I read today in one of the historical novelists’ Facebook groups I belong to that the one constant when we write is how people felt in the (sometimes distant) past. We have to research the food they ate, the clothes they wore and the kind of social relationships that existed but the one thing we can be sure of is that the emotions we experience today are the same emotions as our forebears felt. I didn’t argue with the thought, but I’m just not sure that it’s true.
For a lot of years now, I have spent a good deal of my time in the Middle East and when I wasn’t there I was in other places – Africa, South East Asia and the Americas, North and South. When I started writing the James Blakiston series set in the north-east of England in the 1760s, I needed a way to show the religious views held by many of my characters. England already had no shortage of atheists but the majority of people would express Christian thoughts and you just don’t hear that in this country any more. You do still hear it in places like Saudi Arabia (though, of course, the religion being expressed there is Islam and not Christianity) and I quite shamelessly put that Islamic way of speaking into the mouths of eighteenth century English Christians. I found it worked quite well because I was reproducing a mode of speech with which I am familiar.
Religion and emotion are, of course, different things but I think you can extrapolate from one to the other. One of the things you realise in the Gulf is that the Enlightenment has not happened there which means that ways of thinking and of feeling that we take for granted in the West are far less common. I’m open to argument here, but it seems to me that a major legacy of the Enlightenment is that it makes the individual paramount. That is simply not the case in the Islamic Middle East and it seems to me that overlooking that fact is one of the most obvious mistakes made by our politicians when they formulate policy towards the region. We talk about western style democracy, in which the individual comes first, as something that everyone should have and, if they don’t seem to be asking for it, we should press it on them. For example, we completely misunderstood what people like to call the Arab Spring (and it’s questionable, in any case, how Arabic that “spring” really was since it was actually a Mediterranean phenomenon – the countries involved were Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and it’s easy from this distance to overlook the fact that those are all Mediterranean lands). We thought people were demanding the right to self-determination when what they actually wanted was to be sure of a roof over their heads, the ability to feed their families and educate their children and security from the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
One of the most interesting books I have read on English history is The Voices of Morebath. Christopher Trychay was vicar of the small Devon parish of Morebath from 1520 to 1574 and he kept a record of parish life in far more detail than most parishes can provide. The Reformation was, of course, a lot earlier than the Enlightenment and the glimpses this book gives us of what people thought and how they felt reveal an English people far from who we are today and much closer to what we still find in the Islamic Middle East.
For anyone who wants to understand who we once were and to think about how those people developed to become us, The Voices of Morebath is required reading. I recommend it in the strongest possible terms.
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