(PS. Do read Not a Games Person by Julie Myerson.)
As I progressed to senior school, it was all Tudors and political treaties. Dull, dull, dull. I hated my sarcastic nit-picky history teacher and felt sick during her lessons and so gave the subject up before O levels. However, once I was left to myself, I discovered historical novels and there was no looking back. (I refuse to apologise for the inappropriateness of the phrase ) I'm not sure why but I felt drawn towards the Industrial Revolution, railways and the Victorian period - none of which I had ever studied at school. I went on to love all things Victorian especially the early Victorian age, discovered George Eliot, The Brontes, Charles Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and later novelists such as Arnold Bennett and George Gissing, the latter being almost forgotten today. I learned that history was really about people and there foibles, their influences and their psychology that made them tick: treaties, laws and edicts and wars result from the way people think and believe first and foremost.
Which brings stumbling me onto historical fiction on the TV. Or rather, what the media likes to lump together under the god-awful name of Period Drama. And usually mock it.
I mean, all drama is costume drama unless acted in a naturist colony. What they really mean is Victorian and early twentieth century dramatisations. They wouldn't call a play about the fall of Rome or the rise of Genghis Khan as costume drama, would they?
It must be because Britain is currently in the middle of deep economic gloom, that there has been a resurgence of nostalgia for the glory days when the the world map was pink and the TV schedules are awash with nostalgia where British lips were stiff and servants knew their place. And I do appreciate a lovely frock which are more or less (but not always) spot on. Hair is more of a problem. There are rules about when girls 'put their hair up' and lengthened their skirts. But should we look upon these as nostalgic entertainment as a distraction from today's troubles or a true reflection of history?
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for entertainment. I cannot be accused of writing visceral fiction. And I am lapping it all up including the rose-tinted sugar that is Downton Abbey. However, I do bridle at its lazy, cliched history, not to mention its plot and characterisation. It's all a bit cartoony. Earl Grantham is noble and honest and cares for his servants but surely he wouldn't be stupid enough to put all his wife's fortune on which he is dependant to run a whole state and pay all his employees on investing in a Canadian railway company that goes belly up? Really? After all, history shows that railway mania peaked in the 1840s when many fortunes were won and lost but by 1920, people were more cautious, especially those of the Earl's sensibilities. Maggie Smith's character is delicious and it's a joy to watch her waspish asides, but in reality she would not be so delightful. That Matthew once a country town solicitor inherits a fortune (now squandered by his father in law) is set to inherit more vast wealth just by someone else's sudden death stretches credibility beyond Scooby Do.
The servants are either loyal to the point of laying down their lives for the family or plot and scheme against them. The family stupidly believes every lie , fiendish plot and scheme presented to them. And why would a fervent Irish Nationalist ever work as a chauffeur for an English Lord in the first place, let alone fall in love with his daughter? Even so,what eejit would return from Dublin for a family wedding and then continue to insult his host at his dinner table. (Oh sorry, some toff slipped a 'nasty little pill' into his wine.) It's all great for entertainment but history, it ain't. And don't get me started on the sugary way it depicted World War One.
So I watch it and enjoy it. But my pleasure( apart from the frocks) comes from predicting the clunky plot and the dialogue and losing myself in a bit of froth for an hour a week.
In total contrast, BBC TV have recently concluded its five part dramatisation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End. Sharing more or less the same cultural and historical background as Downton abbey (1912 to the end of the Great War and the beginning of the twenties) it couldn't be more different. The screenplay is by the celebrated Tom Stoppard of a tetralogy of novels that have been praised for its sharp portrayal of society at the time. Then again, no TV portrayal of the real horror of the First world war can ever be shown on TV without us vomiting into our sofas. But at least the writer, the adaptor and the director showed something of the lunacy, corporate as well as individual, the vile injuries, the mud and the blood sanitised and sugar-coated by Downton Abbey.
But where Parade's End scored far higher than Downton is not so much the accurate portrayal of the times but in the characterisation All characters are flawed. No-one is a Goody or a Baddy (whereas the inhabitants of Earl Grantham's stately pile wear very clear Gs and Bs on their foreheads.) Valentine Wannop is young, fervent and naive. Christopher Tietjens (beautifully and subtly played by Beenedict Cumberbatch) is a bit of a prig, although essentially trying to so his best. Sylvia is a spoiled and poisonous bitch but there's more to her and her appalling behaviour. She seeks to destroy what she truly loves because she cannot get her husband's attention any other way She loves him deeply but also hates him. I almost felt sorry for her bleak and empty life, privileged though it is.
Not only that but authenticity oozes through every scene. And although I am now talking about TV drama and not books, it all boils down to the quality of the writing. (Sorry to trot out on my hobby horse yet again.) Julian Fellowes knows how to write pot-boilers that appeal to a mass audience whereas Ford Madox Ford is a great novelist but, in many eyes, dull and difficult to read and Tom Stoppard is, well, Tom Stoppard. Say no more. I have all four novels on my Kindle and can't wait to read them and discover what the adaptation inevitably had to leave out.
The mention of the First World War as depicted in fiction finally brings things to a personal note. I am about to start work on the manuscript of what I hope will be my second published novel (Like Snowflakes Falling) with the literary agent Joanna Swainson for whom I have a great deal of respect, having worked for her at The Word Association. Whether this will have a positive outcome I very much hope so but know only too well that I can't be anything more than cautiously optimistic - I am, however, very happy - in a suitably historical way, of course.