Thursday, 28 April 2011

Children of the Revolution; Leslie Wilson

I adored historical fiction when I was a kid - a fact that's hardly surprising to anyone who knows my work! Only I found quite a lot of what was on offer a bit depressing. Stories about Kings and Queens, or about ordinary people who were devoted to Kings and Queens and recognised their inferiority.

I loved The Children of the New Forest for the way in which it portrayed the life of the children, suddenly having to learn to hunt and cook and keep house in the country. But there was an uneasiness, for me, about the story about the Restoration and the way in which the Puritan Intendant (forgive me if I've got this wrong, but I don't think so) turns out to have been scheming for the return of the monarch all the way along. Because my family were on the side of the Parliament - my Grandad, a Methodist lay preacher and staunch Liberal, once wrote an essay about his admiration for Oliver Cromwell, which my brother still possesses.

Then - aged about eleven, maybe? I read Trumpets in the West, by Geoffrey Trease. It's about the Glorious Revolution, when William of Orange superseded the last Catholic monarch of Britain. It made me happy that Trease didn't endorse the persecution of Catholics; the issue, as he (I think correctly) portrays it, wasn't about resistance to James Stuart's Catholicism, but about the ongoing conflict between King and Parliament. The regime-change that happened then was about Parliament's key role in a nascent democracy, about resisting the Stuarts who would have loved to introduce French-style absolute monarchy. Trease's hero and heroine are a young musician, Jack Norwood, who finds himself standing up for his principles, risking his career and his life in the process, and Jane, a girl who flouts her aristocratic background to become a real, professional singer. It's an issue-novel, but a gripping adventure and I was thrilled by it.

I kept reading Trease; The Crown of Violet, set in Athens, the first democracy; Follow My Black Plume about Garibaldi's nineteenth-century uprising in Italy; Thunder of Valmy, a novel that showed all the idealism and joy that fuelled the beginning of the French Revolution. And Comrades for the Charter, which portrays the Chartist movement, not in terms of 'what a pity they were undisciplined and turned to violence', but as a movement that turned to violence reluctantly, only because the authorities wouldn't grant to the visionary Chartists liberties that we now take for granted. Liberties that they shed their blood for.

Trease had great heroines, too, who took risks, had adventures along with the boys, who had aspirations, not just to be the cleaners-up and admirers of heroes, but to achieve something themselves. The 'feisty' heroine is right there in Trease's novels, up to date and capable. Girls who had better things in mind than being WAGS - or marrying a Prince and entering on a life of expensive and boring public duties.

And yes, I am writing this blog, on this subject, because of the expensive wedding that's happening tomorrow. Because, like Geoffrey Trease, I don't define patriotism as slavish admiration of a particular group of people, of a monarch who rules by the accident of birth, in a patriarchal system of succession that actually contravenes the law of the land - and whose family can engage in all kinds of skulduggery and get away with it because Parliament isn't, for some reason, allowed to criticise them.

But I can also see, as I write, how much Trease has set his mark on my own writing; like him, I like to portray the lives of 'ordinary' people who're caught up in history and have to act, even if, like Jack Norwood, they really only want to get on with their lives. So thank you, Geoffrey Trease, for those stories. And for the example!!


Emma Barnes said...

Really enjoyed that Leslie. For some reason I never came across Geoffrey Trease as a kid, despite reading lots of historical fiction - I enjoyed the Viking tales of his name-sake Henry, for example, or his "Man With a Sword". I loved Barbara Willard's Mantlemass stories, which are very much embedded in the life of the Sussex weald, rather than the royal courts of the time.

I 've been thinking of purchasing some Geoffrey Trease online - especially Crown of Violets because I've a particular interest in Athens - and I think I will take the plunge after reading your post.

My absolute favourite of all is Antonia Forest's The Players And the Rebels - for my money, the best Tudor set novel I ever read - and completely unknown and out of print.

Emma Barnes said...

Err...will I get kicked off this post though if I admit I am planning to watch the wedding, and will be going to a street party too?

Leslie Wilson said...

No, Emma! You won't. I must read Antonia Forest's book, I love getting OP books.. and I shall probably watch a bit of the wedding, just to see The Dress!!
I will come clean and admit that I did accompany David to a Buck House garden party - the food was awful, and the gardens uninspiring - and also went to see him get an MBE. Because that is the only honours system we have at present. I think I'd be more enthusiastic about the royals if they were more like the Scandinavian or Dutch royalty.
I loved Henry Treece too, with his portrayals of a bleak and fascinating early world.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Ooh, a fellow fan. Have you seen this?

It's the site I'm keeping to keep me company as I read through all of Geoffrey Trease for a book. I'm up to the 1970s and a bit stalled thanks to marking etc, but intend to get back to it mid-June.

Leslie Wilson said...

I can't follow your link, Farah. Could you put the url in?

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Not used to this system, sorry.


Leslie Wilson said...

Interesting blog, good luck with the project!! I do think that Trease is quite exceptional and worth studying.

Leslie Wilson said...

When I said interesting blog, I meant yours, Farah! Not blowing my own trumpet.

frances thomas said...

I adored Geoffrey Trease as a child. And his heart was in the right place too - he was very radical. But there's a tendency these days to be a bit po-faced about children's historical fiction - I remember seeing a programme a few years ago in which they were trying to revive an interest in his books, but making them politically correct too; and a small boy explained rather dourly to the camera that he liked the books because they showed you how 'the servants used to live.' Yes, but they're also wonderful yarns and bring the past to life; which is the main reason why I used to read them.

Susan Price said...

Great post Leslie. And here's to the Republic of Great Britain! The only thing wedding-related that's coming near me is Private Eye's 'Fairytale Wedding Special', which I trust will be suitably derisory.

Leila said...

I love his titles! Really makes me want to do some second hand book shopping now... but my parents will be livid if I put anymore books into their house! Now these are the books I want to see coming out as e-books - the O/P children's fiction. How brilliant it would be if I could just download them.

Katherine Langrish said...

Antonia Forest's books are all really excellent, and have been reprinted by Girls Gone By. And Leslie, I used to read and enjoy Trease, too - my favourites were 'The Hills of Varna', 'The Red Towers of Granada' and 'Cue for Treason'!