History is exciting and fun; full of extraordinary stories, and an astounding mixture of tragedy, comedy, aspiration and failure; stories about us; which is why writers, both for adults and children, will go back again and again into the past. There is always an appetite for history as entertainment, whether it’s Horrid Histories for children, or the historical novels of Philippa Gregory. Sixteen year old school girl, Marjorie Bowen’s imagination was so fired by fourteenth century Milan that she plunged into a novel about intrigue, politics, romance and death. The Viper of Milan, published in 1906 remains an icon of passionate and inspired storytelling which brings alive fourteenth century Milan. You can hear her relishing the names and places, and identifying, as perhaps only a schoolgirl can, with the loves and losses of her characters.
Every now and then, there is an extra surge of interest in the historical novel – but that’s how fashion goes with any genre – and it is usually because a particularly well-written book has been such a success, and others step in hoping that the formula may work for them too.
But fashion and formulas aside, a well-researched, yet exciting historical novel can generate an interest far beyond any straight-forward historical account of particular events, and can give a real flavour of a period, interesting a wider readership. The Alexander Trilogy of Mary Renault took me, as a teenager, straight into the world of Alexander the Great and the Persian Empire, and it was only later as an adult, re-reading those books, having myself researched the Persian Empires, did I realise how sound her history was.
Although Fiction can make the imaginative leap, bringing in emotion, plot, and the sheer power of storytelling, these days, writers of history have been hugely influenced by the narrative of television – whether with Simon Schama or Dr. Who, and have been making history more appealing to a mass audience than ever before. History is also appearing in so many guises, being written not just as non- fiction, or the historical novel, but crossing boarders into travel books, biography and even cookery, often taking on the format of the novel. But then, of all subjects, history is far more lateral than vertical, able to creep into all sorts of areas and, when you think about it, is the very hard core on which our storytelling stands.
But there is more than just the enticement and romance of another period. Going back in time often enables a writer to explore events, issues, relationships or situations, which sometimes, can be easier to deal with when removed from a contemporary context. Fantasy and science fiction can perform this role too. It can provide a larger stage on which to tell a story, though the great contemporary novel is often already taking its place in an historical context even before the ink is dry. Shakespeare is a good example of someone who could be subversive, exploratory, and express his ideas through a mixture of fantasy and history, by setting his plays in past history, distant lands, foreign cities, magical woods, and islands. This freed his poetic imagination, and enabled him to be explosive and controversial without risking contemporary criticism or loss of patronage.
Apart from this greater imaginative freedom, historical fiction is a wonderful way to bring alive a period – whether for adults or children – and inevitably cause the reader to make comparisons with their own experience of contemporary life.
I suppose one needs also to define “history.” History is an overview of the past, usually, as has been pointed out, written by the winners not the losers. But in our world, which seems able to change in the blink of an eye, the past and present overlap alarmingly and, with a powerful media, is no longer just written for us from one or two powerful points of view – nor fed to us through books alone. We expect history now, not just to be dates and events which define a country’s political public persona and status, but to include social history – histories which explain ethnicity, gender, and identity; histories which can be brought to us from everywhere and by anyone; the underbelly of history. We have a greater realisation that everyone is history in the making.
My trilogy – the Surya Trilogy – was partly material from my own life; things I knew from my childhood in India, and not just my place in history, but also my parents’ history of a previous generation; remembering their stories, their take on events as they unfolded, dating back to two world wars, the colonial struggles for independence, and the gradual fragmenting of the British Empire. I quote my foreword to the books:
“When I am asked if the Surya Trilogy is autobiographical, the answer is yes and no: yes, in that I couldn’t have written it had I not been born in India into the period leading up to the Second World War, Independence and Partition; yes, that as a child, I lived both in a palace in the Punjab, and a drab flat in a war-damaged London street; yes, that sea voyages, schools and friends were all part of my rich Anglo-Indian existence, but no, in any accurate sense to do with the plot or events as described in the books. Everything I experienced simply became material with which I could overlay a complete fantasy. As a child can turn a table into a house, or two chairs into a train, I turned my life into a fiction in which any resemblance to characters living or dead is purely coincidental – as they say in the movies.”
But for children reading those books today – my life is already history, and the books fall into the category of “historical fiction.” I remember the line out of the musical, “West Side Story” when a boy, realising he’s classified as a delinquent says “Hey! I’m depraved on account of deprived,” I feel I want to say, “Hey I’m history too on account of being born in history,” or, as one child beautifully put it, “born in the days of black and white.” Images she saw of the past were in black and white photographs, and so she thought the past was a time when there was no colour.
But books of the past which, when written were of the contemporary, are historical for us – such as Tolstoy, Dickens, Jane Austen or Victor Hugo, and such novels can be such important evidence when read alongside present day studies of their periods, and surely enhance the academic teaching of history, and vica versa.
First and foremost, a writer of fiction is telling a story, so sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, accuracy may not be as thorough as it would be in non-fiction. Fiction is usually trying to explore different truths rather than merely facts and figures: emotional truths, social truths, the effects of power and domination, or sex and rivalry, families, friends and enemies, race and gender. Sometimes, one truth gives way to try and tell another truth. Fiction writers are often not historians or academics and I’m sure many, like me, write on a wing and a prayer, inspired by a story unfolding in their brains which happens to be set in the past. But occasionally if facts interfere with the truth of the story, there is the kindly explanation called “poetic licence!” I have never checked out Marjorie Bowen’s facts, nor do I feel compelled to!
I have always hated the word “lies.” I dislike writers of fiction who say they are telling lies. We are surely writing a truth, of our own, while acknowledging that there are many truths. I prefer to think we are trying to be truthful, but occasionally stretching a truth or distorting a fact which, in my view, may be less important than the truth which one is trying to get across. I stretch credibility in Coram Boy, when I have my young aristocratic eighteenth century boy, Alexander, go to the cathedral school in Gloucester because he has a beautiful singing voice and loves music, but this would have been a virtual impossibility in his time – even up to the twentieth century. Musicians until the late nineteenth and twentieth century were “trade,” – even if highly regarded, if not revered. When Haydn lived on the Esterhazy estate in the Austrian Empire, he used the servants’ entrances, and always went into the concert hall by the back stairs. Mozart famously quarrelled violently with the Archbishop of Saltzburg, outraged by his treatment as one of the lower orders. So an aristocrat like Alexander would not have been allowed to go to school and mix with the lower orders, and make friends with Thomas, a carpenter’s son. I got it wrong when I had the Coram Hospital give Aaron and Toby the tokens which came with them when they were brought to the Foundling Hospital. There is no such record this happened, though there was the intention. But when I somewhat belatedly discovered this fact, I didn’t want to change that scene in the book as it illustrated a far more important emotion; children longing to know their identity, and connect with their mothers.
However, by creating this scenario in the cathedral for Alexander, and trying to justify it by him having an uncle who was a canon, meant that I could write about class and status; ponder over what “freedom” really means, and question whether Alexander, the aristocrat was freer than Thomas, the carpenter’s son. Other such characters in fiction, like Oliver Twist, for instance, who is born in an orphanage for the destitute, turns out to be highborn after all, and needed no such justification. But that makes Pip, in great Expectations, so particularly interesting, as he moves up the social ladder and redefines himself.
The most important thing is not to let any inaccuracies damage the internal credibility of the story, and this can so easily happen; the wrong name, or one wrong fact in the wrong place, can question the whole viability of a book. Even when you are writing fantasy – creating your own worlds and rules -you have also to create credibility, and having done so, stick to its inner logic.
Coram Boy started with a passing reference made in conversation about the use and abuse of children in contemporary Rumania, and went on to a discussion about child labour in India or the Far East. It was as though such things always happened elsewhere. So when a friend remarked, “but the highways and byways of England are littered with the bones of little children,” I was shocked and asked what he meant. I was used to hearing – indeed seeing – child labour in India, and talk of female infanticide, and though I knew of the shocking treatment of British children through the novels of Dickens, or from an earlier period, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, I thought of children in this country suffering more from indifference and neglect, rather than deliberate wide scale murder. “The Coram Man” was of the eighteenth century, my friend thought rather vaguely; men – tinkers and drovers –who roamed the towns and villages picking up unwanted and abandoned children and babies, either to sell off into the army or navy, or the newly burgeoning mills at the start of the industrial revolution, or to simply dispose of. But why was he called “the Coram Man?” I asked, to which my friend had no answer.
I have never started a book just because I wanted to write about a particular period in history. A story always came first – or a trigger leading to a story. This extraordinarily brief but powerful nugget of information was a trigger. Almost immediately, a story began to grow in my mind. Kipling’s six honest men came beating at my door. Who, When Where, Why, What and How? Although I was working on other projects, I found myself reading up on the eighteenth century, looking at eighteenth century pictures with more intensity – being drawn particularly to Hogarth. The more I thought about the times, the more I instinctively began to understand that such an activity could well have been going on. Until how recently could illegitimacy destroy the reputation of a young woman from the highest to the lowest in society, and was seen as a scourge on the family. And hadn’t I personally witnessed in India, the difficulty of poor families feeding numerous, unwanted children? Indeed, I soon realised that I could make comparisons between present day India and eighteenth century London and this gave me a real sense of what it must have been like. It didn’t take much thinking time to understand how such a trade could come about. However, the subject was dark and shocking. Could this be a children’s book? I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t start work on it immediately, even though a story was growing and growing, and characters, almost fully formed, were leaping onto my imaginative stage. Every time I found myself walking through the leafy woods of Gloucestershire, where I live, stumbling across half-hidden and forgotten drover’s roads, or walking parts of the great trading routes which criss-cross England: the Fosse Way, the Ridgeway, or the Cotswold Way, I felt the presence of the Coram Man.
My decision to start writing “Coram Boy,” came one day while tutoring for an Arvon writing course near Hebden Bridge. Here there are steep wooded valleys, and the remnants of ancient mills, whose chimneys reach above the tree canopy like periscopes. I had walked through the woods down to the stream and, one day, met a local also taking a walk. I commented on the abandoned mills, and he told me with a sigh, how those mills had employed child labour, whose lives were impoverished, short and cheap. When they died, the cost of a funeral was far beyond the ability of families to pay, and so their bodies were often just roughly buried in the woods. Local people claimed to hear their ghostly cries, he told me, and they called those woods, “the crying woods.” I was immediately inspired to write a few paragraphs, which later became the epilogue. I t focussed me, and made me realise I wanted to write this book, and that it would indeed be a children’s book. After all, I had always argued, children should be able to read stories about any situations which affected children. It’s what had made me want to find a way of writing about the horrors of Partition in India in The Wheel of Surya.
The first thing I did was track down the name “Coram.” I had never heard it before. I needed to know why such a man, trading in children, would be called a “Coram Man.”
I went to the London telephone directory and found a number of Corams – not many – and began to telephone them. This brought me to the Coram Foundation in Brunswick Square, which had been founded in the eighteenth century by a Sir Thomas Coram for the Maintenance and Education of Unwanted and Foundling children. I felt an incredible excitement, which increased when I was put onto their archivist, Rhian Harris.
After hearing her account of the Coram Hospital; of how and why it was founded by Sir Thomas Coram, (so it was a person’s name after all!) I then asked the crucial question which, in a way, was going to determine whether the story growing in my head had any validity. “Did the hospital employ men known as “Coram Men?”
“No,” was her direct answer, but before my heart had a chance to fall, she continued, “not officially.” This was exactly what I wanted to hear. Not officially. It gave me the freedom to invent a Coram Man; a tinker, moving across England from town to town and village to village, trading in unwanted children, and being prepared to dispose of inconvenient babies, using the respectable name of the Coram Hospital to persuade young women to trust him. I say, “invent” a Coram Man. I was certain such men existed, and that if I researched hard enough, I would find proof. But I trusted my hunch. I was terrified of too much research undermining my imagination. Research had to be there, but kept in check; earnest, but not too earnestly! Better to feel sucked imaginatively into the period, as I’m sure Marjorie Bowen was.
I began to write my story. The embryos of the characters already there from the very beginning, started to develop and grow and find their voices, but I was going to the history books regularly to check facts, and get the feel of the period. Now I was finding the name Coram everywhere: the Foundation’s own book, “Coram’s Children” by Ruth McClure, was invaluable, as was Jenny Uglow’s biography of Hogarth, and Roy Porter’s book “Eighteenth Century England.” But it was never a case of reading these books cover to cover. Suddenly, the wealth of eighteenth century life and culture was overpowering; there was so much one could write about, so much one might be tempted to put in. I had to concentrate on my story, my characters, and see them through their journey to the end – writing by intuition and guesswork, and then following up by research to make sure I hadn’t written anything too wrong.
But it was not just history books which re-enforced my hunch about this particular dilemma to do with unwanted children. History is often hidden away, embedded in folk tales, fairytales and nursery rhymes. As a child, I have skipped to “My mother said, I never should play with the gypsies in the wood.” Perhaps the old myths about gypsies and travelling folk, carrying off children had some credence too in the light of what I was finding out about the “Coram Man.” Likewise another skipping rhyme I quote, “Here comes an old lady from babyland, with three small children in her hand, one can cook, the other can bake, the other can make a pretty round cake …. “ ending with the plea, “Please ma’am will you take one in.” made me certain that there must have been people in communities, who made it their task to try and find placements for orphaned or unwanted children, just as there were matchmakers and herbalists. The Grimm brothers, whose stories I had devoured as a child, retold old folk stories and legends containing the most appalling horrors – not just for titivation – but because of ancient truths about the behaviour of families in a superstitious and hostile world, and because crucially, there were moral lessons to be drawn. One which fascinated me greatly was Hansel and Gretel, especially because the parents themselves had abandoned their own children – to me, as a child, an utterly appalling thought – not a witch-like stepmother or an evil uncle; something which returned to my mind when writing Coram Boy.
Despite my having stretched credibility in allowing my young character, Alexander, to go to the cathedral school nonetheless, I knew it was important to understand social class and status. It adds a vital tension between characters. Besides, it is something which has always interested me, I have often made the comparison between the British class structure, and the Hindu caste system, the main difference being that within the class structure you can, to some extent, move up, down and sideways, whereas you are born and die within your caste. In neither case, however, does money alone alter your birth status – though it always helps to have it! (Read Trollop) Otis Gardener, the “Coram Man” and his son, Meshak, are working class, but Otis is ambitious; determined to achieve status and wealth, and reinvent himself as a “gentleman” in looks if not deeds. I was also able to suggest the corruptibility that exists in any power structure, from small parish councils, to government departments, desperate hovels, to the aristocratic drawing rooms of England and, even within the Coram Hospital itself, where records show they were always battling with misdeeds and corruption.
Thomas was a working class boy, who could only go up in the world because of his skills, and the education he acquired at the choir school. Mrs Lynch, the housekeeper, may have started life as a working class parlour maid, but through her intelligence and capability, rose up to the position of housekeeper. Mrs Milcote and her daughter, Melissa, were high born, but poor relations, and dependent on the Ashbrooks. Mrs Milcote knew it was vital for her daughter to marry well, within her class and status, and encouraged her relationship with Alexander. So it is a poignant irony that, when Melissa gives birth illegitimately to Alexander’s baby, her mother gives it to the Coram Man. I was conscious of how vulnerable all classes can be – but especially dependent women. The slightest shift of the building blocks can send an edifice tumbling. But one shouldn’t confuse intimacy with familiarity. Tabitha, as Melissa’s personal maid, was extremely intimate with her young mistress, but that is not the same as being familiar – and when Melissa felt Tabitha had overstepped the mark by suggesting she was pregnant, Melissa slaps her.
I was interested in the relationship between Mrs Lynch, a clever, scheming woman, and Mrs Milcote, so weak and vulnerable. Mrs Lynch despised Mrs Milcote, superior to her in class, but less powerful. She knew what her secret ambitions were for her daughter, and gained power over her. In the stage version, Mrs Lynch makes a speech in which she accuses the Ashbrooks of hypocrisy when her role in disposing of Melissa’s baby is revealed. This is another case of “poetic licence” taken this time, by the playwright, Helen Edmundson. I can hardly think of any circumstances when such a speech could be made in that period, or that she could even conceive of what is more a twentieth or twenty-first century argument – when she sneeringly says that just the ring on Lady Ashbrook’s finger could pay for a dozen orphanages. But how effective it was before a modern audience, familiar with the raging debates about how money is best spent in our own society – even echoing some people’s opinions that to give too much welfare to single mothers only encourages immorality.
Although it was clear that Coram Boy would be for the older child, no particular readership was in the forefront of my decision to write the book, just a burning desire to tell this story, and that I must write it in whatever way it needed to be written. I often find that I store a number of stories in my head which have a natural readership for a particular age, so that if I’m asked for say a story for nine to eleven year olds, I can usually select one. I was asked to write the history of the Taj Mahal as an historical back drop to a piece of fiction for top juniors. The fiction was “Danger by Moonlight.” But while writing, it became apparent to me that there was a far bigger book in this material, and I was very inspired to go on and write “The Blood Stone” for an older readership.Perhaps frustratingly, nowhere in the book is the period stated, although it is set in the mid seventeenth century. For some reason, perhaps misguidedly, my editor and I agreed that the clue to the period lay with the fact that it ended with the building of the Taj Mahal. This might not have screamed “seventeenth century” to the average reader, but defined it as a novel set in the past, as were my descriptions of life in Venice. But perhaps we were wrong.
At the very beginning of my career, with my early books for young children such as The Magic Orange Tree, there was a deliberate targeting of the younger readership. I was inspired to write because of the distress I felt about racism in Britain, and my feeling that there were not enough books which portrayed multicultural Britain. Whatever age I am writing for, I feel very strongly that the reader should be able to identify with characters; see their mirror image; be able to say “that could be me.” I also realised that the more the ethnic communities knew their own histories and culture, the more they would understand why they were in Britain in particular, and the more confidence they would find in themselves, and not feel so dispossessed of their own heritage. I am very sad that the attempt to acknowledge people’s culture, history, and religion has brought the term “multiculturalism” into disrepute. Certainly, my aim, as an avowed multiculturalist, was never to create divisions but, on the contrary, to heal and show a shared history, while celebrating difference.
I believe that the overriding power of Kipling’s “Kim” is his love and sympathy for Indians, his hatred of hypocrisy and cruelty, and his understanding of India’s multiculturalism. This for me, far outweighs his politics, and imperialist belief in British supremacy. Anyone wanting to understand the British Empire should read Kipling – especially his short stories. Fiction can help us so vividly, to put history into perspective, and better evaluate consequences – and see that in the end, it’s all about being human – whatever the period. This is certainly what Kipling did. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is another case in point.
History as a subject should never be overly categorised nor viewed vertically. It embraces almost everything we do and think and, in my view, should always have remained at the heart of the National Curriculum. Not only is it a discipline, teaching one to disseminate information, criticise, analyse and discuss, but it is a third and fourth eye of experience. It bids the imagination to understand. It is a natural handmaiden of literature, and a spring board in any direction, into almost every other subject. It is at the heart of the Humanities and our understanding of ourselves