I missed Friday’s post; I’m afraid it’s been a bit of a hectic work and travel schedule, plus I was unwell for a few days, so I haven’t had time to sit down and write anything long for a bit. I do have a few museum visits lined up, so I’ll talk about those when I get to them.
I also have a talk upcoming at a convention here in Cambridge in October, so stay tuned for details here.
While on holiday I caught up with some long-overdue reading, including The Bone Thief, a 2012(?) novel by Victoria Whitworth. This has since had two sequels: The Traitors’ Pit, which I have bought but not read yet, and a third one, which I believe is coming out this year, though I could be wrong.
Anyway, this isn’t a review per se (short review: I thought it was pretty good!) but I thought it would be a good way to look at one approach to historical fiction.
As you may know, saints’ relics were a very big deal in medieval Christianity. They provided a physical expression of the holiness of a saint, and possession of a particularly impressive relic could boost the standing of a church or its patron, attract pilgrims and so on. Not that relics were just some form of social engineering; naturally they were regarded with that mixture of political pragmatism and sincere belief in the supernatural that is so much the hallmark of … pretty much any era before the modern at a minimum.
And of course you know that the written history of the early middle ages can be tantalisingly (or maddeningly depending on your perspective) vague. Case in point: in 909, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, together with her brother King Edward of Wessex, brought the relics of Saint Oswald from their resting place in Bardney — which at that time was in Danish territory — to the new minster in Gloucester. I came across this incident when I was doing my PhD; Saint Oswald’s (as the church came to be known) was one of the sites I studied. And clearly the author felt the same curiosity I did: did Aethelflaed really lead a military campaign to recover some relics? Or was it more of a small, commando-type operation? A diplomatic mission? What was going on?
So it’s that story that Whitworth sets out to tell — who was responsible for bringing the relics back to Mercia, and how did they do it? If you guessed “a mismatched band of Dark Ages characters from all levels of society” and “via a series of adventures and narrow escapes,” you’re on the right track, of course. But … and here I’m just being a grumpy person … they’re hair-raising adventures and narrow etc. that don’t require you to forget things about the historical period*. Instead, they sympathetically illuminate things about it.
And no surprise there, since the author is a legit historian of the period; I probably cited her Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England more than anything that wasn’t an actual site report when writing my thesis (and brother, it wasn’t that cheap back then, I can tell you). Now, the common complaint about historical fiction written by experts on the period is that it can sometimes feel like a history lesson, but I didn’t feel that way here at all. Of course, a) this is kind of my period in the first place, and b) I really like history lessons, so I could be wrong.
The other thing that really pleased me was — and this is just a personal pet grumble — the way in which The Bone Thief portrays Christianity as a vital part of the lived experience of the medieval world, the context in which other things happen. There are pagan characters, of course, but they’re not presented as Romantic alternatives to a stuffy, life-hating Christianity. A lot of what bugs me about the way Christianity is portrayed in fiction set in the early medieval period is that it’s based on either Reformation critiques of the “medieval” church or modern celebrations of “earthy, vital” paganism. Bernard Cornwall, I’m looking at you here. But here there’s a very varied and human portrayal of the role of Christianity, including a cute scene in which our hero, Wulfgar, who is a bit of a religion nerd, is all shocked and dismayed by the sincere but procedurally-incorrect piety of the local people he meets but never quite works up the courage to say anything about it.
Anyway, The Bone Thief. Best portrayal of early medieval England within the context of a more-or-less straight-up adventure yarn yet? Possibly! I’m going to read the next one, but — and I know this is shallow — I bought it in large-format paperback and now I’m regretting that because it’s really big and it’s a pain in the butt to carry around. I do a lot of my reading on trains and things. Anyway. When I do finish it I’ll talk about it here, but in the meantime if you like the kinds of things I like you might very well like this.
(*To some extent all adventure yarns require you to forget that the circumstances under which a dangerous mission is entrusted to a well-meaning rookie are a little contrived, but that comes with the territory. Also, there’s a Hotheaded Impulsive One, a Beardy One, and The Sexy One. The Sexy One has plenty of agency and is actually a pretty convincing female lead in an early medieval story (if you want an independent woman in the 10th century, a Scandinavian merchant is a good choice).)
So we went to Villa Carlotta, a villa on the shore of Lake Como that was once a famous stop on the Grand Tour because of its collection of sculptures, engravings, cameos and so on. It also has botanical gardens if you like that kind of thing, which to be honest I don’t very much. Not that they’re not beautiful, but they just don’t fascinate me for more than the ten minutes or so we spent strolling around the grounds. The official tour can take up to 90, it seems.
But what of the house itself? Well, it’s definitely full of stuff. It’s got:
It was fascinating, not because it made me think what life was like for the people who lived there — indeed, there was very little about their actual lives, something I don’t think you’d see in a similar British or American historical building — but because it made me think about the process of the grand tour. Indeed, visiting the place seems to me to have a lot of the Grand Tour still about it, a feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on. Call it …
… call it the aesthetic experience of being educated. The thing that makes you walk out of a stately home, museum or historical site with a little feeling of satisfaction, that sense of “well, that was educational!” This has to combine with some kind of aesthetic appreciation, or it doesn’t work — you look at some paintings, you look at some furniture, you learn a fact or two about Napoleon, and you gaze out across the sparkling water at the villas on the far shore. It’s lovely, and it produces a tremendous sense of satisfaction that a more explicitly educational experience wouldn’t.
I’m not criticising that, by the way; obviously I enjoy adding trivia to my storehouse and obviously I enjoy feeling like I’m learning something. But it’s interesting to see a place that focused so solely on that. Of course, in the Grand Tour, the tourist himself or his tutor would be expected to provide the context that made it all make sense.
Again, I’m not knocking education-as-entertainment. That’s basically my career goal, after all. It was just interesting.