Where angels fear…
On several occasions during the past several months I’ve told friends that I’d like to write a novel about our valley’s 16th century folk hero, Harry Botham. Briefly: the landlord, the earl of Shrewsbury (whose family had acquired Glossopdale after the dissolution of the monasteries during the 1530s), had a cash flow problem. To alleviate this, raised the rents and entry fines on the local tenant farms drastically, causing anger and distress among the tenants. Harry, accompanied by a few of his fellow-farmers, walked to London and challenged the increased charges in front of the Privy Council. He did this three times. In the end he won and the rents and fines were moderated, but his determination and resolution cost him his tenure and probably, in the end, his life. Concomitantly, the earl became mentally unstable and died in 1590, probably around the time that Harry also passed away.
Harry’s descendants retained Storth Farm until within living memory; his victory was durable. Also, some documents I’ve read suggest that his protests provided a model that other representatives of the common people emulated over the following decades, again successfully.
So Harry Botham deserves to be better known, and his story almost begs to be told. But since we know almost nothing about his life, any attempt at reconstruction must perforce be fictional. To give me a start, I contacted a history professor whose expertise covers this period of English history and she sent me a reading list, which with the (somewhat chaotic) assistance of our local library I’ve been tackling. Not being a historian, I’ve found it hard going, but the project won’t be worth pursuing unless I can garner all the relevant information available. I’ve also been helped by the local Heritage Trust, who unearthed the relevant volume of the Talbot Papers for me – records of the activities and dealings of the earls of Shrewsbury during the period of interest. These are illuminating.
Much as I want to write this story I have cold feet about it. There are brilliant historical novels addressing roughly this period of history in England – the works of Hilary Mantel and Rose Tremaine stand out – and there are also a lot of mediocre and insipid ones, well researched but failing to conjure up a credible picture of the time and the people who inhabited it. I don’t have the skill to write as well as Mantel or Tremaine, but I do want to avoid the mediocre and insipid! Can I do it?
A quotation from Henry James now looms over my office desk, challenging and warning me:
The ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned… to a fatal cheapness. You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as naught: I mean the intention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make our, that make the modern world were non-existent… You have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.
James makes a strong point. The further our characters are separated from us in time, the harder it is to see the world they inhabited through their eyes, because that world is alien to us; and if you can’t and don’t get behind the eyes of your characters, you’ll never write a story that will hold any reader’s attention. Despite the research I’m doing, my vision of Harry’s world remains blurred and fragmentary, and so far I haven’t been able to establish a plausible picture of Harry, or of that world as he perhaps saw it.
But I’ve never been one to duck a challenge. Onwards!
(And in the meantime I’ll keep pursuing other and perhaps less intractable projects!)