Did They Wear Underpants in Those Days? - the Living Hell Facing Historical Novelists; Research Nightmare for Writer

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

Did They Wear Underpants in Those Days? - the Living Hell Facing Historical Novelists; Research Nightmare for Writer


Byline: Darren Devine

IT'S one of the fastest growing literary genres with a legion of readers who love imagining themselves shunning society to run off with a handsome slave or braving misogyny as the female ruler of the Ch'ing Dynasty.

Made popular by authors like Philippa Gregory and CJ Sansom, historical fiction - known as "faction" - has now gained respectability to match its impressive sales figures after Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall won last year's Man Booker Prize.

And now novelist Phil Rickman is hoping his latest work - chronicling the missing years of 16th century Welsh scientist and mathematician John Dee's life - will benefit from the insatiable appetite for historical fiction.

Journalist-turned-author Mr Rickman has made his name penning hard-boiled crime thrillers so his latest work, The Bones of Avalon, represents a risky move into new literary territory.

But it was one prompted by his publishers Atlantic, which was eager to see him plough the same ground that has proved so fertile for Gregory and Sansom.

Mr Rickman described the process of writing historical fiction, which weaves imagined scenarios against a backdrop of actual events, as like a "living hell".

As well as getting the dialogue right - making sure his characters speak like they are from the 16th century - avoiding the obvious pitfalls is a research-intensive process.

Mr Rickman, who lives near Hay-on-Wye, in Powys, said: "I read one review where Sansom, even with his PhD (in history), described someone in Henry VIII's time as being built like a sack of potatoes - before potatoes were known in this country.

"You can find yourself asking questions like, 'Did they wear underpants in those days?' and when you hit a problem you can spend ages looking it up."

Set over a five-year period between the ages of 32 and 37 when little is known about his life, John Dee is called on to find King Arthur's bones by Queen Elizabeth I. In the process of searching for the bones, which supposedly went missing from a tomb at Glastonbury Abbey when Henry VIII had it destroyed, Dee uncovers a plot to kill the Queen.

John Howells, of bookseller Waterstones, said Ms Mantel's work, a fictionalised account of Thomas Cromwell's life, has now given the historical fiction genre a credibility it once lacked.

The book has now become the best-selling Booker prize-winning novel of all time, shifting more than 137,150 copies in hardback alone, and is currently number two in the paperbacks' chart.

But the genre, though given a new lease of life by writers like Gregory and Mantel, is almost as old as the written word itself. …

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