Only posting once a week? Must be getting lazy... Reviewing history in print and on TV, and moaning about parenting...
Well, it's certainly not because of the rapid and sustained progress on book IV. Other matters, as ever, distract me, and only some of it is in my control. The small child has learned to say 'I don't like...', which is entertaining once or twice but starts to get a bit old on the five-hundredth repeat. The big one is a little bit too much like me for my liking, with a few hints of that over-active thinking that leads (hopefully) to creativity and problem-solving skills, but also to dwelling and rumination. Children are a vast sink of time, effort and energy, and yet they are the real legacy we leave. A million-seller would be great, for me, but I wouldn't trade it for the children, even in those 'he's going on eBay' moments when he's woken up for the nineteenth time and has shouted 'watch the singing baby okay!' even though it's half three in the morning.
So what are these reviews, then? I must divert a moment's attention to WK Jordan's rather forbidding second volume of his biography of Edward VI, subtitled 'The Threshold of Power'. His effort and scholarship are undoubtedly in evidence throughout, and I think his conclusions - about the personalities of key figures, about the choices they made, about the right-or-wrongness of those choices - are broadly on the right lines. I mentioned in a previous post that I thought Christine Hartweg's defence of the Duke of Northumberland was perhaps over-generous given the central events that define his time as the main power behind the throne, and I still think that, although I can see how Jordan's continued reference to him as a schemer and as a failure in government could have set off a desire to be on his side. Northumberland is not the Machiavellian, nor is he pure self-seeking evil, in Jordan's view. But he is weak when he needs to be strong, and he is underhand where he could choose to be honest. Jordan also seems in the second volume to come down even more in favour of Somerset, who didn't get off lightly in the first volume (despite clearly being Jordan's favourite over Northumberland) but whose decisions in 1547-1549 suddenly seem to be much better to Jordan in the light of the disaster, as he sees it, of Northumberland's tenure.
Which brings us to Helen Castor' mini-series on Jane Grey, the supposedly forgotten Tudor queen. Let's be honest: Jane Grey is hardly a forgotten figure, and given the relatively minor role she played in the drama of 1553, even up to her execution the following year, she probably gets more consideration than she should, not less. Hers is a fascinating tragedy, because it is almost entirely of someone else's making. So it does make for good TV. They've chosen the format of having the characters represented by actors who earn their place in the programme by being thoroughly hammy, such that we cannot make any mistake as to the character of the person so represented. Dudley is close to Ming the Merciless. One can only imagine that the stage direction says 'look shifty', or 'a man of obvious lack of integrity'. I hope that I give a more subtle view of the man in These Matters, although I do think there can be no doubt that he had an eye on how he might bring power and wealth to himself over the years of Edward's reign. I don't think Somerset was the Good Duke, and I don't think Northumberland was the Bad Duke, but I do think the both of them were self-serving in some aspects. Somerset's essentially humanist governing wasn't very successful, but you can see how it fits with his beliefs. Northumberland seems to be a man without principle, judging by some of his decisions. But then, I celebrate that in Edward Strelley, so why should I denigrate it for Northumberland? I'm not sure. Strelley is in no danger of having to make decisions about running the country, and on the few occasions where his decisions involve others, he seems to want to do the best for them. Perhaps he is not so unprincipled after all.
Here he is, then, in conversation with the priest of Sampford Courtenay at the beginning of the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549:
Harper looks at him for a long time, eyes working across Strelley’s face. Strelley is perfectly still. Harper says, “I do not want this. I do not want to be the figurehead of a rebellion. Much less to displease my bishop. Less still to displease God.”
“I have no words of comfort. Indeed, I seek your counsel.”
“Yes. When I speak of you, Father, it will be of a man of great loyalty and faith. So I seek your counsel, as I say.”
“On what matter?”
“The Lord has sent you a great trial, Father. I see that. I have had mine. And I fear that I have failed it.”
“What form did this trial take?”
“A woman. That I loved - love - as much as a man can. But I cannot be with her. Her station prevents it.”
“Many of us have loved that which we cannot have.”
“She would have had me, I think.”
“Then you are a good man for not allowing it.”
“I feel as though I could live another fifty years and never enjoy a day. Without her, life is purposeless.”
“Your grief will lessen, in time.”
“That is what Cranmer told me.”
“You have spoken to the archbishop? Of this?”
“That book,” Strelley says, gesturing vaguely, “is as much mine as it is his. I sought his counsel as well.”
“Then mine is redundant.”
“Not so. You are here. He is not. You are a man of the people.”
Harper smiles again. “I thank you for your flattery. All I can say is that God does not punish us for our sins if we repent them.”
“Which is the sin? To deny the love we both feel? Or to break the law?”
“You are a man of great intelligence, Edward Strelley. Here you are, distant from this lady. You have found a reason to travel far away from her. Your conscience says you must not be together.” Harper’s mind catches up with the conversation. “You say that is your book as much as Cranmer’s?”
It's a curious accident of history that, for some obscure reason, years in some contexts start in September, or April. In the period of my historical writing, I read once that new year was really March (or April, I can't find the reference), and the notion that the new year started in January is a modern one imposed backwards on history. But I can't figure out where I saw it, so I can't check it, and I can't critique its accuracy because no one else seems that bothered, at least not in the books I've read.
September seems like an odd choice for a new year. It comes at the end of the summer, when you can't help but be reminded daily of the transience of things, particularly where I live. Trees are a good marker, offering up their changing appearance as a sort of barometer of the end of the growing season. Thought of that way, I suppose, it's a bit less grim than thinking of the end of another summer and the descent into early darkness and cold. Thought of another way, seeing September as the beginning of the academic year, bringing with it new challenges, in some cases new settings or schools, can at least soften the blow. As I have written before, some people seem to attach deep significance to the yearly cycle, investing particular dates with great importance, and I think I am one of those people. There will be days where I can think of nothing other than what happened on that date in some previous year, even though the physics of the situation means it was never quite exactly a multiple of anything concrete ago. The strange thing about this is that the date, whatever the significance of it, cannot in itself be harmful. It is the prompting of the memories that the date brings, and those memories can be everything from happy, affirming ones to the most devastating and difficult. For some reason, the autumn seems to have piled together a great number of these significant days for me, although regular readers will be aware of the significance of February in my year. I have listened to American Pie just recently, and hadn't previously noticed that February was the month that made Don McLean shiver.
What do all these reflections mean? I don't really know myself, but I will say that the shift in how I think over probably the last four-and-a-half years has been significant. That is to say that I have changed from basically being able to ignore my own thoughts, to being swallowed by them entirely, to now being a little more able to let the thoughts pass without following them into a very difficult and dark place. Some people reading this will know about my history of depression and anxiety, something which might not be apparent to those who meet me in person. Writing about how I have felt, and how I feel now, has always had a sort of unburdening quality to it, but I have noticed a change in my attitude. I'm less inclined to write in detail about myself and my changing mental health, and those matters that I suppose influence it, at least in the discursive mode that appears on this blog. I've been turning those feelings into short bursts of narrative, and although it would be wrong to call them fiction (as so much of it is the truth), at least some of it would pass as fiction if I showed it to someone who didn't already know the stories. Some of it just isn't ready for airing in public (and some of it may never be), but I hope over the course of this autumn, as well as finishing the fourth book of These Matters, to put some energy into it. I would be delighted to manage either, of course, but the flashes require just that bit less organisation!
Kate: With hope. Love should end with hope. My husband, God rest him, told me something I'll never forget.
[in a letter]
Kate: Hope guides me. It is what gets me through the day and especially the night. The hope that after you're gone from my sight it will not be the last time I look upon you.
And yes, that is from A Knight's Tale.
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authórizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense--
Thy adverse party is thy advocate--
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence.
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an áccessory needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
I have got good (ish) at writing about other people, their feelings, and the way they sit in the world. I've even got quite good at making them live on the page, and I'd go as far as to say that despite my choice for These Matters of not letting you, the reader, directly into the mind of any of the characters, I've got to the stage where I can relate what is happening to them internally pretty well without making it explicit. What I haven't got good at is writing about the way I feel. Regular readers might find that sentence a bit strange, because I write a lot about myself on here, and a lot of it is about how I feel and how I am. But I struggle - honestly - to relate the actual 'way it feels to be me', what the philosophers might call the phenomenology of my experience. I sometimes nudge in that direction, and it is often verbal rather than written down. I was quite pleased, for example, with the description of my own internal landscape as like being at the junction of four separate rooms with different music in a nightclub, all four very loud and competing for attention, preventing me choosing where I put my focus.
So I steal. I have done this in several places in These Matters, using the same method mentioned by Hector: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” What I have done is stolen someone else's words and put them in the mouth of one of my characters. In the case of Caroline de Winter, I gave her Shakespeare's lines:
Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
She was fifty years or so ahead of time with those, and the implication is that she thought of them first. Just as Elizabeth's poem, supposedly written for the Duke of Anjou, appears much earlier than it should (and I quote here the middle verse as particularly apposite):
My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be supprest.
I have festooned the site with gobbets, and perhaps I have gone far wrong in doing so. My intention has never been to impress an examiner on my own score. I would like to be able to sell enough books to just do this writing thing, but I'll settle for doing it as a hobby, but there's no mark scheme for historical fiction, no formula for creating a best-seller. There probably is, to be fair. There's probably someone out there teaching a creative writing course where they tell you the elements of a good story, and how to make it attractive to a particular target audience. That's not really my agenda, but I wouldn't object if an audience were to come into being. I write - on here, These Matters, the flash fictions, all of it - because somehow it's better out of my head than swimming around in it. I sometimes do a free-form word dump into the note-taker on my phone, because it seems to free up some operating capacity in my brain:
I am the swirling fire of my mind. It does not rest, finding instead a new way of torturing at every turn
A new worst thought that brings only guilt, doubt, shame.
And you are that shame.
All that is good in me is lost by the choice to drag you down with all that is wrong in me.
Fear should not be the decider.
But it is.
I'm not entirely sure that those words are for sharing, but that is partly the point. I don't find it easy to write structured poetry or song lyrics, for that matter, because I come up with a form of words that matches the thought, and then I can't see it changed without feeling like the thought has somehow become corrupted. I can edit other people's work (and I should be doing so in one case!) because I feel like I can take their clumsily expressed thoughts and clarify them. But when I - or someone else - tries to do that to my words, I end up feeling like they are asking me to revise my thoughts, not my words.
Which is why, in the end, I choose to use so many examples of other people's words that express a thought just so:
And on I read until the day was gone;
And I sat in regret of all the things I've done;
For all that I've blessed, and all that I've wronged.
In dreams until my death I will wander on.
It is, in many ways, easier to take meek capitulation than battling defeat. It would have been less stressful if they'd just gone out and batted like they have so many times this summer, and one-dayer-ed it in the first hour. Then at least we could have left off checking the bloody score all afternoon, thinking, maybe, just maybe.
It's difficult to tell whether having a stock of happy memories is a sort of armour against disappointment, grief, loss... I know that writing about it can be a way to lessen the impact, but I'm sure that being the sort of person who writes about grief and loss makes you more prone to these sorts of emotions in the first place. Some grief is very immediate, punched-in-the-guts. That's the grief of one to the flash fictions I've posted on here. Some grief is an ache. Some grief combines the two, the dull ache ever-present, and the twisting, torturing moments flashing by sometimes, but not always there. That's how Strelley is affected by his separation from Elizabeth in book IV, and I've posted several chunks of his experience on here. "The more you read, though, the more you'll see that literature is actually about losers... It's consolation. All literature is consolation." My imagined history has Edward Strelley trying to find consolation in writing, specifically the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, which contains so many of those phrases that I read with the particular cadence that my old Headmaster used to use when I was a kid myself.
No doubt These Matters and this very news feed / blog is consolation. Some of my readers might have a sense of what I am consoling myself against, as a decent proportion of what goes into the books is part-imagination, part-experience. So, here are two consolations: my own writing, and, following, just a short blast of The Nightingale...
“I serve simple folk, young man. Not like you. They do not fear the absence of God, nor do they long for the peace of death.”
“Ah, you fear for me.”
“You do not display any hope.”
“Hope for my redemption? Perhaps not. Hope that I might be with Elizabeth? No. That will be a weight I carry for my life, a burden. And I do not expect to be relieved of it in the after-life. But there is good, to be done, or felt, or received.” He takes a long draught of smoke. “My mind sometimes closes itself to that good. You have helped me to see it again.”
“God loves you, Edward Strelley. I do not know why you suffer.”
“It is because I lack faith, Sir. I know that. It is because of the pain I have caused.”
“Do you repent?”
“I cannot repent of my love for her. I wish that every pain she suffers might be visited instead on me. That she might find happiness. I wanted - I want still - to be the agent of that happiness, but I accept that I cannot be.”
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought