In life, there isn’t a lot you can do about Time. Like it or not, it goes on in just one direction, inexorably. Sometimes it seems to be passing slowly (hospital waiting room) or whizzing by (fun evening with friends or family) – but those are just perceptions. You can’t hold on to a lovely moment, or fast-forward tedious or tragic weeks out of your life.
That’s where a writer has the advantage. If you’re a writer, you can play all sorts of tricks with Time; you can stretch it out, or curl it up into a ball, you can bend it, tangle it, twist it, do anything you like with it. Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway make a single day last for hundreds of pages, while The Count of Monte Cristo unfolds over years. You can go back into Time Past, as in Puck of Pook’s Hill, or jump into Time Future; The War of the Worlds; you can change the past altogether, as Joan Aiken so brilliantly does, so that we can visit the England of James III.
I used to love time travel stories, and one of my childhood favourites, which I’ve recently found again, thanks to the power of the internet, was Sun Slower, Sun Faster by Meriol Trevor, a story which takes two young twentieth century children on a tour of the history of Catholic England. It’s still a compelling read, though it has more history, and more religion, in it than a modern child would probably want. But the central story, where a Jesuit priest escapes from Elizabethan pursuers is genuinely exciting still. Writing time travel stories can present problems of management - ( I felt that Audrey Nifenegger in The Time Traveller’s Wife made unnecessary work for herself by having her hero arrive back in past time naked) – but Meriol Trevor overrides all of these. Her twentieth century children arrive back in history appropriately clad, speaking and understanding the language, and are taken as ‘cousins’ by the historical children they encounter. When they return to the twentieth century , no time has passed, so no-one has missed them.
Historical novels for young people aren’t fashionable at the moment. When I was a young reader, Fantasy barely existed, and historical novels offered the kind of imaginative escape that Fantasy does now. I loved Hilda Lewis, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece, Rhoda Power. And especially, of course, Rosemary Sutcliff, who made the Dark Ages no longer dark to so many of us. I believed that she must have been a great traveller herself to have written so evocatively about so many times and places – what a shock to find that a childhood disease had rendered her almost immobile – but that’s the power of writing for you.
If you’re writing a historical novel, you’ll find that as you write, you’re actually inhabiting that time in your head, so that you return to your own time with a lurch of surprise. Probably, you’ve done a good deal of research into your period, though of course you try not to let it show. Yet you often find that when you make a guess where you don’t have the facts to hand, that guess turns out to be almost spookily accurate.
The writer of straight historical fiction has to solve problems, too: how do your characters speak? Authentic sixteenth century dialogue would be quite unreadable, but you have to be careful that you don’t let twenty-first century idioms contaminate your style. You want a style that your reader hardly notices, yet which feels authentic. Also you need to avoid letting all that lovely research you’ve done hang heavy in your prose. We’ve all read the equivalents of ‘By’r lady,’exclaimed Dickon, fingering his parti-colored liripipe, the latest fashion from the court of King Louis…’ And yet your reader needs to feel immersed in your chosen century. It’s not easy.
But, when it works, it’s great fun. And until Thomas Cook offer us Time Travel excursions via EasyJet, the best way of going back in time is to write or to read about it.