Which epoch and why? #1
JGH: ‘I write stories set in the seventeenth century and the early twentieth century.’
Question: ‘Why those epochs?’
Good question. Let’s look at some clichés first: Roman sword’n’sandal stories are bloody and exciting; the War of the Roses is full of intrigue; Tudor novels are sexy; Regency novels are titillating; Victorian novels are upstairs and downstairs; and World War stories are full love, loyalty and family suffering. But the seventeenth century has it all – and it’s highly relevant for helping to see today that little bit more clearly.
I should point out here, though, that I am not a historian. In fact I didn’t do terribly well in history either at school or in the compulsory component of my B.A. – because I turned every essay into a story. But you can guess which epochs we studied – C17 and early C20. I didn’t do too well in my essays but the history stuck because it has some cracking stories in it.
The seventeenth century in Britain and in Europe was a period of social upheaval and discovery. What people then called Natural History became science; religious extremism filtered down through society and led countries to claim independence from Rome and the Habsburg Empire; in Britain they executed King Charles 1st and established a commonwealth republic. France did this much later, but with an awful lot more bloodshed.
Despite, the plague, a mini-ice-age and a religious war, the bourgeoisie grew and flourished in Holland, and experienced the first recorded economic bubble, where inflated prices led to domestic tragedies, not unlike the mortgage scandals of recent times. And this is where I began. It started with a news item about the fall of the Lehman brothers and the mortgage crisis in the USA, and led back to tulip bulbs and how the Vatican was apparently supporting the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years war but actually supporting France and indirectly the Dutch at the same time – to reduce the power of the Habsburgs and the size of Spanish empire. Intrigue, financial crisis, religious spy-mongering leading to assassinations and the suffering of many innocent victims . . . It’s all there. So is Ludo da Portovenere, who is ‘the chosen man’ of the epoch. Ludo is fictional, but what he is involved in, and the people with whom he interacts – from Barbary pirates to the Conde-Duque de Olivares, the Chief Minister of Spain and (in the second part of the trilogy) crowned heads of state, plus many humble folk such as the descendents of Wouter Winkel of Alkmaar, actually lived.
The early twentieth century has a similar pull for me. The First World War changed society in Europe for ever. By the late forties, India was on track for Independence, and the world maps used by my grandfather’s generation became obsolete. Murder and mayhem, and the rights of man – and votes for women: it’s all there before 1950. What richer background for mystery and intrigue, spying and scandals could one wish for?