Friday, 6 January 2012

Marquee names

Blanchland
No, I'm not going to be talking about tents on lawns or river banks, but historical novels. 
Evidently marquee names are novels written about a really well-known historical person, such as Mary Queen of Scots. Some do it head-on, with the historical person as the lead character. I suppose Phillippa Gregory's books fit this mould. Lately it has seemed that such books have taken over the historical genre.

 Gone with the Wind is my idea of historical novel, and it's not just a best-selling historical fiction novel, it's the best-selling novel of all time. Scarlett O'Hara is not a historical celebrity, but she certainly leaps off the page, just as copies of the book leapt off the shelves. Hopefully in today's confusing world, the marquee name has not crowded truly fictional characters off the bookshop shelves, otherwise Fair Border Bride doesn't have much hope of success. True, I've used real historical people like Sir Thomas Wharton to give the story some ballast and enhance the setting of the warlike borders of Tudor England and Stewart Scotland, but the major characters are out of my head.

Alina Carnaby may have existed on parchment as an early medieval heiress in the Tyne valley, but there's precious little known about her life. I borrowed the names of her three brothers and used them, too. Starting with only a name, it was up to me to give them life and personality, and that's what I enjoyed doing. I even gave the seven-year-old brother a lisp when he was nervous!

It could be that there's a danger in sticking too close to real historical persons, for they accepted things and did things that we find reprehensible today. Life was far too barbaric for us to really think as they did, when something as simple as a cut finger could lead to a nasty, lingering death from blood-poisoning, and bubonic plague killed a third of England's population. With death hiding around the next corner, there's no wonder that religion figured in people's lives far more than it does today. Hunger was endemic, and murder virtually undetectable. War maimed and killed men, marriage was a business proposition and childbirth killed women. People lived off the land, or were dependant on the bounty of their local lord; he in turn was dependent on the gift of the king, who taxed the people when his coffers ran dry.
Perhaps we really need the romanticising of history to make it palatable.

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