Judith Cutler

Writing Historical Novels

Three Books I Find Useful When Writing My Historical Fiction

historical image

It’s a truism that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know. Eventually it dawns that other people not only have the knowledge you crave, but are prepared to share it with you, via books or the Internet.

Much as I use the latter, I’m still at heart a paper-based person, and I wouldn’t willingly throw away any of the books on the Georgian and Regency periods lining my bookshelves. There are, moreover, several I would actively fight to keep.

The first is particularly relevant in these days of the Downton Abbey effect; I assume most of you know the glossy TV series, set (now) in the twenties. All the Earl of Grantham’s family are on extremely friendly terms with their staff, who are very far from downtrodden. Although instances of such benevolence have been recorded, it is clear that they were not standard. Jane Austen, that mistress of social nuance, rarely mentions servants except when unpleasant or ineffective characters complain of them. Go back a little further, and you can see that the eponymous Pamela was exceptional in her rapid promotion up the social hierarchy. For a wonderful collection of true stories, written by domestic servants themselves, turn to Keeping their Place, edited by Pamela Sambrook. Chapter headings include ‘Cinderella couldn’t have had it worse’ and ‘The water in the jug had a thin layer of ice’: read and flinch at what masters expected of their servants, such as seventeen hour days seven days a week, except for every other Sunday afternoon free. And bear the hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, in mind – verse two, at least:

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.

The lower orders couldn’t even turn to the Church for help.

Clergymen feature greatly in Jane Austen’s oeuvre, of course – good and bad alike. But to understand exactly how bad some of them are, you need a grasp of the mores of the time. A recent addition to my library is What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan (Bloomsbury, 2012.) The author examines what he calls twenty crucial puzzles, varying from degrees of mourning dress to how much money is enough. Beautifully written, it demonstrates Mullan’s profound knowledge not just of Austen’s novels but of the world in which she and her characters moved.

Although Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer’s Regency World deals with a different species of novel, she too provides marvellous background information not just concerned with the romantic froth that makes up many of Heyer’s novels (we must except the serious novel of the battle of Waterloo, An Infamous Army, with such an accurate account of the battle and the tactics employed it was once required reading at military academies) but with the milieu in which they are set. From details of costume to a glossary of slang, this is an invaluable source of information – even if you are a literary snob who would never dream of touching a romance.

My thanks to all three writers.