Over the years I have enjoyed reading an eclectic mix of fictional stories. The time period varies: from Margaret Atwood’s futuristic ‘Oryx and Crake’ all the way back to Anita Diamant’s biblical setting for ‘The Red Tent’. The place varies: Iain Banks’s ‘Dead Air’ is set in contemporary London whereas Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is set in a pre war Japan that, to my modern, western conscience, sounds horrific. A well researched and well told tale of believable characters can fascinate and educate whatever it’s setting.
Historical novels can be a difficult genre to choose a book from. I do not enjoy the bodice bursting romps or even the rewritings of power struggles between royals and their ilk but rather the tales of imagined, ordinary lives. From the comfort of my modern, heated home where varied and plentiful food is readily available all year round it can be hard to imagine the conditions in which the majority of the population of every country once lived. When I look at the modern day problems that we struggle to cope with I wonder how our ancestors felt about living their day to day lives. Did they suffer from depression or the many other mental illnesses that are prevalent in our modern, western society? Did the poor in early Victorian society ever suffer from an attack of the vapours, so seemingly common amongst their rich contemporaries?
I come from an Irish, working class background. My mother was one of nine children whose father was a manual worker. The children left school as soon as they could go out to work as the family needed the money. They started in the factories and shipyard near the family home, trained as apprentices and at night school, and worked their way to a better life. I have seen the type of house they lived in growing up and wonder how they fitted in. All worked hard and ended up with a comfortable retirement. My mother is still frugal though. Old habits die hard.
I am always interested to hear details of my family history but the social history that truly fascinates me is from generations before. If it can be hard to imagine a family of eleven people fitting into an inner city terraced house it is even harder to imagine how those who lived a century or two before coped. The lack of sanitation and medical attention alongside the overcrowded homes and lack of basic needs such as food and warm shelter made life precarious. How must the people living in these conditions have felt?
Despite my interest in the social history of the wider population I am not a fan of Charles Dickens. I have read quite a number of his books but do not enjoy the way he creates caricatures rather than believable, well rounded people to populate his stories. His baddies are so very, very bad and his goodies unbelievably perfect. I prefer varied, unpredictable characters that more truly resemble real people. Kate Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’ has flaws in it’s later character development but paints a much more believable and dreadful picture of life in early nineteenth century London early on.
I enjoy visiting museums with artifacts from the previous few centuries. There are excellent displays of typical household objects through the ages in London’s Science Museum. I have also enjoyed visiting large reconstructions of dwellings, shops and schools at St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff in Wales and at The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum near Belfast in Northern Ireland. On a recent visit to the latter my children were highly amused at the inclusion of a bus such as the one I used to travel to school in.
These social histories are of interest because I can relate to them personally. My grandparents or their parents could have experienced these things as children. I also enjoy reading about the social histories of other cultures as I know so little about them. The history I learnt at school concentrated on power struggles between the rich and ruling classes; the effects of religion and war; the stereotypes of a mass of people rather than individual lives and their day to day existence. I have recently enjoyed reading Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ which painted a picture of life in China. Although set in more recent times I also enjoyed Louis de Berniere’s ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. Both of these books put the reader in the place described and created characters that became real. I felt immersed in these tales, in the time and the place. Finishing the books felt like the end of a trip abroad where friends have been made who may never be seen again. Just as we can learn so much from getting to know new people, so we can learn from what we read.
Books do not need to be enjoyable to be satisfying. Many of the historical novels that I read describe tales of suffering and loss, of hardship, grief and stoicism. There is rarely a happy ever after. What draws me to them is the chance to learn about a life I cannot imagine for myself, to get to know characters who have had to live through the hardships that were normal in that time frame. It makes me feel humble and grateful for the comforts that I enjoy. It helps to put the problems that I face in perspective.
One of my favourite quotes from Hegel is: ‘What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.’ Whilst I believe this to be depressingly true for the rich and powerful, on a more personal level I would try to be less cynical. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I enjoy reading about the imagined lives of the ordinary. Not only can I learn from them, but in trying to emulate their ability to survive whatever life throws at them, I can be happier and more satisfied with my own situation.