I was shopping for a gift recently, and I did that thing that you’re not supposed to do — that is, I went to the kinds of places I would like to receive a gift from, which are similar to but not quite as the same as the kinds of places my friend would like a gift from.
Anyway, while browsing a bookshop, I did that thing I always do where I see a book on a topic I know nothing about and decide I must know more. Fortunately, I have a well-developed response to this impulse and I didn’t buy anything, but I was tempted by half a dozen titles including Nicholas Rogers’ book on the history of Hallowe’en (a topic about which I know a leetle but not an enormous amount).
Like I said, I didn’t buy it. I came home all virtuous and got an email from an editor asking me for, among other things, a piece on the history of Hallowe’en. I guess I can always claim it as a business expense now.
As I may have mentioned, the last few weeks have been a great opportunity for me to catch up on my reading. At the moment, I’m in the middle of James Ellroy’s latest, Perfidia.
I have blown hot and cold on Ellroy in the past — I love the LA Quartet, particularly the three ones everybody loves (that’s The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz for those unfamiliar), but I was less excited about the next three books. Perfidia seems to be an attempt to drag them all together by creating a unifying sort of dark history of WWII and postwar America. This means recapitulating a lot of stuff from the LA Quartet, to which this is essentially a prequel.
But it’s this idea of dark history that intrigues me. Ellroy has always used the fact that Americans typically have nostalgic views of the 1940s and 1950s to good effect: he depicts a world in which the guardians of law and order are racist thugs who spend all their time getting drunk and having sex with prostitutes and breaking into people’s houses and sniffing underwear and talking bullshit tough-guy philosophy and there’s just stale food and dog shit and razor blades everywhere.
Now, the fundamental truth — the people protecting the established order were a bunch of racist thugs, or at least willing to collude with racist thugs — is sound. But aesthetically I do wonder if we’re not seeing a modern version of that “everything is covered in filth” view of the middle ages that gradually rose from being an alternative take on the period to being the dominant one in the media. For a long time, this was obviously some kind of psychodrama: we know that James Ellroy lived in a house full of dog shit and broke into people’s houses and spent a lot of time drunk and, I don’t know, threw beer cans full of piss out the window, whatever James Ellroy characters do. And when it’s atmosphere in a crime novel, fair enough. But like all useful correctives, let’s not go nuts here. Let James Ellroy present history programs on TV — I hope you like hearing him say “BAM!” as much as I do — but let’s keep a little perspective.
I don’t know, I’m not necessarily criticising. So far, at least, he manages to avoid the usual conspiracy-history thing of just letting ordinary people off the hook. The conspirators are racist thugs, but only as racist as most people around them. It’s the thug part that’s different.
Anyway, I mentioned a word from our sponsor, but we don’t have any sponsors so we’ll have to have blatant self-promotion instead! DriveThru is having their annual Christmas in July sale, and lots of great stuff is on sale including my own The Barest Branch, the Viking Lovecraft horror story so unmarketable that I actually spiced it up with a drab brown cover and a who-gives-a-shit blurb. It’s available in both PDF and MOBI, although I have no idea how you read the .mobi with the Kindle app. It works fine on an actual Kindle, I know that much.
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).)
It has been a while since I finished a book that wasn’t for work in some way, whether something my students were reading or a book was reviewing. I’ve started a lot of books, but I haven’t finished one lately. Until, that is, I finished The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood by Robert Hutchinson, which a friend lent me.
And it’s … OK. The problem is fundamentally that the subject is a lot more interesting than the actual book. Thomas Blood was one of those scoundrelly adventurer types who emerge in times of political instability — in this case, the post-Civil War and Restoration period. He was a military veteran associated with various mostly failed anti-Stuart risings, kidnappings and robberies, most notably the attempted theft of the Crown Jewels in 1671. He’s right in that very interesting overlap between organised crime, terrorism and intelligence.
But the book is … well, let’s just say it’s not very well written. Let me give you a sample sentence:
With the prospect of war with the Dutch looming ever nearer on the horizon, accompanied by the unacceptable risk of concurrent sedition and insurrection being fomented amongst religious dissidents, it was imperative not only to deactivate the known renegades but also to quieten nonconformist resentment and anger at the congregations’ treatment at the hands of the government.
Which is Hutchinson’s way of saying:
As war with the Dutch approached, Arlington decided to counter the threat of nonconformist sedition not only by moving against known troublemakers but also by addressing some of the congregations’ grievances.
It’s like he thinks every sentence in the book is going to be the only one you read. Or, like, this kind of thing:
Matthew Pretty, who drew pints of ale from the tavern’s barrels …
“Who drew pints of ale from the tavern’s barrels.” Or, in English, “the barman.” And ale doesn’t have anything to do with anything, because Pretty’s actual testimony, reproduced in the next paragraph, describes a group of men coming into the tavern and ordering … wine. It’s just words for the sake of words, and it makes an interesting story hard to read.
And so much of it is just stock phrases. Consider:
Ormond busied himself dispatching instructions the length and breadth of Ireland to destroy the conspiracy, root and branch.
Or, if you prefer:
Ormond sent out instructions to destroy the conspiracy.
Anyway, it’s still an engaging story, but Hutchinson’s prose style makes it much harder to read than its roguish main character and exciting incidents would suggest.
My friend Kit moved recently and was kind enough to ask if I wanted some surplus books. I tried to be moderate, but it didn’t quite work out like that. Anyway, this pile arrived today:
As you can see, the period Kit is mainly interested in is a little later than mine … except.
It so happens that this year I’ve been tutoring quite a lot of 17th-century history, and even a little bit of 16th-century stuff. Some of these will come in quite handy if that happens again next year — I find the OU primary source volumes particularly useful for showing to students.
And then I stayed up until two in the morning reorganising my study to find places for them on the shelves. It does look much better now, though. Next I’ll actually sort the shelves by subject.
As I have possibly mentioned before, the library at the school where I work periodically gives away old books that have been withdrawn from circulation. Most of them aren’t in fields I’m interested in — history isn’t a big part of the curriculum — but you occasionally do find some quite interesting stuff. Yesterday I grabbed these:
I’m less interested in the modern politics of the police, but the history section in here is very clear and would have been super useful when I was making Tuesday’s post about the history of policing. And although I don’t know much about medieval theatre, the first words I saw when I flipped the book open to a random page were “by my balls!” so you know it’s going to be enjoyable on some level.
We own a lot of books — not as many as some, but more than most, and just about as many as we can conveniently store here in the study plus a bookcase for fairy tales and inconsistently-selected mythology in the bedroom.
But as I was recording the first of my proposed reader questions videos today, I realised that I could no longer find my copy of Richard Fletcher’s Bloodfeud, which is about how what you might call “police” problems were handled in Anglo-Saxon England. I’m certain I used to have it.
And for that matter, I swiped my mother’s copy of Pd James’ The Maul and the Pear Tree, which was about the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and now I don’t know where that is. And I think I left my copy of The London Monster in Germany some years ago, but if I didn’t I don’t know where the heck it is.
Since I like having books and hate losing things, it’s been a stressful afternoon.