29 May, 2006

Historians turned novelists, and new simile competition

BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme on Sunday May 14 featured an interview with Alison Weir and Jason Goodwin, both of whom are established writers of historical non-fiction who have recently published historical novels. The programme is available on Listen Again, and the interview starts about 20 minutes into the programme.

The interview featured the usual disparaging comments about historical fiction, the gist of which (though not the wording) amounted to, "What's a nice historian like you doing in a genre like this?", though someone bravely suggested that historical fiction has a somewhat higher status now than it had a few decades ago. Both writers had interesting things to say about the challenges posed by historical fiction and the differences compared with non-fiction. They commented on the excitement of being allowed to fill in gaps in recorded fact with imaginative reconstruction, the fascination of recreating an entire world in all its detail, and the thrill of inventing something and then later finding out that it was true. These were some of the aspects that drew me to historical fiction as an outlet for my interest in history, instead of doing a history degree as a mature student, so it was good to hear others saying the same thing. Do any of you feel the same?

Also on Radio 4, Word of Mouth announced the results of its simile competition, which invited listeners to send in their favourite similes and invent a new one. This programme is also available on Listen Again, though it may only be there for a week or so. The simile competition starts about 18 minutes in.

One of the highlights was a collection of spectacularly terrible similes allegedly culled from UK school exam results, including:

- he was as tall as a six foot three inch tree
- she had a deep throaty genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up
- he came down the stairs looking very much like something no-one had ever seen before

Great stuff (there are lots more if you listen to the programme), but these are supposed to come from exam papers? Hands up who was ever that creative in any of their school exams? Anyone? No? Word of Mouth didn't believe it either, and a spot of investigative journalism later the source was identified as a competition in the Washington Post in 2001. One wonders why someone bothered to Anglicise the phraseology and then calumniate blameless exam candidates. Thus is an urban myth born.

Oh yes, the competition results. You'll have to listen to the programme for the full list, but here are a few that caught my fancy:

- as jumpy as a flea on E
- as lame as a contrived simile
- teeth like a burglar's tool kit
- as useful as a plough on a wind farm (my favourite)

And the overall winner (drum roll):

- buttocks like two hippopotami sheltering under a fine linen tablecloth.

Surreal or what? And not, to my mind, an especially appealing image. Just imagine getting that in answer to the question, "Does my bum look big in this?"

Do you have a favourite simile?

25 May, 2006

Reconstructing seventh-century place names - North York Moors

I posted earlier about place names in historical fiction and the relative merits of using modern names (more recognisable to a modern reader) or period names (less likely to produce an incongruous modern image in the mind’s eye). The subsequent discussion came down firmly in favour of period names, with the addition of a map and/or glossary so that readers can look up the locations.

Writing a historical novel set in seventh-century Britain, I have a further issue over place names that wasn't touched on in the earlier post. A large part of the story is set on and around the North York Moors (north-east of the city of York, location map here if you haven’t heard of the area). This area, like much of northern and eastern England, was extensively settled by Danes in the 9th-11th centuries and many of the place names are of Norse origin. Now, the Norse names cannot possibly have been in use in the seventh century, as the Norse settlers did not arrive in substantial numbers until two hundred years later. How best to reconstruct/interpolate/imagine/invent place names that will fit the seventh-century setting and give a convincing feel to the story, without confusing the reader?

Some examples:

Whitby. The name is Norse, with the characteristic Danish element -by (meaning village or farmstead), and means ‘Hviti’s village’ (Room 1993). The early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) name of the settlement was Streanashalch, which translates as Bay of the Beacon or Bay of the Lighthouse. This name was recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (Book III, chapter XXV) written in 731 AD, and so is about as authentic as one can get*. Clearly, the name ‘Whitby’ doesn’t suit a seventh-century setting. To anyone who knows that -by is a Norse place name element it conveys a date that’s wrong by two centuries. I could use Streanashalch on Bede’s authority. But I think that doesn’t capture the right feel. To a modern reader, Streanashalch is a proper name with no meaning of its own. But to the characters in the story, speaking Old English as a living language, ‘Streanashalch’ would have carried the meaning ‘Bay of the Beacon’ and would thus have conveyed something about the place beyond the mere name, much as names like ‘North Sea’ do today. I didn’t want to lose that meaning in the name. So I translated it into modern English and used ‘Beacon Bay’ or ‘Bay of the Beacon’ as the place name.

Lilla Howe. This is a Bronze Age burial mound topped by a stone cross of early medieval date. The cross is traditionally said to mark the grave of Lilla, thane to King Edwin of Northumbria, who died in 626 AD protecting his king from an assassin. (The story is in Bede, Book II Ch. IX] if you want to look it up). My story is set in 605 AD and Lilla is still very much alive, so it is unlikely that the mound was called Lilla Howe at the time. The cross would not have been there, but the mound would have been. What might its name have been? Probably Something Howe, as ‘howe’ is a common element in early English place names and means ‘mound’, often a burial mound. The mound commands a far-reaching view across the moors and stands near a junction of two important moorland tracks. My conjecture is that it was probably an important place in the district, perhaps a landmark for travellers and/or a meeting place. This would be consistent with its re-use for the secondary burial of an important man, particularly if he had connections with the area (perhaps he was the local thane?). Re-use of ancient burial mounds for high-status early English graves is attested elsewhere in England, for example at Roundway Down in Wiltshire. So I wanted a name that conveyed a sense of importance for the mound before Lilla was buried there. I picked on Guardian Howe.

Malton Roman Fort. This Roman fort stood on the river Derwent 17 miles north-east of York. Its Roman name, attested in the Antonine Itinerary, was Derventio, derived from the river name. The name ‘Malton’ is Norse (Room 1993), and so cannot have been in use in the seventh century. Several examples are known of early English place names that have been formed by adding -caster or its variant -chester (an Old English loan word from Latin meaning fort, especially a Roman fort or Roman walled town) to a recognisable variant of the Roman name. For example, Londinium (modern London) was recorded as Lundencaester in 890 AD, Isca Dumnoniorum (modern Exeter) as Exanceaster in 894 AD, Danum (modern Doncaster) as Donecastre in 1002 and Venta Belgarum (modern Winchester) as Wintancaster by Bede in 731 AD. I applied the same pattern and (re)constructed ‘Derwentcaster’ as a plausible seventh-century name for Malton Roman Fort.

What do you think of this approach? Naturally, there's also a map and a glossary giving the equivalent modern names. And if any of you have encountered a similar problem with missing place names, how did you deal with it?

Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, London, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.

* I should note that some scholars argue that ‘Streanashalch’ is actually the modern village of Strensall a few miles outside York. I am not clear why an inland settlement would have acquired a name that can be translated as Lighthouse Bay, but perhaps there are alternative translations of the name elements, or perhaps it was a figurative name and referred to the monastery there as a ‘spiritual beacon’. I am not convinced by this argument, as early English place names are commonly descriptive, usually in a form that indicates ownership - ‘Fred’s farm’ - or topography - ‘hill farm’. So I shall stick to the identification of Streanashalch with Whitby. But it illustrates how nothing in this period ever seems really certain.

21 May, 2006

Julia, by William Napier. Book review

Edition reviewed: Headline Review, paperback, 2002, ISBN 0-7472-3135-4.

Julia is set in Roman Britain and Spain, with excursions to Persia, in 340-353 AD. There are minor parts for historical figures including Emperor Constantius, Emperor Magnentius and the notorious Imperial enforcer Paul Catena ("The Chain") (whom I always think of as being rather like Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII). Most of the main characters are fictional. The central character, the Julia of the title, is rather unusual in that she could be described as an archaeological figure. She is based on an intact Roman burial excavated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service in Spitalfields, London in March 1999 (scroll down to the second article in the link).

The burial was that of a young woman in her early twenties, dated to the mid fourth century AD. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall (which was tall for a woman of her time), with no evidence of disease or trauma to her skeleton, and her bones and teeth were in good condition, which is interpreted as meaning that she probably died of an acute infectious disease. She had never borne a child. Analysis of her tooth enamel showed that she had spent her childhood in Spain, Southern France or Italy. The burial was lavish, indicating that she probably came from a wealthy family. A stone sarcophagus contained a sealed lead coffin decorated with scallop shells, a pagan symbol of the soul's passage to the underworld. She had been buried wearing silk and wool clothes decorated with gold thread, with her head resting on a 'pillow' of bay leaves. A glass phial and a group of jet ornaments - expensive objects normally associated with high-status burials - had been buried at the foot of the sarcophagus. The presence of grave goods and the scallop shells on the coffin suggest that she may have been a pagan, which is of interest as the Roman Empire at that time was officially Christian. Nothing is known of her identity or history, beyond what can be deduced from her burial. Julia is an imaginative reconstruction of what the life and death of this unknown woman may have been.

The novel falls into two very different parts. The first part tells of Julia's childhood in Spain, her adventurous journey to Britain after her parents' deaths, and her upbringing with her uncle Lucius in London. This part is reminiscent of Rosemary Sutcliff's children's fiction, and the author credits Rosemary Sutcliff in his Author's Note as one of his inspirations.

The second part focuses on Julia's friend Marcus and his military training and army service. This part is more Simon Scarrow than Rosemary Sutcliff, complete with wimpy upper-class recruit gradually finding his feet to become a respected officer and foul-mouthed veteran centurion with a heart of gold. Towards the end of the second part, both strands of the story come together when Marcus and Julia venture into hostile territory in Caledonia (north of the Antonine Wall) in an attempt to rescue Julia's uncle from the savage Attacotti tribe.

This episodic structure makes Julia a slightly strange novel to read, apparently aimed at children to begin with and then suddenly shifting into adult gear. I presume the reviewer on Amazon.co.uk who considered the book "a wonderful read for children" hadn't got as far as the straightforwardly explicit homosexual sex scene in a legionary bath house (page 194, since you ask).

One of the most attractive features of the novel, for me, was the character of Julia herself. She is clever, vivacious, warm, attractive and imaginative, growing up in a society that has no real place for her. One of the characters comments that, "every man who met her had probably fallen a little in love with her," and I suspect that extends to the author. I also liked the characterisation of Julia's uncle, the stoic, philosophical, incorruptible Lucius Fabius Quintilianus. There are some rather charming Pollyanna-like scenes as Julia's presence disrupts and warms Lucius' cold and well-regulated household.

The story has plenty of colour and life, with vivid descriptions of Julia's sea journey, Roman London and the client British tribes living immediately north of Hadrian's Wall. A folklore retelling of Boudica's revolt as it might have been remembered in 4th-century London was a nice touch. Humour brightens the narrative and dialogue; for example, the Britons north of Hadrian's Wall refer to the Roman soldiers as "The Iron Hats". The author also provides a helpful Author's Note giving some indication of what is documented and what he made up.

Although the client tribes immediately north of Hadrian's Wall are depicted in a way that seems reasonably convincing to me, the portrayal of the Attacotti tribe veers into cartoon territory. Very little is known of this tribe, who are mentioned in passing in a handful of late Roman sources and who are thought to have lived in the far north of Scotland and/or in the Scottish Islands. The author quotes St Jerome (writing in Gaul) as a source for Attacotti cannibalism. I am not qualified to say whether St Jerome is or is not a reliable source, but I can say that I found the Attacotti too extreme to work well in the story. The Attacotti as portrayed reminded me of the 'Injuns' in formulaic Westerns, which for me detracted from their effect and made them less fearsome enemies.

I also had trouble with suspension of disbelief over some elements in the plot. The nefarious political machinations that result in Lucius' capture by the Attacotti felt a little contrived, as did Julia's presence with the rescue party. I suppose the whole book up to that point has been setting Julia up as an unusual woman, but her presence with the rescue mission does little to alter the outcome, so it felt to me like a gratuitous adventure invented to provide a role for a character who does not fit the accepted female roles of her time. Perhaps that was the point.

The Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as the official religion a generation before Julia is set, yet the evidence from the excavated burial was consistent with the occupant having been a pagan. This raises the question of how a prominent and wealthy pagan family was affected by the change in the official state religion. Were they under pressure to conform? Were their opportunities and social position constrained if they did not convert? Were they ostracised in polite society? Did her religion limit Julia's marriage prospects? Or did the official religion make little difference, with society paying it lip-service and no more? The novel mentions the religious issues from time to time but never really explores them in depth, which seems to me rather a shame.

A colourful story with plenty of action and a most attractive heroine.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

18 May, 2006

Empress Maud speaks

Alianore tagged me for the historical personages meme. Normally I decline memes because I can never think of anything intelligent to say, but as this one isn't about me but is about someone more interesting, I'll have a go at playing along. Gabriele has a list of the other entries.

I am: Empress Maud (or Matilda), daughter of King Henry I of England, wife first to Emperor Henry V of Germany and then to Count Geoffrey of Anjou, mother of King Henry II of England.

I want: to be Queen of England. It's my right. I'm my father's only surviving child. So what if I'm not a man?

I wish: my brother William hadn't drowned on the White Ship. Or that Cousin Stephen had. He nearly embarked on it, you know, but changed his mind at the last moment. Typical! He always was a weathervane.

I hate: Cousin Stephen for usurping my throne. My father for marrying me to Geoffrey of Anjou - I ask you, is a Count a fair exchange for an Emperor? The Archbishop of Canterbury for crowning Cousin Stephen and telling all the barons they needn't keep their oaths of fealty to me. Those uppity Londoners for chasing me out of the city - what were they complaining about? I only demanded they pay extra taxes!

I miss: being Empress of Germany. Queen of England would do as a consolation prize, though.

I fear: people will muddle me up with Cousin Stephen's oh-so-virtuous wife Matilda of Boulogne and imagine that I was in love with that weathervane.

I hear: that Son Henry is having trouble with his new Archbishop of Canterbury. I told him not to appoint Thomas Becket, but would he listen?

I wonder: was there a way to win?

I regret: letting my faithful half-brother Robert of Gloucester cover my retreat. Everything went to hell in a handcart after he was captured.

I am not: Queen of England, more's the pity.

I danced: when we captured Cousin Stephen.

I sing: mostly hymns, these days.

I cry: with frustration.

I am not always: as hard as people think me.

I made: two daring escapes, from Devizes disguised as a corpse and from Oxford in a snowstorm. Cousin Stephen never did anything half so brave or exciting.

I write: reams of good advice to Son Henry. Who ignores it, of course.

I confuse: what I have the right to with what I can get.

I need: tact, but it's too late for that now.

I should: be Queen of England. Have I mentioned that?

I start: quarrels.

I finish: still an appendage to a royal Henry, as I have been all my life. Will anyone remember me for myself?

I tag: anyone who passes by and wants to play along.

15 May, 2006

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Book review

Edition reviewed, Earthlight 2001, ISBN 0-7434-1508-6

The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in an invented world based on Moorish Spain, the story of El Cid, and the Reconquista.

The story takes place in a peninsula divided between two dominant cultures. In the north, the Jaddites, who worship a sun god, are divided into three kingdoms ruled over by two quarrelsome brothers and an uncle. In the south, the Asharites, who worship the stars, whose territory, Al-Rassan, used to be united under a khalif but is now fragmented into many independent city-states. A third culture, the Kindath, worship the moons (there are two moons in this world) and are strangers in both Asharite and Jaddite lands, tolerated to varying degrees but never fully accepted.

The city-kings in Al-Rassan and the three Jaddite kings in the north all covet each other’s territories and all try to expand their own power at the expense of weaker neighbours, whether by diplomacy, alliance, outright conquest or the levying of tribute. The stronger kings of each culture harbour dreams of first subduing or absorbing their neighbours and then conquering the lands of the other culture and ruling the whole peninsula. Both cultures have their share of political opportunists, religious zealots and racial bigots. Both cultures also have a few enlightened, tolerant, honourable individuals, and the story centres on four such people.

Rodrigo Belmonte is a Jaddite nobleman and soldier, clearly based on the historical figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (otherwise known as El Cid) from medieval Spain.

Ammar ibn Khairan is an Asharite nobleman, a highly cultured poet, soldier, diplomat, assassin and spy.

Jehane bet Ishak is a female Kindath physician living in one of the Al-Rassan city-states.

Alvar de Pellino is a young Jaddite soldier on his first campaign in Rodrigo Belmonte’s service.

Both Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan fall foul of their respective kings, are exiled and take service together in the most highly sophisticated city-state in Al-Rassan. Here they and Alvar come into contact with Jehane. All three men are attracted to Jehane in different ways, and a complex web of personal loyalties and friendships develops betwen the four. Meantime, a combination of religious fanaticism and power politics on both sides of the cultural divide grows into a holy war between Asharite and Jaddite. Caught up in this war, Rodrigo, Ammar, Jehane and Alvar find that the relationships developed in exile draw them into fatal conflict with ethnic loyalties, personal honour and, eventually, each other.

I found this a satisfyingly real and complex world. It is the most convincing fantasy world I’ve encountered since Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and I can say no higher than that. Despite the complexity of the world, I never felt baffled by strange names and places. Information is introduced, for the most part, as the reader needs to know it, and develops naturally out of the story.

Characterisation is also real and convincing, not only for the four leads but also for many of the secondary characters. Individuals have their own different cultural heritages, personal histories and motivations.

The plot is a rich and complex story, with a sense that everything fits together and happens for a reason. It’s a long book (590 pages, I estimate about 200,000 words), but there is a lot going on and there seems to be little if any padding. There are parallels and resonances that I only spotted on a second reading, and I dare say there would be more on a third. There are no easy answers to the conflicts facing the characters, and no obvious choices. I’m still thinking, “Could he have done that? What would have happened if...?” weeks after reading it.

A few things did not work well for me. I found the book hard to get into at first. There’s a Prologue, then the first chapter jumps to a different character in a different place at a different time, with no immediately obvious connection. A similar jump to a different group of characters occurs in the second chapter. There was also a lot of flashback and backstory, so you meet a character in a given place and two sentences later you’re being told what he was doing somewhere else three days earlier. By the end of the second chapter it was becoming apparent how these pieces fitted together, but be warned: you have to pay attention. This is not a book that’s forgiving of being skimmed.

I also found the style could get excessively oblique at times. There are crucial passages where ‘he’ or ‘she’ is used throughout, presumably to build suspense because you aren’t quite sure exactly who is present or what has just happened. It works as a suspense technique, but I’d often find I’d have to go back and read the passage again once I knew who ‘he’ or ‘she’ was, because I’d missed some significant points. Again, you have to pay attention. But if you do concentrate it does become clear; I never found myself drowning in a morass of confusing (and later evidently irrelevant) detail. Concentration is rewarded.

Oh, and despite it being shelved as ‘fantasy’, there is no magic. No wizards, druids, priestesses with mysterious powers, dragons, orcs, trolls, elves, supernatural forces, no absolute good or absolute evil. It reads like real history, but in a setting you happen to have no prior knowledge of.

A satisfyingly complex story of contrasting cultures and divided loyalties in a superbly realised setting.

Thank you to Rick and Gabriele for suggesting I try Guy Gavriel Kay, and to Gabriele for recommending this book in particular!

Has anyone else read it?

14 May, 2006

North West Highlands

Hello again, and thank you for your kind comments. Normal blog posts resume tomorrow (Monday). I've been hillwalking in the North-West Highlands of Scotland, a breathtakingly beautiful landscape of mountain, lochan-jewelled moorland and coastline and on a fine day in spring as close to heaven as I ever hope to find on this earth. Here are a couple of photos, both taken from the summit of Beinn an Eoin (Hill of the Bird):

Looking back down the north ridge (the route of ascent) and out to sea. The Outer Isles are just visible in the distance; it was a day when the view reaches to the edge of the world.

Looking across the corrie to Baosbheinn (Wizard's Hill). (No, I don't know the origin of the name)