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, 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!
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 9 May 2015
The theme was Villains in Historical Fiction. The following general points were raised:
- In older historical fiction, there is often a clear-cut and simple distinction between heroes and villains. In more recently-written historical fiction, depictions are often more nuanced, with ‘villains’ given a context and backstory which makes sense of their behaviours.
- In a related trend, traditional ‘villains’ such as Richard III, Catherine de Medici and Thomas Cromwell have been rehabilitated in recent novels.
- The fact that villains often have interesting backstories and personalities can make them more interesting and attractive to the writer, a tendency which writers sometimes have to rein in, so that the villain does not outshine their ‘hero’.
- Villains can also be attractive as they allow us to explore the darker elements of our personalities which we habitually repress.
- Some types of stories do not require the villain to be psychologically nuanced (e.g. adventure or ‘James Bond’-type stories). An old-fashioned hero versus villain approach is what the reader wants in these cases.
- Villains can often act as the foil against which the hero is defined.
- Stories must have protagonists and antagonists, but the antagonist does not have to be ‘evil’ – they may merely be on the opposing side of a war or political conflict from the ‘hero’.
- There are ‘antiheroes’ such as Flashman in George MacDonald Fraser’s novels. Flashman is something of a rogue but will ultimately do the right thing (although he will then play it down and suggest his motives weren’t as honourable as they might appear).
Jay read from her own novel The Gawain Quest, in which the hero Priedeux has been captured and taken to the castle of the murderous seductress Gertrude. She kills a helpless prisoner at a feast for the entertainment of the assembled nobles, and later seduces Priedeux almost against his will.
Mary read from the opening scenes of The Talisman Ring, an eighteenth century romance by Georgette Heyer. The Beau Basil is introduced with a long description of his clothing, hairstyle and accessories. Although he is not presented as a ‘villain’ at this stage, he does appear to be excessively foppish. It later turns out that he is a devious manipulator who has committed murder in an attempt to secure an inheritance.
Justin referred to the Biblical story of Esther, in which the Persian courtier Haman is a traditional villain (who is loudly booed by children when the story is read out at the Jewish festival of Purim). In the play ‘Esther’ by John Masefield (a 1922 version of a Racine play), Haman’s motive in persecuting the Jews is the offence to his honour, caused by the fact that Mordecai will not bow to him. Justin also read from Allan Massie’s Caligula, in which the emperor’s bizarre fantasies and behaviours are similarly caused by his obsession with his honour and attempts to hide the humbler elements of his ancestry.
The next meeting will be held on 6th June and the theme will be ‘Waterloo’, in recognition of the 200 year anniversary of the battle. Please bring along fictional accounts of the battle, or of the wider Napoleonic Wars era.
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 11 April 2015
The subject of the meeting was Research in Historical Novels.
In preparation for the meeting, Tom had written a blog post on the topic: http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/research.html. He discussed how the quantity of research undertaken is always a matter of judgement and personal preference. Some writers and readers are only happy with strictly factual events being included in novels, others are content with invented elements which carry the story forward. Readers have different levels of tolerance for inaccuracies or changes to the known facts. Further, it is impossible to have no mistakes at all, even in scholarly works of non-fiction. At some point, you have to stop researching or the story itself would never get written.
The following areas were also discussed:
- Readers will get annoyed about inaccuracies in areas of history of which they have specialist knowledge, but are more tolerant of mistakes or changes to ‘facts’ in periods about which they know little.
- Some readers who write online reviews seem to enjoy finding inaccuracies and pointing them out. They may pick on inaccuracies as a way of avoiding saying outright that they didn’t like the book.
- Jennifer commented on the importance of going back to the original sources when conducting research, as secondary sources may introduce inaccuracies and bias. Tom added that he likes to start with a modern account for an overview, which helps avoid getting too bogged down in the details of the original sources. He commented that sometimes it can take a whole day to find out a single fact (which might be represented by just one word in the finished novel), so you have to know where to stop.
- Jennifer had recently visited Jamaica as part of the research for her forthcoming novel about Mary Seacole. This had been very valuable in giving her a real sense of place. Sue added that the feel of a setting is often more important to the reader than the ‘facts’. However, some novelists are very successful in evoking places they have never even visited.
- We discussed Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell. In these, she has done a large amount of research but also undertakes an imaginative exploration of how Cromwell became the man he was. This emotional detail on his family background and relationships would never be found in any source material.
- We discussed ‘info-dumping’ and how authors sometimes use conversation between characters as a way of wedging in their research. Nat considered Lindsay Davis to be guilty of this on occasion. In her Falco novels, the main character is consciously writing his memoirs, so there is no need for the information to be included in this way – he could just give it straight to the reader outside of dialogue. Tom commented that this type of direct exposition does however need to be tied into the narrative to work, i.e. it has to relate to what is happening to the character at that point the novel, so that it makes sense why this explanatory detail would be in his thoughts at that moment.
- We talked about when (i.e. at what stage in the process of writing) a writer should do their research. Nat had attended a talk by Kate Mosse in which the writer explained that she does all her research first, before getting into the intense work of writing, whereas her friend Tracey Chevalier does the research as she goes along.
- Mary spoke about William Golding’s Sea Trilogy, which is a narrative of a voyage. There is lots of exposition of naval detail, but this is appropriate in the context. Further, as the character of the narrative changes over the course of the trilogy, from a diary to a memoir intended to be read by others, the nature of the exposition also changes.
- Tom mentioned Simon Scarrow’s novels about Napoleon and Wellington. He considered them to be badly written as novels, but very good for giving the reader an understanding of the Peninsular War. Some readers are more interested in military detail than stylistic concerns, and they might enjoy these novels a lot.
- Mary mentioned Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride, about Harry Smith and the wife he rescued from the siege of Badajoz in the Peninsular War. This provides a large amount of narrative detail on the wider military context, but Mary felt the novel to be at its strongest when it focuses on the personal story of the main characters. Sue commented that many readers would by contrast consider the military context to be the important thing.
- Sue’s example of the handling of research was from Traitor’s Blood by Michael Arnold, a novel of the English Civil War. This included a detailed scene of musketry training which did not involve the main characters or seem to fit into the narrative flow. This detail was then repeated whenever anyone fired a musket! Although her experience was that this scene detracted from the novel, she acknowledged that for some readers, the military detail is the most important element.
- Ouida has been reading The Goshawk by T.H.White, an autobiographical account of hawk training. It includes a high level of detail about falconry, but maintains the reader’s interest by raising questions in their mind which it then moves on to answer.
The next meeting will be on the 9th May (not the 2nd due to the bank holiday weekend). The topic will be Villains in Historical Fiction. How do writers go about constructing strong/convincing ‘villain’ characters? Why are some villains more attractive/interesting than the heroes they oppose? Please bring along examples of historical novels with villains you love to hate!