Christopher de Hamel's book is an unusual combination of enthusiasm for a subject and an ability to write engagingly on it for the casual reader. I have no experience as an amateur historian with the genuine article of old sources, but I can see myself bothering the Sheffield Archive, or a local church or two for a bit of real history. There's an odd but nevertheless fascinating mix of the contents of the manuscripts themselves, their stories as objects through history, and de Hamel's own experience of the meetings. He seems to have a deft touch for focusing for just the right amount on any particular aspect, and then moving on to something else, in a way - highlighted in a review on the back of the book itself by no less a figure than the impossible-to-spell Diarmaid MacCulloch - that is slightly lacking in the fiction of Umberto Eco. He also praises de Hamel's sense of humour, although I cannot help but feel that Umberto Eco's jokes are obscured by Umberto Eco's insistence on displaying his depth of knowledge. Eco is also susceptible to the need to pack in all the possible references to other works (probably some of which works appear in de Hamel's book!) which in most writers of middling ability comes across as a bit of showing off. Yes, I accept the charge, of course, but given that half of my references are to 20th and 21st century pop-culture rather than literature in its sense of morally superior stuff, perhaps showing off isn't quite the right analysis.
Just to offset the serious history bit, here's an interesting observation: my eight-month-old child distinguishes the world into four categories of object. They are:
Small / sweet berries which I like to eat;
Things that other people around the table have that I don't have that I'd like to eat;
Other stuff (that isn't...)
He seems to have developed a concept of 'be-screened object that can, at a push, show me Maui singing You're Welcome' . And if he is in the company of one of said objects and it is not showing him Maui, or a closely related video (limited to Moana singing about the sea, that one about being explorers, and Tamatoa doing Shiny), he kicks off with the force of a small, loud hurricane. He doesn't like other Disney, he doesn't like other music, he'll just about put up with that duck song, but beyond that, nothing. What a tiny monster. At least he hasn't worked out how to ask Alexa for it yet... The other stuff in his world is a very large category of objects, including his toys, house, parents and so on, which can be more or less interesting depending on the situation. The other three are the reliable ones. I wonder if he is convinced that Maui is actually a real demigod of the wind and sea, and therefore ought to be worshipped. I haven't worked out how to slide a reference to Moana into the books yet, but look out for it! I have also noticed that our household Furby seems to be referencing the ermahgerd meme, which gave me an idea to try to embed at least one meme somewhere in the next book. One does not simply seems to be almost both too easy and too obvious.
On a thoroughly unrelated note, I was interested by a Buzzfeed article (which I now, of course, cannot find to link to) which expounded the view that love is a choice, not a feeling, as expressed by someone on some manner of social media. Given that so much writing - be it fiction, poetry, songs, drama, whatever - is about love, it's a bold claim. There was a telling point in there, but I don't think it established what it set out to. I think - as I have tried to show in my writing - that love is the feeling, the inescapable, unignorable and consuming feeling that doesn't need an explanation (you can ask why someone falls in love with someone else, and there may be a good answer, but somehow that answer is still uninformative). Love - in this sense, of course, not the Christian caritas that I have discussed before - is the subject of endless literature, good and bad, of whatever form. What isn't the subject of endless literature is the separate but related idea of building a lasting and stable relationship, and I think the original writer ended up conflating love with that idea - more mundane, perhaps, but more relevant to most people's actual existences. I would be interested to know if there was any successful literature or drama of the stable long-term relationship, but given that the whole point of that stability is to lack drama, I suspect not. So is love a choice? No. The choice is what you do with it when it's there, and - something which I can only really think I've read being taken seriously as a practical, decision-requiring issue in the work of A C Grayling - when it isn't any more. Plenty of 'trapped in a loveless marriage' literature exists, of course, and I haven't read all of it, but Grayling takes seriously the possibility that a relationship could survive in its sense of family, home and so on, whilst the more romantic elements of love are fulfilled outside that relationship. I am not sure he is entirely in earnest, but like all good thinkers he is not afraid to draw out the conclusions of his view, and that seems in this case to be that you can have your cake and eat it. I wonder what his marriage was like when that book came out...
The old jokes are the best, eh?
Intelligence is a thing to be celebrated. When the man in charge of the most powerful country in the world is almost wilfully ignorant (in both the literal sense of the word, and in its local usage meaning rude and inconsiderate), it's worth saying. Intelligence, a characteristic which Trump would no doubt credit himself as having in excess, is praiseworthy. It's not something you are just born with, either. There may (I perhaps ought to go stronger and say 'there will') be heritable genetic factors, as indeed there will be factors outside the control of any given individual that contribute. But you can tell who bothers to hone their mind, questioning and thinking, as against people who are content with what they've already got. A remark overheard at a falconry display earlier this week ('He kept trying to teach us things!') is a clear example. Show me the birds, get them doing something spectacular, and don't try to tell me any of the things you know about them, because I don't care.
I'm not necessarily sure intelligence is really compatible with happiness, though. There's a quotation that runs "happiness is being content with what you have..." It continues, of course ("living in freedom and liberty, having a good family life and good friends."), but that first bit is the significant bit. Intelligence, certainly of the sort I am pointing to here, sits very much at odds with contentment with what you have (in your mind). The writer means, I think, contentment with what you have materially, and of course that sentiment is on the right lines. People who constantly strive for the next upgrade (of whatever possession) are neither content, nor, it seems from the outside, happy. But those of us who find the need to strive for the next upgrade of what is in our minds do not rest easy, because there is always something else to be learned, understood, mulled over. For some people, the inability to switch off is cruel, denying satisfying sleep, any kind of peaceful waking, any kind of peace at all. A lot of nonsense is written and spoken about mindfulness, but there is a kernel of truth in amongst all the lentil-weaving. Sleep and peaceful waking are both incredibly restorative, therapeutic even for those not explicitly in need of therapy. A lack of either can be a terrible punishment. Worry - it's called, apparently, 'rumination' in the literature, which is ironic because I suspect that cud-chewing cows do not suffer from this - is a sort of self-fulfilling state, in which the initial content of the worry, whether harmless or genuinely problematic, becomes replaced by a process of repeated going over of the same ground. The worry itself is almost secondary to the process of worrying in terms of the danger and the damage. And worry can rob people of their peace, whether waking or when trying to go to sleep. So, dear reader, let me wish you as your reward for reading this post a few minutes of peace of one sort or another! My own wrestle with Edward Strelley at the moment is, as it has been for some time, to get him to do anything worthwhile, rather than ruminate. I have even had to resort to a slight change of storyline (keep an eye out on here!) to get him moving. He would - on a good day at least - have appreciated the Sam Cooke's A levels joke. But his good days are few, far between, and generally limited to moments rather than days.
Let's also have a moment to remember the incomparable Aretha Franklin, a woman of absolute prowess. According to her wikipedia entry, she was also a chain-smoker until 1992, which information is somewhat unexpected. She was capable of creating those spine-tingling (a cliche, of course, but appropriate here) moments of brilliance that reach out and touch you, that leave you somehow more human as a result.
"A prophet and a portent, utilitarian and humanitarian, essentially secular and materialist; for all his protestations, an intellect without religion or that other refuge for those who have not faith - essentially without poetry."
Observant regulars will note the quotation on the landing page. What an extraordinary man A. L. Rowse was. In the picture on his wikipedia page, he is standing next to a bloke who for some reason looks exactly like someone I lived next to at Queens in my first year. Can't imagine why. I haven't read Rowse on Cornwall, but being currently in Devon - no, not researching the Prayer Book Rebellion, just resting - it seems appropriate for me to be reading him on the Elizabethans. His essential stance that the Elizabethans are the bridge between the medieval and the modern isn't quite justifiable on the general evidence (there was more of modernity in the medievals, and less of modernity in the moderns, than he seems to suppose), but his writing is among the most readable, lucid and exciting of any on the subject or indeed any other subject. He slips in a couple of absolute belters, as well:
"We have an immense amount of information about people's illnesses among the upper classes - as with Americans today their letters are full of their physical complaints." Like Bacon, Rowse marks himself out by the way he writes and by what he writes as not of his time, comfortable across a range of types of subjects and wonderfully perspicacious in his chosen area.
My cursory initial researches do not reveal a clear answer to this question, but Rowse strikes me as having been himself a gay man in an era when that was not an acceptable thing to be, given his discussion on the homosexuality of various of his favourites (and the thrusting masculinity of Ralegh!). Perhaps I am wrong to draw this conclusion (in the logical sense). Whatever his sexuality, he was a sensitive and thoughtful man whose attitude to the religion of his subject individuals is utterly scathing. "We do not need to go in detail into these propositions [on theology in Perkins], which constituted the myth that prevailed over most of Europe at the time - with variations over which different sects within it fought to the death, killed each other, roasted or hanged each other, broke each other on the wheel. It would be unfair to say that this was solely because they were Christians, fairer to say simply because they were humans." His sadness in this, the almost inevitable fact of human cruelty, is mirrored by his great enthusiasm for the progress in thought that he sees in the Elizabethan age. Rowse's perspective seems to be that of the lapsed Christian, that peculiar type of atheist who will almost certainly know a great deal of theology and a decent amount of the Anglican Church's liturgy. Perhaps that's why I find him so engaging, because he is in that respect at least like me. His philosophy certainly runs through his writing: "...it is not the truth of what men think so much as the effectiveness of what they think, its appeal to their emotional leanings, their prejudices, their illusions."
The two volumes that constitute the Elizabeth Renaissance are both fascinating, because they bring out the portrait of the age in a lively, tangible fashion; the earlier 'England of Elizabeth' less so, because - and this is perhaps a mark of my own prejudices - it deals with the common man, his experience of life, of farming, of making a living. I seem to want 'big' history, certainly at the moment - narrative, character and plot, rather than the bucolic (or not) history of the common man. I can read this in fiction, apparently: I stuck with Lorna Doone for the full six hundred pages, reading every word of Jan Ridd's farming advice. His love for Lorna herself (as, in a different way, his love for Exmoor) is a more affirming fiction than Heathcliff's, or Rochester's, despite the violence of their romantic passions. John Ridd is of course vastly more likeable than either of those two, although unlikely to be vaunted as a romantic hero.
In any case, the point of all of this was to offer a word of praise to Rowse for what, in the historical context of when he was writing, seems remarkable. Having set off to write this piece, though, I find to my immense consternation that he was, by a limited number of posthumous accounts but nevertheless unequivocally, not very nice, much more Rochester than Ridd. But then, no one (else) writes about how John Ridd's love for Lorna is more affirming than Heathcliff's for Catherine. Maybe I can stand this type of thing in my historians, but not in romantic heroes...
It's long. As you might expect a book that covers a thousand years of a decent proportion of Europe's history to be. It promises, in its introduction, to present the history of the Holy Roman Empire in a new way, which would be irrelevant to me as a relative newcomer. It's really, really long. And it's organised by theme, rather than chronologically, although a lot of the subsections are chronologically arranged. That means that you meet the same bloke in each chapter, but you can't always remember why you've heard of him before. Odd ones, like Charlemagne, are sufficiently distinct to survive this treatment but for the lay reader, it's a hard slog. With limited time and energy at my disposal, I have tended to prefer history of a slightly more entertaining rather than rigorous bent. It's why A. L. Rowse's books are so worthwhile. They have that same depth of study (ranging over a much narrower period, and a much narrower geography), the same sense of academic rigour, although I can't say whether they have stood the test of fifty years of subsequent study. What they have is charm. And, despite the undeniable effort that has gone into the book, Wilson's Holy Roman Empire lacks this key quality. It's a shame, really, that the utilitarian prose and the refusal to overcook the conclusions drawn from his study - two points which ought to argue in favour of this rather serious history - in fact make it very difficult to get into. I can imagine that it would be a great book for someone who already knew the history, but was looking for something to show them the newest ideas, the progress of how we see the history. But for the newcomer, it's just too much! Sadly, as a casual reader, it's the writing and the presentation that make the difference, and in this case at least I'm finding it very difficult to make inroads.
There is a danger to knowing too much, and that can often manifest itself in historical fiction as a need to foist the history on the story. As I have previously written, I have avoided some of that by making the history part of the story but not the story itself. My experience of reading historical fiction where the central characters and the central plot line is the history is that this constrains the writing, rather than freeing it. It means that, in order to be true, the writing has to show why the history was as it was, and this leads writers to tie themselves in knots trying to tell a good story. My work is constrained in that what happens as regards the recorded history is what actually happened, but only in so far as the real historical characters and the real historical events have to be as they actually were. I've avoided, as much as I can, worrying too much about showing why the progress of historical events was as it was, except where it affects the story I want to tell. What has been really interesting as a writer is where the story I want to tell has modified itself as I have gone along. In particular, there is the developing relationship between Edward Strelley and Elizabeth. There was always the intention, from the very beginnings years ago, that he would be her tutor, but never that they would grow to need each other, to want each other, to fall in love as they seem to have done. There are other surprises, including de Winter's solution to Mary's wish to leave the country, and I hadn't seen William Pike's response to the battle at Ancrum Moor coming until it happened. I hope that I have been loyal to those characters, giving them as full a voice as possible, showing them as they are and as they change as their own stories progress.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought