Period and prejudice
One of the great pleasures of being a history buff is mining seams – themes, periods, countries – you love. One of the great handicaps of being a history buff is refusing to mine new ones. I’ve loved Bernard Cornwell’s novels for thirty years, but can’t get into his Arthurian or American civil war fiction – a rejection I can only ascribe to some kind of period prejudice; after all, he’s deploying the same ingredients as in the Sharpe and Uhtred novels, and is certainly applying the same enviable skill. Similarly I’ve never been able to get into CJ Sansom’s Shardlake books, set in Elizabethan England, even though I loved his post-Spanish Civil War novel ‘Winter in Madrid.’
What’s really strange about this mind-set is that it seems – in me at least – to be entirely arbitrary. Why do I dislike Tudor England when the Wars of the Roses, just decades before, are (in the hands of the marvellous Toby Clements and his Kingmaker series) so fascinating? Why is post-Roman Britain a no-go area when Anglo-Saxon Britain is such fun? Why have I resisted the allure of Robert Harris’s Roman novels when I love his 19th and 20thcentury fiction? ‘An Officer and a Spy’ is particularly fine. In all cases, once my pretty feeble arguments are knocked down, all I’m left with as justification is prejudice. Which is a rubbish excuse.
Nothing brings home the idiocy of this prejudice more than meeting a hugely talented and well-respected author and admitting that you haven’t read their fiction because you don’t do their era. I actually told Antonia Hodgson this, on meeting her at CrimeFest 2018, and still cringe with embarrassment at the memory of it. Thankfully my shame was so great that I went away and got hold of ‘The Devil in the Marshalsea’ – a perfect example of what a real novelist can do with marvellous historical source material. Now I do the 18th century. Meeting Andrew Taylor at CrimeFest also confronted me with my prejudice about the mid-seventeenth century. (Thankfully it was already weakening due to Robert Wilton’s ‘Traitor’s Field’, on the English Civil War; I’d only picked that up because I’d loved ‘The Spider of Sarajevo’, set just before WW1 – a period I’ve loved for decades.) So I trotted off to read ‘The Ashes of London’ and haven’t looked back.
What’s the antidote to period prejudice? For me, it’s to listen to experts – reviewers, other writers, bloggers with immaculate taste, and prize juries; to try different things from the library (my wife has been a dab hand at picking stuff she thinks I’ll like); and to make a conscious decision to be open-minded. Time for another stab at Shardlake.