledging the terrible things that happened to Spanish Jews and Muslims under her rule.

Natalie has been reading The King Must Die by Mary Renault.  This is a historical novel based on the life of the mythical hero Theseus.  Renault presents this in a late Bronze Age setting, where the Greek newcomers have displaced an older matriarchal culture in which annual king sacrifice is still practised.  The novel’s interest lies in its imaginative reconstruction of this transitional point in prehistory.

The next meeting will be on 5th March, and the theme will again be open.

HNS London Chapter Meeting, 5 December 2015

This month’s meeting had an open theme – participants were asked to bring along any historical novel or item of interest to share with the group.

Rachel read the author’s note from Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, which made the observation that individuals live through different historical periods over the course of their lifetimes, with all the changing attitudes and mores that entails.

Liz has been reading Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, which focuses on the opium trade in nineteenth century India.  She commented on the clever use of language, in which each paragraph will contain many unknown words but overall conveys the meaning perfectly.

John recommended two novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively.  The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole was the first Gothic novel, and is a surprisingly short and easy read.  Deep Down (1868) by R.M Ballantyne gives a realistic and gritty view of working in the Cornish tin mines.

Antoine described his recent experience of having one of his novels recorded as an audiobook, working with the company ACX.  This process is free to the author and involves selecting passages of your work which are then read by auditioning actors, so that you can choose the best narrator for your novel.

Carol is reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, a novel about two sisters in Vichy France.  She admired the character development and page turning quality of the novel.  The story starts with one of the sisters in the present day, but the reader does not know which of the two sisters has survived; this mystery is not resolved until the end of the novel.

Justin first presented a ‘bad sex’ scene from Isabel Allende’s Ines of My Soul, in which the main character’s first husband inducts her into the ‘ceremonies of pleasure’ in sixteenth-century Spain.  He also read from The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly, a non-fiction book about works which have been lost over the course of history, destroyed by their authors or planned but never written.  Jane Austen was sent several ideas by admirers about novels she should write (but never did), including a suggestion from the Prince Regent’s secretary that she might like to compose a romantic history of the house of Saxe-Coburg.  The Greek comic playwright Menander’s works, highly praised in ancient times, were considered lost for centuries.  When sections were rediscovered in the twentieth century, they turned out to be cliché-ridden and disappointing.

Tom read from Recollections of an Officer of Napoleon’s Army by Elzéar Blaze, a contemporary account in which a French soldier describes the excitement of going out in officer’s uniform for the first time.

Natalie recommended the current Celts: art and identity exhibition at the British Museum, in which the most impressive item is the silver Gundestrup Cauldron, covered in scenes of unknown deities and mythology.  The exhibition presents artefacts from the ancient ‘Celtic’ world (although these people would never have defined themselves as Celts), and then traces the importance of Celtic identity in the nationalisms of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany.

The next meeting is likely to be in early February (date and venue to be confirmed), and the theme will again be open.

HNS London Chapter Meeting, 7 November 2015

This month’s meeting had an open theme – participants were asked to bring along any historical novel or item of interest to share with the group.

Rachel talked about her recent visit to Albania, which Lord Byron visited in his youth as recounted in the largely autobiographical poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. She read the section of the Second Canto which describes the protagonist’s arrival at the Albanian ruler Ali Pasha’s palace. The romantic, brooding character of Childe Harold provided a model for many later heroes, including Rochester in Jane Eyre.

Antoine read from the autobiography of Sir Evelyn Wood, which covers his military career From Midshipman to Field Marshall. He focused on a scene of pupil rebellion at Wood’s school, and an incident in which he suffered a near-fatal shot wound later in Africa. Antoine has also been reading German journals from the First World War. Both of these sources have been very useful in getting into the mindset of characters from the past.

Mark brought along The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, a novel about the Dutch East India Company in Japan in the late eighteenth century. The passage he presented took the form of an impressively crafted list poem, detailing the sights of the city of Nagasaki as seen by gulls wheeling overhead.

Geoffrey has been researching his next novel which will be set in France in the first half of the fourteenth century, and read from the knight Geoffroi de Charny’s handbook of chivalry. In this passage, de Charny outlines the process of the knighting ceremony and reveals its dense religious symbolism.

Natalie has recently enjoyed The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, a novel centred on Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans and his experiences as a prisoner on the Burma Death Railway. She read the memorable passage in which Dorrigo meets the future love of his life in a bookshop.

Sue brought along The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, which explores the journey of a group of English characters to Tasmania, and the impact of colonialism on the Aborigines there. She read a passage in which the Manx crew are caught smuggling and blame their bad luck on a broken taboo surrounding the word ‘pig’ – the Manx characters serve as light relief in the novel. The strength of the novel lies in its use of multiple first person narrators.

The next meeting will be on 5th December and the theme will again be open. We will also have our traditional historical novel Secret Santa – please bring along any historical novel (new or second-hand) wrapped anonymously.

HNS London Chapter Meeting, 5 September 2015

This month’s meeting had an open theme – participants were asked to bring along any historical novel or item of interest to share with the group.

Rachel had been looking at adventure novels and their attitudes to gender.  Ronald Welch’s novels from the mid-twentieth century, such as Escape from France, feature very few women, and those that do appear have minor roles.  By contrast, G.A. Henty’s works such as One for the 28th: a tale of Waterloo feature strong female characters who have not been constrained by societal norms about proper feminine behaviour.  His attitude seems to have been based on his experience of the bravery of women during his time as a war correspondent, and the self-reliance of his own daughter.

Geoffrey reflected on the problematic area of medieval novels which cut across conventional genres.  Novels set in the medieval period tend to sit firmly in either the violent warfare (e.g. Bernard Cornwell) or bodice-ripper camps.  Publishers are unwilling to take risks on novels which cannot be fitted easily into these categories; it is easier to market novels which slot neatly into set genres.

Sue brought along In These Times by Jenny Uglow, a non-fiction work about the home front during the Napoleonic Wars.  She was struck by the diversity of opinion at the time as to whether the war against Napoleon was justified.  There was also real worry at the prospect of a French invasion, as Britain was not felt to be well defended.

Justin read passages from two novels.  The first was The Garfield Honour written by Frank Yerby in 1962.  In some ways it is a typical swashbuckling novel, set in Texas just after the American Civil War, but has some lyrical passages such as the one Justin read in which the hero looks out into the desert and contemplates that he may be facing the end of his life.  The second reading was from The Ground is Burning by Samuel Black, a novel set in the early 1500s and told from the perspectives of Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia.  In a scene from the end of the novel, Leonardo attempts to take to the air in a flying machine he has invented, but realises that man will always ultimately be earthbound.

Nat discussed the historical fantasy novels of Karen Maitland, which are set in medieval England but with strong fantasy/horror elements.  The Owl Killers is an interesting exploration of the conflicts between male and female power, particularly in the context of religion.  The Norfolk village of Ulewic is terrorised by the Owl Masters, a pagan sect who raise a demonic force called the ‘Owlman’, and come into conflict with an incoming group of Beguines (a community of women with a religious focus but who are not nuns) who have settled nearby.

HNS London Chapter Meeting, 6 June 2015

The theme of the meeting was Waterloo, in recognition of the 200-year anniversary of the battle.

The following general points were made about the history of the battle:

  • Wellington’s tactical approach: the British were outnumbered and Wellington worked on the assumption that he could not win, but would try to hold his position until Prussian reinforcements arrived. As a result, the British soldiers stood firm as they faced wave after wave of French assault.
  • Tom explained how the battle was crucial in forging the notion of British identity. Wellington’s approach of standing and taking the French assault led to the idea of dogged steadfastness in holding the ‘thin red line’. This was the start of the conception of Britain as a great military power.
  • Napoleon may have lost as a result of his mistakes. He was not in the best of health and threw too much at the assault of Hougoumont, which was just meant to be a diversion.
  • The battle and Napoleon himself have generated a huge amount of literature. In a search at the London Library, Antoine found there are 279 books on Waterloo alone.
  • The battle resulted in massive casualties, and the provisions for the wounded were extremely limited. Some wounded were not retrieved from the field for three days, and many would have died of thirst during this time.

The following novels were discussed:

  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. Antoine read from scenes set just before the battle, in which three women respond very differently to the departure of their menfolk. The Colonel’s wife is cheerful and practical, and gives him a very proper send off; Becky Sharp is preoccupied with material concerns; and Amelia is helpless and full of self-pity.
  • Burke at Waterloo by Tom Williams. Tom read the scene from his own novel covering the famous cavalry charge of the Scots Greys. The hero (and spy) James Burke forms part of the Belgian charge to rescue the Scots Greys after their initial assault has fallen into disorder.
  • The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour by David Ebsworth. Dave read from his own novel about the cantinière Marianne Tambour. Cantinières were women who served in the front line of the French army by giving brandy to troops before they went into battle, and offering basic nursing care. In this scene, the world-weary Marianne does her best for a dying French general, but all she can really do is mop his brow and provide moral support.

The next meeting will be on 4th July and the theme will be open: please bring along any passage from a work of historical fiction that you would like to share with the group, or anything else of historical interest. Given the date, something with an American slant might be appropriate!

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