Recusant, ostler, wetnurse, bard… How to untangle William Shakespeare.

Mansfield Park 2Some years ago, a friend defended a film version of Mansfield Park that portrayed sexual abuse within Fanny Price’s birth family by saying, ‘Oh come on, don’t think that kind of thing didn’t go on in the nineteenth century just as much as today.’ It didn’t matter that the film showed something that never appeared in the book; according to her, if Jane Austen could have written it in, she would have done, and that was good enough for my friend.

 

While this made no sense at all to me, what I found shocking was that my friend was by profession a historian; someone who deals in fact, not fiction. Yet here she was, happy to discard the integrity of a classic novel because it didn’t fit her historical view. Perhaps that was her point: Mansfield Park is fiction, not history, so it really doesn’t matter what you do with it. For her, ‘would have,’ in Jane Austen’s case, glided easily into ‘did’.

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Jane Austen – gagged by her time

It is difficult for historians. Novelists can make up anything they like, but where evidence is missing, historians have to piece together what clues they have to build a credible picture. For no one is this truer than William Shakespeare, whose life I’m researching at the moment for a book idea (what else?). Between his birth in 1564 and his growing fame as a playwright and poet in 1590s London, only a few certain dates stand out, among which are his marriage, in 1582, to Anne Hathaway, and the baptism of his children in 1583 and 1585. It’s only fair that biographers should follow any lead that might account for his ‘lost’ years, including one that has him employed as schoolmaster in a leading Catholic recusant family in Lancashire; or the legend that a spot of deer-poaching caused him to fly Stratford to escape the wrath of landowner Sir Thomas Lucy.

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No oil painting. William Shakespeare

But reading Anthony Holden’s biography William Shakespeare (1999) has brought the Mansfield Park conversation straight back to me. Not because of any suggestion of abusive family relationships here (phew), but because of Holden’s attitude towards his material. While he builds a good case for the 15 year-old Shakespeare’s being employed as tutor in the Hoghton family, he can’t prove it; yet after a few pages, ‘would have’ and ‘highly likely’ melt imperceptibly into ‘Shakespeare had clearly impressed his first employer.’ Guesses that begin ‘probably’ are asserted as facts a few pages later, while legends such as the deer-poaching one are discounted in one place and upheld in another. Lacking other evidence, Holden falls into the trap of taking clues from the works: Shakespeare shows knowledge of horses, so he must have earned his keep as an ostler; he writes tellingly about ‘the green-eyed monster’, therefore he, like Othello, must have suffered terrible jealousy. All of which shows a blithe misunderstanding of how the creative mind works. By this token, Lady Macbeth’s

                           I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me

arises from direct personal experience.  Er….

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Horse and Ostler (Morland)

Worst of all – and Holden isn’t alone here – comes the treatment of poor Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about her looks or her character, but the simple fact that she’d reached the advanced old age of 26 when 18 year-old Shakespeare impregnated her has branded her ‘on the shelf’, a desperate, ‘homely’ woman who may have set out deliberately to trap a young man into marriage.

Homely. Ye gods. Why is a 26 year-old woman automatically homely, while an 18 year-old boy isn’t spotty, sweaty and frankly, not much of an oil painting himself? Shakespeare can’t have loved Anne, runs the general opinion among biographers, or he’d have stayed in Stratford and never lived all those years in London. Yet there must have been attraction, at least to begin with, and the arrival of two more children some years later doesn’t speak of total aversion to this much, much older woman. And where else could an ambitious young actor and playwright earn a living if not in London? For all we know, he may have hot-footed it home to Stratford whenever time and funds permitted.

Anne Hathaway

Hardly homely Hathaway

Untangling fact from fiction in this biography, trying to work out what is certain and what conjecture in Holden’s impressively rounded portrait of his subject, while dealing with the somewhat dated attitude to women displayed above, I have to keep reminding myself that I am a historical fiction writer reading the work of a historian.
Not the other way round.
Funny, that. Maybe the two disciplines are not so far apart after all.

(From an article first published on Authors Electric BlogSpot)

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The People’s Book Prize – Spring Collection – Children – “The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst” By Griselda Heppel

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst By Griselda Heppel

Published by Matador ISBN 9781784623043   The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVERSpring 2016

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst has reached the FINALS of the People’s Book Prize. Follow the link below to read more and VOTE!  The winner of each category is decided entirely by public vote so it’s up to you. Closing date: 10 July.

Thank you!

Synopsis:  In the shadows of Walton Hall a demon lurks. His name: Mephistopheles. In 1586,…

Source: The People’s Book Prize – Spring Collection – Children – “The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst” By Griselda Heppel

The Very Model of a Modern Self-Publishing Conference

Well, I hoped to learn a few things…  but the amount of useful information I took away hugely exceeded all expectations. If you want a model of an intelligently put together, well-run, stimulating conference, with something to offer everyone no matter how new or, er, not-so-new to the writing business, this year’s Self-Publishing Conference at Leicester on Saturday 7 May was it.

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Caroline Sanderson

Keynote speaker Caroline Sanderson, Associate Editor of the Bookseller, set the tone. Self-publishing was no longer the poor relation of traditional publishing; instead, it’s producing books of top literary, design and production values. Of the titles that have caught her eye she showed us 8 self-published ones, in a range of genres, whose striking cover designs match the high quality of their contents, all of which deserved as much recognition as the best of books produced by more traditional methods. Her enthusiasm was echoed by Professor Alison Baverstock of Kingston University in the plenary session later in the day, whose research into the effect self-publishing has had on the book market in the UK has led to some fascinating results.

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Alison Baverstock

In particular, Alison demolished that old, tired slander: ‘self-publishing is publishing without an editor.’ On the contrary, her researches show that authors independently seeking critiques and other editorial services have opened up a whole new area of employment to delighted freelance editors, no longer solely dependent on traditional publishing companies.

Arranged around these two addresses were four individual sessions to choose from and that’s where the difficulty started. How to select from the several talks on different aspects of writing, editing, designing and promoting offered for each session? At least my first choice presented no problem: I’ve long wanted to know about audiobooks and the chance of an hour’s instruction from James Peak, owner of Essential Music, was too good to miss. He did a brilliant job – with a kind of engaging scattiness – of describing the process, including tips on how to save money by reading your book yourself – gulp. I filled four pages of notes.

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Excellent bookshop!

Then came the Historical Fiction session, and – gulpissimo – my first ever experience of speaking at a conference, rather than just making notes and eating cake. Luckily a maximum of 5 minutes was expected from me and the panel audience listened kindly to my dos and don’ts when writing historical fiction for children, agreeing that this was now a sadly neglected genre compared to the great days of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault, Roger Lancelyn Green and Henry Treece. Helen Hollick, heading the panel, gave illuminating insights into the historical fiction market for adults, both in the UK and the USA, while Lucienne Boyce’s contribution was a truly awe-inspiring lesson in serious, detailed research, from Real Books In Libraries (away with Wikipedia!) to original magazines, newspapers, site visits and railway timetables.

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With Helen Hollick and Lucienne Boyce on Historical Fiction Panel. Photo: Debbie Young

Two more sessions followed lunch (which included macaroons!* Bliss).
Mike Bodnar’s
amusing talk on Self-promotion for Self-publishers provided a wealth of ideas, some standard, some cheerfully quirky, on how to get your books flying off the shelves (actually, trundling steadily would do for me); while Clive Herbert of Nielsen’s explanation of metadata and ISBNs proved much more interesting than you might guess from those rather scary words, and gave information that every author, however published, should know.

In between sessions it was great to mingle with other attendees, eat cake, make new friends and meet lots of lovely Matador people whose names I knew well but who I’d never spoken face to face with before. All in all, congratulations to Troubador for hosting a super conference and looking after us all so well, not least with the many refreshments provided throughout the day, right up to delicious, restorative canapés at the end (wine too but alas I was driving).

And did I mention there was cake?**macaroons1

*The First Rule of the Enid Blyton school of writing: tell them about the food. 

** See note above.

 

Do children still read Historical Fiction?

A deliberately loaded question, I know. Implying that a Golden Age existed once in which children devoured stories set in another period…. and now maybe not so much. If there’s a grain of truth in this assumption, guess what: it’s not the children’s fault.

The King must dieGrowing up, I remember historical fiction in children’s books was huge. Giants like Mary Renault, Geoffrey Trease, Roger Lancelyn Green and Leon Garfield dominated the bookshelves. They had the knack of creating exciting, moving, well-written stories that plunged their readers into a different world where we absorbed details of language, customs, real people, events and battles without even realising it. Because what mattered above all was the story, powered by strong, finely-drawn, sympathetic characters.

Sounds familiar? That’s because this is how all good fiction works, whether it’s for children or adults; historical, romantic, thriller, fantasy. Children will go for a good story, no matter when or where it’s set. While they don’t need to know anything about the period beforehand, by the time they’ve turned the last page they’ll know a great deal, and this gives them a sense of empowerment included in the sheer enjoyment of the story. Contrary to what many adults think, children can fall Ante thumbnaileasily into the rhythm of language spoken in a different period, with unfamiliar words. As long as the context explains the meaning, it’s fine. Writing the historical parts of my books, Ante’s Inferno (World War 1) and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst (Elizabethan England), I was determined not to dumb down the complexities of the period or the language for The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVERmy readers. Young people’s response to my books has been not just enthusiasm for the stories, but also delight at being given something to get their teeth into. They know when they’re being taken seriously and when they’re being patronised.

No, the problem isn’t with the children. It’s with what they’re offered. And my impression is that the portion of the market historical fiction used to enjoy is now occupied by fantasy. This is also a wonderful genre, boasting books by some of the best writers around today, but in creating purely fantasy worlds it can’t do what historical fiction does. There are signs that the pendulum is swinging the other way, in Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries series, for instance, and Lucy Worsley’s recently published Eliza Rose. The success of these and other titles show that children will seize on stories set in different time periods just as much as in parallel worlds.

Come on, fellow historical fiction writers, your market is out there!

I’ll be discussing writing historical fiction for children with Helen Hollick and Lucienne Boyce on the Historical Fiction panel at the Self Publishing Conference  in Leicester on Saturday, 7th May.

The lost library of Dr Dee

SLIDE 9   John Dee

John Dee (1527 – 1609). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

SLIDE 9   John Dee

John Dee (1527 – 1609). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee is the title of a wonderful exhibition now on at the Royal College of Physicians, Regents Park, London. For a show dedicated to the most famous magician and alchemist England has ever produced, the RCP doesn’t strike one as the obvious venue. Yes, John Dee was a doctor but not that kind of doctor – unless you count drawing a patient’s astrological chart as an aid to diagnosis. Which in John Dee’s day – the Sixteenth Century – it would have been.

John Dee (1527 – 1609) was an extraordinarily gifted mathematician, engineer, navigational expert and astronomer. He was also an astrologer, magician and alchemist who devoted much of his life (and a considerable fortune) to discovering what he thought would be the key to the universe: the language God used to talk to Adam in the garden of Eden, the ‘Enochian alphabet’.

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John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth 1. By Henry Gillard Glindoni. Wellcome library, London

Cracking this language, he reasoned, would open up to him the secrets of nature, God’s creation. Bonkers, yes, but what I love about Dee’s fantastical ideas is the spirit of enquiry they sprang from; at heart he was a scientist, using – as other natural philosophers did – magic and alchemy as tools of discovery alongside more factual disciplines like mathematics and astronomy. In my research into Elizabethan magic for my children’s book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, John Dee provided the perfect example of a conjurer using spells and charms in a positive – as opposed to a destructive – way.

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De Septem Secundeis by Johannes Trithemius, published in Cologne 1567. Royal College of Physicians.

A great scholar, Dee amassed 3.000 books in his house in Mortlake.  Unfortunately judgement of other people’s trustworthiness doesn’t seem to have been one of his strengths and in 1583 his own brother-in-law, left in charge while Dee travelled abroad, allowed the library to be plundered. Around 100 of the missing books were stolen by a man called Nicholas Saunders, and these were eventually bequeathed to the RCP, giving the college possession of the biggest portion of Dee’s original library still in one piece. This exhibition offers a fabulous chance to see 50 of them, together with a number of Dee’s own magical implements such as his obsidian mirror and crystal ball (useful for showing angelic spirits with whom he tried to converse).

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John Dee’s crystal ball. British museum.

Doodles in the margins – astrological tables, geometric shapes, human profiles and in one case, a splendid ship in full sail – give a delightful sense of the man who originally owned and loved these books. Go see! You have until 29th July, 2016.

https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/scholar-courtier-magician-lost-library-john-dee

10 things I want my readers to know about me…

… as told to Female First.  This wonderful website invited me to make a list and after some scratching of head and counting of fingers (I have ten, which helps the arithmetical aspect no end), I got there.

If you want to know (course you do) what made me become a writer instead of a giraffe

Sunset-Free-Giraffe-Wallpaper
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER

 

 

 

 

and find out about the inspiration behind my books, go to http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/the-tragickall-history-of-henry-fowst-griselda-heppel-902169.html

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3 schools, 2 hundred miles, 1 tired author

But a very happy one.

Last week I drove the many-roundabouted way from Oxford to Cambridgeshire, visiting first Stretham Primary, a lovely village school near Ely. The Year 5/6 teacher had bought a dozen copies of Ante’s Inferno for her class – would I come and talk to the children about it?

Stretham Primary School

Stretham Primary School

You bet I would. I love sharing the backgrounds to my books, in this case Dante’s Inferno, Greek mythology and the First World War. And don’t let anyone tell you that those subjects are beyond the understanding of the average 10 year-old. With the aid of some dark, atmospheric illustrations by Botticelli, Blake and Dore projected on a screen, the children at Stretham easily grasped the idea of Dante’s Hell being based on the Ante thumbnailclassical Underworld, complete with Styx, Charon, Cerberus, Minotaur etc.  I asked them lots of questions as I went along and – as happens every time – the children were delighted to find they know more than they think they do, both about classical mythology and how to write a story. Some had already read Ante’s Inferno but most hadn’t, which is what I normally expect – much more fun to leave them desperate to read the book once I’m gone.

From one extreme to another – the mixed 5/6 Year group at Stretham Primary numbered 30 children. The next day I found myself in a hall at the King’s School, Ely, watching 160 students file in: the whole of Years 7 and 8, come to hear me talk about my new book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst. OK, I’ve talked to large groups before but this was definitely the largest; a challenge to the lungs on my side and to concentration on theirs. Luckily both held up. Sinister Faustian pacts and Elizabethan magic intrigued the students, and while I am (fairly) certain that none of them will be tempted to call up a demon, it was very exciting to find a long line of 12 and 13 year-olds waiting for me in the library afterwards, eager to buy a copy.

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The King’s School, Ely

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER

 

 

Third visit was on Monday, back in Oxford, to Year 7 at Leckford Place – a school I have a particularly soft spot for, as it hosted one of my first Ante’s Inferno talks. Here the teacher had prepared the students beforehand. While not strictly necessary, it does mean they get even more out of the talk; for the first time, everyone in the room knew what a Faustian pact was.  Lots of hands went up to answer my questions and even more to quiz me afterwards – and at least two thirds of the group clustered round me at the end for copies of the book.

And all without recourse to any charms, incantations, spells, astrological forecasts or even the tinsy-winsiest Faustian pact. Honest.