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