Through the eyes of the past?

I guess no author of historical novels can ever quite leave herself behind. In any attempt to create the feel of a past age, there will always be a little fissure that lets in something of the twenty first century, so that the picture is never quite complete.

There’s one area in which this is especially true. We live in a secular age (especially here in the UK) and few novelists have any religious affiliation. So for any writer trying to bring to life any period before the twentieth century (and even for a good bit of that century) this demands a considerable leap of the imagination.

Not long since, ‘The Historian’ (magazine of the Historical Association) gave up a whole edition to the subject of historical fiction. There was one comment in a piece by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society, that rang true for me. He complained of the ‘securalised viewpoint’ of modern writers of historical fiction, who ‘rarely present religion as heart-felt…any religious sincerity is usually seen in a negative light…’ As a result, he maintained, one is presented with characters ‘willing to kill and/or die for their faith written by people who have no wish to understand either motivation.’

Yet during all but the most recent times, religion was absolutely central to the lives of most people, and religious views were held with greatest sincerity. Is it not unhistorical to pretend otherwise? There were atheist and agnostics in past ages, and even religous people must have had doubts from time to time. But to ignore the centrality of faith is to fail to make that complete leap into the past.

So when it came to writing ‘Stranger in the Land’, dealing with the early miners’ union in the Durham coalfield and the strike of 1832, I could not treat it simply as a matter of industrial relations in the modern sense. For all the resemblances to, say, the coal strike of 1984, there was a huge difference: the miners’ leaders were not Socialists or Communists, but Primitive Methodists – and it was their religious beliefs that informed and directed their leadership of these unions. Thomas Hepburn, whose portrait still IMG_1669adorns banners carried each year at the Durham Miners’ Gala, was an impressive, principled figure – and a Primitive Methodist lay preacher. His beliefs fired his concern for the well-being and dignity of his fellow colliers, for their need for education, restraint and self-respect. Without his leadership, and that of men like him, the early unions could not have been the force for change that they were, even set against the might of the coal owners.

As I said, no writer of historical novels is able entirely to leave herself behind. There is always going to be a twenty-first century viewpoint creeping into the people, places and events in the story. But it is important to try as far as possible to get into the minds and hearts of these long-dead individuals. Only then can the story really be read as a ‘historical’ novel.

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