What is it about history that insists on slipping out of your mind (or out of my mind, at least)? History at school was never fun because of the stubborn way that only the most trivial information presented itself at times of crisis, such as during exams. As a child, I consoled myself with the observation of Sellar (Aegrot: Oxon) and Yeatman (Failed M.A., etc. Oxon) that:
“History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember.”*
Perhaps this is why we enjoy historical fiction so much—it helps bring the past alive in stories that stick. Some writers of historical fiction are so proud of their research that they desiccate their tales to the point where we might just as well read non-fiction (not mentioning any names). Thankfully, some writers mix and bake their tales with the lightness of a soufflé and Jodi Taylor, author of the Chronicles of St Mary’s, is one such writer.
The St Mary’s series (nine novels and numerous short stories by 2018 and still going) is sometimes located within the science fiction genre but it has only one sci-fi premise: that time-travel is possible. The only other general assumption is that, if anyone is going to do time-travel responsibly, then it’s an historian. The fun comes when we learn that the historians employed at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research are entirely irresponsible in their all-consuming passion to find out what really happened. They specialise in exploring times that involve historical controversy, anywhere from the time of the dinosaur to recent World Wars. With just a soupçon of romance and sadness, these novels provide an easy way to become absorbed in the past.
*If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading ‘1066 and all that: A memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’ then I recommend the experience. Amazon has it available very cheaply and there are some free pdfs floating about the internet too.
There is nothing like the behavioural reinforcement of posting your daily word count to maintain writing momentum. Thirty days after setting myself the NaNoWriMo challenge, I’ve hit 50,894 words and have a completely new way into my embryonic novel (NB: very long gestation period…but I won’t go there…just enjoying the moment).
Click on this link for a taster of where it’s all going:
“. . the Destiny of my life was cast on seeing for the first time an ‘Apollo’ in the handsome Captain Cowin of the 73rd Regiment. Even at this long period I blush to make this romantic confession, nevertheless the age of 12 may offer an excuse. ”
I was reading the memoir of Lady Dowling*, a very distant forebear of my husband. I was already intrigued, but this was the passage that captured me. Three years later, I have finished putting together a short biography of this flighty, restless woman (for details, see under Publications on this site). What I’ve learned in the process includes:
Never believe a memoirist (they leave out all the interesting parts),
Never trust a man who keeps a journal (they put in all the interesting parts), and
Never think your research won’t be contradicted by your next search of Trove.
I’ve also learned that I’m not alone in grappling with a million writing dilemmas. With this knowledge, I’m continuing to explore the border zones of creativity in the portrayal of historical people and events.
*Dowling, H. “Memoir of the Early Life of Harriott Mary Dowling Nee Blaxland: Or Sketches of India and Australia in Old Times.” In Dowling family papers 1767-1905: Manuscripts, Oral History & Pictures, State Library of New South Wales, Catalogue DLMSQ 305, Item 5, 1875.
Bringing history alive takes something very special and it is clear that Melissa Ashley has that skill. In ‘The Birdman’s Wife‘, she has blended her thorough enquiry into the life of the artist, Elizabeth Gould, with a creative realisation of how the main events in her life unfolded.
Until this work, far more people have heard about John Gould, Elizabeth’s husband for his art and science as a zoologist, mainly through his well-known book, ‘The Birds of Australia’, originally published in 1848. However, Elizabeth’s life was to change on being introduced to him by her brother:
“I still found it hard to believe that on the strength of my brother’s mention of my passion for sketching and painting, Mr Gould had insisted we meet, inviting me to his rooms to make him a drawing.” (quoted from Ashley, chapter 1)
Six children and hours of painstaking contribution as a natural history artist to her husband’s work later, Elizabeth’s short life was over, aged 37 years.
As you can see from the short quote from ‘The Birdman’s Wife’ above, Ashley has captured both the social stance of the nineteenth century woman and her use of language is pitch-perfect for the historical period.