Long Shadows: historical minds

Although I write crime novels, I feel happiest writing historical fiction. History was always my favourite subject at school – not the history of kings, generals and politicians but the history of everyday life and the exploration of a past when people thought, felt and believed differently.

When I wrote Shadows, I set it in an old Pembrokeshire house obviously carrying a lot of scars from the past – scars that could be felt or uncovered but which would remain forever unexplained. What had once happened in the servants’ garrets? What would explain the secret guarded by old panelling? Why was there a somewhat pickled body in the woods?

I wrote Long Shadows in order to unravel those unanswered puzzles, but really it was my opportunity to dive into historical fiction with as wide a reach as could be managed in a single books. In three stories I was able to write about the late Victorian period, the Stuart era and the 14th century following the conquest of Wales. I was writing about the mysteries exposed in Shadows, and about the lot of women in different periods but also about other themes.

In The Good Servant, the monster is class. Nelly Skeel, who, as a young girl, had started her working life as the lowest of the low scullery skivvy in the big house, finally rises to be housekeeper. A substantial rise in status within her profession, but she is still a servant, unnoticed by her employers who regarded the “lower orders” as a sub-species. The rich and powerful, and even the moderately successful, had always had servants, essential to the running of a household without any mod cons, but by Victorian times servants had become a vast class of their own, essential not only to provide service but to demonstrate their employers’ social standing. The rich had become the idle rich, exercising their idleness as proof of their status.

Servants, crawling out of their beds at 5am, cleaned the grates, heated the water, brought the tea, lit the fires, dressed the master and mistress, did their hair, emptied their bedpans, cooked and served their breakfast, drove them, guarded them, carried for them, posted their letters, washed, ironed, mended their clothes, nursed their children, dealt with trademen, scrubbed steps, brushed carpets, made beds, served ten course dinners, washed up, lit and snuffed candles, locked up, and, if lucky, crawled back to their beds about midnight. Whilst, of course, being ready to come running whenever a lady or gentleman rang for them. While masters and especially mistresses, in return, did as little as possible, unless it was recognised as a genteel pursuit. The rich had a favourite topic of conversation: the servant problem, how impossible it was to find ones that weren’t lazy, ungrateful, slovenly, dishonest or licentious.

The battalion of servants at one of the many country houses in North Pembrokeshire

Some employers may have harboured delusions that their servants were wonderfully devoted and loyal. In reality, most of them were resentfully desperate not to lose their positions or worse, to be dismissed without a reference, dooming them to destitution or worse. Their masters and mistresses could get away with almost any behaviour, from petulant irresponsibility to sexual assault and physical abuse, but the merest hint of insolence or impropriety in a servant would be treated as little short of a capital offense. Women servants who married were naturally expected to quit service, with the little economic independence it afforded, because their role from now on was to serve their new master: their husband. How they managed to get married at all is a mystery, since even conversation with a male was regarded as a demonstration of depravity.

Nelly Skeel, my housekeeper, is in no danger of marrying. She hasn’t the looks or the temperament to attract, but she has a position in a country house. The Merrick-Jones family depend on her unstinting service, but she is the one who is a dependant. The big house is the only home she has and if there is to be any affection in her life, it will be found there. Not necessarily a healthy affection.

In The Witch, the theme is less of class and more of religion. Society was seemingly settled at last with the restoration of Charles II, after a century of sectarian division and civil strife, but it was hatching into the beginnings of the modern world. Elizabeth Powell is a girl born into a No Man’s Land between old worlds and new. Her father stands upon his dignity as a gentleman, hoping to rise to be a baronet but he is the grandson of a mere tradesman. He is a substantial property owner, which qualifies him to be a member of the ruling class, but it is property his father purchased. He wishes to be recognised as someone of importance in the old order of things, willing to marry a daughter off to someone of approved ancient lineage, but he is really a symbol of the new order, where wealth matters more than blood. In a time of beliefs firmly held unto death he is willing, like the Vicar of Bray, to believe whatever will best advance him.

His mother, by contrast, is a product of religious fanaticism, embracing Calvinism and an unhealthy fixation on the Devil that she inflicts on her grandchildren. James I brought with him an obsession with witchcraft, a sinister menace evoking the darkest monsters of the mind. Witches were both creatures of the Devil, which would be terrifying to any God-fearing Jacobean, and women perceived to possess power, which was even more terrifying.

The age of hysterical witch trials was ending but the fear of the dark remained. Elizabeth grows up craving the power to control her own fate in a world that regards her merely as her father’s disposable property, but she is terrified of the Satanic source of such power. An age of rational atheism might be just around the corner, but she is still ensnared in a mindset where God and the Devil are very real.

In The Dragon Slayer, set in the early 14th century, Angharad also lives in a world that is shifting on soft sand, though the liquefaction induced by the Black Death has not yet dissolved the ground beneath people’s feet. The old systems, whether of pre-conquest Wales or of the feudal conquerors, were founded on land, which was the only currency of certain value in a subsistence-level society. Those with power held the land, those without were tied to the land as labourers, a part of its value, like cattle and sheep. Society consisted of lords and peasants, plus one other class: the clergy, who governed men’s souls as the king governed their bodies. But already there was a new class rising, based not on land but on trade and money. Merchants didn’t fit neatly into the feudal tapestry. They weren’t obsessed with claiming and clinging to their own patch of land; the whole world was their stage and they were free to explore it, physically and mentally.

Like Elizabeth Powell 350 years later, Angharad is shackled by her gender, property of a father whose only interest in her is what land he can gain by her. Women are born to be married off and bear children so that a man might pass on his land to his heirs. They are born to give birth until giving birth kills them. A society governed by men condemns them to be powerless and voiceless, and a church governed by men condemns them to pain and subservience for the sin of Eve. They must obey their masters, cover themselves, hold their tongues and submit.

Angharad gets a glimpse of another world and other possibilities through her friendship with a merchant’s daughter but what saint will save her from the narrow, bloody, passive role her father intends for her. It might be Margaret, the saint devoured by a dragon only to fight her way out to freedom. Or it might just be the eternal Female with a limitless power of endurance.

I enjoy being able to delve into the heads of people living in different times – people living without the perceptions we bring with us. Perceptions of marriage being about love, perceptions of belief being about choice, perceptions of geographical or social mobility being an option, perceptions of parental affection being the norm. I do a lot of delving in Long Shadows.

Long Shadows

2 thoughts on “Long Shadows: historical minds

  1. Pithy, powerful and persuasive. (Sorry, that sounds like I’ve been taking lessons from the Government’s soundbites team.) But I do agree with all of this and you do have a way of getting to the nub of things in a direct narrative that brings the subject into sharp focus.


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