Memories are getting shorter, I guess. Halloween has taken over our British celebration of Bonfire Night, the one I remember from childhood, when after dark on November 5 we lit bonfires in our back gardens (I can still smell and taste the charred mouth-searing baked potatoes!). We had our own clutch of fireworks: rockets stuck in milk bottles, catherine wheels pinned to the garden fence, sparklers, bangers setting the more timid (as I was) scuttling indoors. ‘Light the blue touch paper and retire immediately,’ the fireworks’ instructions said. We knew then that it was all about the man who tried to blow up Parliament, Guy Fawkes, whose image made of old clothes we’d burned on the bonfire.
Now that Bonfire Night has become simply a matter of civic firework displays (and not even that this year), I wonder how many of us remember anything of what it’s all about? Ought we even to remember, or would this long ago terrorist plot that failed be better consigned to oblivion?
For many people the Gunpowder plot comes down to a joke that Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter parliament with honourable intentions. Not that his intentions were honourable—it wasn’t just the government of his day that would have suffered if he’d succeeded in exploding his barrels of gunpowder concealed in the basement of the Houses of Parliament, but the population of London for miles around. And he was in fact only a very small player in the conspiracy, chosen for his useful military experience to light the touchpaper. The driving force behind the plot was a very different man, the devout, passionate Robert Catesby, at the heart of a network of friends and kinsmen, all part of the persecuted Catholic minority of Jacobean England.
I’ve long been fascinated by the seventeenth century, a period rather neglected as far as the school curriculum and current historical fiction goes, and wrongly so, I believe. There’s an old saying, that those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it (another says the only thing to be learned from history is that no one ever learns anything from history, which maybe comes to much the same thing). The question of how people of deep faith of whatever kind can be led into extremism and even terrorism seems to me to be a very current issue, and one that could helpfully be examined in the light of the past. Maybe that’s over-stating what I’ve been trying to do in my new novel, which I hope is mostly just a good story. One difficulty with recreating the past in present-day fiction, is that it means taking religion very seriously, as an intrinsic part of most people’s lives, in a way that is completely alien to the modern writer or reader, at least in western Europe. In much historical fiction, the religious aspect tends to be sidelined, or told from the point of view of an anachronistic scepticism. I have tried to get into the minds of my characters, to understand their faith as they saw and felt it, difficult though that often is.
Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so many years to complete ‘A Hidden Fire’, with so much writing and re-writing, and long pauses in between. But it’s now, at long last, ready to be launched as a kindle ebook https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Fire-Helen-Cannam-ebook/dp/B08LQMB1LS . If you’d like to pre-order it (for a modest £2.09) you can do so now, and it will be delivered to your kindle on—well, the obvious date: November 5!