I was recently
asked why I chose to write historical
novels, and I needed to think about the answer. The truth is, I was not too
fond of history when I was in school. Other than the Norman invasion of England
in 1066 and Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492, dates meant nothing to me.
I don’t think I once correctly listed the succession of kings starting with
Edward 1. Nor could I tell you the dates of the Wars of the Roses or the Great
Fire of London. As for the English Civil War, without resorting to Google, I
can only tell you that the combatants were the Parliamentarians, or Roundheads,
led by Oliver Cromwell, on one side and the Royalists, or Cavaliers, who
supported Charles 1, on the other.
The first historical
novel I remember reading was The Sun in Splendour by Jean Plaidy, and,
once, history came alive. After that, I started looking more closely at
historical fiction and found that history was not just about dates. It was
about people who had lived in different eras, whether they were rich,
privileged people at the top of the tree, or the lowly commoner. Catherine
Cookson set most of her novels in Northeast England. Georgette Heyer’s
characters populated London and wherever their country seats might be, while
several had adventures in France or Spain. I enjoyed C.S. Forester’s Horatio
Hornblower, who served in His Majesty’s Royal Navy and then the adventures of
Bernard Cornwall’s British soldier, Sharpe.
In writing my
historical novels, I have envied colleagues who still have family papers,
whether letters or diaries. In my family, very little of our history survives. Thanks
to dedicated cousins on my mother’s and father’s sides of my family, I know
something of it now. As much as I enjoy research, building family trees was
never something I wanted to get into, possibly because of all those dates of
births, marriages, and deaths, or hatches, matches and despatches, as my maternal
grandmother used to say.
History may seem
like a thing of the past, but the truth is we live in history all the time, and
what we know today may make dusty reading for some teenagers in the future.
While we hark back to the Regency or Victorian eras, more recent histories set
during WWII are still popular. I won’t apologize for referencing English
history because that is what I know best, but history happens everywhere. Ancient
Egypt was the setting for several novels by Pauline Gedge and Wilbur Smith, the
latter giving a vivid depiction of South Africa in many more of his novels.
History can be
fascinating whether you enjoy it in fiction or non-fiction, movies or
television series. Wherever you find it, I hope you enjoy it too.