The Picky Historian
Although I’ve done a number of historicals now – enough to say I am a ‘historical novelist’ – I still feel that not all historical eras are equal. People have said to me ‘the Tudors are very popular. I’d like to see you do something set in Tudor times.’ I nod politely, because there’s no predicting where my muse might take me next. But inside, I’m still going ‘ew, the Tudors. They’re all torture and paranoia and witch burnings.’ I can’t really imagine wanting to write in an era where my nation’s best battleship sunk because someone forgot to put the plug in.
This is slightly hypocritical of me, because I like the Anglo-Saxons a lot, and they are not without brutality either. Plus, their technological level is much lower. But they nevertheless seem more civilised to me – a thoughtful, religious, melancholy people with less tendency towards burning women alive. Maybe I’m reading too much from the example of King Alfred and the Venerable Bede – both the sort of humane intellects I wouldn’t mind meeting in real life.
I love the 18th Century, and I love the Saxons in the ninth century before they began to suffer too badly from Viking invasion. Part of this is the clothes. I can’t take Henry VIII seriously in his padded bloomers, but when we’ve moved on to tricorn hats and white silk stockings of the Age of sail, or the cloaks and the gorgeous jewellery of the Anglo-Saxons, well, then you’re talking. Aesthetically, they were good times.
But it’s more than that. I prefer civilization to savagery – I like to write in a world in which I would not find it unbearable to live – and both eras are periods in which it’s possible to exist and be respected as something other than a warrior.
The 18th Century is a time of great exploration and excitement. The world was opening up before Western Man, and new things are being thought of every day. The boundaries of their compassion are expanding, and for the first time people are beginning to think about freedom and equality and the rights of man. An awful lot of what we take for granted nowadays was first being thought of in the 18th Century and it’s fascinating to watch it blowing their minds.
By contrast, the 9th Century is a time of peaceful nostalgia. They were looking back at a semi-legendary great age of heroes and contenting themselves with the fact that they were not so glorious. In a way, it’s a feeling that we modern people can empathise with – the idea that life used to be lead in bolder colours and now we are living in a faded age. On the other hand, it was also a time when England was largely at peace. The Saxon social structure was cooperative and personal, surprisingly egalitarian, and people had time to concern themselves with the big questions like the meaning of life and the nature of morality that tend to get pushed aside when you’re at war. They were a thoughtful people.
I read a lot of 18th Century journals as part of my research, and I find no difficulty in liking these people. They are urbane and amused, confident and surprisingly open minded. They have none of the self-righteous imperialism and prudery of the 19th Century, and while you’d have to cover the ears of the sensitive, because of their vulgarity, I wouldn’t feel a qualm about inviting them around for dinner. The tendency to fight a duel at the drop of a hat would be worrisome, I suppose, and they do drink and quarrel a lot, but they’re never quite what you expect. I think Jane Austen, who was that little bit later, would be shockingly disapproving of them. But in a fight between Lady Mary Wortley-Montague, lady of letters, who travelled the world, wrote letters from Turkey, and invented an early form of smallpox inocculation, and Jane Austen, my bets are on Lady Mary. She, at least, had attended the Empress of Austria when the fine ladies of Austria exhibited their honed pistol marksmanship. I think she’d be the one to walk away from that duel.
In the same way, I feel safe with the Anglo-Saxons. King Alfred with his anxiety attacks, who invented the horn lantern and the navy, and taught himself to read, and subsequently wrote fanfiction and meta about The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius while setting up schools so that every noble child could be taught to read – he’s the kind of hero I can admire. Caedmon is the first person who ever wrote religious literature in the English language (before that, you had to use Latin.) Alfric is still revered today, among those who know enough Old English to have an opinion, for the superb elegance of his writing. Bede gave us the BC/AD dating system we still use today. The Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf is the person who converted me to Christianity. His words were so powerful that they reached out to me from a thousand years in the past and changed my life.
When I open books set in the Dark Ages and I see they’re all about fighting and brutality and war, I am sad, because it perpetuates the notion that the only thing that matters in a man is how well he can kill people.
I wanted to write a book to honour the other people who made this culture what it was. The scholars, the leeches/doctors, the musicians/historians, the women, the nuns and monks – the culture the warriors existed to protect. And that, as it turned out, became The Reluctant Berserker, which is due to be released on the 25th of this month. Woohoo!
I really hope I’ve managed to get across some of what I love about the culture. But you’ll have to be the judge of that
Wulfstan, a noble and fearsome Saxon warrior, has spent most of his life hiding the fact that he would love to be cherished by someone stronger than himself. Not some slight, beautiful nobody of a harper who pushes him up against a wall and kisses him.
In the aftermath, Wulfstan isn’t sure what he regrets most—that he only punched the churl in the face, or that he really wanted to give in.
Leofgar is determined to prove he’s as much of a man as any Saxon. But now he’s got a bigger problem than a bloody nose. The lord who’s given him shelter from the killing cold is eyeing him like a wolf eyes a wounded hare.
When Wulfstan accidentally kills a friend who is about to blurt his secret, he flees in panic and meets Leofgar, who is on the run from his lord’s lust. Together, pursued by a mother’s curse, they battle guilt, outlaws, and the powers of the underworld, armed only with music…and love that must overcome murderous shame to survive.
Contains accurate depictions of Vikings, Dark Ages magic, kickass musicians, trope subversions and men who don’t know their place.