Past or Future?


 As I hinted before, one of the reasons I’ve started this blog is that I’m intending to self-publish a trilogy of books set in ancient Greece with a mythological twist. I’ve had the usual reasons which, alas, many writers are familiar with these days from  publishers who don’t want to take them – but one pops up more frequently than most; books set in the past don’t sell, they say.

The current acceptable mode still seems to be fantasy. I’ve nothing against fantasy; I read fantasy and science fiction with pleasure, and I’ve written fantasy novels myself.  But it’s sad that at the moment it seems to be the only thing going. There’s much good fantasy out there, but also plenty of dire stuff – too many ‘feisty’ sword-slashing heroines ( why do feisty heroines  have to behave like violent men?) too many Chosen Ones finding their way among dragons and orcs and elves to the Throne that awaits them.

When I was a young reader, there wasn’t that much fantasy around. What I loved, and what expanded and excited my imagination, was historical fiction. Impossible to imagine my reading days without Rosemary Sutcliff, without Geoffrey Trease.  Historical fiction, well-told, breathed life into the dull dates and statistics of history lessons , and told us valuable things about how our present world had got to be the way it was. It reminded us that people managed to live, and live full lives, in circumstances which we couldn’t imagine in our comfortable middle-class households, that human nature was really unchanged  over the centuries.   And looking at how the Romans performed their task of conquering the world taught lessons, many not quite comfortable, about how the British had attempted to do the same, and left red smears all over the school maps we then used.  I think misguided political correctness was one reason why both conventional history teaching and historical fiction fell out of fashion in the 70s and 80s – history obviously needs to be taught in a different , less imperialistic way now, but it’s still just as important as it ever was.

Above all, it was fun.  I loved charging about in the Middle Ages,  or the seventeenth century,  or Elizabethan London – or just about   any-when as long as it was vividly and imaginatively described.  Also, much of it was gender-neutral; boys could identify with heroines and girls with heroes without really noticing that they were crossing the sex-divide. I’ve  still got some of those precious books on my shelves now; I’m looking at Ransom For A Knight  by Barbara Leonie Picard,  Redcap Runs Away  by Rhoda Power, The Gloriet Tower  by Eileen Meyler, Sun Faster, Sun Slower by Meriol Trevor  (great time-travel, this,) lots of Rosemary Sutcliff, of course. Others, equally precious, have got lost, stolen or strayed over the years.  Somewhere, there should be, but I can’t find, Henry Treece’s Thirteen Banners and  Rosemary Sutcliff’s  The Armourer’s House in a lovely OUP edition with illustrations by C.Walter Hodges –  the illustrators were as important to me as the writers; so few books seem to be illustrated any more – a great shame.

I think my proudest moment ever as a writer was when Geoffrey Trease gave one of my books a kind review – I was quite overwhelmed; that someone who was a near-deity of my youth had actually read one of my books and had enjoyed it was almost too much to take in. I remember I sat down and wrote a gushing over-ebullient letter of joy which I then tore up and reworked through several drafts, cooling it down in a very Lucy-Snowe-ish way until what I finally sent to Geoffrey Trease probably didn’t contain  much sense of the excitement which I felt but found so hard to communicate. I’m a bit sorry about that now – I think I could have gushed a bit more. And he was a nice man – I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded.

I know I’m not the only one to be saying these things – the excellent History Girls blog has been doing great stuff in publicising new historical fiction, and I hope they’re winning the battle for the rest of us.


What other historical novels do my fellow readers remember from their youthful days? Or didn’t you read it at all? Do tell me. I’d love to hear. I hope to print my top ten list in my next blog – I wonder if you’ll share any of them.

9 thoughts on “Past or Future?”

  1. Ok, here goes- in no particular order:
    Puck of Pook’s Hill
    Children of the New Forest.
    Sargent Lamb of the Ninth
    The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard.
    The White Company.
    The Bowmen of Rye (Leslie Morley)
    Sir Nigel.
    Coral island
    The last of the wine.

  2. What fun to re-discover that we travelled the same paths unknown to each other! As thousands must, of course… I have just been upstairs to look at my collection of Rosemary’s Sutcliff’s lovely stuff – I still lack ‘Bonnie Dundee’ which I read as a library book, but omitted to buy. Years later I jibbed at paying £25 for it (in Hay-on-Wye!) and regret it as her books rarely appear in secondhand shops… Impossible to choose, of course – melancholy ‘Dawn Wind’, set in the cracks of history, as so many of the best history novels are, – brilliant ‘Mark of the Horse Lord’ with the stunning ending – ‘Knight’s Fee’, which always makes me cry buckets – but one of the first ones I ever owned – The Shield Ring’ – bought in Hills bookshop in Sunderland on a trip with my father. And bought totally at random! How serendipitous… I spent the summer sprawled on carpet or lawn with Dad’s 1″ OS map of the Lake District, following every twist and turn of the story, delighting in the cunningly altered place-names… And then there’s The Silver Branch…. Dearie me, how I do go on!
    Geoffrey Trease, yes, and Mary Renault – have just read yet again ‘The Praise Singer’ – how she understood music.. and theatre, in The Mask of Apollo..
    Later pleasures – Mary Stewart’s Arthurian trilogy – rather cosy by today’s gritty standards, but still a favourite, and E.M. Peyton’s ‘Flambards’ trilogy – especially, with my passion for flying, ‘The Edge of the Cloud’. And the highest of high romance with Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series – the only complaint I have is that the dramatis personae couldn’t possibly have been that witty all the time!
    Looking forward to your top ten…

    Much love…

  3. Lord, yes, Richard! How could I forget Parnesius. the precursor of MF Aquila? And the rather fine Hymn to Mithras. And I much preferred Coral Island, so full of useful nest-building tricks, to Treasure Island which scared me s***less!

  4. Alexandre Dumas (musketeers); an obscure and mostly (and justly) forgotten German novelist writing about the wild, wild west (Karl May); and, as I discovered when I bought and started reading her Alexander novel recently, Mary Renault (what triggered the recollection was the dislike of Curtius Rufus). Oh, and Quo Vadis (which has aged VERY badly, though), and a lot of Walter Scott, and some Stevenson (Catriona & arrow: think I read each about four times).

  5. Dear Frances , Many thanks for including us in your Blogs .we are full of admiration for the way you are dealing with the unwelcome guest .
    My favourite was “Brother Dusty- Feet by Rosemary Sutcliff with the lovely illustrations by C Walter Hodges , given to me by my English grandmother at Christmas , when I was 8.. It has taken me an age to write this , as I had to find the book , and have been glancing through it . Perhaps that was your intention , in part at least!
    Melodie sends her love

  6. Cue for Treason
    The Woolpack
    Children of the New Forest
    The Driftway (more timeslip than historical)
    The School Library Mystery (which had as background the Jacobite rebellion)

  7. I am a terrible let down, I’ve barely read any historical fiction but the mention of Flambards up there has got me all nostalgic! I loved those books (and can still remember the theme tune from the TV series).

    I can’t wait to read yours though Frances! And if you ever need a guinea pig (with a vaguely Classical academic background) to read things…

Comments are closed.