For Want Of A Nail… Horses and The Historical Novel – Guest Post

I’ve invited a very special guest to write a post for me this time out.

I first met Helen Hollick through her Arthurian books, and I loved her vision of Dark Age Britain. A Gwenhyfar who was fierce and real and very solid, Arthur who was very much un-shiny and probably smelt of horse a lot. And the two horses he likely smelt of – Hasta and Onager. Who may or may not have influenced Tyburn and Doubting Thomas….

Nearly every historical novel has at least one horse in it somewhere. Unless it’s a nautical novel or set in the Americas pre-Christopher Columbus. Although, even sailors came ashore, where they would, one way or another, meet with a horse.

So, horses are important. You are unlikely to read a contemporary novel that didn’t, somewhere, mention a car or a bus or a ’plane … a mode of transport, which is exactly what horses were. Cart horses, plough horses, riding horses, carriage horses, war horses. All of them in a variety of colours, heights and breeds. Big horses, little horses. Fat ponies, thin ponies. (Oh, and donkeys and mules.)

You would think, then, that authors would take more care about their inclusion of the  Noble Equine in their novels. The majority of authors take great care, time and trouble with researching their historical facts, diligently describing within the narrative the accuracy of locations, living conditions, clothing, food, battle tactics. Accuracy adds believability to the characters who move through the text as they love, laugh, squabble – or whatever. But the research and accuracy of fact all too often falls short once a horse trots into a scene.

The thing is, when reading historical novels I can pick up straight away whether the author has, or hasn’t, a clue about horses beyond the fact that they have four feet and can gallop about. Good novels have believable characters doing believable (or sometimes unbelievable in the ‘astonishing heroic adventure’ sense of the word) things. But it is a rare treat to read a novel that has believable horses or horsey scenes. (I might add that TV and movies are even worse for this – including horse-orientated TV dramas or movies!) That luxury carriage, or rough and ready stagecoach, cannot be pulled for miles by a team of horses running at a gallop. Come to that, a single horse carrying a rider cannot gallop for miles without serious consequences. The longest British horserace is the Grand National, which covers a little over four miles … but these horses are athletes, fit, healthy and trained. Oh, and carrying very lightweight jockeys. In North America the Quarter Horse  excelled at sprinting short distances of a quarter mile or less. Think sprinter Usain Bolt rather then long distance Sir Mo Farah. Even when used for hunting, horses would not be galloping about all over the place for hours at a time. (Much of hunting is standing around in the rain or cold waiting for hounds to find a scent.)

So there is speed to consider, and distances – how far can horses go in a day? The answer will vary depending on the nature of the terrain, the type of horse, the ability of the rider. A horse can probably travel about 25-35 miles (40 – 56.5 km) without a rest if it is walking at a steady pace. Maybe about 50 miles (80.5 km) if it is fit and healthy, and again the pace is steady, alternating between walk and trot. An endurance competition horse can manage about 100 miles (161 km) in a day. But most horses of the past were not modern, fit, healthy endurance horses!

Then there is the ‘tack’ – bridle and saddle. Saddles have changed a lot from Roman times to present day, especially where a lady’s side-saddle is concerned. Modern side-saddles have only been around since the mid-1800s. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, it is actually more comfortable and safer to ride ‘aside’, providing the rider is seated properly and the saddle fitted correctly. And men also rode aside: grooms would ride a lady’s horse and wounded soldiers returning from war who had lost limbs could continue to ride with a side-saddle.

Breeds. Ponies and horses are very different – one is not just a smaller version of the other! (Give me a pony every day if you want something intelligent and robust. Horses, however, if you want fences to not be knocked down, hedges squeezed through, and to know that of an evening they will be where you left them in the morning. Harry Houdini is not a patch on an escape artist Exmoor pony!) We have lost many breeds over the years: the warhorse Destriers, the lady’s quiet Jennet… Nor is it realised by many an author that in the earlier centuries, up until about the thirteenth, most horses were under fifteen hands high. (A hand = 4 inches and you measure to the withers. If you don’t know what the ‘withers are – look it up!)

If you look at the Bayeux Tapestry all the riders seem to be riding small horses – that’s because they were riding small horses! In one novel I looked at some while ago, set during the fifth century King Arthur was riding a very large horse with lots of hair around its feet: the description of a Shire horse. The story was, apparently written by a history academic. Well he or she needed to go back to the classroom, Shire horses were not around pre-Tudor.

And as for feed… Horses do eat grass and hay, but to be kept fit, for strenuous use – pulling carriages and carts for instance – they need corn. Note to USA readers: no, this does not refer to corn on the cob/maize, which would not have been known in England before the likes of the Conquistadors and Sir Walter  Raleigh. A ‘corn fed’ horse means one fed on grain like oats and barley.

On the other side of the coin, to read a novel where the writer clearly knows her horses is a treat. I cite mine host here. Ms Logue and her motley crew of (alas fictional) rogues ride believable horses, doing believable equine things.

Black Beauty became such a classic because Anna Sewell knew her stuff, and any horse person will instantly understand the ‘for want of a nail’ quote:

For want of a nail the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost, for want of a rider the battle is lost, for want of a battle the kingdom is lost – and all for the want of a nail.”

I’ll leave you to figure out why just one lost horseshoe nail could cause such devastation.

Horse people will know.

Helen’s Exmoor pony, Mr Mischief  © Helen Hollick

Website: https://helenhollick.net/

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Discovering Diamonds: reviewing historical fiction, submissions welcome  

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Writing By The Seat Of Your Breeches

Writing By The Seat Of Your Breeches

I was chatting yesterday with a friend – who is a Very Famous Author, I might add, and I’m not going to tell you who they are but I have known them for some considerable time. I say that so you appreciate that this was a most informed and erudite discussion and did not in any way involve discussions about poo.

Anyway, the purpose of this discourse (yes, of course I’m writing one of the new Russell books: he’s catching, like the mange) was talking about writing style. I was being interviewed for a blog as apparently I’m an extreme pantser. We decided this was a most undignified manner of description as my friend is also a pantser, to a lesser degree, and we much preferred the term discovery writer.

This conversation seems to have uncorked something and it’s ten to nine on a Saturday morning, my house needs cleaning, there’s a cat on my foot but I need to set down a certain relation concerning a shiny new ship called the Fair Thomazine and the blustering shyster who’s allegedly had her on the blocks in the Blackwall Yards these last twelve months. (Henry “Surely Some Relation” Johnson, as it happens.) And it prompted me to think a bit more about how the book currently known as “Kitchen, Or, Russells 0.5” is being written. (Today is the anniversary of King Charles I’s execution, and someone has just passed the title of a 1649 pamphlet across my radar, and the book has quite literally just got a title – A Conscientious Exercise. You read it here first.)

There are bits of it, as I said to my friend, all over the damn’ place. Possibly even over two laptops, and that’s extreme. It had started as a short story that had been written because I wanted to know what happened – partly, as I often joke, because a certain crazy blond lieutenant still needed his Happy Ever After, but partly (and more reasonably) because there was unfinished business at the end of the Civil War series and that troubled me because I don’t like loose ends.

So there was going to be a theme to the series: that, if you like, was going to be the string of the necklace, the series was going to be set around the Russells’ courtship and marriage. And this is where the discovery-writing thing comes in: there was no way either of them were ever written to be conventionally romantic. That was always going to be in the background, but it wasn’t going to be – to continue the necklace metaphor – the pearls.

Sometimes I know what year the book is set – because chronologically it has to be, in their personal timeline: I know they weren’t in London during the Plague, for instance, and only tangentially involved in the Great Fire – and I can work backwards from there. What happened in 1671? Pick anywhere in Europe? And sometimes something will pop up on one of my social media feeds from one of my 17th century academic friends, a snippet of research, a name, a date, and I think – but what if….? And sometimes those things start out as just a couple of hundred words, or a scribble. One notebook per project, no order necessary, just bits and pieces of inspiration as they arrive which may – or may not – find their way into a Word document and be worked up into a scene. Which may – or may not – be then slotted into the working-draft copy, or may end up as the inspiration for a short story, or may end up being a whole new book in their own right, as they feel most fitted.

Thinking about it, I don’t think I am a pantser. I have a map in my head for the beginning and the end, and I’m led by the characters as to how they get there. I’d not like to be the author to dictate to Thomazine Russell that the plot dictates she must have an affair with another man, as an instance – she’d not, and that would be the end of that particular plot device: see you back at the drawing board! I’m not sure I’m entirely a discovery writer either because they’re not discoveries, they’re things I already know. I’m applying how I know my characters will react, to developing situations.

If anything I think I might be an organic writer, or a pearl writer (in my head, the Major does one of his unconvinced sniffs and says nothing, very pointedly, about oyster-snot) but things grow, organically, layer on layer. I can train ’em to grow in the direction I want, and sometimes I have to just let them grow as they see fit and prune them back into shape afterwards. I have a seed of a concept, and it turns into a thing over time, and it’s only once it’s become an actual thing that I can start working with it. I can’t make it coherent until it’s grown up enough to be independent, and I suspect Colonel Hollie would be drawing parallels with breaking in a young horse at this point. He’d get it. Sometimes you get what you get, and you have to stand back and let it grow a bit to see what it will be most fitted to become before you start trying to make it into something it maybe isn’t fitted to be.

All this being diversion, of course. I’m a pearl-writer, but the oyster is currently the Blackwall Yards in 1665 and my hero has an appointment with a coffee-house, an elderly Sicilian salami, and Henry Johnson Junior – in that order of importance.

Howling At The Moon

Or, Two Crazy Blonds Meet A Psychiatric Nurse….

Wulfhere, the hero of our tale….

So astonishingly enough, it seems I’m still alive, still writing, and Hollie’s still stuck in Yorkshire but he’s got an end in sight. Mostly the end of Scarborough Castle, and poor lamb, he has no idea what the New Modell’d Army has got in store for him next year, but – at least he might get to go home for a bit soon.

(He might also have to take the boy Hapless with him, if nothing else because the bloody idiot is hell-bent on spending his off-season lurking around the Rosemary Branch tavern in Islington writing seditious pamphlets. But that, as they say, is a whole other story…)

So I was chatting last night to my friend Paula Lofting, who writes the Sons Of The Wolf series, set in the eleventh century. In civilian life Paula’s a psychiatric nurse – which explains why Wulfhere and the nest of snakes in his head is so sensitively and honestly drawn.

Despite being buff, bellicose, and blond, he’s a thinking, feeling, tormented hot mess. The hero of my series is broken, mildly bemused, and about the only thing Wulfhere and Thankful For His Deliverance Russell have in common on the face of it is hair colour.

Or… is it?

Paula managed to catch up with the man himself recently – I think getting him to open up about the traumas that have made him what he is, has been like nailing jelly to a wall: always difficult to write about a man who tells you nothing – and my boi chipped in to be unhelpful, because it’s what he does best.

Well, Wulfhere, have you had a drink this morning like I told you not to? – your eyes look a bit glazed?

Oh, get off my back – I’m trying, all right?

Wulfhere, you’ve been trying as long as I’ve known you.

Then you should know how hard it’s been, right?

Yes, and you never used to be like this? Lately it’s been poor me, poor me –

Aye, I know, poor me a drink. Do you have any, by the way? The old devil looks at me with that old glint in his eye, but it still worries me.

What?

Mead.

Wulfhere! No! Here, some warmed buttermilk.

I was joking. God I cannot even make anyone laugh anymore.

I haven’t seen you laughing or joking for a long, long time, Wulfhere. I can’t remember that time. Not since Ealdgytha left. And actually, probably long before. Long before Wulfwin too. I know I’ve touched a nerve here; the blue eyes suddenly look grey.

Thanks for the reminders.

I’m sorry, I know it hurts but maybe if you talked about it more, you’d get it off your chest and not have to get drunk every day to manage your emotions.

Well, I’ve never been any good with those. But I’m here now.

So, you want to talk? I mean about stuff? And why you’ve been such a prick lately.

Am I really that bad?

Yes, you are.

Christ’s blood, I never mean to be, I just feel better if I’m angry.

As I said, you never used to be like this. When you were young, you put up with a lot from your father. You said you would never treat your children the way he treated you and your brother, Leofric. What happened?

He seems to be pondering. He sits down on the porch outside the longhall, looking defeated.

She did.

Which one? – there are two women you’ve tortured throughout this story!

That’s not fair! They haven’t been exactly easy to get along with.

I can’t help but burst out laughing. And I don’t think those ladies are the only bad thing that’s happened to you, there’s a few people that you can blame the way you are on, Helghi for one. Earl Harold for another.

I can’t lay the blame at Harold’s feet, he was just doing what he thought was right.

I’m inclined to agree with him, however he hasn’t always thought that way and I can’t blame Wulfhere for feeling resentful. Come on Wulfhere, you know he’s made your life difficult and you can’t deny you have felt aggrieved by him.

This is true. I have. I shouldn’t have given in so easily to him. And now I feel guilty. My father wouldn’t have.

Don’t beat yourself up, whilst Harold was only trying to keep the peace in his precious Sussex, he could have listened to your concerns more, after all you were the best of friends once. And another thing, you’re not your father.

I’m not my father, nay. As for Harold, I did think at first perhaps his idea of Freyda wedding the son of my enemy would help solve things between my family and Helghi’s. The earl has always had the knack of making you think he is doing the best for you. But I can’t help think that my father would have stood up to him more.

Wulfhere, that’s not true. None of his men have ever defied the earl as much as you have over this. You married Freyda to Leofnoth’s son instead, if that’s not standing up to him, then I don’t know what is. Then when Harold ordered that Winflaed should marry Helghi’s son, you did all you could to stop that from happening. It wasn’t your fault that in the end Win decided to offer herself as a bride for Edgar. There are tears in his eyes now at the thought of his darling little girl in the hands of Helghi. You did your best.

Ealdgytha didn’t think so. Nor Wulfric. He told me I am a coward. But he doesn’t know how hard I tried to stop her from going to Helghi’s.

So there, you feel guilty. And I can understand that. It’s the job of a father to keep their children safe, and you’ve lost two already because of this feud.  

It’s not the best time for a crazy blond from the 1660s to join the party, but there is never a good time for Russell, really. (Also, he stopped drinking a long while ago, when it stopped agreeing with him. He’s a coffee man, and he doesn’t like the look of mead. Or warm buttermilk.)

Children are precious, no? He looks thoughtful, or terrifying, depending which side of the scar you’re looking at. I have all this to look forward to, you understand. My boys are two and four. Hellions, the pair of them, but too young to be considering such matters. Your father was, I think, a harsh man, but fair? For myself – I was reared by my sister. Who was harsh, and not fair. She told me I was worthless, and wicked, and that I deserved for the Lord to punish me. It was my own fault that she could not love me as a child deserves to be loved, apparently, and she must hurt me for the good of my soul. She said. You are not your father, Wulfhere, any more than I am my sister – but before God they make us what we are, still.

I see my Wulfhere looking very strangely at this weird looking guy from another time as if he’s gone mad, then he smiles, showing off his own horseshoe scar from a sword swipe on his cheek as though it’s a scar competition.

My father was harsh. He is looking at Russell. He took no prisoners and he brooked no fools. And he hated seeing me and my brother in tears over something he considered childish. He once whipped my arse bloody because I lost the first blade I was ever given. I was twelve. I was supposed to be a man, and the seax was to signify my free status. Men don’t shed tears, my father barked at me. After he’d finished, I went to my bed and spent the next moments sobbing. He came into my chamber, dragged me out, and whipped me again, just for crying. After that, I tried not to show my feeling. Then I met Ealdgytha and Aelfgyva.

Very sensibly – and most uncharacteristically – Russell says nothing, shivers as if something has walked over his grave, and lets Paula carry on uninterrupted…

So you grew up thinking you had to be harsh too? You never touched your children. Never. If anyone was punished it was Ealdgytha who did that… until Tovi.

Oh God, Tovi. I didn’t want to do that. But he slapped his mother, and I couldn’t let the boy do a thing like that. Not to his mother.

No, I can see why you felt you needed to belt him. But my point was that no matter what your children did, you never laid a finger on them. You threatened them enough times, but you would never have done that.

There was a time when I would have rather cut my sword hand off than hurt my children. I always said I would not do what my father did to me. But that day I broke my oath because my son hit my wife, and that was unacceptable. Believe me I hated that, but today I know that wasn’t the worst thing I ever did to him.

What was, then?

I sent him away. Took away everything he ever desired in life. So you see, it’s not always the pain that you inflict on flesh that hurts the most, but the harm that words and actions can do.

Russell, leaning up against the longhouse wall, is nodding fiercely in agreement.

Look what I did to Ealdgytha? Time and time again I made promises I couldn’t keep, betraying her for another. Then that thing happened with the child. I led her to believe my own bearn by another woman was a foundling left in a byre. Who does that to their own wife? And Aelfgyva, I let her down. I promised I would never abandon her and I did that twice.

And now you feel sorry for yourself.

Look at me. One son is dead, killed by my enemy. Wulfric hates me. Aelfgyva took our child away from me. I haven’t seen Tovi in three years and may never see him again and I long too. I’ve lost my little bird, Winflaed, to Helghi – I’ll never hear her wittering away at me again. Freyda is married and has a life of her own, and Ealdgytha has gone and taken the smallest one, Gerda, with her and who can blame her. And all of it is my fault.

And that is why you are constantly off your trolley?

What?

Off your face. Out of your skull. Drunk.

Oh. Aye. I have come to that conclusion.

Good, now we’re getting somewhere.

We are? So, getting off my face, so I can forget what an idiot I am, what a bad man I am, is a good idea, right?

Of course not, but at least we understand why you are drinking. After all, drinking to oblivion is generally something people do when they don’t like the way they feel.

I didn’t realise that was why I do it. But I like feeling as though I don’t care. I like it when I am drunk and angry.

And maudlin?

Nay, that usually comes before the drinking.

Hmmm, I don’t know. I have seen you maudlin and drunk.

Have you?

Yes, I have. Look, now that we know why you drink, I want to ask you about Ealdgytha. He looks devastated at the mention of her name.

I thought you would.

How, Wulfhere? How could you be so stupid? You had her in the palm of your hand, and you messed it up again!

I know.

You could have started over. She would have come round. But then you had to go and call her bloody Aelfgyva!

It’s hard. I’ve thought about this so many times, and all I can think of is that that woman cast a spell on me! She has cursed me. Even Ealdgytha thought that too.

Now don’t do that, Wulfhere. You know I come from the 21st Century. I’m not going to let you do that. It’s not even right for an 11thc person to blame something that is their fault on witchcraft. He gives me that sullen, ‘you bitch’ look. Don’t do that either, young man.

I’m 38 going on 39.

Ooh! Same age as me! – sorry….

That’s young in my world. Right. You know why you called the woman you were trying to convince to stay with you the name of your lover, don’t you?

Do you think I meant to say it? I tell you she has me in her –

Nope! We are not doing it. Listen, I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it, but come on. You have to face the truth, you loved her. You have always loved her, Aelfgyva, I mean. She is as much a part of you as you are yourself. And when you can’t have someone, you obsess about them.

I loved them both. Is that so wrong?

It is when you have a wife!

Many men have mistresses, and their wives accept it.

Hah! Mine would put my balls between two bricks, were I so foolish as to stray from her bed. Ah. Sorry. I’m not being helpful, am I?

Russell, shut up! I’m frustrated by Wulfhere’s misogyny, but I have to accept that things were different back then. Wulfhere, you are not like them. Those are the sort of marriages where there was no mutual attraction. They marry for convenience or their family. You and Ealdgytha had a beautiful alliance. You were so happy together. She loved you and you loved her. She never looked at anyone else and nor did you. You went everywhere together, you even took her to court. Then your children came along and you had everything. A lovely home, your horses, your place at court. You were doing well.
Then Aelfgyva. Why did you turn to her? What went wrong?

Ealdgytha started nagging. She had always been happy… I think it was when she went to visit her sister, to show her the children. Her sister was married to an important thegn, much more important and wealthier than me. She was never the same when she came back. She was different. She started telling me I needed to aim higher at court. Start pushing myself forward. That we had so many children we needed more land, more wealth. I told her that wasn’t me. I knew what went on at court. The more you have, the more they expect of you. And the jealousy and rivalry that went on – I didn’t want to be part of it. I was happy with my lot. My friends were the same. I had all the wealth I needed. I have plenty of wealth and property, just not a lot of land, only five hides, but it’s enough. The money I have will be enough for the children to buy their own land when it comes to it. I just wanted to be left alone.

You told her, I take it.

Of course. She’d always known this. But her sister had reminded her who her grandfather was. “Tovi the Proud would not have been pleased to see a granddaughter of his living so humbly.”

He was Cnut’s standard-bearer, right? A very wealthy man. And I understand her other side of the family are moneyers?

Yes, and she was often apt to remind me, but just light-heartedly, until then. She started rubbing my nose in it. I was a Sussex thegn, with a mere 5 hides. That made me a ceorl in her eyes.

I put on my mental health hat, And how did that make you feel?

Worthless. Just as my father had.

But you never told her that. Not at first?

Aye. I never said a word. But I told her I was not going to be the man she wanted me to be. I had been good enough for her when we married. Then I should be good enough now.

I understand that. Is that why you went looking for someone else?

He looks at me sharply. You would too, if it were you.

I have to admit, I might have done. Possibly, but I would try to fix it with her first.

I was too hurt by the things she said. I would never have said those things to her.

What sort of things?

That I was stupid, I was only good for fighting and making children. I’d had no education like she’d had. I couldn’t speak French and Latin. I hadn’t gone to a stuck-up nunnery school. I could barely read.  And all this she would say in front of people. The worst thing she ever did was speak to me like I was dirt on her shoe, in front of the children. I wanted to kill her for that. I could just about take what she said when it was people I knew around, but not my children. That was sacrilege. Aelfgyva made me feel enough.

I’m shaking my head. I never knew, Wulfhere. I’m sorry…. You have made Ealdgytha suffer too, though. Humiliated her with the whole child in the stables thing, imagine how she felt when Aelfgyva came here to take back the child and Ealdgytha realised who the babe was.  

Wait what, you meant to pass off your mistress’s child as a foundling for your wife to take in? Are you out of your mind altogether, man?

I know, I would never have wanted that to happen. Aelfgyva’s servants to bring the bearn to me. She thought she was dying after giving birth to the wee thing. I couldn’t turn the poor little mite away. And then Ealdgytha discovered a child had been left in the stables, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her who she was. We had not long lost our youngest daughter, and Aelfgyva’s child was like a gift from God to Ealdgytha. She was so happy, I couldn’t pour water over her joy by admitting the babe was mine.

Yes, that was a pickle you got yourself into. And it got worse didn’t it? Because Aelfgyva didn’t die. And when she was stronger, she came back for her baby. And Ealdgytha was broken.

It broke me to see her like that.

Imagine how she felt.

I tried to apologise-

Yes, I know, but you have to understand, she has been hurt over again. And for Ealdgytha the pain was a double-edged sword. Aelfgyva was her friend..

He sits there for awhile and I can see that the tears are welling in his eyes. He wipes them away and sniffs, cuffing the snot from his upper lip. I can feel his desperation to not spend the tears. Can you see why she left you? Can you understand why Aelfgyva wants nothing more to do with you? He nods. So, you have to make amends to them both.

How can I?

It’s not for me to say. It’s up to you.

But I will never see either of them again.

Well. you can start by stopping the drunkenness for a start.

It won’t help them.

It won’t help you, either. I tried drink – when first I was hurt – mostly what it got me, was regularly beaten up by my superiors. And a more or less perpetual headache. It is no answer.

Aelfgyva, maybe not, but it’ll help Ealdgytha to know you are acting like a grown up for a change. You’re looking after what’s left of her kids remember.

Wulfric? Well, he looks after himself. Besides, he hates me.

He still needs you. He lost his twin brother, you know.

He has a wife to look after him.

There you go, wanting to abnegate your duties. Stop it! Pull yourself together.

Thanks for the empathy, you’re a great nurse.

Look, you’re damaged. I get it. But most of this is stuff that you brought on yourself. It won’t get better by drinking. I know you feel bad. You hate yourself for the way you treated those women. You loathe yourself because you let your daughter down, so, you’re a bad father. You let Tovi down when he needed you to be strong for him. And ok, you feel guilty because you weren’t able to stop Wulfwin from getting killed. You, my dear Wulfhere, are on one huge guilt trip which becomes bigger every day, because you’re using it as an excuse to get smashed out of your brains-

What?

Drunk!

Aye, I am. I’m a dirty worthless drunk. A useless husband, a bad father who might as well be dead.

If you were, you wouldn’t be able to put things right, now would you? At this point, I want to hit him with a sledge hammer. So, what are you going to do?

You’re right. I’ll stop drinking.

Good man!

Thank heaven. Just take it a day at a time. Because you are going to have to pull yourself together like nothing on earth! Those children of yours are going to need you at some point soon and you will need to be Wulfhere the Brave again and not Wulfhere the Weakling.

There’s one thing though.

He is smiling. That huge grin that used to light up his handsome old face and crinkle his blue eyes melts me. Oh yeah?

That’s going to be up to you too, you’re the one who writes this bloody thing.

The crazy blond looks at his fingernails.

Book-women, hm? A monstrous regiment of book-women. Well, by God’s grace they may yet write us our respective – what is it? – Happy Ever Afters, so with that we must rest content.

He does not smile. Possibly he thinks he’s freaked Wulfhere out enough already for the one day without that unsettlingly lopsided and toothy grin. He does, however, pat him on the shoulder, carefully.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Ah. Sorry. She’s a bit after your time, Dame Julian, but – aye, her. That. And good luck.  

ABOUT PAULA

Paula Lofting has always had a love of history since she was a little girl and it was her dream to one day write a historical saga set in the medieval period. This dream was eventually realised when she published her first novel in the Sons of the Wolf series and then the second, The Wolf Banner, and is now working on the third, Wolf’s Bane.  Paula has also collaborated on a historical fiction ghost anthology, Hauntings, and is also participating in Iain Dale’s latest book on Kings and Queens.

Paula can be found on her blog, 1066: The Road to Hastings and Other Stories, where she blogs about her research into the world in which she is writing about in her novels.

She is also a founding member of the History Writers Forum and has participated in historical discussion panels on zoom, the next one being on January 29th about the identity of the mysterious lady on the Bayeux Tapestry.

By day, Paula is mum to three grown up children, a granddaughter, and little grandson, and also a psychiatric nurse. She hopes that her third novel in the Sons of the Wolf saga will be published later this year. The first two can be found here –


myBook.to/Sonslive

myBook.to/WolfB


Rebel Remounts #3 – The Unnameable Returns (aka Blossom)

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So today’s rebel remount is Blossom – aka, for most of two books, The Stupid Brown Horse. Now, this is the first time any of the sixth (!!!) Uncivil Wars books has seen the light of day, and it’s quite long. But it’s set after Marston Moor, after Hollie’s beloved Tyburn has been invalided out of the Northern Horse, and it’s the first time he’s set eyes on his family in almost a year. (Thomazine is just two, at this point. You can see how this is going to pan out for him.)

Oh God but he was lame, he trotted with the tip of his off fore barely grazing the grass so that he lurched rather than the old smooth flow of water flowing downhill –

But he was still Tib, and his head came up and his ears swivelled towards Hollie with the same fierce joy as if he had four sound legs instead of a great ugly puckered scar torn across his chest and all the muscle under it in rags.

Hollie slid off the brown horse’s back and his black pearl limped those last strides to bury his head in the breast of his master’s coat. (And Hollie wept, not silently and not beautifully, but there was no one here under the shifting underwater golden light of the willow trees to know, save for the ungainly brown horse from the Yorkshire campaign.)

Tib grew bored. Someone – a number of someones, possibly – had made a pet of the black stallion, and after he had lipped Hollie’s hair with the evident satisfaction of someone who had found a thing that had been missing, he turned his back and limped away. It was not a dismissal. It was, if you liked, a confirmation. Here you are, and the world is as it should be.

Tib was steel and shadow, but the stupid brown horse stood apologetically with the tips of its ears almost touching with the earnestness of its concern, looking like a clod of earth. It wasn’t even a proper colour. It was a murky, messy, indeterminate brown.

He whistled Tyburn, and the black horse came about in a great slow circle. He’d have simply pivoted on his quarters, once. Hollie had something in his eye again. He must be touching the beast, patting and smoothing and straightening, he must be reminding his hands of the feel of a solid shoulder and the sleek of muscle and the long cobweb-drift of a mane –

“Daddy!”

A scream like a mortar-shell overhead, and he automatically stiffened, catching the horse’s head because Tib was a battle-horse, he was made to react with fire and fury to every unexpected thing, and Hollie was suddenly cold as his tiny precious firstborn went thundering under the stallion’s feet.

And that lethal battle-hardened engine of fire and fury jerked a little, but more in a sort of indulgent disapproval, and then shook his head and touched his muzzle to Thomazine’s tangled bright hair.

Exactly as he had done to Hollie. Here you are, too, and the world is as it should be twice over.

There was something stuck in his throat that refused to be swallowed away, looking at his little daughter whose arms barely reached around the stallion’s chest but who was hugging him for all she was worth. (Possibly she should prefer the society of other gently-born children. Possibly she ought to have a cap on decently and not to be covered in grass-stains and horse-slobber. Possibly she would have to be somebody else’s daughter to be any different.) “Daddy, then, does not get a hug?” he said dryly, and she managed to extract one arm and bury her face in the top of his boots, and Tyburn rumbled grumpily and limped sideways so that he was leaning against both of them.

“Who that, daddy?” Thomazine murmured. Typical of Thomazine that she considered the stupid brown horse a who, rather than a what, and he grinned into Tib’s mane for Tib was his dear and his only and the stupid brown horse was –

“Brought me from Yorkshire. Had to make do, lass.”

“What’s his name?”

The stupid brown horse did not have a name. It was too much like admitting the stupid brown horse would be staying. He turned his clumsy head towards Thomazine, stupid ears swivelling with an eagerness to please that was almost painful. “He hasn’t got one, love. He’s not mine.”

“Whose horse, daddy?” – and with a mercurial change of subject that dizzied him, “Where Uncle Lucey, daddy? Apple come home? Daddy bring Zee present?”

He had a forlorn hope that she would cease asking questions, for she barely seemed to pause for breath between them – no, nor did she wait for answers, which was a relief, for then she released both him and Tyburn and flitted over to the brown horse. “Daddy, hot!” she said accusingly over her shoulder, and before he could stop her she started to unbuckle his harness.

Every. Single. Buckle. Of every single strap, so far up as she could reach, presumably having watched Mattie Percey unharness the family’s riding-horses. And once she had dismantled the bridle – left him with his forelock looped up under the cockeyed browband, and the grassy bit pulled through his mouth – and dragged his saddle off sideways by one stirrup, the stupid brown horse stood there as naked as a foal. “You done that, daddy,” Thomazine said, glowering at him with her arms full of loose sweaty leather. “He’s hot.”

The brown horse blinked at them both, his head turning from one to another.

It crossed Hollie’s mind for the first time that the brown horse was, perhaps, not stupid. Not precisely stupid, then. Timid, maybe, and confused, and missing his own place and his own people – that he would never see again, that he had been taken from untimely without knowing for what reason or to what place.

Not bright, obviously. Not like Tyburn. He would never replace Tib. Nobody would ever replace Tib.

Very warily, the brown horse who was possibly not stupid, stretched out his neck and gave himself a little shake. Thomazine grabbed a fistful of grass and held it out.

(Hollie, in nine months with the beast, had never petted it. Never given it titbits, or troubled himself to find the places where it liked to be scratched, or given it any more than the attention he gave to his sword or his carbine or his harness. Something mean in him curled up a little and squirmed at the recognition of his neglect.)

“Nice horse, daddy,” she said happily. “Zee keep him? Please?”

She was attempting, now, to rub a patch of sweat from where the saddle had been, with a twist of wet grass. If she had been one of his troopers he’d have pointed out that she wasn’t trying to get a spot of rust off a blade, and it was only by God’s grace that she had not been kicked from here to Colchester. Tib’s tolerance would not have extended so far. Not even for Thomazine. Most of the horses Hollie knew would have put her on her back by now, had she scrubbed them so.

The brown horse stood like a table, with the tips of his ears pointed together and his brow earnestly furrowed. He was not at his ease. He was stiff and uncomfortable and all four of his ungainly legs were braced for flight, and yet he stood and let this strange small person scour him as if he were the kitchen floor.

The brown horse was worse-made than Russell’s Doubting Thomas. Thomas only looked on the surface as if he had been cobbled together from three other beasts. The brown horse was swaybacked, ewe-necked, over at the knee –

“Job,” he said, for the patience of the beast, and his arm tightened around Tib’s neck I still love you the best –

“No, daddy,” Thomazine said, and the brown horse looked at her out of the tail of his eye. Not menacingly, but shyly – am I done?– and Hollie’s little daughter slapped the horse’s shoulder like an ostler born to have him stand over.

Very carefully, the brown horse walked away from them. Tyburn jerked his head up in a fractional affront, and then dismissed a badly-made gelding as below his entire masculine contempt and ambled off in the opposite direction, nosing the grass. Keeping a wary eye on the brown horse all the while, mind, just in case.

The spring grass was coming in. There were still patches of winter mud between the trees in the orchard.

Hollie wished, briefly and passionately, that Luce Pettitt was with him. (This time tomorrow, likely, after his mother had gone over him with a nit-comb and bewailed the state of his linen.) Russell would ha’ been better than nothing, though he’d have had to explain the joke three times to the marred lad. Slowly and ponderously, the brown horse lowered himself into the darkest, boggiest patch of sloppy mud and squirmed on his back, wallowing in the wan sunlight, the pale flash of his underparts bright as a guinea. Looked like a fat unhorsed officer in a buffcoat, trying to roll himself back to dignity, and God knows they’d seen enough of them throughout Yorkshire. “Goring,” Hollie suggested, thinking of that unprincipled Malignant bastard, last seen flat on the cobbles at Wakefield and cursing in all directions.

No, daddy! A nice name!” She straightened her thin little shoulders, stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled wetly. (Her mother was going to kill him when she got good at it, he thought wryly. The child hadn’t learned that trick by herself.) The brown horse upended himself, gave himself a thoroughgoing shake, and then came up at a lollop. “Flower,” Thomazine said, “Flower, daddy? Pretty horse.”

“A weed more like, wench. Some great raking thing that grows out of cracks where you don’t want it.”

“Daddy!”

“Blossom,” Hollie said, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. “The leaves are just on the trees, look, so it will be apple blossom time soon. What do you think to Blossom?”

“Blossom,” she said, testing the word, “Blossom.” And then a great smile spread over her fox-pointed, freckled face, “Zee’s horse, daddy! To keep? Promise?”

“Aye,” Hollie said, and he hefted her up by the waist. First time he had set his hands on the child in more than a year and he had forgot, almost, how fragile she looked and how solid she felt. All arms and legs, like a little harvestman spider.

She sat on the brown horse’s muddy back looking straight ahead of her with her hands clutching his mane and her grubby skirts kilted up around her knees, and neither of them looked as embarrassed as propriety would dictate they ought to.

“You might have to let me borrow him, lass,” he said, and she gave him a stern look.

Look after him, daddy.”

“I know,” he said meekly, “I’ll try and remember.” He clicked his tongue and the brown horse – Blossom, who was no longer nameless, but who had a name and a place and a little girl who loved him for his kindness when her father had not – ambled into a walk. “Come on, then. Your mother’s waiting on us.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

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So if anybody is wondering I am still alive, still writing, still re-enacting, still making things.

To be fair, at the end of last year and the beginning of this year I had lost my mojo more than a little. The lupus was crappy, I had too many things to do and not enough time to do them in, and – you know that thing where you go it’s never going to get any better and life is going to be a horrible chaos forever? – or that may just be something that the children of alcoholics do, we didn’t cause it and we can’t cure it but before God we’re gonna try like hell to control AALLLL THE THINGS…..

And so I stopped. I stopped writing for about a month, I stopped being a fabric fiend, I stopped planting things and I think probably for a few days right about the depths of midwinter I stopped being hopeful about anything at all.

Well, midwinter passes. (Do I think it’s seasonal? Damn’ right I do.) Things start to thaw out, and the world turns. I read a book, the other day.

That actually is a thing. I read a whole book. That’s not something I’ve wanted to do for months. (I’m currently reading the new Shardlake book and finding it bloody tough going, but it seems from the Amazon reviews that I’m not alone in that, so I may curl up with the much livelier “In This House of Brede” as a lovely comfort read instead. And really, Mr Shardlake, if a book about a woman becoming a nun in the 1960s is more exciting than your current adventure, you want to give yourself a stern talking to…)

I practice gratitude. The two nesting blackbirds currently under my window. Big hugs from my boys (the big one and the little one) The cats – all the cats, even the hideously noisy Obelix aka the Tank, who is built like a Jack Russell Terrier and likes to share the love while you’re having a wee. Sunlight, and growing things, and the ability to create, again.

I’m excited about re-enactment again. I’m excited about textiles again – my lovely man has built me a two-beam loom, I mean, how much better a present can you get than a Roman two-beam loom scratch built? – I’m excited about weaving and Roman cooking and I’m starting to get a little bit excited about writing again.

I’m back, I think. Maybe not all the way back but some of the way back….

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of the Plain Russet-Coated Captain (or, Why Historical Fiction Needs Anti-Heroes)

I was reading a review of a Bernard Cornwell novel this morning and once again I am inspired to set fingers to keyboard (around the cat, who is demanding cuddles with menaces)

Once again, you see, I cannot do the dashing white knight on his trusty steed thing.

Sharpe. Let’s take Sharpe. (Please, someone, let’s take Sharpe.)

You know when you open a certain genre of book, or a book by a certain author, pretty much to the last semi-colon what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an infallible hero, who may be wrong-footed but never fail. He will come good in the end – he will get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the entire planet. Laughing in the face of doom, and clearing tall buildings with one bound.
And, you know, that’s kind of nice. It’s all soft and comforting and cosy. No nasty surprises.

But history is full of nasty surprises.
After the battle of Naseby, the godly Army of Parliament hunted down and massacred over a hundred Royalist camp followers for the unpardonable sin of speaking their own native Welsh language, and therefore being suspected of being either whores, witches, or dangerous Irishwomen.
After the siege of Bolton, the Royalists massacred anything between eighty and two thousand people, both soldiers and inhabitants including women, making it reputedly the worst massacre on English soil.
That’s not nice stuff. On either side.

My Babbitt is anything but indestructible. He spends most of the books wrong-footed, miserable, irritated, wishing he was anywhere else but tagging on the back of the Army of Parliament. Periodically taking a pasting and then, being middle-aged, hurting. Not being irresistible to the fairer sex, even if he wanted to be. Missing his wife and wanting his supper, mostly, and wondering when he’s next going to get paid. And how he’s going to manage to run a troop till Parliament gets round to paying them.
A superhero, he is not. (He had a cape when he was seventeen, bought for the express purpose of impressing his first wife, but he never got the trick of not catching his sword hilt in its swirliness and Margriete told him he looked a tit in it, so he never really took to cape-wearing after that.)

Hollie’s a decent man, fighting a war he doesn’t want for a cause that’s shafted him fairly thoroughly, and committed to it for the sake of six troop of horse who expect him to stand their corner because he’s the only bugger stupid enough to open his big mouth in company.
Luce is a ditherer, a dreamer and a romantic. Luce is a nice boy who ought not to be let out of the house without directions. (Luce is not, bless him, officer material. But you work with what you got.)

Russell – well, Russell’s a bipolar functioning alcoholic with anger management issues, and certainly not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.

The Army of Parliament had a bad habit of not winning glorious victories. Powick Bridge – lash-up. Edgehill – no-score draw. Naseby – not the finest moment in Parliamentarian history, gentlemen. No glittering triumphs. No moral high ground.

No heroes. No villains.

Ordinary men – and women – on both sides, people of honour and principle, as well as ruffians and rogues: people fighting to defend their freedom of conscience, or just to stay alive from one week to the next. People not too dissimilar to me and you, standing up for what they thought was fair. A good cause, fought by good men, badly.
Now I ask you. Sharpe and his like – men of honour, or principle? Sexy, maybe, if you like that kind of thing. Love ’em and leave ’em, almost certainly. Daring and gallant and swashbuckling, probably.

Believable – maybe not.
Surprising, amusing, appealing, poignant, gripping – almost certainly not.

So, meh. More people read the adventures of Sharpe et al, knowing what they’re getting, than read the misadventures of one plain russet-coated captain of horse circa 1643, where believe me, they do not.
Be nice if millions of people read the Babbitt books. I’d like it. (He’d like it, the smart-mouthed Lancashire bugger. Be thrilled to bits, he would. In a sort of not-admitting it kind of way.) But…. Would I rather write books that make people laugh out loud on public transport, and three chapters later make them cry?
Where people tell me off because it can’t end like that?
(Google Burford, 1649, and work it out.)

Ah, hell, yeah, I would. Because Hollie Babbitt is real. He’s all the lads in 17th century history whose names never made it into the books, the ones that did their duty and stood their ground, that weren’t glamorous or poetic or noble or well-connected. He is what he is and God willing, the lad will remain a joy and a sweary, scruffy, appealing maverick from now until the end of the Civil Wars.

As you were, gentlemen.

The Road North – a ghost story

It occurred to me, rather suddenly, that the Eve of All Hallows and Edgehill fight were not so very far apart. Luce Pettitt – being twenty, and knowing it all, as twenty year-old men often do – doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a rational young man. 

But in October 1644, he might be about to reconsider that opinion….

It was October, and the mists curled up like woodsmoke from the sodden ground, and the nights drew in cold and cheerless in the Vale of York.

They were, however, a company who had been together in some guise or other these three years and more, and they could scratch cheer on a bare rock if need arose. There was a fire, and there was a jug of ale, and when you got more than three soldiers together on a dark night you had a choice of talk: horses, battles, women, or –

“Ghosts,” Colonel Hollie Babbitt said, and the corner of his mouth twitched without humour. “I don’t talk of what I’ve seen, gentlemen. Or rather, heard, but not seen…. ”

– Drew Venning’s dog, under the table, shifted uncomfortably. Tinners didn’t like this talk, where voices grew strange and ominous

Luce Pettitt rolled his eyes. “Oh, not this story agsin…..”

“What? If you’d ha’ been there, instead of under some lass’s skirt, you’d not be half so cocky! I heard what I heard, and I saw what I saw, and that I will hold to till my dying day. ”

“No faces,” Luce said. ” You said. ”

“No faces. A company of lads, marching north. And no faces under their helmets.”

” How d’you see ’em, then? If there was no -”

” Oh fuck off, ” Hollie growled, “taking the piss, think you’re a bloody hard nut, I tell you what, you wouldn’t be talking so big if you’d seen -”

” Or not seen, what with the lack of faces, ” Luce murmured, and someone cackled. Hollie growled again. “Smart-arse. No, it didn’t bother me, Lucifer. Decent enough drilled lads they was, from what I could hear, and a sergeant not unlike your man Cullis at the heel of it giving them holy hell on. Whoever they were when they were living, gentlemen, they were trained soldiers from head to heel just like me and you -” his eyes rested on Luce, off duty with his coat unbuttoned and his hair a bed-tangle, ” maybe more professional than some of us, Cornet Pettitt. Who was it this time, Margaret or Elizabeth?”

“Sarah,” Luce said, and yawned. ” – For variety’s sake. ”

“Jesus Christ I despair. No, the idea of a company of soldiers at their duty don’t trouble my sleep, so long as their duty takes them up the North road and not under my window at stupid o’clock in the morning. Wiser to be scared of the living than of the dead, if you ask me. ”

“Meaning the wench you’re married to?” Drew Venning murmured, and the colonel looked at him sidelong.

Especially the wench I’m married to. When a ghost can see to getting your tap stopped, captain, I’ll start paying heed to the buggers. Until then I reckon you can keep your bogey-tales. And with that, gentlemen, I’ll bid you a good evening.” He stood up and stretched, and then kicked the fire up again. “Bunch of old women. Don’t frighten yourselves.”
And with that, he was gone, swirling his cloak about himself into the darkness.

Lieutenant Russell, who had said nothing throughout this exchange, sniffed as the door closed and curled his lip. “Superstitious nonsense, fit for credulous fools.”

“You could just say bollocks, Hapless. It’s quicker. ”

“Kiss my arse, Cornet Pettitt.”

They were off duty. They could talk to each other how they liked, off duty. Most of the company were aware of the odd, careful new friendship between the officers of its company. “Do you not believe in ghosts, then?”

“I fear nothing from dead men, ” the lieutenant said cheerfully, with his mad slanted grin. “Only the ghosts in my head trouble me. They never leave by sunrise. But the past never really dies, does it?”

” Huh? ” – it had been a long day, and Luce Pettitt had spent most of it trying to direct idiots using nothing but a yard of silk whilst mounted on a shatterbrained mare, and he was tired. And then he remembered why particularly they spoke of ghosts and dark fancy – because in a week, it would be the Feast of All Hallows, the night when the dead came back to watch the living.

And two years ago this day, or thereabouts, the lieutenant had lost his beauty and a good deal of his wits at the great battle at Edgehill. And Luce – who was still, mostly, beautiful, and who retained most of his common sense – thought that it must indeed cast a long shadow. And possibly why his friend was odder, and spikier, than was customary even for him, this night.

It did not make him any the more comfortable company, but then most of the company was minded to be bleak. It was late autumn, it was cold, it was wet, it was miserable, the better part of them were boys out of Essex and Suffolk and they missed their homes. And the bloody war went on.

It had ever been thus. York had been a city when the legions had marched into Britain – oh, and some of them had marched out. That was one of the stories they told around the fires at night. (And scared the shit out of Hollie Babbitt, who would rather die than admit it. But the Ninth. Who had never gone home to Hispania. Whose nailed boots had gone thump thump thumping into the mists at York, and had never come back. Swallowed up by the dark and the mists. You heard them, they said, sometimes. Their hobnails ringing on the cobbles, their sergeant barking out the orders to march out –
But you never saw them. You heard them. A company of foot, making ready to march North into Scotland. That was the bit that had rattled Hollie, alone in the dark: the thought of being advanced on and overtaken on the road by a company of foot who was not there. )

“I am not good company, this night,” Russell said, sounding sad about it. ” I think – were I to stay and drink with you – it would not end. ”

“Prettily?” Luce suggested , and the lieutenant dipped his head.

I am not like to end prettily, Pettitt. I am minded to brood, I think. Tonight. I think it best that it is done sober. And alone.” And then, not being much in the way of a dissembler even when honesty did him no credit, he corrected himself. “Best done sober…but probably won’t be.”

” I’m not cleaning up after you, ” Luce said, and meant it. “If you must puke, open the window. And Hapless?”

The marred boy stopped with one arm in the sleeve of his coat.

“Leave it open, if you’re minded to be sicky, eh?”

It was, Luce thought, a night for seeing unquiet souls by. And how it would be, if you did – if they were sad, or angry, or pitiful – if they knew they were spirits, even, or if they were simply outside and afraid and wondering why you could not see them or hear them or talk to them: greedy for what you had enjoyed, being living, and yet set aside from it for all eternity.

“It’s a horrible thought,” he said, and the young blue-bonneted ensign passing by him at the time jumped about three feet in the air.

There was little supernatural about Connell, and Luce knew the lad by sight. He mostly looked terrified, presently. “Don’t tell me you’ve seen a ghost as well,” he said, ” what with Rosie being annoyingly mysterious about it, and bloody Russell stalking about being slightly more alarming than the dead people -”
The lad shook his head, bemused.

“Sit down and have a drink and don’t tell me about it, then. Particularly if it was the Ninth Legion with no faces under their helmets. I hate that story. ”

“Hwhat?”

” No faces. Colonel Rosie reckons -”

Connell shook his head blankly. “But that iss folly, how could they keep their helmets on without heads?”

– the boy was a Highlander, Luce reminded himself. Hence the heathen superstition and the sibilance. “No faces, I said. Do keep up. Heads with nothing on the front of them.”

“Then hwhat-?”

” Dead people in tunics marching about, Ensign Connell. Lots of them. It’s not normal, sir. ”

“It iss perfectly normal where I come from,” the lad said – and grinned, as if it was funny, “- we haff the Second Sight, on the islands, it is pairfectly commonplace, that off which you speak.”

“Oh. Oh, I thought you were – you know, the Highlands -”

Connell’s level black brows raised, no more than a fingernail’s width, but his point was made. “Sorry,” Luce said feebly.

” My grandmother. She had the Sight, now. She told my father he would be drown’t in the sea and so he wass, in the great storms, and he not even in his boat in the water but drawn up for repairs on the beach, and a great wave came up from the deep.waters and took him -” the ensign’s voice had dropped to a low croon and all the hairs stood up on Luce’s neck, “- but I, she said, I was not born to die in water, I.wass born restless in my mother’s belly and here I am, rootless yet. She said I wass born with the wanderlust on me and I should not rest easy till I had my own plot of earth and maybe not even then, hm?” And then he laughed, a sudden boy’s giggle. “This is not a cheerful thing to speak of, with the mist coming in under the door and the wind making unchancy noises in the chimney! ”

“Let’s stop,” Luce said, with enthusiasm. ” How’s your arm? ”

“Marvellous, I thank you,” Connell said, and rolled his shirt sleeve back obligingly to show the great purple patchwork where the medics had pieced him back together, after the great battle at Hessay Moor. “Ass good ass new. A pox on Malignant gunnery, I say…I shall be wagging my flag ass bravely ass ever, soon, and kiss my arse to His Majesty.”

“I’m glad.” – and Luce meant it, for it had been touch and go for the young ensign, and after those first hectic days when any man who could wield a bone-saw un a straight line had been hard at it, he had not seen the ensign. (The Scots commander, my lord Leven, and Hollie Babbitt, having served together in Europe and sometimes on the same side, preferred not to be in the same place at the same time.) “You must be very new healed, though?”

The ensign nodded ardently. “I am, so. I am like a new man.”

“Well, much though I hate to sound like an old graybeard – or your mother, for that matter – as a medical officer, even a very junior one, I would commend that you get in out of the night air. Falling-damps are not healthy, especially in a weakened state.” He closed his eyes, the better to.remember the most modern scientific theory about bad airs.

“Quite,” a much more familiar voice said, ” God knows what I’m doing stood here in it.- Lucey, who are you talking to? ”

“Ensign Connell, from Leven’s company – you remember, the young man who had his arm brake by shot at midsummer, and then the wound was poisoned and we had it all to.do again? Do you remember – well, really, Hollie, what are you doing here, for that matter? ”

All muffled up in his scruffy old cloak, Hollie shoved mist-damp hair out of his eyes and grinned ruefully. “I remembered the date. The boy Hapless tooled up clasping a bottle of brandy like it was a long-lost girlfriend, and I counted on me fingers and rearranged the duty rota. What I don’t want is our bright lad out tomorrow with a hangover and a fierce desire for attitude adjustments, if you get me. So he’s got his hands full taking out a sentry patrol that’s jumping at shadows – on grounds that idle hands are the Devil’s playground – and I’ve come to get you before you get bored without the company and start likewise.”

” Don’t be ridiculous, ” Luce sniffed. “I’m not that much of a child. Ensign Connell was very impressed by my expertise.”

” Connell, ” Hollie said, very carefully, after a brief pause, “has been dead a week. He died before we left York, brat. I should know – they borrowed the old bastard to preach over him. I don’t know who you been prosing on to, but it weren’t Connell. ”

Luce stared at him, a cold ripple running down his spine. “But it was, Hollie. He showed me his arm. I’d know my own handiwork anywhere. He was the first man I’d worked on – really had to fight for, I mean. He can’t be dead! His arm – it was healing, it had healed, beautifully, he would have had the full use of his fingers sgain – he can’t be, I saw him! He was looking forward to taking up his old post again!”

Hollie gave him a smile that was oddly shy. “Aye. And maybe that’s why he came, then. It wasn’t his arm that took him, brat. God knows what it was. He just never woke up. Maybe he knew it mattered – he mattered – that it would trouble you, if you thought it was summat you could have done. ” And ducked his head, and muttered, “I used to dream of Margriete. Sometimes. After she died. Or she came to me. Dunno. But that she was all right, that I hadn’t- ”

“Yes.” Of course. It explained why Hollie was quite so casual about ghosts, then. He had his own. Of course. But of all men, he understood, and did not laugh, or cross his fingers.

“Come on, then, brat. I’m not so bothered about running into dead men walking. I’m more bothered about the live ones, who’ve still got half a watch to cause havoc tonight if they’ve a mind to.” He put his hand out, and touched Luce’s shoulder gently. “He’ll be all right, Luce. If you were worried. I don’t reckon as he’ll want for company, you know?”

They could have been talking about Thankful Russell. They were not, of course. Both of them knew that. “No,” Luce said, and swung his cloak over his shoulders. ” No, I imagine they can always find a space for a keen officer. Wherever he comes from. “

The Alchemy Of Memory – remembering Diana

I had meant to write a blog post all about the way music entwines itself with my writing, mostly inappropriately and unhelpfully.

And instead I received news that I lost a dear friend, and one of the longest-standing and fiercest fans of my books. So I’m going to write about Diana instead.

She’d fallen in love with Thankful For His Deliverance Russell a couple of years ago, in the days when he was no more than a rather prissy young lieutenant in the New Model Army, and she loved seeing how he grew up through the books into a mostly-competent officer in his own right. I was just reading back over our messages on Facebook and she really did love that boy. She particularly loved – and shaped – the awkwardness and the kindness and the desire of his early courtship with Thomazine, when he wasn’t sure most of the time if he was coming, going or been, and how far it was appropriate to do any of them with his old commander’s daughter. She’d been there, she knew whereof she spoke, and she wasn’t backwards in telling me when I’d got it right. (She wasn’t always tactful about it either, I might add. If I got it wrong, I got it very wrong.)

I think Diana was probably about as delighted as both Russell and Thomazine when they finally got together. I sent her the first draft of the novella Entertaining Angels and she messaged me at some ridiculous hour in the morning to tell me that she’d just finished it, she was in tears and that the ending was Just. Right. He deserved his happy ending, she said. What next?

So I said, the usual pro forma is they get married and they live happily ever after.

Well, she said, I wouldn’t believe it, not with those two – Zee wouldn’t just put up with his funny moods and she won’t be shy in telling him either. And if he spends the rest of his career overlooking sheep in Buckinghamshire he’ll be bored to tears within the month. So it’s never going to be happy ever after, because those two are far too lively to disappear into domestic obscurity peacefully.

Had it not been for Diana, Major Russell would have been very lovely and very chilly and very proper, and he probably wouldn’t have been very much different from the literary ice-maidens who throng the pages of romance having their drawers melted by the Right Girl. And as it is, there was a Diana, and he became wry and very aware of the difference in their ages and rather embarrassed about being quite so keen on what he would tactfully call country matters, and Thomazine became fiercely protective of her darling (what scar?) and most enthusiastic about knowing all about the aforesaid country matters so often as she might contrive.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Thankful and Thomazine Russell know sometimes you have to get hurt before you can become real, and they are more real because Diana loved both of them.  I’m sad that she won’t be around to review the second one. I’m more sad that she won’t be muttering about the cover art and cheering the release. She’d have liked that he will be carrying on adventuring well into his sixties, with his other half continuing to pester him for sexual favours despite the fact that technically he’s supposed to be brooding and disfigured and all that. She’d have been delighted that there will be fat blonde Russell-babies and a horrible little black dog and a number of indispensable horses.

 An Abiding Fire is your book, duck-lady.

The Roaring Girls – some thoughts on women in historical fiction

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Aphra Behn, sketch from a lost portrait 

Isn’t it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren’t maternal, or meek, or submissive enough – that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees – they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better! 

Five hundred years ago – three hundred, two hundred years ago – women weren’t allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.

You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don’t get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, there are very few examples of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars – maybe that’s because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it’s because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it’s because many 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I’ll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman – as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll – and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…s

(An aside: Dr Mark Stoyle has done some recent fascinating work into the female soldier of the civil war period, covered in a recent Guardian article)

But it’s not really till the 18th century that we start to see the “mannish” woman appear – Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough’s Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts – what’s interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered – or undeclared – for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.

So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren’t permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…”Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”

And now, four hundred years later, we’re still seeing this denied in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old romantic favourite, who’s not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company – she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He “makes” her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)

All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right – they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?

I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM a while ago (just thought I’d drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) – he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women’s freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men’s work, men’s equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too.

And that’s fine, if that’s what works for you, but it’s not right for everyone. We’re still promoting the idea of binary genders – of girlie girls and butch men – and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can’t have romance, you can’t have adventure, you can’t be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called “Flesh + Blood” in which Rutger Hauer’s mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other’s backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion – but it’s two men who are in love with each other.

Does that matter? Yes. They’re a pair of aggressive street bravos who’ve systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him.
Does it matter that it’s two men? No. Or it shouldn’t. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in “A Wilderness of Sin”, “There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of.”

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you’re going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far.

We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

Kitty, My Rib – the story of Katie van Bora

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Now I have two heroines in this world, and one of them is Elizabeth Cromwell (well, dear, if you wanted orange sauce, you shouldn’t have made war on Spain, should you?) and the other is Katharina von Bora, die Lutherin. After those two stubborn, domesticated, marvellously level-headed females is Het Babbitt patterned.

There is an argument which I often hear, and it goes something like – but women in the 17th century, they were the weaker vessel, right? Poor dependents, meek and milky and subservient…. right?
Well – some names to look up, to begin with, then. Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth Lilburne. Brilliana Harley. Anne Fairfax.

All noblewomen? Hardly. Elizabeth Lilburne and Elizabeth Cromwell were merchant’s daughters – and Bess of Hardwick knew how to make a penny work for its living, by all accounts.

But die Lutherin is sadly neglected. Her 16th-century life-story reads like something from a lurid romantic fiction – convent-educated, she was brought up in cloisters until at the age of 24, she started to become interested in the growing reform movement and became unhappy with her secluded life within the Cistercian monastery. Now, the weaker-vessel argument would have die Lutherin meekly submitting to male domination, right? Um, nope. She wrote to Martin Luther, a 41 year old rebel, subversive and politically active cleric. An excommunicated priest, mind, who was not known for his tactful expression of his opinions. Katie von Bora wrote to Martin Luther – a man she had presumably never met formally in her life – and asked him to bust her and another twelve nuns out of the Cistercian monastery.

And he did. They were smuggled out in the back of a cart, in herring barrels. A credible fiction author could not make this up.

Luther, despite being the man behind the Reformation, now had twelve rogue nuns on his hands. Their families wouldn’t take them back, this being a breach of canon law, and so he found them all husbands. In the end, there was only Katie left. He found her husbands. Nope. Eventually she gave him the ultimatum – sorry, Martin, the only man I’m taking is either you or Nicolaus van Amsdorf, your friend. (Check out the portraits. She made a good call in Martin.)

Katie von Bora then took on the massive tasks of a) running the enormous monastery estate atWittenburg, where they boarded at the Cistercian monastery, b) running the brewery there, c) running the hospital, d) looking after all the students and visitors coming for audience with the notorious rogue priest behind the Diet of Worms, and e) keeping an eye on Martin, who had not been exactly the most promising of eager bridegrooms – he admitted himself that before his marriage his bed was often mildewed and not made up for months on end. By the sound of Katie, she’d have put up with neither the mildew, the unmade bed, nor the grubby husband.

The Luthers had six children (not all of whom survived to adulthood, sadly), Katie had one miscarriage, and they brought up another four orphans. This was not, clearly, a nominal marriage of platonic and dutiful affection. Martin freely admitted prior to his marriage that despite his clerical celibacy he was aware of the existence of the female form, even in spite of the mouldy bed. Had it not been for the admittedly rather pretty Mistress van Bora, it’s not impossible that the Protestant clergy would have remained formally celibate for many years – not that Martin and Katie were the first, but their wedding set the seal of approval on clerical marriage. It was a long and happy marriage, if often short of money, and even then it seems that she had the habit of accepting gifts from benefactors on his behalf, and putting the money away for the rainy day that seemed to follow the Luther household around.

They were married for almost twenty years, and he had counselled her to move into a smaller house with the children when he died, but she refused. A sentimental attachment to the marital home where she’d been happy and useful for so long? Struggling financially without his salary, she stayed stubbornly put until soldiers in the the Schmalkaldic War destroyed farm buildings and killed the animals on their farm, and she was forced to flee, living on the charity of the Elector of Saxony until it was safe for her to return to Wittenburg. Bubonic plague then forced her to flee a third time, this time to Torgau, but she was thrown from her cart near the city gates and very badly bruised, and died less than three months later.

She was not buried near to her Martin in Wittenburg, but since one of the Lutheran doctrines was that “It is enough for us to know that souls do not leave their bodies to be threatened by the torments and punishments of hell, but enter a prepared bedchamber in which they sleep in peace,” – she probably didn’t mind too much.

Ladies  and gentlemen, a toast to die Lutherin, Katie von Bora – the role model for the Mrs Cromwells and Mrs Fairfaxes, the domestic rock on which a political citadel stood firm.