Being interviewed recently by ‘The Western Mail’ about historical fiction on TV made me really think about the whole process of writing historical fiction. The article was based around the serialisation of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. I love the description in Dove Grey Reader’s recent post of Hilary Mantel quoting David Starkey’s description of Thomas Cromwell as Alistair Campbell with an axe, and saying that although Wolf Hall is not an attempt to discuss today’s politics it still resonates.
One of the reasons I love historical fiction is that it explains how we got here. It’s what I always loved about history. Nothing ever appears in isolation and it’s fascinating to trace back to the lives and attitudes of parents and grandparents and see where things come from. It’s surely why the TV series ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ is so popular.
In my own family, the women have always been independent and determined to make their own living. If you look back, you can see that this stems from my grandmother who, in the 1920s, was left destitute with three small daughters when her husband attempted to find his fortune in the goldmines of Australia (and, like so many others, failed spectacularly). Her determination that her daughters should all get to grammar school, despite being working class, and gain a profession so that they would never have to depend on a man for an income is something that has resonated down the generations.
Grandmother Pardoe’s story still resonates more widely as well. Because she had no opportunity for education or training, or the welfare state to fall back on, her story is more extreme and the issues crystalised – but it is still the dilemma of any mother who finds herself on her own with small children and the attempt to both care for and provide for them.
And I suppose part of what I love about historical fiction is the distance and the greater extremes that focus on dilemmas that still exist. The women I’m currently writing about in the early twentieth century are very different from me, but they are still part of the ongoing struggle to find financial independence and respect as a human being who is not defined by her sex. On one level, it feels like a different world. But on the other, as a young woman in the 1970s, many of the attitudes towards women working and being out on their own – and even the expectation that being a wife and mother was what women were for and they shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about anything else – were very much the same.
I loved the first part of ‘Wolf Hall’, and can’t wait to sit down to the next. And meanwhile, I’m returning with renewed enthusiasm to writing my story of women in the early twentieth century – and I think my alter ego, Heather Pardoe, named in honour of my indomitable grandmother, might have a story up her sleeve as well …