Friday, 8 July 2016

'Bonnets vs bullets' or 'Can Romantic Novelists do Real History?'

Jane Jackson’s novel, The Master’s Wife, is set in the late 19th century. Captain Barata, a Cornish merchant seaman, has been commissioned by the British government to take gold to Egypt to bribe the Bedouin to favour the British in a dispute that threatens to involve Britain in war with the Egyptians. Barata has become increasingly estranged from his wife following the death of his two sons while he was at sea. Both lost in their own grief, husband and wife are drifting steadily apart and he welcomes the excuse to be voyaging again as soon as possible. His wife, Caseley, though, is desperate to build some sort of relationship with her husband and insists that he takes her to travel with him. She, after all, can speak French and she says that her language skills will ease his path in Egypt.

Having written my own story set in Egypt less than a century earlier (Burke and the Bedouin), I was interested to see what a very different historical novelist would make of this subject matter. I was even prepared to overlook the fact that Jackson writes romantic novels, a genre that I generally struggle with.

To my delight, I found that this story merges history and romance in a satisfying way. The history bits are often narrated by a convenient newspaper reporter who fills our heroine in on the background, an approach which critics may find clumsy, but which does allow an awful lot of really interesting stuff to be got over relatively quickly and painlessly. Our heroine's experience of Alexandria has an immediacy that more than makes up for the lectures and her trip to visit a Bedouin encampment was packed with detail while remaining lively and involving.

There is plenty of action and excitement to spice up what might otherwise be a simple travelogue and, of course, there is the romance. How lovely to see two grown-ups wrestling with the real demons that can eat away at a relationship, instead of dragging ourselves through the emotional self-indulgence of retarded adolescence that all too often passes for romance. Watching husband and wife tentatively reaching out, misunderstanding and being misunderstood, wanting so much to rebuild their trust but always shying away from that commitment - well, I really felt for them. It was a lovely examination of how real love [not really a spoiler] can triumph in the end.

The Historical Writers Association conference at Harrogate is going to have a session in which writers of historical romance and writers of military fiction will fight to the death (or faint prettily in a fit of the vapours) to justify their own approach to the history genre. I’d love to be there but not enough people are buying my books for me to afford conferences. (Brief pause while you listen to the plaintive tones of the world’s smallest violin.) My books are not really military history like Sharpe or the excellent Paul Collard, but they do seem to involve an awful lot of battles, so I tend to favour the books with bugles and blood over the ones with bonnets. It was interesting for me to see how Jackson covered territory that over-lapped quite a lot with mine. The differences were educational.

The first thing that surprised me was how little there was of the business of sailing a ship. This is the second book about Captain Barata and I was looking forward to finding out much more technical stuff about handling a late 19th century sailing vessel. My characters end up spending a fair amount of time at sea (Burke and the Bedouin climaxes with the Battle of the Nile) and I am always worrying about rigging and sailing speeds and different types of vessel and the circumstances in which each would be used. Jackson, though, seems profoundly indifferent to such technical details. But she does describe every aspect of domestic life aboard: what foods they are served, what the washing and sleeping arrangements are in the cabin and what clothes the well-dressed Master’s wife would wear on the voyage. Her approach and my own are both equally valid, but it is amazing just how differently two people can describe the same thing.

The difference of outlook is also vivid when we meet the Bedouin. My book sees camp life solely from the male point of view. We learn how to hunt with hawks, how the tribes fight and something about the weaponry. Jackson sees camp life almost exclusively from the women’s quarters, with dress and cookery described in detail while the men discuss politics firmly off-stage. Of course, given the segregated nature of Bedouin life, Jackson’s heroine must inevitably see a different world from my hero, but the different emphases (both legitimate) mark the way that these two sub-genres see different sides of the same picture.

Jackson is particularly strong when describing the British shelling of Alexandria, seen entirely from the point of view of the civilians caught up in the bombardment. Jackson and I are both aware of the horror of war, but she concentrates on the ‘collateral damage’ while my books focus more on military casualties. Reading The Master’s Wife, I think I could write more about the effect of war on civilians, but it would have been helpful if we could have had at least a reported account of life on the British side. This is important, as Jackson’s approach shows the bombardment as a deliberate atrocity and the British claimed that civilian casualties were accidental. Is there any evidence for either argument? And, if it was deliberate, how did the British naval crews feel as they aimed at homes and hospitals? The politics underlying wars is something I do try to explore and the feelings of those involved in the killing do seem important to me. I wonder if there is a middle ground between the almost exclusive concentration on the military that you see in ‘military history’ novels and the notion that the reality of soldiering is not suitable for ‘historical romance’. Anyone reading Austen would be forgiven for thinking that soldiers existed only as unsuitable matches, rather than that the country was engaged in an epic battle with France that absorbed most of its energies and many of its young men. Jane Austen’s view of the role of the military in fiction seems to have been adopted by many who write historical romance today.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a romance writer in possession of a good publisher, must be in want of plots that concentrate on Romance, and this is absolutely as it should be. If it’s Historical Romance, though, I think the history does need to be taken seriously. Jackson certainly takes history seriously in her writing, but she perhaps thinks that her readers might not be that interested. Thus, though I was fascinated by this little-known conflict, I had to resort to Wikipedia to learn more about it. Even the date (1882 since you ask and, if you are serious about history, you probably should) isn’t given in the text. The Master’s Wife really would benefit from the sort of historical note that is de rigeur in most serious military fiction. The war is one of the many military adventures of the 19th century which the British seem now to have forgotten and, as we are increasingly drawn into the idea that bombarding cities in the Middle East is a sensible way to resolve conflicts, perhaps we need to be reminded of them. Jackson has clearly done her research and is to be complimented on not shoving it down our throats in the story, but surely sharing some of it with the reader in a separate note could only add to the book’s strengths? After all, people who just want to get to the happy ending and then stop don’t have to read it.

Overall, this is an excellent book. Possibly there a few too many bonnets and not enough turret guns, but fans of late 19th century fashion will love the detailed descriptions of the dresses and my interest in the details of the weaponry of the period may not be shared by Jackson’s readers.

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Burke and the Bedouin is the second of my stories about James Burke. Desperately as I try to explain that Burke is a spy first and a soldier second, they may be mistaken for military history. They're not really - they're much more fun than that.


  1. A fascinating post, Tom. I think our different approaches are evident in the genre names: you write historical fiction. I write historical romance. The content is similar but the proportions are very different. In the past I included a lot more technical detail re sailing plans in relevant weather conditions, sea battles, operations on the mess room table etc, even the birth of a premature baby in a storm. I enjoyed doing so as it fascinated me and I thought it gave a more vivid image of life and conditions at the time. However, it was suggested the because the majority of the readers of historical romance are women and they are less interested in the 'what' than in the 'why' I should reduce the amount of technical detail and focus in greater depth on the characters, the reasons for their choices and actions, and how they deal with the consequences. But without context - historical detail - a story has no depth so getting the balance right is a challenge.

  2. Great post! I can also be too quick to dismiss historical romance and probably miss out on a few good reads because of it.

  3. What Samantha said, above. I like my histfic serious and well researched and am not very interested in reading romance, generally, but this is a terrifically well thought out review. I still prefer the battles, though ;)

  4. I'm with both Samantha and Terry above. I don't tend to read romance. Give me some spies any day of the week. But this is a great review. And a very thought provoking piece. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Fascinating post - I may print it out and frame it! And the comments were spot-on too. Thanks!