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 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!
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 7 March 2015
The meeting was chaired by Justin and attended by Rachel, Ouida, Beth, Tom and Sue. The topic was historical fantasy novels, we began by discussing whether fantasy novels with a historical setting could truly be considered historical fiction. On the practical side of classification, Rachel said that space for reviews of children’s novels in the HNS magazine was at such a premium she would rather space was not given over to reviews of fantasy novels. Whilst it was agreed that in general historical fantasy was different from Alternative History, the two can overlap. Some sub-genres such as Arthurian novels can be classed with historical fiction when the subject matter is Arthur as a Dark Age warlord but tend towards fantasy if magic predominates. Beth and Tom pointed to works containing fantasy that reflect in-period beliefs (Shakespeare, Beowulf).
After a further discussion on what dates should be classed as the boundary for historical fiction, we looked at some examples of historical fantasy:
Rachel had brought a non-fiction book, Stephen Clarke’s Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France, about Edward VII. At the end of the book the author imagines the effect on World War One if Edward VII had still been alive when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, speculating that he would have persuaded his fellow European monarchs in his genial way that this might not have been altogether a bad thing and was not sufficient cause for war.
Sue had brought Barbara Hambly’s Travelling with the Dead, a vampire-spy thriller novel for which the exact time period was unclear (Note – Sue had thought this was Victorian but now sees that the next in the series is set in 1911 which places the previous novel in the Edwardian era, perhaps explaining the puzzling reference to Einstein). The story provides a “scientific explanation” of vampirism so perhaps not totally a fantasy.
Justin read a passage from The Court of the Midnight King by Freda Warrington, a novel about Richard III with fantasy elements. Justin said the historical parts of the novel were well-researched and he had actually enjoyed reading it. The author has combined historical fact with an England where a pagan, matriarchal, religion similar to Isis-worship co-exists with Christianity, mythical creatures are used in battles and the characters can cross into other worlds. It certainly sounded a change from more orthodox novels about Richard III.
Both Justin and Sue had also brought Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, the first of a series set in an alternative Napoleonic Wars where dragons are used for aerial warfare and military transport. The lead characters are Temeraire, an exceptionally large, intelligent, dragon, and his handler Captain William Laurence. The fond relationships between the dragons and their handlers are a nice touch (there is also humour in the way the dragons behave with each other). However, credibility is stretched by the device by which the dragons hatch from their eggs talking fluently in the languages which have been spoken around them and practicalities such as around using dragons as troop transports.
Other authors that might be of interest are Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s (featuring time travellers investigating historical events) and Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels set in fantasy kingdoms that are based on actual historical locations e.g. The Lions of Al-Rassan (based on Reconquista Spain) and A Song for Arbonne (medieval Provence).
The next meeting will be on 11th April with the theme of Research in historical novels, As a writer, how do you know when to stop researching? How do you avoid info-dumping?
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.