The portrayal of mental health problems in the literature of the past ranges from the condemnatory to the sympathetic. One can't help but feel, for example, that Don Quixote is desperately ill, but Cervantes uses that for comic effect; he is not using it to explore the nature of delusion itself, or to make a point about how society treats mentally ill people. Some writers seem to be able to capture the 'what it is like' to suffer from a particular problem, and in some cases they can do that without eliciting the generosity of spirit in the reader. Despite the horrific cruelty of Rochester in the fact and manner of his keeping of Antoinette (or Bertha, as we know her), despite the clear sense that he is responsible for her insanity, her erratic and violent behaviour, and ultimately (SPOILER ALERT) her suicide, we as readers are still, somehow, meant to feel relieved at her death. We are meant to be pleased that this human barrier to the happiness of our protagonist has been removed, in spite of the circumstances. It is fascinating therefore that Charlotte Bronte should portray her, between the lines, with such depth, clarity and care. She is a fully realised character underneath the indirect way we access her in the book, one who deserves our sympathy and understanding, rather than our condemnation.
So, it is with great interest that I read Walter Scott's portrayal of what seems to be something like PTSD manifesting itself as bipolar disorder in The Heart of Midlothian. Madge Wildfire is every bit as fully recognised a character as Jeanie or Effie Deans, every bit as rich as Flora MacIvor, who is a much more interesting character than Rose, just as Rebecca is far more complete than Rowena in Ivanhoe. It would be fascinating to get hold of him and find out exactly how he managed to finesse this woman, because her madness is absolutely believable. We are not as readers meant to get her, in contrast to more modern explorations of failed mental health where the exact point is to portray the wie es eigentlich gewesen of the malady. Scott does her instability gloriously well, but I can imagine that many of his contemporary readers (as well as the two-hundred years' worth since) would find Madge anywhere from uncomfortable to unrealistic. I don't think she is unrealistic in the slightest, although there may be some bias of some kind because I recognise in it my own portrayal of Edward Strelley's grief over Elizabeth. I confess myself frustrated with him at times, because he's so unpredictable and difficult to railroad into the historically fixed plot points of the story I'm trying to write.
If there's a criticism to level at Scott, it's that a lot of his (male) heroes are far less interesting than the stories they inhabit. Waverley himself is dull, Ivanhoe is relatively uninteresting. Sir Kenneth in The Talisman has a bit more about him, although obviously that was all lifted from Kingdom of Heaven (there's a joke in there somewhere, although I can't figure out what it is...). Perhaps that's why they're not taught at school, because they're all plot and so you can't write about the character in detail. So it is with the fictional women that Scott exercises his talent at character: because their 'plot' is fixed by who they are, there is no need to divest them of personality. One imagines that Scott had meticulous plans for the central plots of his novels, and it is this very rigidity that means his main characters can't be remarkable as individuals.
Anyway, what drops out of all of this is the touching notion that Scott was actually rather compassionate, even for the people who in his books constitute the dregs, the underclass who can frame a story but who are not generally themselves central. He sees the value, the essential humanity of all his characters, and isn't shy of putting it out there on the page.
It's funny to think about what generates an emotional reaction. It could be a face, a voice, even just the thought of a person. A smell (of biscuity cakes), or Baz Luhrmann dispensing advice (The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday - the first time I had come across the idea so well expressed by Auden). It could be that quotation from Philippians 4 (verse 8), or Catullus 101. In my case today, it's the little 'Iggle Piggle' tune from In the Night Garden, as sung with terrific gusto and almost no sense of rhythm by Derek Jacobi. Yes, him. Clavidivs. One of the forms of The Master. Him out of Last Tango in Halifax (no, I've never seen it). That tune is, to my ears, sleep deprivation, frustration, the echoing ring of a night-time spent awake and trying to comfort a small and unreasonable human being. I've spent a lot of time and effort trying to capture that effect (not specifically the Night Garden on me, the effect more generally when something gets you) in writing, and very occasionally I manage to convince myself that I've done it. As it happens, I sometimes play that tune on the guitar, and when I do that, it doesn't have the same effect. It has to be on the TV, accompanied by Jacobi's soothing voice. Then it works. Then I am transported.
It's hard to get that into the books. And I mean in both senses, of the characters having experiences of that quality, and of the book inducing experiences of that type in its readers. I don't have the benefit of a rousing or sorrowful musical score, and because of the style in which I write, I don't allow myself access to the inner processes of the characters except through their actions and speech. That's an attempt at a kind of rigour: you don't know what's going on inside another person, so you have to work it out. Sometimes, you get a sense of it, or you might even know someone well enough to have an insight into their thoughts and feelings directly. But more often, it's more-or-less impenetrable, and you just have what the person does to go on. Some writing gives chapter-and-verse on the thoughts and feelings of its characters, and that can be right for the context. For me, I can only really get into it when writing in the first person. But that's a limitation of me as a writer, more than anything. I don't experience any problems with the characters refusing to tell me their next line, but I couldn't always make it clear why they speak as they do. Sometimes, they just do stuff, and sometimes they don't do the stuff I want them to. I hope at some level that's a positive reflection on what I'm doing, because it's not just plot and no depth. But book IV is tough, because the historical plot is quite rigid, with a bit less in the way of gaps for my fiction to exploit than in the previous ones. We shall see how it pans out...
A first for me this evening. I cried - literal, actual tears - whilst listening to (the 100th episode of) The Infinite Monkey Cage. When the Very Reverend Victor Stock described Stephen Hawking's tomb, next to Newton's (hic depositum est quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newton), I found myself rather moved. Grief is a very strange thing: you can think you have mastered it, or that it has not taken hold at all, and then find that in fact it has a tight grip. It can lie dormant, almost forgotten, or it can penetrate to every corner of the mind such that no thought feels positive. I have already tried to describe the difficulty of writing about it in a convincing way. My insight - limited though it is - is that perhaps a fully realistic, psychologically rich depiction of a person grieving would be far too much for a series of books that is supposed to be at least in part entertainment.
Interesting, though, that I should be moved by the manner of Stephen Hawking's interment. Westminster Abbey is (you will be shocked to learn) a place of Christian worship, that subject much discussed, turned over and otherwise co-opted for major plot points in These Matters. My own history with Christianity is, as I suspect is the case with many, that early exposure through school in particular was more than enough to put me off. There is much that Christianity teaches with which I agree. But, as Bertrand Russell famously (apocryphally? now that would be good!) said, there is not one word in the gospels in praise of intelligence. There is a great discussion in The Name of the Rose about whether or not Jesus had a sense of humour, and it is equally the case that there are no jokes in the gospels, at least not that can be detected in the translations I have read. So there is much in Christianity with which I disagree. The further metaphysical commitment to a creator God is almost redundant in terms of what the religion tells us, or at least what we ought to learn from it, about the world.
That I chose the title This Matter of Faith some four or five years ago is significant. There's something about the promise of Christianity, something about the message of hope, forgiveness, absolution that is utterly, devastatingly compelling. It is what enabled it, no doubt, to become the religion of the Roman Empire seventeen hundred years ago, despite all the competition. It is, perhaps, what makes it so central in the minds and writings of so many thinkers, even those who were undoubtedly themselves atheist. It is certainly what makes it so central to These Matters.
So, since the next one is almost entirely about religion, here's a little snippet from book IV:
“I am not sure what path to take, Master Strelley.” Harper twists his fingers together. “The Church asks me to use this new book, but my parishioners… They would have me keep the old ways. It is what they know.”
“I cannot solve that dilemma for you. I can only say that whichever you choose, there will be someone who is unhappy with your decision.”
“That is true. But I do not propose to keep men happy. Only so far as I must to care for them. I want to do what is right by God.”
“Ah, Monseigneur,” Strelley says with a flourish, and the priest’s expression suggests he has not been addressed thus before, “then it is only by quietening your mind in prayer that you will find your way.” Strelley smiles, slightly wryly, before continuing, “I have sought God’s voice and I have never truly found it.”
Harper looks long and hard at him. “If you wish to know how it is with these people, attend the service tomorrow.”
“I shall, Sir. I shall.”
And that tiny, nagging voice that says "they might, you know!" Well, they didn't, and that's it for at least two years. Not quite so devastating as the two semi-finals of the 90s (both of which, of course, lost on penalties), but sad nonetheless. At least we didn't get to the final to get thoroughly Joan-of-Arc-ed by the French. I remember as a kid losing the final of a five-a-side tournament on penalties (I was the goalkeeper, so involved in half of the kicks). I wonder if it is character-building to weep desperately over a game. I can't remember if we were comforted kindly or told to 'man up'. If Gareth Southgate had been the manager... Hopefully the young England players will take something positive from it. Honourable sporting failure is a grand and noble tradition, but beating the Australians in 2005 was magnificent.
Thanks to those of you who have recently downloaded free copies of the ebooks, and those of you who have bought No Evil. Always a pleasure to engage a new reader, or to draw one back in. Anyone finding five minutes to spare to review on Amazon would make me even happier!
Look out for more free book promotions in the near future. I will announce them on here on the day or just before.
It's exciting to see my period (namely the mid-Tudor era) represented on TV. Henry VIII, who features in the early books, is a towering, titanic historic presence, so we get plenty of him. Elizabeth as queen is equally popular, and gets a lot of attention. So I wondered if the Timewatch Guide to her might give us some insight into who she was, rather than simply repeat the fairly well-trodden anecdotes of which even the relatively uninterested might already be aware. She - Elizabeth - is a much more fascinating character in many ways than her father, whether for the purposes of writing entertaining historical fiction or just for sheer historical interest. So I was a bit disappointed with the programme for a number of reasons.
Firstly, as is presumably evident from the books, I think that understanding Elizabeth the adult woman comes from understanding her as a teenager. I have my own inventions to offer some sort of insight, but I didn't think this programme added anything. I suppose that's a reflection on the fact that I've got a reasonably wide range of Elizabeth literature, fiction and history, under my considerable belt already, but I do ask the question: what is this doing that the last half-a-dozen programmes didn't? It's a perennial problem, because it's relatively rare for something really new to be discovered, found, theorised, but it seems to be relatively common for history programmes to be commissioned. It's also the case that this particular programme was a sort of literature review, pulling out what might have been at the time new ideas, but they weren't new to me.
Secondly, I think that the Philomena Cunk spoof programmes have - or at least ought to have had - a Spın̈al Tap-like influence on the making of history TV. You shouldn't just do all the cliches: walking towards the camera through convincingly period-authentic forest, sitting in a darkened room lit only by a burning fire, that peculiar cadence that is supposed to lend significance to relatively mundane sentences; all represented here, in spite of their being sent up.
Thirdly and finally it'd be nice to hear about the Tudors without having their relevance to now being emphasised. They are interesting, regardless of whether they are like us. It would make more sense to highlight the differences, would it not, than to simply collapse the 400-year gap as if the Tudors are just like us? In my own writing, I have tried to show exactly how the atheist is an unusual character, viewed with anything from suspicion to ridicule by even his own friends. I have tried to show how dedication to religion is critical to understanding the age. Hence the title. Faith meant something different then, being as it was so central to almost everyone's world view.
So, programme makers, let's try to have history on TV that brings something new to the table. There is a vacancy. In History. I'm not proposing myself to fill it, but someone ought to.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
It's all a bit Euro '96. Which, to be fair, was all a bit Italia '90. There is something about this collective hope, expectation, jubilation, abandonment of normal behavioural standards (singing together in the street! Imagine!) that is thoroughly enchanting. It's a thing to be experienced. I wonder if going into battle was somehow similar. There is a sense of togetherness - of tribe - that is on show at football matches generally but is really acute during tournaments when England do well. Even though no lives are at stake and the cause is (merely) a football trophy, it is the closest a lot us get to what must have been the absolutely enlivening and thrilling, just as much as it must have been terrifying, experience of battle. It is, like the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck tingle of a beautiful song or poem, the ave atque vale of Catullus' lament for his brother or pius Aeneas, a thing for which you can't plan, prepare, or make much sense of why it happens. It's impossible to convincingly explain why some songs, poems, films, paintings or whatever make us joyous or devastated, just as it is impossible to really explain why we fall in love with one person and not another. It's difficult to write about these sensations, because all you can do is point to what it feels like and do your best to make it feel real. Interestingly, when I watch back the moment when England won the Edgbason test in 2005, it still makes me feel that way. It is a part of the fabric of life, almost to the point that those sensations (and they do not have to be positive to be significant) are themselves the reason, the goal, rather than the long-range projects which are supposed to mark us out as human.
Edward Strelley's behaviour in book IV is supposed to reflect this (not the test match - the falling in love). He is desperate, frustrated and close to broken by his forlorn love, but he has moments when he rediscovers his swagger. This isn't perhaps a word I would previously have associated with him, but there are a few scenes when he surprises even me by the coolness of his reactions. At the other end of that, there are times when he starts talking, and without knowing how or why, he begins to break down, and the crushed, hopeless version of him rises to the fore. I'll be interested to see whether, when I come to do a wide-ranging read-through and edit, I find him convincing. I never set out to write about these sorts of romantic relationships - and indeed I myself did not know that Strelley and Elizabeth were falling in love with each other until someone else pointed it out to me that it was clearly there by the end of book II - because I was keen to avoid the Mills & Boon end of historical fiction. But it has become his central character theme as he attempts to make it through the Prayer Book Rebellion unscathed.
It might also be interesting for readers to know that I feel a deep sort of sympathy for him, whilst also finding writing him a bit of a difficult task at times. He can be quite unpleasant - both in the way he behaves, and in the way he makes me feel as he flows out of me - but there's the thing, I suppose. He does flow out of me, just as Elizabeth does, just as Longshawe, de Winter and Pike do. In a sense, the hardest thing is to plan because I genuinely don't know how they will react to real historical events until I get them there. I don't think I understood fully Virgil's meaning until I got to grips with Strelley turning his back on Elizabeth. But in his case, it is not some other duty that calls him, it is his duty to Elizabeth herself.
So, let us pay due tribute: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
But I still see that tackle by Moore and when Lineker scored
Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing
Three lions on a shirt
Jules Rimet still gleaming
Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming...
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry (Kane), England, and Saint George!'
Indeed I do. To celebrate No Evil being (just over) a year old, it'll be free on Kindle on Sunday and Monday.
In the meanwhile, here's the prayer from the Visitation of the Sick which is intended to be said 'for persons troubled in mind or conscience.'
O blessed Lord, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comforts; I beseech thee, look down in pity and compassion upon this thy afflicted servant. Thou writest bitter things against me, and makest me to possess my former iniquities; thy wrath lieth hard upon me and my soul is full of trouble: But, o merciful God, thou hast written thy holy Word for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of thy holy Scriptures, might have hope; give me a right understanding of myself, and of they threats and promises; that I may neither cast away my confidence in thee, nor place it anywhere but in thee. Give me strength against all my temptations, and heal my distempers. Break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax. Shut not up thy tender mercies in displeasure; but make me to hear of joy and gladness, that the bones which thou has broken may rejoice. Deliver me from fear of the enemy and lift up the light of they countenance upon me, and give me peace, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord…
It is not a difficult stretch of the imagination to see Edward Strelley's hand in there.
And, highly relevant to the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, the 24th of the 39 Articles (as they became, after Cranmer's time).
XXIV. OF SPEAKING IN THE CONGREGATION IN SUCH A TONGUE AS THE PEOPLE UNDERSTANDETH
IT is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.
Look out for more from book IV in the coming weeks.
A bit of de Winter family banter, and a bit that follows the 'it is a woman's hand, my lord' joke...
“Ah, I see. So what is at stake, dear brother, is a figurehead for your religion. Not a woman, flesh and blood, soul and spirit. A cipher.”
George de Winter frowns. “I have served Mary for years. You have arrived here in the last day, and already you are advising me on how best to handle her?”
“Yes, George, I am. Keep her as your candidate for the throne, but remember that she is a woman, a person.”
“Well, Caroline, I cannot say you have failed to live up to my memory of you. But I thank you for your wisdom. Perhaps I will serve her the better for it.”
“Perhaps.” She considers, just for a moment. “I would have been willing to serve her sister.”
“Elizabeth? She lacks any manner of principle. You were lucky to escape.”
“I do not agree.”
“Do not be ungracious. Elizabeth would not be a better mistress.”
Strelley laughs. “I am no military man.”
“I do not care for your opinion on the subject, Master Strelley. There are others whom I trust more. You will help me defend this city.”
“Suffice it to say, Master Strelley, that the country folk of Devon are agitating.”
“That is not new. That priest was killed last year.”
“You know of that? But that was in Cornwall. His name was Body and he was a fool. He deserved what happened to him.”
“For trying to impose the king’s will?”
“For ignoring the people’s wishes.”
Strelley watches Blackaller carefully as he speaks. “So you,” Strelley says, slowly and tentatively, “would not ignore the people’s wishes?”
“Master Strelley, the people will have what they wish in their Church service.”
“You do not like the new Book?” Strelley smiles, knowing that Blackaller will not be aware of his involvement in the Book of Common Prayer.
“I do not dislike the Book. But I do not thoroughly agree with the sentiment.”
“You would have the Mass?”
“I would have a clear conscience, Master Strelley. And my old bones were shaped by the liturgy I knew as a boy. One cannot accept being told that ones conscience is wrong.”
“The Book is coming. Whether you would have it or not.”
He really was called Blackaller, incidentally. Hence the absolute imperative to include a relevant joke in that scene. I may see if I can engineer the 'wild stab in the dark' line into it as well...
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought