All great stories have baddies. Baddies or antagonists are the characters who get in your hero or heroine’s way. They create conflict and problems – all the things readers love. Evil villains help create a story that is exciting and sometimes even scary. Evil is up there with Love, Death, Beauty, Friendship, and Fate. Sooner or later we encounter at least a few of them in a good story. Here are 10 ways you can turn a character bad as a writer.
1. Bad Parents
When King Minos became king of Crete he challenged his brother to a dual. He prayed to Poseidon, the sea god for some help. Poseidon sent him a snow-white bull. The deal was that the king had to kill the bull to show honour to the gods, but he decided to keep it and kill one of his own bulls. To punish Minos, Poseidon made Pasiphaë, Minos’s wife, fall deeply in love with the bull. She was so in love that she had craftsman Daedalus make a hollow wooden cow, then she climbed inside it in order to mate with the white bull. The offspring was the monstrous Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him, and as he grew he became ferocious and started to eat people. Minos went to the oracle at Delphi for advice on how to handle his monstrous son. He had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur under the palace.
Deviant parents give a character a bad start in life as the Greeks knew all too well!
American author Ray Bradbury gave the theme a modern twist with his short story The Veldt in 1950.
The Hadley family live in an automated house called “The Happylife Home,” filled with machines that do every task. The two children, Peter and Wendy, become fascinated with the “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they imagine.
The parents, George and Lydia, begin to wonder if there is something wrong with their way of life.
Lydia tells George, “That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot.”
They are also perplexed and confused as to why the nursery is stuck on an African setting, with lions in the distance, eating a dead figure. There they also find recreations of their personal belongings and hear strangely familiar screams. Wondering why their children are so concerned with this scene of death, they decide to call a psychologist.
The psychologist, David McClean, suggests they turn off the house, move to the country, and learn to be more self-sufficient.
The children, feeling reliant on the nursery, beg their parents to let them have one last visit. Their parents agree and when they come to fetch them, the children lock George and Lydia into the nursery with the pride of lions. Shortly after, it is implied that the lions eat George and Lydia.
When the psychologist comes by to look for George and Lydia, he finds the children enjoying lunch on the veldt and sees the lions eating figures in the distance – George and Lydia, the reader is lead to presume.
Favouritism is a commonly used trope in Fiction Land. Bad enough when you’re an only child, but if you’re among a pack of siblings, this particular trope is nearly guaranteed to raise its head at some point in order to make life even more difficult.
Parental Favouritism is just what it sounds like — one child is given preference over their siblings.
Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve in the biblical Book of Genesis. Cain, the firstborn, tilled the soil, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, each of his own produce, but God favoured Abel’s sacrifice instead of Cain’s. Cain murdered Abel.
God punished Cain with a life of wandering and set a mark on him so that no man would kill him. Cain then dwelt in the land of Nod where he built a city and fathered the line of descendants beginning with Enoch. The narrative never explicitly states Cain’s motive though it does describe him as being wrathful, and his motive is traditionally assumed to be envy.
This biblical story and archetype of brothers locked in dual for their father’s affection is the basis for many a story and many a baddie. Sibling rivalry, envy, and wrath can motivate a character to a lot of very bad behaviour.
Favourites come in a number of varieties: Birth Order, Gender, Personality, Biological versus Adopted or Step Children – just think of all those fairy stories!
Way back in Ancient Greece King Tereus of Trace takes his wife Procne and her sister Philomela to visit their father in Athens. On the way, he lusts after Philomela. One night he rapes her. To stop her telling his wife he cuts out her tongue.
Those Greeks sure knew how to do baddies. Here sexual desire, power, and guilt are the key motivators along with a good dollop of misogyny.
Continuing the story of the now mute Philomela; she weaves a tapestry that tells her story. When her sister finds out what has happened she kills her son by Tereus; boils him up and serves him up to his father for dinner. Philomela is turned into a Nightingale and given a beautiful voice by the gods to make amends for her terrible ordeal.
Yes, this is an extreme case and the origin of the expression revenge is a dish best served cold. Your characters don’t have to murder children to get their revenge putting rotting shrimps in the air conditioning ducts of his nice new apartment might be enough revenge for a women spurned.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth couldn’t just be happy with her Scottish castle and thanedom, could she?
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.15-20)
After reading the letter from her husband which recounts the witches’ prophesy, Lady Macbeth’s thoughts immediately turn to murder. Problem: Her husband Macbeth has ambition, but he doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them.
The novel, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, begins when the knockout Miss Wonderly walks into Spade’s office. It turns out she’s a knockout with money. And she wants to hire the services of a private detective to find her missing sister, who supposedly ran off with a crook named Thursby. Neither Spade nor his partner Miles Archer, buy her story. But with the money she’s paying, who cares? When Archer and then Thursby are murdered, Spade realizes that he’s getting more than he bargained for. In fact, just about everyone around Sam Spade dies trying to get their hands on a bird figurine worth…$10,000.
Is the love of money the root of all evil? Charles Dickens thought so. Unlike Hammet he saves his character Scrooge from his lonely fate when the author shows him what happens to greedy and selfish men – that it when the author isn’t bumping them off at a rate of knots!
This terribly sad true-life story shows just what can happen when someone feels rejected. Rejection is painful. Being made to look worthless is a frightening experience so rejection can be a powerful motivation for baddies. Children rejected by their parents are often lonely, angry and hostile to a world they perceive does not love them.
Because being left out can be so painful for children, researchers have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out why some children are rejected. About half of rejected boys are aggressive. They hit, kick, or shove more than other boys, and they also tend to be more disruptive and argumentative. However, not all rejected boys are aggressive. Another 13-20% are shy and withdrawn. Still, others are socially awkward. Their odd, disruptive, or immature behaviour is off-putting to peers.
The son of a Hollywood assistant director went on a shooting rampage near the UC Santa Barbara campus slaying 6 people and engaging in a shootout with police which left him dead. The young man was 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the son of Hunger Games second unit director Peter Rodger. Prior to the rampage, Rodger submitted recordings to Youtube, chronicling his catastrophic emotional state after admittedly being rejected by women for eight years.
7. Feeling Invisible
In 1917, “Baby Jane” Hudson is an adored yet ill-tempered vaudevillian child star while her older sister Blanche lives in her shadow. By 1935, their fortunes have reversed: Blanche is a successful film actress and Jane lives in obscurity, her films having failed.
One night, Jane mocks Blanche at a party, prompting Blanche to run away in tears. That same night, Blanche is paralysed from the waist down in a mysterious car accident that is unofficially blamed on Jane, who is found three days later in a drunken stupor.
In 1962 a wheelchair-bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) are living together in Blanche’s mansion, purchased with Blanche’s movie earnings. By now, Jane has descended into alcoholism and mental illness and treats Blanche with cruelty to punish her for stealing her spotlight.
Later, when Blanche informs Jane she may be selling the house, Jane’s mental health begins to deteriorate further. During an argument, she removes the telephone from Blanche’s bedroom, cutting Blanche off from the outside world.
Jane begins denying Blanche food, until she serves Blanche her dead parakeet on a platter—and, at a later meal, a rat that she killed in the cellar. Jane kills Blanche’s carer and then drives to the beach where she finally goes bonkers as the police arrive to arrest her for the carer’s death and Blanche dies.
This is a powerful case of sibling rivalry, ambition, and ego. The story of these sisters shows just how powerful these motivators can be in the hands of a great writer. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller–horror film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The screenplay by Lukas Heller is based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. Upon the film’s release, it was met with widespread critical and box office acclaim and was later nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design, Black and White.
Lord Varys: Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although, who doesn’t like to see their friends fail now and then.
Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish:You’re so right. For instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells, if I’m going, to be honest, I did feel an unmistakable sense of enjoyment there. Game of Thrones (TV Series), The Climb (2013)
Varys and Littlefinger may seem to be minor players — but the maneuverings of the noble families of Westeros often seem to come back to their ongoing chess game. Varys and Littlefinger articulate two very different philosophies. Lord Petyr Baelish, popularly called Littlefinger, was the Master of Coin on the Small Council under King Robert Baratheon and King Joffrey Baratheon. He was a skilled manipulator and used his ownership of brothels in King’s Landing to both accrue intelligence on political rivals and acquire vast wealth. Baelish’s spy network is eclipsed only by that of his arch-rival Varys.
Love them or hate them, Littlefinger and Varys are the series’ real game changers. They also take the reality TV show approach to competition, forming alliances, lying, and manipulating. Basically, they aren’t here to make friends. They are here to win. But, winning means different things to the two characters and the more they can thwart the other the better.
9. Lies and Betrayal
In the song made famous by Tom Jones the price for lies is death – ‘I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more, why, why Delilah?’ The biblical Delilah was approached by the lords of the Philistines, to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. She was offered eleven hundred pieces of silver for her pains. Three times she asked Samson for the secret of his strength but each time he gave her a false answer. On the fourth occasion, he gave her the true reason: that he did not cut his hair in fulfillment of a vow to God. When he was asleep she allowed his enemies to cut off his hair. They took him, put out his eyes, and bound him with fetters. Later, of course, he took his revenge by bringing the whole house down on his foes.
Betrayal destroys trust. If a loved one betrays us it crushes our faith in ourselves and others. The world and everyone in it can become an ugly place to live in. Betrayal is a particularly effective emotion-filled type of conflict that we can use in fiction to create long-lasting problems for our characters.
10. Being a Psychopath
Characteristics of a psychopath: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (i.e. broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.
A recent study suggests that 1-4% of the population is on the psychopathic scale. This means that we’ll probably all meet at least one psychopath in our lives.
Psychopaths love themselves. Even if nobody else loves them. They’ll think they’re the best at whatever it is that they do, even if they suck at it. It’s entirely possible they’ll take credit for other people’s success too – they live vicariously and will work how a way to feel they contributed to it somehow. Ultimately, their world revolves around them and no one else. Psychopaths are great characters to write as they give you so much scope for upsetting others and it’s so rewarding when, as an author, you can give them their comeuppance.
About the author: Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her debut novel Sinclair is available worldwide on Amazon.
Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Historical fiction is an umbrella term; though it is commonly used as a synonym for describing the historical novel. Historical fiction also occurs in other narrative formats – the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, and television, as well as video games and graphic novels.
An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the period depicted. Historical fiction writers frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments. Some subgenres such as alternate history and historical fantasy insert speculative or ahistorical elements into a novel.
Works of historical fiction are sometimes criticized for lack of authenticity because of readerly or genre expectations for accurate period details. This tension between historical authenticity, or historicity, and fiction frequently becomes a point of comment for readers and popular critics, while scholarly criticism frequently goes beyond this commentary, investigating the genre for its other thematic and critical interests.
When Wolf Hall won the Booker prize some commentators suggested that the term “historical fiction” was itself becoming a thing of the past. So many novels these days are set prior to the author’s lifetime that to label a novel “historical” is almost as meaningless as to call it “literary”.
1. Small details matter more than large ones.
The art of fiction is, in large part, the art of small-scale illusions. Focus on the things that set the period and the character – the snap of a fan, the recoil of a rifle, the sound of the hurdy-gurdy playing in the street. In this quote from The Mistletoe Bride by Kate Moss we are whisked immediately back to the 15th or 16th century with the mention of the lute, viol, and citole, the title of the story tells us it is set at Christmas and the drinking and goose fat glistening on merry faces lets us know everyone is feasting.
‘It is my wedding day. I should be happy, and I am.
I am happy, yet I confess I am anxious too. My father’s friends of wild. Their cups clashing against one another and goose fat glistening on their cheeks and their voices raised. There has been so much wine drunk they are no longer themselves. There is lawlessness in a glint of their eyes, but they are not so far gone us to forget their breeding and manners. Their good cheer echoes around the old oak hall, so loud I can no longer hear the lute or viol, or citole s set out for our entertainment.’
2. Period characters require more than period clothes.
Similarly, just as the exterior world requires research to establish believable, small details, the interior world of a character requires research as well. Good historical stories promise to not only transport readers to a historical setting but to reveal the interior life (the mind, heart and aspirations) of a character. For me, some of the large questions here had to do with interior perceptions: You need to find out how people viewed love and romance in your chosen period. What do your characters expect or want from life.
3. Use common names, not technical ones.
It’s all very well knowing the technical terms for the clothes and accoutrements of the past but if your reader is going to have to Google everything you mention it will spoil the story for them. Remember you’re writing a story to entertain not a history textbook. Let your characters engage with both historical details and their place in society. Not only have them interact with the politics or religion of the day – but allow them full use of their senses to recreate their environment, the smells, sounds and feel of their surroundings is just as important as having them know who was King at that time.
4. Immerse yourself in the culture.
To write historical fiction of any kind – short stories or not – you need to be able to close your eyes and have the past blaze up around you. Always remember research takes time. Research is an investment; you draw on it when you need to. Use it like capital and keep most of it in the bank. Historical accuracy is like quicksand. Stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story. Too much attention to factual detail is undoubtedly an impediment to literary art. Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze is described on the Booker prize website as “historically accurate but beautifully imagined”, as if “historically accurate” implied a literary problem. In some respects it does. Ask a historical author: how do you stop that facts getting in the way of the story? And the novelist, driven by his or her imagination, will offer a wealth of answers. The historian will assure you that the facts are the story.
5. Find experts.
Have fun with research, but do your homework. Use reference books, watch films, read novels of the period. Make sure you’re comfortable with all aspects of the time from politics to illnesses, from food to fashion, from local geography to language (even if you choose not to use it.) Hand in hand with double-checking comes evaluating your sources. If something seems a bit improbable or sketchy, it probably is. Look for another source to back it up. Use the internet wisely. We are so blessed nowadays with the amount of information at our fingertips, the access we have to old maps and stats is amazing. But ALWAYS triple check your facts, be aware of false information and never rely solely on Wikipedia! Use a good mix of primary and secondary sources for both perspective and immediacy and double-check everything. Bad mistakes will reflect on your work even if it is the fault of your source.
6. Historical facts are not the storyline.
Anyone who has tried to make a story out of historical narrative will know it’s impossible. History is the context out of which fiction grows. Fiction is the examination of the human heart as individual characters move through scenes that test – or perhaps change – their souls. History is just the backdrop. Of course, if you’re writing about a real historical person it is necessary to stick to the facts.
In the 18th century, the British government collected a good deal of its income from customs duties – tax paid on the import of goods such as tea, cloth, wine, and spirits.
The tax on imported goods could be up to 30% so smuggled goods were a lot cheaper than those bought through official channels. Smugglers operated all around the coasts of Britain. They worked in aggressive, well-organised gangs along the south coast, only a night’s sail from France. The gangs were often too big for the Customs officials to deal with as with the death penalty was a certainty if they were caught so the smugglers were prepared to use violence.
Many ordinary people approved of smuggling or took part in it. Labourers could earn more in a night’s work carrying brandy barrels up from the beach than they could in a month’s hard work in the fields. Others left their barns or cellars unlocked and didn’t ask questions about what was put in there.
Quite respectable people were involved: sometimes for money, sometimes because they didn’t regard smuggling as a crime.
Britain’s most infamous smuggler
Born in 1778 Britain’s most famous smuggler was a man called Rattenbury. He started his life at sea as a fisherman but soon progressed to the more interesting and lucrative trade of defrauding the king.
When he was fifteen he was part of the crew of a privateer but was captured and was taken prisoner by the French, and thrown into gaol. Rattenbury escaped and got back to England.
Rattenbury’s journal recounts many adventures including one where he tricked his drunken French captures into believing they were heading back to France when all the time he was steering the ship to England. As they approached the coast he made his escape by diving into the sea and swimming into Swanage harbour. Once ashore, he raised the alarm and notified the customs authorities that there was a hostile French ship in the harbour!
When Prime Minister William Pitt lowered duties in the 1780s, smuggling became less profitable and gradually the trade began to fall away. Further removal of duties in the 19th century put an end to the kind of smuggling which went on so openly in the 18th century. It seems to be the case that smuggling is always with us. Whenever governments try to stop, or tax, the movement of goods people really want, smugglers will move in no matter how high the stakes.
Smuggling and smugglers have been a vast source of inspiration for fiction writers. Perhaps the most famous fictional smuggler being, The Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn by Russell Thorndike. The idea for the novel came from smuggling in the 18th century Romney Marsh, where brandy and tobacco were brought in at night by boat from France. Minor battles were fought between gangs of smugglers, such as the Hawkhurst Gang and the Revenue, supported by the army and local militias in South Kent and West Sussex.
The first book, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh was published in 1915. Three film adaptations have been made of Dr. Syn’s exploits.Doctor Syn (1937) featured noted actor George Arliss. Captain Clegg (1962) known as Night Creatures in the U. S., was produced by Hammer Film Productions with actor Peter Cushing in the lead role; and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963) starring Patrick McGoohan in the title role.
Smuggling today is probably just as risky as it was in the past, if not more so. Smugglers today use their bodies as a vehicle for drugs and put their own lives on the line in the same way as the smugglers of old.
The number of swallowed drug packages recovered by customs officers at Heathrow airport is usually between 80 and 150 a year. The drugs are wrapped in condoms, balloons or cling-film, forming neat packages about the size of a large grape, and swallowed with syrup to make them more palatable. Couriers take a constipating agent before they embark and tend not to eat during the flight.
In March 2015 the Daily Telegraph online reported on a strange case of modern smuggling. A man was caught trying to enter Spain through Madrid airport with a suspiciously large bulge between his legs in much the same vein as the fictional Derek Smalls played by Harry Shearer in the film Spinal Tap. In this case, the hidden appendage turned out to be half a kilo of cocaine whereas Smalls’ turned out to be cucumber if I remember it rightly.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
I loved Mary Wesley’s books. I think I read them all in the 1980s and 1990’s before my children were born. I really enjoyed the TV adaptations too. Her work was refreshing, vivid and bittersweet, her style was effortless. She is a great influence on me still.
Mary Wesley, died aged 90. She amazed the literary world by having her first novel published when she was 70, in 1983.
She went on to write nine more (three of which were filmed for TV), figured regularly in the bestseller lists and was appointed CBE in 1995. A remarkably good-looking woman, she had a commanding presence and could appear reserved when meeting people she did not know. But she was much less confident than she seemed and she had a wonderful sense of humour. She was also a generous friend.
She often claimed that her novels were not autobiographical, but aspects of her life are reflected in the themes that run through them. A typical Wesley heroine is a young woman, damaged by parental dislike or neglect, who ties herself to a conventional man who does not understand her, only to find happiness later with an eccentric, tender lover, who values in her all the qualities no one else has recognised.
The third child of Colonel Harold Mynors Farmar and his wife, Violet, Mary Aline was born at Englefield Green, Windsor Great Park. She grew up hardly knowing her father and believing that her mother preferred her elder sister.
It was assumed that she would never have to work for her living and so she was not sent to school, which added to her isolation. Her beloved nanny was sacked when she was three and her minimal education was left to a series of foreign governesses.
Regretting this, in the 1930s she attended lectures on international politics and anthropology at the London School of Economics (60 years later she was awarded an honorary fellowship there).
She was presented at court and married Lord Swinfen in 1937. Having given birth to two sons, she had fulfilled her parents’ expectations, only to scandalise them when she left her husband. They were divorced in 1945. The second world war, which was to form the background to many of her novels, changed everything for her.
Like so many well-bred young women, she found work in intelligence. She once told an interviewer that the war years gave her generation a very good time: “an atmosphere of terror and exhilaration and parties, parties, parties”.
It was in 1944, dining at the Ritz, that she met Eric Siepmann, the Winchester and Oxford-educated playwright, and journalist. Siepmann’s father was German and his mother Irish. Her family strongly disapproved.
They lived together until his second wife could be persuaded to divorce him and then married in 1952, settling in Devon. Ten years after their first meeting he wrote in his autobiography, Confessions Of A Nihilist, that she was “somebody whom I really loved, who believed in God and who thought that loving meant what you give and not what you take”.
Their years together were so happy that Siepmann’s death in 1970 devastated Wesley. She felt as though she had been cut in half, “like a carcass at the butcher’s”. Siepmann had changed jobs frequently and never accumulated any capital, and his death left her bereft and without an income. Wesley sold her jewellery and knitted for whatever her customers could pay.
She had been writing for years but had no confidence in what she produced, in spite of her husband’s encouragement, and threw most of it away. Her first published works, in 1968, were two children’s books, and a third followed in 1983. It was only after Siepmann’s death that she found her voice.
Then, in Jumping The Queue, she wrote about a woman who could not bear to go on living after her beloved but eccentric husband’s death and planned a suicidal picnic.
This quirky, sad and very funny novel was quite unlike anything else that was being published in the early 1980s. Had it not been for the intervention of her friend Antonia White, it might have followed its predecessors into the bin. With White’s encouragement, Wesley began to submit the manuscript to publishers.
Several companies turned down Jumping The Queue on the grounds that there was no interest in “that kind of book”, but when her then agent Tessa Sayle sent the book to James Hale of Macmillan, he confounded his rivals. Her work soon found a wide public and was admired by critics.
Much was made of the fact that the novels are full of illicit sex and that the characters are free with the sort of four-letter words that few women of Wesley’s age and class would use. Perhaps more interesting, although it was less remarked at the time, is the hate and violence beneath the surface. Several of her heroines kill, from Mathilda in Jumping The Queue to Sophie, the unloved but deeply lovable child of The Camomile Lawn (1984, and filmed for TV in 1992).
It is the violent expression of long-buried anger and distress, quite as much as the frank sexuality of her heroines, that makes her work so different. Her novels are suffused not only with her humour but also with the emotions she preferred not to discuss, and they are inimitable. A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part Of The Scenery, was published in 2001.
She had always dressed elegantly, even when she couldn’t afford a railway ticket to London. She enjoyed success, the strange circus of book launches and the excitement of planning the film of a book (even if she tended to dislike the films that emerged). Book promotion tours made her feel she was earning her living and doing something for her publishers in return. She delighted in good reviews and was stung when she was attacked, especially since she avoided reviewing books which she did not like.
She really enjoyed writing, and that quality of pleasure is in everything she wrote. She complained bitterly when a plot got stuck, but she was desolate and lonely when a book was completed and had been handed over.
Her best-known book, The Camomile Lawn, set on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall, was turned into a television series and is an account of the intertwining lives of three families in rural England during World War II. After The Camomile Lawn (1984) came Harnessing Peacocks (1985 and as a TV film in 1992), The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1986 and filmed in 1995), Not That Sort of Girl (1987), Second Fiddle (1988), A Sensible Life (1990), A Dubious Legacy (1992), An Imaginative Experience (1994) and Part of the Furniture(1997). A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part of the Scenery, was published in 2001. Asked why she had stopped writing fiction at the age of 84, she replied: “If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it.”
Her take on life reveals a sharp and critical eye which neatly dissects the idiosyncrasies of genteel England with humour, compassion, and irony, detailing in particular sexual and emotional values. Her style has been described as “arsenic without the old lace”. Others have described it as “Jane Austen plus sex”, a description Wesley herself thought ridiculous. As a woman who was liberated before her time Mary Wesley challenged social assumptions about the old, confessed to bad behaviour and recommended sex. In doing so she smashed the stereotype of the disapproving, judgemental, past-it, old person. This delighted the old and intrigued the young.
Sources: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/jan/01/guardianobituaries.books1, Wikipedia
The dead are always present, says Hilary Mantel, they live with us in our memory, in our genes and in the legacy of their decisions and actions that shaped the world we live in today. In the words of St Augustine, she says, they are ‘invisible, they are not absent’. My inspiration for it Sinclair was family history. Whoever we are we all have some sort of family and some sort of history, we could not have got here without it even if we do not know that history.
There is a poem by WH Auden, called “As I Walked Out One Evening”:
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead’
Like most people I come from a long line of very ordinary people; people who struggled most of their lives to make ends meet them to keep a roof over their head. These are not the people we think of when we think of history. History was, until the last century, very much the domain of great men and great events. When we imagine the past in drama, in books, and, in films, the characters are always the movers and shakers of history; their decisions and actions change the world. Rarely do we think of the ordinary run of the mill people in the background who were most likely our ancestors.
My grandparents were born at the turn of the 19th century, they were Victorians. They lived through great events, the Great War, the economic depression of the 1930s, the Second World War, and the post-war boom but they did not shape them. They were lucky, they survived these huge historic events and so did their children; all of them living to ripe old age thanks to the introduction of the National Health Service in 1947. They were the first generation to live in Council Houses, proud tenants who always paid the rent on time. They worked hard and life was not easy but it was certainly better than it had been for their parents who had lived in overcrowded city-centre tenements with no interior sanitation. My Victorian ancestors worked hard, feared the workhouse, died young and were buried unceremoniously and as cheaply as possible.
My novel, Sinclair, is inspired by my husband’s family, the Leadams, who came from Walkington near the market town of Beverley and city of Hull. Christopher Leadam trained as a surgeon in York then moved to London sometime in the 1770s. I recently visited Walkington to look at the place he left to work at Guy’s Hospital. The contrast between this rural idle of the East Riding and the busy streets of Southwark could not be greater. Walkington is a beautiful place but as the 10th child in a family of farmers Christopher, who was clearly bright and adventurous, knew that if he was going to make a life for himself he had to leave the place of his birth.
Christopher died when he was relatively young, probably around 40. We know from the historical record that when he died he was the owner of an apothecary shop in Tooley Street and that he had a 14-year-old son and a wife. Christopher was not a great man of medicine but he was one of the cast of players who helped to heave medicine out of its medieval roots into the modern scientific age.
The Leadams of Tooley Street has led me on a journey into the 18th century and early 19th century. My novel begins in the aftermath of the disastrous American War and ends as France is about to throw the shackles of the ancient regime. Most historical romance is about aristocratic families, families with connections and status. My fiction is about a family too but this family has to make their own way in the world. They have no estate or inheritance to come into; they have to use their hands and their brains to make their way in the world. Men like the Leadams and the fictional Sinclair were men of the professions, industry, ideas, and commerce; they were the men for a new and enlightened age, the men who shaped the world we know today.
As a novelist, I want to tell the story of that change, of the development of the middle class if you like. The middle class is much maligned and forgotten in the pages of history and novels. Today middle-class values are under attack from libertarian capitalists who view government as a barrier to the unfettered accumulation of personal wealth, they do not believe in society or collective endeavour. In the historical novel, the middle class gets lost between the aristocratic splendour of the ballroom and the rags to riches stories of the poor.
‘The pursuit of the past makes you aware, whether you are novelist or historian, of the dangers of your own fallibility and inbuilt bias’ says Mantel. I agree I am the product of my own history. I am not the past I am now writing about the past in a language that is understood today. I am a writer of fiction but I am a historian too; an anachronism an oxymoron. The 19th-century historian Lord Macaulay said, “History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason.” I burn with a passion for the past, but I also burn with a passion for the future, for a better future for my children and mankind. I’m biased and I don’t feel guilty about it; all history is biased, I am not perturbed about my desire to tell stories about people who live in townhouses and not country estates, people who value education for its own sake, people who want to engage in the political life of the nation because they want to improve the lives of others and build a better future.
Mantel says, “The historian and the biographer follow a trail of evidence, usually a paper trail. The novelist does that too, and then performs another act, puts the past back into the process, into action, frees the people from the archive and lets them run about, ignorant of their fates, with all their mistakes unmade.” Sinclair makes plenty of mistakes.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on: