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 It's about the Glorious Revolution, when William of Orange superseded the last Catholic monarch of Britain.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!!