I belong to a fantastic online reading group where the discussions recently have focused on old favourites. It got me thinking that in fact, although I was an historian before I became a novelist, it was fiction which inspired my love of history. I'd like to share a few of these special books.
First, and still in my possession, the Ladybird Story of clothes and Costume. Who could resist these wonderful illustrations? (Look at the 'Late Victorian' lady above.) I remember I could almost feel the sumptuous fabrics and I wanted to be the ladies in those paintings. To get an idea of how old I was at the time, here's a picture of some 'notes' that I made:
We moved around a lot when I was a child, so it's easy for me to remember where I was when I read certain books. And it was in the Netherlands that I discovered Jean Plaidy, and in particular, Castile for Isabella.
Around this time, there were costume dramas aplenty - and as well as Glenda Jackson's remarkable portrayal of Elizabeth I, there was also Henry VIII and his Six Wives, starring Keith Michell.
This, as I recall, belongs not to me, but to my elder sister. As did Royal Flush by Margaret Irwin, which left me far better informed about the sister of Charles II's life at Versailles than the recent TV series called Versailles!
Two books which definitely belonged to me came via the school book club. I wasn't allowed to order very often, but these two books remained special to me, for not only did I learn about the Fire of London (above) and the French Revolution, (below) but they began a long-standing relationship with the author's books, such that only recently I bought the entire box-set of the Follyfoot DVDs, having loved the books and the TV series so much when I was younger.
These books were aimed very much at children, and hitherto I had been reading 'grown-up' novels, but these books featured characters of my own age, and that was something of a novelty for me. Monica Dickens was the grandaughter of Charles Dickens, but I'm afraid that whilst she encouraged my love of history, and inspired me to read her other books, she did not persuade me to read her grandfather's books!
In 1974 we left the Netherlands, and in the summer of the same year took a rain-drenched family camping holiday in Scotland. On our way north we stopped at what must have been a filling station and I was allowed to buy a book. Marjorie Bowen's The Glen O' Weeping tells the tale of the Glencoe Massacre.
Where better to read this book than in my little tent, camping out in the highlands? The inside cover shows my boarding school identification number, (we all had a number, followed by the school initials, and all our lockers etc had the same number on them) which proves that I took this book with me to read again when I started secondary school that autumn.
I didn't read very much once I set off to navigate the choppy waters of the Teenager Ocean, but I returned to historical fiction around the time of sixth form. Now I learned all about Cornish tin mining...
and earned my mother's disapproval when I read the scandalous life of she who was Forever Amber!
1981 was my 'A' level year, and was also the year that brought Jeremy Irons and Evelyn Waugh into my life. Granted, Waugh was not actually writing historical fiction, given that he had lived through such times, but it whetted my appetite.
More war stories followed, with Jennifer Johnson's How Many Miles to Babylon, KM Peyton's Flambards series, and this, which I found tucked away in a little book shop in the town where I was working:
The job and I fairly swiftly parted company as I realised that I did, after all, want to continue my academic studies. So off I went, but not, as I'd supposed when still in the 6th form, to study for a degree in English, but in History.
These days, I read all manner of books, but historical fiction remains a passion. In those lonely days after graduation and relocation to a new part of the country, I discovered Sharon Penman and Helen Hollick. Whilst still a student, I'd set my heart on writing the story of Queen Emma. Years later, when I'd had my family and had a bit of time to start writing, I discovered that Helen had beaten me to it, and what a fantastic read it was:
Little did I imagine that several years down the line my name would appear alongside hers on a book cover! (1066 Turned Upside Down will be published on 1st August and is available for pre-order.)
Sharon Penman's books also inspired me when it came time to plan our first family holiday. With three young children, and my parents, we booked in to a Guest House in North Wales. I name-checked all the places in the area which I recognised from her Welsh Trilogy,
With this trawl through my reading moments, I'm not looking to draw any profound conclusions. Historical fiction is, always, fiction, but it does help one make sense of timelines, add colour to what can be dry and dusty history lessons, and yes, these stories most definitely inspire. Not only that, but they become good friends. I've had a smile on my face today as I've pulled these old friends out of cupboards and off shelves for their photo shoot.
I'd love to know about other people's childhood favourites. Which book first got you interested in history? Or inspired you to pick up a pen, keyboard, tablet...