“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – LP Hartley
Novelists writing books that take place in the present day have to set the scene, of course, and create the sense of place. But the world they describe is one that’s essentially familiar, whether it’s in Britain, the US, or even Mongolia. Dickens’s readers understood the world he was describing, even if part of it feel alien to us (Even books written a little less than 20 years ago can feel like historical fiction. I’ve been reading Ian’s Rankin’s The Falls, published 2001, and the mentions of Teletext and WAP phones push it into another era)
.The historical novelist, however, has to take the past and make it alive and real to modern minds. We rely on research, we have to, but so much depends on our own imaginations. After all, an historical novel is only really successful if you feel you’ve been there yourself. That you’ve walked the streets, smell the stink and sweetness of history and met the people.
Yet research can only take you so far, especially if you’re dealing with the poor. All too often, their stories aren’t documented, especially before the middle of the 19th century. So many are nothing more than a name in a parish register – maybe a guinea grave, and that’s if they were lucky – with the memories vanished to nothing. Yet they had their lives and loves, their joys and sorrow.
I can only speak for myself, but giving voices to some of them is one of the things I try to do in my books. Yes, I try to tell a story to engage, but I attempt to put the reader on the streets of Leeds, along it’s people whether it’s around the turn of the 20th century, the 1730s, or the 1820s, which is when the book I’m currently writing (the fourth Simon Westow novel) is set. There are some lovely pictures, watercolours, that show Leeds in a flattering, romantic light, with gracious houses and wide avenues, a place more desirable and cleaner than the best addresses in London or Paris. For me, that comes with not just a grain of salt, but a ton of the stuff.
In the 1820s Leeds was dashing headlong into the industrial age. It was smoky – there’s ample testament to that – and filthy. Workers were pouring in to the town to take the jobs in factories and mills. What housing existed for them was shoddy at best, and however quickly speculators built, there wasn’t enough. No sewage, no running water for most. Middens, standpipes and buckets. Privies that had to be empties by hand, all the waste carted off to the market gardens outside town. For those with money, the only mod cons were servants to do the dirty work.
Not the stuff of high romance, is it?
For the poor, life was often very short. High infant mortality, and even if you did grow up, you probably wouldn’t be alive too long. From an early age you were worked to the bone, six days a week, and all for a pittance. No chance to go into shops and buy new clothes; you wouldn’t be able to afford them. Second-, third- fifth-hand was good enough. The wages went on rent and food and heat.
That’s the world I want to lead my readers into. No, it’s not a picturesque place to visit at all. The poor aren’t always good. They are thieves and killers, the same as in every part of society. They just don’t have the protection of money or connections.
I do my best to make all that real. So does every historical novelist, and historical crime novels are also historical fiction. There’s no point in painting dishonest portraits. The days when writers only had aristocratic characters are long gone, thankfully. Only a tiny percentage of people have ever had money and privilege.
Still, even if those people couldn’t vote, and wouldn’t be able to for many years, every life was political.
It still is. That much hasn’t changed.
We all do our best to make things real. But…and it’s a huge but…this is fiction. I can’t say with absolutely certainly that this is exactly how it was then. I’m not a historian, I haven’t researched each tiny fact. As far as possible, it’s true. Remember, though, first and foremost I’m telling a story. If you finish the book and believe you’ve been there, that it was real to you, then I’ve succeeded. Especially if you care about the people. Let me try to illustrate with a couple of extracts from To The Dark, which is published December 31 in the UK. You can pre-order it now. Here has the cheapest price (and free postage).
Robbie Flowers stood by the window. The glass was grimy; it had probably never been cleaned in all the years he’d lived here.
Jane was at his side, staring down at Flay Cross Mill. From up here, she could see there was order to the arrangement of the buildings below. But the years of neglect were even more obvious. Three roofs caved in, a hole in the fourth.
‘You didn’t see anything?’ she asked.
He shook his head. ‘Why would I look down there? I’ve seen it often enough.’
‘Maybe you heard a noise.’ She glanced at his face, realizing with surprise that she was looking directly into his eyes. Two years ago he’d been a full head taller than her.
‘There’s always noise.’ He pointed. ‘Listen, it’s there. People working on the river. Day and night.’
In the corner, an old woman moaned and tried to push herself out of the chair. But she was firmly tied in place. Flowers’s mother. Her mind was gone; she saw the past instead of the present. But her legs still worked. Given half a chance, she’d be out and away down the stairs.
Jane had found her by the Moot Hall once, standing, staring at the building. She’d helped her back here. Flowers worked in one of the warehouses on the river, a clerk checking the daily shipments in and out. He had no one to look after his mother while he was gone. No money to pay for a companion for her. He had no choice but to tie her in the chair to stop her wandering.
Jane had been waiting outside the door when he returned today.
‘I’m sorry,’ Flowers said. He turned away, untying the knots that held his mother in place as he spoke gently in the old woman’s ear. She’d soiled herself; Jane could smell it. She knew the man would clean his mother, then feed her, read to her until the light grew too dim.
For two or three years after it was built, Welling Court had been a good address. Set back from Kirkgate up a small flight of stone steps, it had grown up around a courtyard. But those bright days had ended very quickly. Now it was a last refuge for people who had nothing. There was no sun, no warmth, so little hope in the place. The snow had drifted into the corners of the courtyard, thick and dirty. An air of desolation hung over it all.
The room he wanted was in the attic. Simon dashed up the stairs, pulling out his knife as he ran. Jane hurried behind him. The door was locked, but the wood hung so loose in the frame it only took a second to prise it open.
The glass had gone in one of the windows. An old sheet hung in its place, but it couldn’t keep out the pinching cold. A bare wooden floor, thick with splinters. One wall had been turned brown by damp leaching through the plaster. Simon touched it and it crumbled under his fingers.
They searched hurriedly, all too aware that the constable might be on his way. They needed to be out of sight well before that happened. If anyone found them here, there would be too many awkward questions.
Two minutes was all they needed. Poole had owned a change of linen and some spare socks. That, along with the greatcoat – pockets empty – and the ancient top hat on a hook behind the door, was all. Except for the notebook and pencil he’d pushed under the bed as if he’d wanted to keep them hidden from sight. Simon scooped them up and thrust them into his coat pocket. A final sweep around the room. Nothing more here; he was certain of it.