When I was little, we didn’t have many books. Not that we didn’t like them. We did. But we didn’t own many. We’d moved to a new suburb on the edge of town and for several years there wasn’t much there except houses and dirt roads and orchards and bush. Then when I was about seven, two amazing things happened: they connected us to the sewerage system (which made reading on the loo much more relaxing – no more worrying that the Pan Man was going arrive while you were sitting there), and, wonder of wonders, a new library was built.
And I discovered the magic shelf in Children’s Fiction: Authors by surname, S to Z.
It changed my life. And what I write now is directly related to what I read then. The books I found there (and on other shelves) were part of a golden age of historical fiction for children.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been consciously re-reading some of the books I remembered from that shelf (and a few others). I re-read several of these in recent years as part of research into approaches to historical fiction. But over the last few weeks I have consciously tried to immerse myself in them, one after the other – a feast, or an experiment, or a binge. Or perhaps all of the above.
Here’s what I’ve re-read:
- The Lantern Bearers (1959)
- Knight’s Fee (1960)
- Dawn Wind (1961)
- Sword at Sunset – sort of (1963)
- Bows Against the Barons (1934)
- The Barons’ Hostage (1952)
- Cue For Treason (1940)
- The White Nights of St Petersburg (1967)
- Danger in the Wings (1997)
- Hounds of the King (1955)
- The Children’s Crusade (1958)
- Horned Helmet (1963)
- Knight Crusader (1954)
- Nicholas Carey (1963)
- Tank Commander (1972).
And favourites from the A – H shelf:
- Devil-in-the-Fog (1966)
- Smith (1967)
I also re-read The Silver Sword (1956), by Ian Serraillier, which I loved as a kid and found disappointing as an adult reader and Lawrence Durrell’s White Eagles Over Serbia (1957). These technically aren’t historical fiction, as they were written about events in the lifetime of the author (post-World War 2 Europe), but I read them as such when I was young.
I was interested in exploring commonalities and differences in approaches, technique and content in historical fiction of the post-war (UK) golden age, and what and how we write now for middle years and young adults.
Many things have changed since these books were published, and even across the decades of these authors’ careers: writing styles, approaches to writing for different reading levels, politics and attitudes; and thanks to archaeology and archival research we know a great deal more about some of the historical periods in which they are set. When I first read these books, there wasn’t really anything we’d define as Young Adult – that generation of authors helped create YA and children’s fiction. We now have a greater technical understanding of how different age groups read, how literacy operates, and (hopefully) about cultural diversity and gender issues.
When these authors were at their peaks, they could assume a certain level of historical knowledge in their readers. A ten year-old might not know much about the Marcher Lords or Edward Longshanks, but they’d get the general gist and they’d certainly know about Roman, Saxon and Norman Britain, for example, or where Vikings came from.
Now, when I ask a class if they’ve ever heard of Napoleon Bonaparte or Cleopatra I get blank stares. That makes me sad, although those students know a whole lot of other stuff that I don’t know.
And of course, these were all UK authors aiming primarily at a UK readership, but even we on the edge of Melbourne knew this general history. We didn’t learn much about the history of our own country, and especially not about its indigenous past, so some things have changed for the better.
The point is, I now can’t assume any consistent historical knowledge. It’s something I need to be aware of when I’m writing – I have to make sure to include as much political and historical, sometimes also religious or geographical, context as possible, all without seeming to do so.
Issues in common
Almost everyone who writes historical fiction grapples with the question of how much detail to include in the story. Everyone – even the masters – struggle at times with filling in political back story or placing the action in the context of historical events. It often feels heavy-handed, especially when there are a lot of names of historical figures and battles or events and they all happen off-stage.
Things that drive me mad, such as having to mark the passing of months or even years, are handled with aplomb by Sutcliff and Trease. They are just upfront about it – rumours swirl, messengers arrive, years or months pass. They are especially good at noting changes of seasons – easier when your setting is agricultural.
I often spend some time deciding how to treat violence and especially brutality for middle years readers. These writers, although often writing about war, skim over the details.
Perhaps that’s why many of the climax points seem underwritten or oddly paced – a battle, a confrontation, a fight is over so quickly that it can easily be missed or its importance go unrecognised. They need perhaps more of the thriller technique in these scenes – more menace, more visceral action, and perhaps more reflection.
There’s no coyness about bloodshed in the Treece Viking books, though – indeed, how could there be? You can’t write about Viking warriors without a whole lot of heads being whacked and swords red with blood. Why would you?
Of great interest to me, given my 1917 project, was Ronald Welch’s treatment of the horrors of war in Tank Commander. He certainly doesn’t shy away from depicting the horror of trench warfare, of death, of the fear and panic soldiers experienced when trapped in a trench with shells exploding all around. Welch served in WW2, as did Treece (Trease did too, but as an Army Education Officer – a perfect role for him), which perhaps helps him achieve a level of verisimilitude in his portrayal of men living with the trauma of constant battle. He even describes the execution of a young soldier for cowardice, and there’s no disguising the death and the bloodshed. The moral implications are barely explored – on one hand, the protagonist, John Carey, has sympathy for the young private when he sees him cowering and muttering in the trench – on the other, he doesn’t question the sentence or regret its aftermath, but that is probably a fairly accurate portrayal.
People die in these books – friends, kin, even major characters.There is grief and loneliness, just as experienced by so many young readers who lost family members in the war.
You can tell a lot from the first line of a book:
The moon drifted clear of a long bank of cloud, and the cool slippery light hung for a moment on the crest of the high ground… – Dawn Wind
I asked, weren’t we taking the pistol, or anyhow the long, murderous-looking pike … – Cue for Treason
Though Methuen usually lived at his Club whenever he was in London it was seldom that he was seen in the bar or the gaunt smoking-rooms. - White Eagles Over Serbia
Beorn was only a boy when his father jumped off Ness Rock into the sea and was swept away like a piece of black driftwood. – Horned Helmet
He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel… - Smith
Sutcliff is always painterly, setting the scene as if a curtain is rising.
You’ll often hear the advice from Elmore Leonard: “Never start a book with the weather.” But we’re not all Elmore Leonards. The world needs Rosemary Sutcliffs as well.
Trease kicks off with a bang, then backtracks in the first few pages so you know where you are and whose story it is that you’ve been sucked into – cheekily in Danger in the Wings which begins:
In those first heart-stopping moments – he always remembered afterwards – the course of his whole life must have been decided. It was when he saw the ghost.
A few pages later, we’re relieved and possibly disappointed to learn that it’s the ghost in Hamlet and that the life-changing moment has to do with the theatre.
This is the technique I tend to use, especially for middle years. My young adult books veer a little more to the scene-setting opening. So far.
A common theme in many of these books, for obvious reasons, is destruction and upheaval. Sutcliff’s post-Roman Britain, the setting for many of her novels, is a metaphor for the ruin of Europe and the UK after WW2 and especially the bombing raids. Her Britons are trying to rebuild, or are holding back the tide of violent invasion or starving in the rubble.
An overall theme, as is often the case with historical fiction, is that of individuals caught up in the great events of their time. Many of these novels consciously engage with real historical figures, so that their fictional protagonists meet up with Elizabeth 1 or Vortigern or Edward Longshanks. In The White Nights of St Petersburg, young David is caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution. In The Lantern Bearers, Aquila is the last Roman soldier left in Britain. The several hostages in The Baron’s Hostage are kept prisoner by Simon de Montfort, while the boy Beorn goes a-Viking with Jarl Skallagrim in Horned Helmet.
They blend a real and imagined history, and focus on great events as experienced by ordinary (or at least not famous) people.
Garfield’s characters are entirely imagined, and they inhabit exotic landscapes familiar to any reader of Dickens or Stevenson – the gloomy underbelly of the city, the dark side of human nature.
So in these books, we can see at least two common approaches to historical fiction: portraying the past as a fascinating foreign country; or drawing parallels between the past and the now.
Structure and plot
These are mostly quests, and it’s noticeable how episodic the narrative is as we follow along the hero’s journey – more so, I think, than in recent novels. The structure is often a simple series of scenes that are not always narratively linked – or at least, they don’t build up across an arc. Early episodes don’t necessarily relate to later plot points or the inevitable climax. Sometimes earlier plotlines fizzle out. It’s as if adventure is enough. And it was, for the young me.
Perhaps this is conscious and related to theme, with the quest sometimes feeling aimless because the world is destroyed and there is no clear road ahead, or because the hero is a soldier living from battle to battle.
But not always. Cue for Treason is plotted like a mystery with a fair degree of foreshadowing, White Eagles Over Serbia is an action thriller, while Knight’s Fee is driven by character. Garfield writes tight, brilliantly plotted books with twists to make Dickens gasp. There are several strands – the overt plot, plus perhaps a romance, plus a character growing up or changing in some way.
In other cases, it seems that a series of exciting situations is enough. Or the progression of an historical event, such as The Children’s Crusade, is simply followed – with a bit of an escapade at the end to liven things up and get the children home in an ahistorical rescue.
On re-reading, I was shocked at the racism and anti-Semitism in Knight Crusader and Nicholas Carey. Every “foreigner” and/or bad guy is “swarthy” (what an ugly word), every Italian and “Arab” untrustworthy, and everyone who is Jewish is avaricious. And probably swarthy as well. Needless to say, they all have minor roles. As a kid, I loved Welch’s series about the Carey/d’Aubigny (no relation to Julie) family, and my brother and I used to fight over who got to read them first. If I noticed this nasty tone, I’d forgotten. Probably I didn’t even notice it, sad to say.
Now, if you’re writing about a character who holds those views, as every Crusader did, you might need to write these attitudes into their world view. (In fact, one of the least convincing and historically inaccurate Crusader characters of recent years was Orlando Bloom’s Balian in Kingdom of Heaven, with his modern liberal – almost Orientalist – attitudes and lack of crusading zeal.) Many characters in all of these books voice their contemporary attitudes, especially about gender. Medieval parents disapprove of girls being uppity or wanting to avoid an arranged marriage. That’s as it should be if you’re reflecting the mores of the era.
But in Knight Crusader in particular these come through in the authorial voice. And don’t tell me that it’s because Welch was a man of his generation. You don’t read that kind of nonsense in Trease. Sometimes you come across ignorance about people with disabilities or indigenous people. But not outright nastiness. Mind you, I did also notice hints of homophobia in Sutcliff’s Knight’s Fee, in which the bad guy wears scent and has a high laugh.
It’s a long time since I’ve read a modern book for middle years or young adults with an adult protagonist, as there are in The Lantern Bearers and White Eagles Over Serbia. It’s much more common now to have the main character a little older than the anticipated readership. In fact, it’s de rigueur.
But it’s not always possible. If you’re writing about war, for example, as I’m doing at present, the protagonist has to be old enough to go to war. Not every book about WW1 can have a young lad running away and lying about his age to enlist.
What on earth makes us imagine that kids don’t want to read books about adults, nowadays? I imagine it’s due to the obsession with ‘relateable’ characters, on which I’ll post soon. But kids watch movies and TV shows about adults. They act as adult protagonists in games. Over about eight or nine years-old, I reckon young readers are perfectly willing to see the world through the eyes of someone older than them, so long as the rest of the narrative is of interest. If it’s a straight out adventure, why not? Plenty of kids are still reading The Lantern Bearers (more than 50 years after it won the Carnegie Medal in 1959).
Similarly, some of these books are written from the point of view of the protagonist as an adult looking back. They might end, as do Cue for Treason and The Baron’s Hostage, with the hero happily married to the heroine and perhaps writing down an account of their youthful adventures. You don’t see that often nowadays either. But it’s a bit like the epilogue to the Harry Potter books – it draws a boundary around the possible futures you might imagine for the characters. This is how it ends. Don’t bother trying to imagine anything else. Oddly unsatisfying, but perhaps that’s just me.
In The Children’s Crusade and The Silver Sword, in particular, the child characters behave in ways inconsistent with their supposed age. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to know how old people are meant to be, as if there is some kind of generic child behaviour and voice that is applied to everyone, whether they’re six or sixteen.
Most of the protagonists in these books are men or boys. These were authors writing in the tradition of the ripping yarn – of Biggles and Jack London – assuming that adventure tales or tales of war were for boys. Female characters, even in these books of Sutcliff’s, are sketched lightly. Even Regina in Dawn Wind – a haunting character – gets little chance to exercise much agency.
But not Trease. He was one of the first to consciously write pairs of protagonists – one male, one female, and relatively equal (although not quite). The books are often from the male point of view, in some cases there is a hint of romance between the two – or more than a hint – and the young woman’s behaviour may be proscribed by the values of the period, but she is right there in the adventure. These young women are brave, tough, outspoken and engaged in the action.
I did note that there are many characters, possibly too many for a young reader to keep track of, in some of these books, especially when most of them are so lightly sketched it’s impossible to tell them apart. Even some of the protagonists seem to have only one feature – courage, perhaps, or ambition or restlessness – and don’t gather more attributes over the course of the novel.
But then there’s Dog (Dawn Wind), for me, one of Sutcliff’s most memorable characters in spite of having no lines beyond the odd warning bark – so memorable in fact, that to this day I long for a wolfhound, and my great canine love, Lily, looked like a miniature version of Dog.
Language and voice
There’s such a range of writing in these books, from Sutcliff’s glorious landscape paintings to Durrell’s detailed miniatures. To our eyes, both of these authors may not seem to write for a young readership: the language and sentence structure are pitched at a high reading level, and the protagonists are often adults. They are prototype young adult books, in which the reader can get lost in both language and story, which assume an educated and willing reader – of any age – and defy the idea that writing for children should be any less complex than writing of literary for adults. (In fact, in some ways, it can be more complex.)
That said, it’s possible to overdose on Sutcliff’s prose, or perhaps it was easy for her to get carried away with both description and historical detail, and after one too many moons and hillsides and dawns and glens and heavy oak doors, even my eyes started to glaze over. As a result, I have failed, yet again, to finish The Sword at Sunset (which, although a sequel to Lantern Bearers, isn’t really a kids’ book).
As I’ve noted before, Geoffrey Trease was the early master of the transparent voice in historical fiction, trying to ensure that the historical didn’t overwhelm the fiction – designed so that younger readers barely notice the voice and get straight into the narrative. Danger in the Wings has a more casual 20th century teen tone than other books, and therefore has dated a little, but in general the technique stands the test of time (as it does in Robert Graves’ I Claudius, published the same year as Bows Against the Barons).
A curious thing about Danger in the Wings, though: its language seems to be pitched at quite a young age group, and yet prostitution and VD are hinted at and much of the book is concerned with romance. That’s unusual among these books.
Sutcliff tries to create, in voice and in description, an atmosphere to allow the reader to feel her setting. Her characters say, “It is in my mind that…” or “Let you ride awhile”, but it’s not an intrusive ye olde worlde affectation. She was scathing about what she called “gadzookery” in historical fiction.
The language in the Welch and Treece books is more workmanlike, and its role is to drive the reader along on the adventure. Which it does. But it’s never going to win a prize for beauty.
Two things you’d never get away with now, and nor should you try: the grown-up gather-round-little-kiddies-and-I’ll-tell-you-an-uplifting-story narrative voice and didactic tone of The Silver Sword.
I suppose there are still hit-you-over-the-head moralising books about, but with so much choice, I don’t see why any young readers would bother. Once you get into the story, you don’t notice as much, but the beginning and the ending are more Edwardian in tone than post-war.
Another hero of mine is Leon Garfield, who renders dialogue of eighteenth century London equal to the best of Robert Louis Stevenson – perhaps sharper. We rarely now see the likes of this:
They came to Vine Street. Said Mister Mansfield: ‘If you’ve nought better to do, will you come in and take a bite of late supper with me, Smith?’
‘Don’t mind if I do, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Care to stay the night, Smith?’
‘Don’t mind if I do, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Any family, Smith?’
‘Sisters. Two of ‘em.’
‘Likely to worry?’
‘Then it’s settled?’
‘Just as you say, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Anything else I can do for you, Smith?’
Smith sighed ruefully. The only thing he really wanted, Mr Mansfield was unable to provide.
‘No thank-you, Mister Mansfield. You done all you can.’
Glorious. Now, the Stephen Kings of this world would have us live without that “ruefully”. But you see here how a master can blend sparse and descriptive language without it feeling overwrought. Most publishers would ask an author to avoid trying to render colloquial speech or dialect on the page.
But again, how perfect, how Dickensian, is the “Sisters. Two of ‘em.”?