I would never consider myself a student of history. To be perfectly honest, it bored me to tears. I blame the way it was taught when I went to school, and my abject laziness in following on with some research on my own.
When I studied history for my Leaving Certificate, I read directly from textbooks and relied on my memory to get me though the exam. I don’t recall what mark I achieved, but I passed it. My teacher didn’t interact with the class in any way; he read directly from textbooks and relied on his memory to get him through the class. Spot the comparison?
I knew a lot of interesting stuff happened down through the years but none of it made a blind bit of difference to me. It was all just names and dates. That’s how it was taught. Like most of my generation I learned about history from TV and movies; neither of which could be considered as reliable sources. My first memory of King Henry VIII was when he was played by Charles Laughton. He was a fat fool who had an eye for the ladies, and enjoyed lopping the heads from people who didn’t agree with him. As you do.
Recently I’ve been reading books outside of my comfort zone. Gone for the moment are detective thrillers, sci-fi fantasies. In their place I’ve been reading historical fiction. Enter C.J. Sansom‘s brilliant series of mysteries set in Tudor times and featuring one of the most sympathetic and unique creations I’ve ever had the pleasure to read: Matthew Shardlake.
Shardlake is a lawyer under the patronage of Lord Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief political adviser. He is a hunchback and as such suffers more than his fair share of bullying and intimidation. At the start of the first novel, Dissolution, he is a religious reformer, very much on the side of the king and Cromwell. He has no sympathy for greedy monks and agrees with Henry’s plan to dissolve all the monasteries in England. He investigates a murder in one such monastery (okay, maybe there is an element of detective fiction here, but bear with me) and as the case progresses, Shardlake’s philosophy changes and he finds himself at odds with his employers. I’m reading the fourth book in the series, Revelation, and the more I dig into Shardlake’s world, the more I want to know about Henry VIII, Cromwell, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and each of Henry’s six wives.
So today I bought a biography of perhaps the most famous king of England: Henry VIII, King and Court, by Alison Weir. The point I’m making is (and I’m sure all of you would agree with me), if you want to learn about history, there are many ways to go about it. But for me, it was a case of engaging with something I wouldn’t normally touch. Historical fiction is my new cause celebre. Through the medium of literature, I am now embarking on a historical journey that will take me the rest of my life to enjoy.
Last week I finished reading a book about World War II, called Hitler’s Peace, written by Philip Kerr. That book reinforced my desire to learn more about Nazi Germany, and the insidious ways Hitler and his cronies went about trying to win the war. And then I had a thought (as I sometimes do) – what kind of books will historical fiction writers of tomorrow write about today?