The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
I am sure that I have no need to introduce Melvyn Bragg, who was one of the keynote speakers at the 2016 HNS conference. Although best known as a TV presenter, he is a prolific author of screenplays and novels in several genres, including historical novels. I interviewed him on the publication of his latest, and dare I say it greatest, historical novel, Now is the Time, the story of the Peasants Revolt in the 14th century.
Tell me Melvyn, why do you write Historical Fiction? Do you intend it simply as an entertainment for your readers or do you have a deeper purpose? Are you teaching us history, drawing lessons from the past or making a statement about the present?
I’ve written three historical novels. The first of them I wrote in the early 80’s, The Maid of Buttermere, set in the early 19th century. It is about a famous fraud in Cumberland and about Coleridge and the local gentry. I knew the area and I was interested in the period, a period of great social unrest. But it was also a time when the modern idea of Nature was formed. We began to appreciate its healing influence, even its moral force in our own lives. And I think I was searching for a way to write a Victorian novel.
My second historical novel was Credo, set in 7th century Northumbria. I was fascinated by the period, the time when England was first becoming England. To begin with it centred around St Cuthbert. But he was too well chronicled for my purposes and I felt shackled. So I chose an obscure Irish saint (Bega) who had come over to Cumbria in Cuthbert’s time.
With Now is the Time I related very much to the protagonists, especially John Ball. We know what happened because there were a lot of people writing at the time. It is a misnomer to call it The Peasants, Revolt. Peasant isn’t an English term. It was a huge rising, including large numbers of artisans. In three or four days they achieved what armies had failed to do – occupied London and took the Tower.
These sorts of things happen in the present day, rebellions and bloodshed. But I can’t write about them. I can’t write about Africa, because I don’t know about Africa. But I can write about England and I can look at these events from afar and sympathise with these people.
So is my fiction simply an entertainment? I think it has an allied purpose. I narrate a lot of facts, but what really concerns me is why these people did what they did. Why was the King’s mother so involved in these events? Why did Wat Tyler become so prominent in the rebellion? I use fiction to fill in the gaps, to find out or at least suggest why, to add to what the historian can say.
Am I making a statement about the present? Implicitly, yes. But I don’t draw attention to it or do any nudge-nudging. But The Peasants’ Revolt was not a local event. It was an event that spans all time.
You have a degree in Modern History – does it ever concern you that you are ‘making up’ history?
I accept that. I am writing for intelligent readers who are interested in history, so that they can use their intelligence to find their way in to people and events.
The Classical historians all made up the speeches they record, they didn’t hear them. They didn’t shrink from putting words into their characters’ mouths. Do we think it unacceptable for Shakespeare to write Richard III?
I try to find a way to work out why Richard II did what he did – why he rode out on his own to the rebels, past the body of Wat Tyler. I may be wrong but I try to go beyond or go in another direction to that taken by historians.
You have written several pieces of autobiographical fiction. Do you thing there is something of yourself in Now is the Time.
Yes. There is a lot of me in John Ball. I can relate to his Christian faith. These were my own feelings up to when I was seventeen. And I can relate to Richard’s tentativeness as a boy.
There is always a lot of myself in my books. As with most authors.
In other books you describe your experience of social mobility. Do you think this gives you a better understanding of social conflict and a wider sympathy.
It probably does. I started out in a cottage which was one up and one down, plus a lavatory and wash house shared by three other families.
Why did you choose to write about something that failed?
If it was a failure, it was a significant failure. Some failures have far-reaching positive consequences.
It was a failure in the short term. The rebels thought they had won. They went home after the king promised everything they demanded. Then he reneged on it, or he was led to do so, and then came the repression and the hangings and burnings.
But in another sense it was a success. It was the first resurgence of Englishness since 1066. The French took over in 1066 and for a long time they were dominant and their language was dominant. It was not until 1381 that the Bible was translated into English and we have Chaucer writing in English at this time.
The Revolt also launched the tradition of taking grievances to the highest level. It became part of the English character – the English radical tradition up to the Suffragettes and beyond, to this day.
This was probably the biggest rebellion per capita there has ever been in English history.
Do you think any modern writer can enter the mind of a Mediaeval peasant?
You have to think your way into it, just as Dickens thought his way into the mind of Fagin and Oliver Twist. I have to use my own life experience.
Take Richard II. He was careless of his own safety but he was not a warrior. His mother realised that the be a Mediaeval king he had to be a warrior, which is why he had to turn to his mother to guide him on what to do. With that and other clues I just sat down and did what I do. I turned it into fiction which I hope felt “real”.
Thank you for being so generous with your time. I am sure we will all enjoy reading your latest book and that we will learn things from it which are still relevant in today’s world