History in the Remaking

I’m generally listed as a crime writer – psychological crime, admittedly, so there’s no detailed police investigation, just people muddling through and falling apart – but my books have always been part historical novel. The first three, although following contemporary women, harked back to earlier eras. Not necessarily very distant eras. The Unravelling links back to 1965/6 and Motherlove only to 1990, but A Time For Silence delves into the 1930s and 40s, and its prequel, The Covenant, is definitely historical, starting in the 1880s. My fourth book, Shadows, is set solely in the present day, but with sinister echoes from the past and those were the inspiration for Long Shadows, which explores those forgotten mysteries in 3 novellas set in periods that are now way beyond the memory of anyone living.

I studied history at university. It was only when I started the course that I realised I was studying the wrong history. Why didn’t they tell me that Medieval history would be about quarrels over succession and land grabs, the battle of Tenchebrai or the terms of the treaty of Kingston? I’d assumed it would be about the effects of the Black Death, the development of fairs and markets or the decline of feudalism. Which you find most interesting, or boring, depends on personal taste, but it was only when I’d started at university that I fully appreciated I’d been brought up on economic and social history, rather than the doings of kings and generals. I know kings had a huge effect on history – you only have to look at Henry VIII’s decision to take us out of Europe – but I feel far more for the little people at the bottom of the social pile – my ancestors – dealing with the traumas of life in a world governed by others.

So when I write historical fiction, that’s why it’s about those little people and not the headline makers recorded in chronicles, broadsheets or newspapers. The fact that I don’t then have to research the exact details of a well-recorded life might be an added bonus, of course.

The central character in Long Shadows, is the same one that occupies centre stage in Shadows, namely the house of Llys y Garn, and it offers a setting for me to disappear into the past without involving monarchs and their kin – though one or two do get a mention. The house and the rooks that haunt it have no notion of kings and queens, but they do take note of the lesser folk who live there, and who leave memories of their sins and tragedies enshrined in its stones.

So I have a story, The Good Servant, set in the late Victorian period, focussing on the unloved and unlovely housekeeper, Nelly Skeel, who fixes her lonely affection on the unwanted nephew of the house, another lost soul – but one determined to stay lost. It is set in a time of agricultural depression, undermining the economic dominance of the landed gentry, but they still presume to regard themselves as the natural rulers of country and county, a better class of people entitled to the service of the lower orders. The story is a study of Victorian class and dependency as well as the corruption of desperation.

Then I have a story, The Witch, set in the reign of Charles II, when society is still in flux, following the religious and political upheavals of the civil war and the Commonwealth. It’s a time when science and reason are beginning to assert themselves but when superstitious beliefs and fears still abound. Elizabeth is the eldest daughter of Devereux Powell a man with wealth and ambition but no ancestors of note – unless his mad mother is descended from the Devil. The old woman’s accusations against her granddaughter lead Elizabeth to wonder whether the Devil, if not God, will answer her prayers. Never bargain with the Devil.

Lastly, I have The Dragon Slayer, set in the early years of the 14th century, in a conquered Wales whose sons are obsessed with petty quarrels and rights and whose daughters must choose whether to face the brutal fate of women with the pious resignation demanded by the church, or with defiance. Angharad ferch Owain is a mere pawn in her father’s schemes to recover family land, trapped in a wooded valley from which she may never escape, but there’s a wider world out there, and merchants who travel across it. Can that world be hers?

At least Long Shadows gave me a chance to squeeze six hundred years of history into one book.

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