Tag Archives: Historical fiction

‘Longbourn’ by Jo Baker

Longbourn

Jane Austen’s books – especially Pride and Prejudice – have inspired many sequels. One of the earliest was Sylvia Brinton’s Old friends and new fancies in 1903, and since then they have come quick and fast, up to and beyond 2012’s Death comes to Pemberley, a crime fiction spin-off by P.D. James. It’s understandable: Jane Austen left only six finished novels and a few fragments, and her fans wish she’d lived longer and been able to write more. Unfortunately, the sequels are mostly awful.

A sequel to a well-known work faces two problems. The first is that a classic work of literature is complete in itself. It covers the defining event of the protagonist’s life, whether that’s Frodo destroying the One Ring or Elizabeth Bennet securing a husband. Any other, later, events in their lives are going to seem unimportant and uninteresting by comparison. The other problem is that the classics were written by geniuses, and to borrow their characters and plotlines is to set yourself up for comparison with them. Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a retelling of Pride and prejudice, gets around the first problem by concerning itself not with later events, but the same events, from a different point of view – that of the Bennets’ servants. The second problem remains though: although not a bad writer, Baker is not as good as Austen (not many people are).

Most of the action in Longbourn – around three-quarters – takes place alongside identifiable events from Pride and prejudice, and each chapter is headed by a short quote from P&P. Although P&P is the jumping-off point for the book, Longbourn is defiantly concerned with all the things that Austen didn’t cover: the working classes, sex, violence, war, slavery, mud, blood and bodily fluids. It’s a promising concept, and on occasion deploying these themes in connection with characters we tend to think of us refined and cerebral can produce a delicious jolt of shock, as when the housemaid Sarah muses on the Bennet girls whilst washing their laundry:

“The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were.”

I have a few issues with this book. One is that it is too didactic, constantly banging-on about how difficult the servants’ lives were, and how their wealthy employers were thoughtless to their needs. I’m aware that some people have a lot of money and others very little, and that this can cause problems and be a Bad Thing. That doesn’t mean I want to be hit around the head with it every few minutes: I prefer social commentary to be more subtle. Baker simply makes all the P&P upper-class characters out to be nasty people. This is not a book for Austen fans who feel genuine affection for her characters, as Baker’s interpretation is that Darcy is an unpleasant man, and Elizabeth’s marriage to him will make her unhappy. In this respect it doesn’t even work as fan fiction.

The second issue that I have with Longbourn is that the P&P connection didn’t add anything. It appeared to be there to grab the attention of the reading public by promising all the titilating bits that Jane Austen left out, without actually delivering any insight. The P&P characters were a bit flat, which is perhaps to be expected as they were not Baker’s own original creation.

If the non-P&P storylines were strong, Longbourn might still have been able to transcend the unsubtle didacticism and the virtually pointless P&P connection. Sadly, the biggest problem of all for me was that I couldn’t get interested in the non-P&P storylines. When you remove the P&P dressing this is basically a dull romance, which is not the kind of book I would normally read. It’s a shame, but I suppose I’ll have to accept that geniuses of Jane Austen’s level are few and far between, and should be valued as such.

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‘The Iron King’ by Maurice Druon

Iron King photoAccording to George R. R. Martin, this book was the inspiration for Game of Thrones. I admit I haven’t actually read or seen Game of Thrones (I know; my bad. I’m not keen on watching the TV series as I find screen violence a lot more disturbing than page violence. And at the moment I’m too lazy to wade through all the books). From what other people have told me though, the appeal of Game of Thrones is the high-octane drama. And The Iron King has drama in spades.

The ‘Iron King’ of the title is Philip IV of France (1268-1314). An absolute monarch, he ruled ruthlessly, grabbing power for himself and placing his relatives on thrones wherever he could. He even arrested Pope Boniface VIII and installed Clement V as a kind of pet pope at Avignon, where he could keep an eye on him.

This cruel and dispassionate prince was concerned with the ideal of the nation. Under his reign France was great and the French wretched.

Philip sought to eliminate all rival powers. He expelled the Jews from France in 1306, and in 1307 attacked the ancient institution of the Knights Templar. After a fierce political struggle, he finally ordered the leaders of the Knights Templar to be publicly burnt at the stake. The execution is supposed to be a demonstration of the Iron King’s strength, but the mood shifts when the Grand Master of the Knights Templar declaims against Philip from the pyre:

The Grand Master’s burning face was turned towards the royal loggia. And the terrible voice cried, “Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret, King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!”

The rest of book is concerned with the working out of the curse. It is followed by six other books concerning the fate of Philip’s descendents, the seven books together forming the Accursed Kings sequence.

The main theme of The iron king is power: how to get it, and how to keep it. Some of the characters – the royal family and the aristocracy – are born into it. Others gain it through religion (the pope, cardinals and archbishops), wealth (the Lombard bankers), or their own guile and cunning (courtiers, advisers and politicians). But power doesn’t last forever. When dictators and tyrants seem at their most invincible, they are often at their peak and a fall is not far away. The higher they are, the greater they fall. These falls provide both the drama and the poignancy that gives the story its depth.

The Iron King has compelling characters dealing with high-pressure situations against the backdrop of a richly realised medieval Europe. Feuding factions struggle for power through intrigue, scheming, and sorcery. I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.

‘Sharpe’s gold’ by Bernard Cornwell

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Hence, after gorging myself on emotionally compelling fiction, I found myself reaching for a Sharpe novel to read next. Richard Sharpe doesn’t do emotion. Or, rather, he has emotions (lusty; vengeful; mad as hell), but they are not the reason you read a Sharpe book. It’s the swashbuckling action that draws you in and keeps you reading.

The novels trace the career of fictional British soldier Richard Sharpe. Almost all of them take place during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) except for a ‘prequel’ set in India, and one final send-off dated 1820-21. Bernard Cornwell said that he wanted to do for Wellington’s army what C. S. Forester did for Nelson’s navy with his Horatio Hornblower series. I’ve never read the Hornblower books (I fear they might contain too much rigging), so to me Richard Sharpe is basically James Bond with a 19th-century rifle and pantaloons. He’s tough, there’s never any doubt that he’ll beat the villain, and he always gets the girl.

Sharpe’s gold is set in 1810, slap-bang in the middle of the war. British morale is low: Spain has fallen to Napoleon’s troops and it looks like Britain will be next. Amid the pessimism, Sharpe is summoned to Wellington’s office, where he is instructed to carry out a dangerous secret mission. He must travel into French-occupied Spain to collect a cache of gold from a fierce band of Spanish guerillas and smuggle it back to the British army in Portugal. Without the gold, he is informed, the campaign against Napoleon will end in defeat.

He pushed a piece of paper over the table. Sharpe unfolded it. ‘Captain Sharpe is directed by my orders and all Officers of the Allied Armies are requested and instructed to offer Captain Sharpe any assistance he may require’. The signature was a simple ‘Wellington’.

“There’s no mention of gold?” Sharpe had expected elucidation at this meeting. He seemed to find only more mysteries.

“We didn’t think it wise to tell too many people about a great pile of gold that’s looking for an owner. It sort of encourages greed, if you follow me.”

Of course, it’s not going to be as simple as simply picking up the gold and returning to Wellington: Sharpe will need all his wits and courage to carry out the mission. What follows is the patented Cornwell blend of heart-stopping action and military strategy, incorporating the siege and spectacular destruction of the Portuguese city of Almeida.

The edition that I read had a section at the end where Bernard Cornwell explains how he came to write the Sharpe novels, and how they developed over time as he wrote them. In it, he says that one of the best things about writing historical fiction is that it enables the writer to ‘explain’ small mysteries of past events in a way that historians are not allowed to do. In this novel, he takes the known facts of the destruction of Almeida and weaves a story about how it could have happened – with Richard Sharpe as a key player. I like this playfulness with history, and I also like his admission about the somewhat ad hoc nature of his series:

What did I know of my hero? … I knew he was an officer who had come up from the ranks, because that would give him some problems in his own army, but beyond that, not much. I described him at the beginning of the book as tall and black-haired, which was fine till Sean Bean came along, after which I tried not to mention his hair colour ever again. I gave him a scarred cheek, though for the life of me I can never remember which cheek has the scar and I suspect it changes from book to book.

The reader is never going to notice the wandering scar; they’ll be too busy enjoying the action. Besides, it’s impossible not to like a book that features a rooftop sword-fight with a villainous Spaniard.