Solander 24 (November 2008)

The latest copy of Solander popped through the cat flap a couple of mornings ago (anything that is too big for the postbox comes in with the cat).


It’s a good issue with several excellent articles.  One that stood out was Michelle Moran‘s survey of 15 historical novelists on the subject of spending time in the places they write about.  The question is not as obvious as it might seem at first: facts, maps, images, books etc. are readily available online, and some authors have deliberately decided not to visit their chosen setting, for a variety of reasons – primarily because the places no longer exist or have changed beyond recognition over the centuries.

Back in 2007 I remember that the papers were littered with articles voicing surprise that Stef Penny, who won the Costa Award for her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves, had “made it all up”. Lynne Truss argued back in succinct terms when she wrote

The thing is, we fiction writers are quite touchy when people fail to appreciate the supreme importance of imagination in our work. I love the idea of Penney constructing the landscape of her book from maps and records in the British Library. That was a true creative act. Any fool with a Visa card can buy a ticket and go to look at an expanse of snow.

This attitude is broadly confirmed by the authors canvassed in Moran’s article.  A quick resume reveals  phrases like “what nonsense!” (Robin Maxwell), “some might say visiting the country you’re writing about could even deter your purpose” (Erika Mailman), or “I wrote the entire book without ever setting foot in that building” (Elle Newmark).

The long and short of writing historical novels can be summed up in two words: research and imagination (in that order).

Both are present in copious quantities in the work of Helen Dunmore who I was delighted to meet last summer and whose profile is also published in this latest issue of Solander.  I’ve included it in under the Solander tag if anyone’s interested (not there yet… the scanner needs fixing, but hope to get it up tomorrow).


Writing the profile gave me the chance to read her latest book, Counting the Stars (2008), and to re-read most of her previous historical novels: House of Orphans, The Siege, A Spell of Winter, and Zennor in Darkness.

However, top of the TBR pile now are some of her other books, notably Mourning Ruby and Your Blue-eyed Boy.

Many of her short stories also have historical settings, but like all her work the real focus is character and human nature.  One that stays with me is entitled Esther to Fanny. Helen Dunmore writes that the story was inspired by Fanny Burney’s brilliant and moving account of the mastectomy she underwent without anaesthetic in 1811.

Each time I read this long journal letter I’m astonished again by Fanny Burney’s courage, her resolution, and her determination to record with such precision and feeling the truth of her experience. The letter is dated 22nd March – June 1812, and in it Fanny Burney explains that it was nine months before she could bring herself to write about the mastectomy.

It’s a story that is so sharp it makes you cringe, but then you feel ashamed for being so soft when others have shown such extraordinary resolve and courage.

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