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Life is Precarious

Life is precarious, and our hold on it uncertain. That’s always been true, but it seems that people have forgotten it. We have medication that keeps people alive with conditions that, only a few years ago, would have killed them. It’s easy to believe that threats to life have been overcome; those in their teens today may even believe that they’ll live for ever. They won’t.

Life in the eighteenth century was a lot less certain

A lot of research went into my James Blakiston series, some of it to do with the ages at which people died and what it was that carried them off. Illnesses that we now know as TB and flu were rife. Here is a passage from the first book in the series, A Just and Upright Man:

On the fourth of February in a winter that was taking no prisoners, Blakiston might have expected to find everyone clustered around the fire – and that is exactly where the aged Benjamin was, being fussed over by his wife who was twenty years younger than he was. His two sons, however, were hard at work in the biting cold. Blakiston watched them, struck by the single-minded intensity with which both young men worked. Then he returned to the farm house to take a dish of tea by the fire with the old man and discuss how they would manage the change from a three crop to a four crop rotation.
As he prepared to leave, Blakiston said, ‘You have two good sons.’
‘Aye, Master. They’re good lads, both of them.’
‘It is a pity that both cannot inherit the tenancy. The younger boy…Tom, is it?’
‘Aye, Master. Tom is the second born.’
‘From what I have seen he would make a better farmer than many who are already tenants. But it cannot be. This farm is not large enough to divide. We need bigger farms, not smaller.’
‘Well, Master, God’s will is God’s will.’
‘Do you say so? Tell me, Benjamin Laws, have you any other children beyond those two?’
‘A daughter, Master. Henrietta. We call her Hetty. She is a scullery maid at the Castle.’
‘And how comes it that a man of advanced years has sons so young?’
‘Twas the influenza, Master.’
Ah. I am sorry.’
‘Aye, Master. I had a wife and five bairns before what you see me with today. And then the influenza came, in 1735 I think it was, and in three weeks all were gone but me.’
‘A sad story.’
‘It was the same for many.’
‘And that, too, was God’s will?’
Blakiston saw the startled expression in the old man’s eyes and realised he had better take this no further. ‘Well, Uncle, I shall keep you from sleep no longer.’

That was how life was, and the people knew it. Cholera and typhoid were other killers and it was not so many years before that that plague halved the population of England. And these killers did not respect rank – a king or a bishop had almost as much chance of dying as some farm labourer in a hovel.

Those 18th-century killers are still at work

That isn’t the case now, and it could be that the reason that Covid-19 is getting so much attention when tuberculosis (and, if it comes to that, measles) kills far more is that most of the people dying from TB are not white and not middle-class and have very little buying power and are therefore of little interest to our western media. If the virus serves no other purpose, perhaps it might be useful in bringing home to all of us a lesson that, once, did not need to be taught: that life is precarious and our hold on it tenuous.

Passing the time in self-isolation

If you are observing self-isolation, you may find that this is a very good time to spend with a good book. You’ll find the first in the James Blakiston series here and the second here. If historical fiction is not your bag, and you’d like to take a look at the way people live now, try this one or this one.

Moriarty Meets His Match by Anna Castle

I came to this book, the first in the Professor and Mrs Moriarty Mystery Series, because I so much enjoy the author’s Francis Bacon historical fiction series. The Moriarty books are different from the Francis Bacon books, as you would expect from such an accomplished writer, and it’s a mark of just how accomplished she is that – with just a couple of niggles, which I’ll come to – she manages so well the switch from Tudor times to the late Victorian age.

This book turns on its head the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. In Anna Castle’s version, Moriarty is an upright citizen of impeccable moral standing and honesty, while Holmes is a conceited, self-regarding bungler. Holmes is out to get Moriarty and to pin on him a series of murders, the unravelling of which is at the heart of this book. As with her Francis Bacon books, Castle brings us an outstanding heroine who would inspire in any man the thought, “My dear woman, just say the word.” And she does say the word (to Moriarty) and he responds as any red-blooded man might be expected to.

The niggles? They are not enormous, but they do matter. Anna Castle is American and writing a book set in Britain among British people is no easier for American writers than the reverse is for British writers. All the big, important stuff she gets right, but I found myself unwilling to believe that a London club of the quality Moriarty belongs to would serve its members American whiskey – and, sure enough, a few lines later she confirms that he is, in fact, drinking Scotch so it’s whisky and not whiskey. There are a few similar examples and, while they don’t detract from the quality of the book, they are there. There’s also a tendency, when her characters get into a real mess and you are wondering how on earth they are going to get out of it, to resort to the “With one bound she was free” solution. Finally, as a long-time fan of AE Housman, I was delighted in the early stages to discover that – like Housman and the object of his unrequited love, Moses Jackson – Moriarty is employed in the London Patent Office. Sure enough, Jackson turns up quite quickly and Housman immediately afterwards and I had great hopes that they would feature prominently in the novel, but that doesn’t happen. Perhaps in later books? We shall see.

Those are the reasons why I give this book four stars and not five, but I repeat that they do not detract from the enjoyment. I recommend this book without reserve to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, the unravelling of a crime, characters who emerge alive from the page and have completely believable motivations, a good love story, and/or first-class writing.

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Murder by Misrule by Anna Castle

This is a really good book. I like historical fiction, but – like many other historical fiction readers – I tend to stick with the periods I know, and I don’t know Elizabethan times. Anna Castle obviously does. The details she gives – food, clothing, social relations, office-holders, and much more – are convincing. What turns this from a good book to a really good book, though, is (as it has to be) the plot, the characters, and the motivations. I have to give Murder by Misrule five out of five on each of those heads. I’m not going to provide a spoiler, but I will say that the late scene involving Trumpet was not just an entertaining surprise. It was captivating. I’m delighted to have found a new author to add to my “must read” list.

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Impact by Rosalind Minett

Historical fiction is not just about Regency heroines, Knights of the Round Table, and the tribulations of Henry VIII’s wives. Anything set 50 or more years ago qualifies as historical fiction; apart from including my childhood and first employment in the Bahamas and Libya, that also takes in World War II and its aftermath.
Rosalind Minett writes beautifully about that time and, right now, her biggest and best book is on special offer. Impact can stand alone, but is the third book in a trilogy about a fateful rivalry between sturdy, well-meaning Bill and his frail, artistic and manipulative cousin, Kenneth. Their adolescence is spent in a London experiencing post-war austerity and what readers get from this book is not just a personal battle between two young men (and I know whose side I’m on) but also an insight into a world I remember but that is rapidly being forgotten.
That’s what you get from good historical fiction: a believable sense of what used to be. Right now, the Kindle version is on sale for 99p (there’s also a paperback that will cost you rather more). It’s a good book and I recommend it strongly.
Those whose eBook preference is not for Kindle will find the book at:
Apple
B&N
Kobo

Nobs or Nobodies?

THE historical fiction debate

Should we write about kings or commoners? About nobs or nobodies? I know where I stand on that question — and you can hear my side of the argument here.

The  book I talk about in that video is here.

Listen to an extract from A Just and Upright Man

A Just and Upright Man cover R J Lynch updated June 2014

A Just and Upright Man is a crime and romance novel set in the northeast of England in the 1760s. I’m in the process of recording the audiobook version and you can listen to Chapter 2 here.

That’s my voice you’re listening to; the reason I chose to record my own book is that I was brought up in the northeast of England, so I know the accent is authentic 🙂

The audiobook won’t be ready for a while yet, but you can get the paperback here (post and packing free wherever in the world you may be) and the Kindle version is here.

 

Download a free audiobook sample from A Just and Upright Man

A Just and Upright Man is the first in the five book James Blakiston series of romance and crime novels set in northeast England in the 1760s. The second book in the series, Poor Law, should be published by September 2015; in the meantime I’m recording the audiobook of A Just and Upright Man and you can hear an extract by clicking on the link above.

If you’d like to be informed when the audiobook is completed  and available for purchase, email me on rjl@mandrillpress.com.

 

This is a Romance and you’ll love who I tell you to love

A Just and Upright Man cover R J Lynch updated June 2014

Preparing A Just and Upright Man for publication as an audiobook – an audiobook in which I, the author, am also the narrator – has brought me closer to the people behind the text than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I empathise; but sometimes they make me laugh. Take this passage, which is part of what I dictated today:

Blakiston stood in the dark looking out of his window onto the silent, deserted road outside and thinking about the day. The dreadful sight and smell of Reuben Cooper’s burnt body. The strange interview with Martin Wale. Claverley’s account of so many children, all to be investigated if the death turned out not to be the work of malign fate. A man wandering the roads, who might be Irish or might not, and might be a killer or might not, but who at any rate must be found and questioned. The looming shadow of enclosures. A drunken farmer and an idle one, both to lose their livelihoods if he had anything to do with it.
And, underlying all, the painful recollections that never quite went away, of the woman he had expected to marry and the hurt of his loss. He would never allow himself to love again. Of that he was certain.

So, James, you’ll never love again? Listen, mate, this is a Romance. Capital R. Which I am writing. You, my friend, will love whoever I tell you to love.

That Kate Greener’s a nice girl – don’t you think? What? Not your class? Get outta here.

“Emotions stay the same.” Not according to the vicar of Morebath

Duffy_Morebath

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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