My first historical novel was Black Arrow awarded, along with The Horses of Petrock, as a primary school prize for, unsurprisingly, history. (I can’t remember why I got The Horses of Petrock). Being ten at the time I was intrigued by the cover of Black Arrow with its Robin Hood figure stretching his bow ready to fire. I’m afraid that the cover continued to intrigue but the book did not, partly as Black Arrow wasn’t about Robin Hood (a childhood hero – too much Errol Flynn and Richard Greene) and partly as it was difficult to read – too much archaic language and too many characters for a ten-year-old with the seemingly endless summer break ahead. I did try to persevere with the book and returned years later when it appeared on a list of literature that I was expected to read for English. Again I gave up because The Day of the Triffids, Brown on Resolution, Treasure Island and The Hobbit seemed, and were, more appealing.
Two weeks of a bed-ridden, childhood illness tempted me once more to read Black Arrow but I became sidetracked by Ben-Hur. I had just seen the film and, still fresh in my mind, it seemed a better prospect than Black Arrow. I gave up on the Prince of Judah – far too much “theeing” and “thouing”. Well I suppose all historical fiction is like that and so returned to Black Arrow only to recover from the illness and put it aside once more.
Rain-drenched camping holidays during my teenage years prompted searches for something, anything to read – Ellis Peters, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie and countless other now forgotten novels found in the games rooms of various camping sites. There seemed less “theeing” and “thouing” in the novels but the books did not feel historical – they portrayed characters that happened to live in a historical period.
And now I read historical fiction for fun and relaxation. I don’t check historical veracity, or get despondent about archaic language, or the improbability of plot developments. I enjoy them. My reading choice of historical fiction is admittedly eclectic and determined by second-hand book shops and friends’ recommendations. Lately I’ve read Karen Maitland’s The Owl Killers – gritty medieval realism; begun the C. J. Sansom series of books about the Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake; relished Barbara Ewing’s The Mesmerist – sexual mores and hypnotism is a winning combination; and thoroughly enjoyed Bruce Chatwin’s Utz (perhaps not truly historical but nevertheless set in Cold War Czechoslovakia). I’ve also managed to read and enjoy Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities despite the fact that I’ve struggled with the other works of Dickens. Oh and I still haven’t read Black Arrow.
Simon Baker is editor for the Bibliography of British and Irish History