Friday, October 12, 2018

Ins and Outs of Time

I suspect that the general public doesn’t often think of historians as detectives. Detectives in fiction, on television, and in the movies can be rumpled or sexy, old or young, male or ever more often female, but their lives are usually exciting. They hunt down clues, they pursue criminals in the flesh, they place themselves in physical danger and not infrequently risk their lives. In real life, the job tends to involve more grunge work and fewer thrills, but it still confers respect.

Historians are more likely to be viewed as stuffy. Professors in fiction hardly ever act like real scholars, but unless chasing their students or engaged in similar acts that would raise eyebrows at most universities (which is different from saying they never happen), professors fall into detection only by accident, like any other fictional crime solver.

But that assumes that the only detection that counts involves stopping present-day criminals in the act. In fact, scholars of all sorts love mysteries. That’s one of the reasons people become scholars in the first place: to answer unanswered questions, big and small. How does the universe work? What combination of proteins will defeat cancer? Why did Richard III lose at Bosworth Field?

It’s this kind of detection that forms the background to Kate Morton’s new book, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, released on October 9. The novel opens in the summer of 1862, when a young experimental artist invites a group of friends to his home, Birchwood Manor. The house party ends in tragedy, although it will be the end of the book before we discover all the details.

Instead we shift forward 155 years, to London in the summer of 2017, where Elodie Winslow, an archivist (a profession generally and just as undeservedly considered even more boring than history), discovers an old satchel hidden in a desk. The satchel contains an initialed leather journal and a woman’s photograph, among other items, and is labeled with the name James W. Stratton, a reference to the prominent Victorian businessman and philanthropist to whom the archive is dedicated.

Elodie, like any good archivist or historian, is immediately hooked. Who is the woman in the photograph? Who kept the journal, and why does it contain a sketch of a house that Elodie remembers from childhood stories? What connects the satchel with James Stratton, and why was it hidden for so many years?

Even though she’s supposed to be preparing for her wedding to a wealthy businessman of her own, Elodie can’t resist trying to answer these questions and the many more that appear as soon as she answers the first set. In the process, she—and we—uncover a considerable amount about her family’s past and its previously undisclosed connection to Birchwood Manor. As a historian myself, I loved every minute of it.

But that’s only one thread of this remarkable and compelling novel. Although I looked forward to talking with Kate for New Books in Historical Fiction, I recognized as soon as I got into her book that it would be difficult to discuss the novel without giving away crucial elements of the story. So when it turned out that scheduling one more event into an already daunting three-continent book launch wasn’t really feasible, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt certain that it would have been an interesting conversation; on the other, dodging so many unmentionable plot points seemed like a challenge and a half. Writing this blog post instead solved that problem.

Because that summer house party has consequences, as well as a history of its own. And while it would be impossible for Elodie to discover everything about those events no matter how much effort she put into her research, we as readers do get that chance. At the heart of the story is Birdie, the clockmaker’s daughter of the title, whose fate is more entwined with the whole than Elodie can even imagine.

Find out more about this and Kate Morton’s other novels at her website.

Friday, October 5, 2018

War of the Wolf

We rarely publish interviews back-to-back on New Books in Historical Fiction, but in this case the scheduling made it essential. I’ve had a chance to speak with Bernard Cornwell several times now about his bestselling Saxon Tales (also called the Last Kingdom series after the television series based on it). He’s a thoughtful and engaging writer, and interviewing him in print or in person is always a pleasure—a privilege, too, given his extraordinary success. So when his publisher asked if we could run the interview on the simultaneous UK/US release date of his newest novel, I agreed.

It was no hardship. War of the Wolf has charms of its own. As the eleventh in a series that already spans more than fifty years, it must cope with the challenges posed by time: both the need to develop its main character steadily throughout his extended life span; and the need to keep the story line of each book new and interesting even as the long arc of the series as a whole draws to its close.

The novel succeeds at both tasks. I won’t say how Uhtred moves on from the position he reached at the end of the tenth novel, The Flame Bearer, because that would spoil the plot of that book for new readers. But I will say that War of the Wolf still managed to surprise me. Although few of the characters we met in The Last Kingdom survive into this latest novel, the vast sweep of the larger story extends into a second and even, it seems, a third generation. The pagan Danes remain undefeated, and the antagonist here appears in a guise Cornwell admits in the interview that he has long avoided. And perhaps most impressive in a novel so focused on war at its most hands-on and brutal, his hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, continues to evolve. Once a brash young recruit, to borrow a modern term, who succeeded as much by luck as by skill, he has become a seasoned commander without losing his inimitable sass.

And in an unplanned but fascinating coincidence, toward the end of the interview we discuss a topic that, although somewhat peripheral to Uhtred’s emerging England, is quite closely tied to last week’s interview about Leslie Schweitzer Miller’s Discovery: the question of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church.

Historians and historical novelists, but perhaps not so much the general public, have long known that between Emperor Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century and the High Middle Ages approximately nine hundred years later, most priests lived with either wives or mistresses. The enforcement of celibacy in the priesthood by the church hierarchy took a long time to complete. The famous lovers Héloïse and Abelard—he a canon and she the niece of one—were caught in that transition.

Now, Jesus of Nazareth belonged to a different time, one in which many people in the Roman-run province of Palestine held the apocalyptic view that the Last Days were at hand. By the fourth century, never mind the twelfth, it had become clear that the Second Coming would be delayed. So the views common among the medieval priesthood should not be construed as evidence that Jesus himself married; he may have considered earthly ties a distraction from the greater enterprise of salvation, as many of his followers clearly did. Or he may have married years before he began his ministry, as most young Jewish men did, only to lose his wife or leave her for what he perceived as a higher cause. It’s unlikely we will ever know for sure.

But either way, no one can entertain doubts about where Uhtred stands on the question of celibacy—and of Christianity more generally. And if you do wonder, reading War of the Wolf is an excellent way to find out the answers.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

As seems appropriate for a character as resourceful, skilled, and self-confident as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, he goes from strength to strength. In addition to a set of bestselling novels, collectively dubbed The Saxon Tales, Uhtred has a television series to his name: The Last Kingdom, just renewed for its third year by Netflix.

Here in his eleventh adventure, War of the Wolf (Harper, 2018), Uhtred should be enjoying the fruits of his labors over the last ten books, but of course, that story would be no fun to read or to write. Instead Uhtred, now past sixty, receives a summons to travel south to protect the fortress of Ceaster (Chester) on behalf of Aethelstan, the son of King Edward of Wessex. Uhtred soon realizes that the summons is a ruse: the greater danger lies in the North, in the person of the Dane Sköll and his warriors, who dose themselves with henbane to harness the power of the wolf. Sköll also has the support of a powerful sorcerer, who Uhtred comes to believe has cursed him—especially after Sköll attacks the city of Eoferwic (York), where Uhtred’s son-in-law rules, with devastating effect.

Bernard Cornwell does not disappoint, and this latest entry in the Last Kingdom saga sees Uhtred at the top of his game and England a bit closer to its eventual unification, a goal that Uhtred both supports and fears as it becomes ever clearer that his kingdom, Northumbria, and his pagan religion increasingly pose the only barriers to King Edward’s success.

For my two previous podcast interviews with Bernard Cornwell, see New Books in Historical Fiction for June 2014, The Pagan Lord, and December 2016, The Flame Bearer. Our written Q&A about his non-Uhtred novel Fools and Mortals appeared on this blog on January 12, 2018.