Category Archives: B – READING

Two Excellent Historical Novels by V. M. Whitworth

Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflæd as depicted in the car­tu­lary of Abing­don Abbey

V. M. Whitworth’s The Bone Thief (Ebury, 2012), and it’s sequel The Traitor’s Pit (Ebury, 2013) are exem­plary his­tor­i­cal nov­els. The author is known, by another name, as a medieval his­to­rian. I read the first book merely out of curios­ity, because I knew her schol­arly work. But, after a few pages, I was hooked. The set­ting is Eng­land Before Eng­land Was, the reigns of Æthelred, King of Mer­cia and Edward of Wes­sex, who was soon to unify the two king­doms and make con­sid­er­able inroads on the Danelaw. The future Eng­land has long been split between Pagan and Chris­t­ian kings, but the Norse Gods are fad­ing as the Scan­di­na­vian con­querors are adopt­ing Chris­tian­ity (with vary­ing degrees of sin­cer­ity), and the two cul­tures are merg­ing. The action of the first book is inspired by an inci­dent recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chron­i­cle as occur­ring in the year 909. The fic­tional hero is Wulf­gar, a young cleric in the ser­vice of his­tor­i­cal Æthelflæd, who is one of the more inter­est­ing women known from the period. For years, Æthelred has been too ill to rule, and The Lady of the Mer­cians rules in his stead. In The Bone Thief, she sends Wulf­gar on a secret mis­sion into the Viking-controlled Five Bur­roughs, to obtain the bones of St. Oswald, which she hopes will rally peo­ple to the Mer­cian cause. The bones have been lost, but are buried anony­mously behind Bard­ney Abbey (which in 2014 is noth­ing more than a few stony lumps in a field north­west of the vil­lage of Bard­ney — see image below). Wulf­gar is a timid soul, and is soon over­whelmed by the con­spir­a­cies, treach­eries, and bru­tal­ity of royal power pol­i­tics. He has been cho­sen for the task pri­mar­ily because he speaks some Dan­ish. No adventure-seeker, he has a naïve belief in most of the things he was taught, which oth­ers around him regard as use­ful fic­tions or dis­pos­able for­mal­i­ties. In the sequel, he is assigned yet another mis­sion, while at the same time try­ing to prove the inno­cence of his elder brother, who has been charged with par­tic­i­pat­ing in an attempt on the life of Edward. This leads into even more con­vo­luted pol­i­tics, vio­lence, and tragedy. In both books, Wulf­gar is con­stantly men­aced by his neme­sis, a bul­ly­ing and bru­tal half-brother, and con­stantly aided by a fierce and rogu­ish Dano-English female adventurer.

Now, those are the bare bones of the books, but it’s the exe­cu­tion that mat­ters. The his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist is con­fronted with a num­ber of very dif­fi­cult choices, even before start­ing a novel. The first is: how much his­tory and how much fic­tion? It is tempt­ing to sim­ply stuff the book with every his­tor­i­cal detail one can find, which makes for a fat book, demand­ing a patient reader. You might call this the McCul­lough Effect. Or you can sim­ply take a quick glance at the ency­clo­pe­dia, then assem­ble a plot that could fit into any era, rely­ing on the clichés and the sword­play to keep the reader from notic­ing that you actu­ally know noth­ing about the period. Strik­ing a sat­is­fac­tory bal­ance between the two is hard­est of all. A lit­tle while ago, I read a lit­tle vol­ume of his­tor­i­cal short sto­ries by the now for­got­ten Cana­dian writer Thomas H. Raddall.[1] Each story is a lit­tle gem, which brings 18th and 19th cen­tury Nova Sco­tia to life with a few, care­fully cho­sen his­tor­i­cal details, slipped in so deftly that you scarcely notice them as you are caught up in the char­ac­ters and their actions. The well-timed appear­ance of a phrase, an object, a cus­tom, or an atti­tude, inte­gral to drama, reveals a sophis­ti­cated analy­sis of the his­tory. Robert Graves also had this knack, and while his inter­pre­ta­tions of his­tory were some­times eccen­tric and out of the main­stream, nobody can fault him for mas­tery of his sources. I rec­om­mend his Count Belis­ar­ius, for any­one who wants to lose them­selves in a his­tor­i­cal novel that is true art. Whitworth’s books dis­play this same skill. Her early Tenth Cen­tury is entirely believ­able, and vividly drawn, but there are no lec­tures or stag­nant pas­sages inter­rupt­ing the rapid move­ment of the story and her remark­ably pre­cise, com­pact prose.

Another ques­tion fac­ing the his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist is how to rep­re­sent past lan­guages. We are all famil­iar with the silly 1950’s Roman Empire movies where the Roman Sen­a­tors speak in Pub­lic School British Eng­lish, the cen­tu­ri­ons speak Mid­west­ern Amer­i­can, and the slaves speak Cock­ney. In these two nov­els, there are a mul­ti­tude of lan­guages and dialects rep­re­sented. Anglo-Saxon is rep­re­sented by mod­ern Eng­lish, with­out stilted, pseudo-medieval archaisms, but flavoured with a few well-chosen words drawn from mod­ern Eng­lish dialects to con­vey the impres­sion of dialects in Anglo-Saxon, as, for exam­ple, the Anglo-Saxon of Mer­cia, Wes­sex, the Five Bur­roughs and Northum­bria, and the pecu­liar Anglo-Saxon which would have been spo­ken as a sec­ond lan­guage by the Norse set­tlers. Whit­worth employs very fine judge­ment in this process. The results never jar the reader, never break the spell of look­ing through a magic mir­ror into the past.

Finally, there is the ques­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal and moral anachro­nism. I quickly grow impa­tient of his­tor­i­cal nov­els with an ide­o­log­i­cal agenda, or those which wor­ship power and mil­i­tary might. The cult of the king-fuhrer-superman is strong among his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ists. Bru­tal, mur­der­ous gang­sters like Julius Cae­sar and Alexan­der of Mace­don have been turned into beat­i­fied fan­tasy heros by many a writer who would not be able to get away with it if it was Kim Il-Sung or Rein­hard Hey­drich they were writ­ing about. In some nov­els, the hero, in order to be accept­able to a mod­ern audi­ence, is rep­re­sented as hav­ing val­ues that they sim­ply could not have had in the period. Sen­a­tors in ancient Rome spout the United Nations Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights. The mod­ern desire to have strong female char­ac­ters fills nov­els with an improb­a­ble num­ber of woman war­riors and pow­er­ful queens, and a pop­u­la­tion that seems to react to them as if they were the norm. It hap­pens that Æthelflæd was an able politi­cian and led armies into bat­tle, but Whitworth’s nov­els put this in a believ­able, his­tor­i­cally plau­si­ble con­text. Nor does she soft-peddle or ignore the casual bru­tal­ity, vio­lence, and class-ranking of the day. She is very good at pic­tur­ing a soci­ety where loy­al­ties are largely per­sonal, but can mutate into col­lec­tive loy­al­ties. Her hero, Wulf­gar, is drawn sym­pa­thet­i­cally, but dis­plays many atti­tudes that we would frown on today, such as an abject devo­tion to an unat­tain­able woman. His chronic puppy love for every beau­ti­ful woman he meets, sim­mer­ing within the stew-pot of his reli­gious duties, is hard for a mod­ern reader to empathize with, and it’s a spe­cial merit of the books that they con­vey it effec­tively. Again, believ­abil­ity is the author’s strong suit. Her tech­nique is to embroil her char­ac­ter in so much dan­ger and con­fu­sion that we can­not help but root for him, even if he is a bit of a thicky, sometimes.

The site of Bardney Abbey today

The site of Bard­ney Abbey today

[1] At the Tide’s Turn and Other Sto­ries, by Thomas H. Rad­dall.
24562. (V. M. Whit­worth) The Bone Thief
24575. (V. M. Whit­worth) The Traitor’s Pit
[Both were pub­lished by Ebury, an imprint of Penguin/Random House, and are eas­ily avail­able through Amazon.]


24633. (Mau­rice LeBlanc) [Arsène Lupin] L’Aiguille creuse
24634. (Oliver Gold­smith) An Essay on the The­atre [arti­cle]
24635. (Oliver Gold­smith) Reg­is­ter of Scotch Mar­riages [arti­cle]
24536. (Lester B. Pear­son) The Cri­sis of Devel­op­ment
24537. (Jane J. Lee) First Nation Tribe Dis­cov­ers Griz­zly Bear “High­way” in Its Back­yard
. . . . . [arti­cle]
24538. (Amy Ger­man) Oujé-Bougoumou Finally Attains For­mal Recog­ni­tion [arti­cle]
24539. (Keith Knapp) Review of Death in Ancient China by Con­stance A. Cook [review] Read more »


24598. [6] (Edgar Pang­born) A Mir­ror for Observers
24599. (Mikhail Vasi­lye­vich Lomonosov) An Evening Reflec­tion Upon God’s Grandeur
. . . . . Prompted by the Great North­ern Lights [Вечернее размышление о божием
. . . . . величестве при случае великаго северного сияния] (poem)
24600. (Mikhail Zoshchenko) Hon­est Cit­i­zen [story]
24601. (Brian M. Sta­ble­ford) Jour­ney to the Cen­ter
24602. (Anon. c. 1300) Ómag­yar Mária-siralom [Lamen­ta­tions of Mary] Read more »

We have seen thee, queen of cheese

I’m doing a lit­tle research on Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture of the 19th cen­tury. This is not a field that over­whelms the researcher with an abun­dance of mas­ter­pieces. Canada, at this time, was an empty, rugged, pio­neer­ing place, vaguely British in the soci­ety of its small urban elite, but for most peo­ple cul­tur­ally closer the the west­ern parts of the United States. Mon­treal had a mod­est lit­er­ary life in French, draw­ing on sev­eral cen­turies of folk­lore and even pro­duc­ing a few operas. These works were unknown in the rest of the French-speaking world. English-speaking Mon­treal­ers were more inter­ested in com­merce than cul­ture. Out­side of Mon­treal, the only real city, there was not much other than small towns, farms and wilder­ness.  Read more »


24537. (Thomas Piketty) Le Cap­i­tal au XXIe siè­cle
24538. (John Dry­den) An Essay of Dra­matic Poesy
24539. (Jan Michal Bur­dukiewicz) Microlith Tech­nol­ogy in the Stone Age [arti­cle]
24540. (George Mon­biot) It’s Sim­ple. If We Can’t Change Our Eco­nomic Sys­tem, Our
. . . . . Number’s Up [arti­cle]
24541. (Thomas Piketty) On the Long Run Evo­lu­tion of Inher­i­tance — France, 1820–2050
. . . . . [arti­cle] Read more »


24500. (Th. Her­sart de La Ville­mar­qué) Barzaz-Breiz: chants pop­u­laires de la Bre­tagne
24501. (Hervé Lossec) Les Bre­ton­nismes
24502. (Khashchu­luun Chu­lu­un­dorj) Cur­rent Sta­tus of Mongolia’s Eco­nomic and Social
. . . . . Devel­op­ment and Future Trends [arti­cle]
24503. (Batchimeg Miged­dorj) Mon­go­lian Eco­nomic Back­ground and Polit­i­cal Des­tiny 
. . . . . [arti­cle] Read more »


24455. (J. J. Mar­ric) Gideon’s Badge
24456. (Juan Cole) [in blog Informed Com­ment] Oba­macare Enrolls 7.1 Mil­lion: But Will the
. . . . . Haters Ever Stop Hat­ing? [arti­cle]
24457. (Rus­sell S. Taich­man, Aaron M. Havens et al) Human and Murine Very Small Embry­onic–
. . . . . Like Cells Rep­re­sent Mul­ti­po­tent Tis­sue Prog­en­i­tors, In Vitro and In Vivo [arti­cle]
24458. (Charles L. Grant) The Sound of Mid­night
24459. (Jean-Paul Gagnon) A Change in Nature to the Dis­course on the Mean­ing of
. . . . . Democ­racy: From Adver­sity to Shared Agree­ment [man­u­script draft] Read more »


24407. (Wil­fed The­siger) Among the Moun­tains — Trav­els Through Asia
24408. (Philip Mat­tera) Sub­si­diz­ing the Cor­po­rate One Per­cent: Sub­sidy Tracker 2.0 Reveals
. . . . . Big-Business Dom­i­nance of State and Local Devel­op­ment Incen­tives [report]
(Kather­ine Mans­field) In a Ger­man Pen­sion:
. . . . 24409. (John Mid­dle­ton Murry) Intro­duc­tory Note [pref­ace]
. . . . 24410. (Kather­ine Mans­field) Ger­mans at Meat [story]
. . . . 24411. (Kather­ine Mans­field) The Baron [story] Read more »


24341. (Kate Wil­helm) Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
24342. (Paul Fontaine) Rab­bits To Be “Removed” From Ice­land [arti­cle]
24343. (Misha Fried­man) Offi­cial Homo­pho­bia in Rus­sia [arti­cle]
24344. (M. W. Ray, et al) Obser­va­tion of Dirac Monopoles in a Syn­thetic Mag­netic Field [arti­cle]
24345. (Steve Muhlberger) [in blog Muhlberger’s World His­tory] Mar­garet E Owens, After­lives
. . . . . of the Royal Funeral Effi­gies [arti­cle] Read more »


24262. [2] (Theodore Stur­geon) The Stars Are the Styx [story]
24263. (David Lord­kipanidze, et al) A Com­plete Skull from Dman­isi, Geor­gia, and the
. . . . . . Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­ogy of Early Homo [arti­cle]
24264. (Ha-Joon Chang) Kick­ing Away the Lad­der: Devel­op­ment Strat­egy in His­tor­i­cal
. . . . . . Per­spec­tive
24265. (Edgar Wal­lace) Clues [story]
24266. (Abhik Gupta and Kamalesh Guha) Tra­di­tion and Con­ser­va­tion in North­east­ern India:
. . . . . . An Eth­i­cal Analy­sis [arti­cle] Read more »