Hazel McHaffie

historical fiction

Historical fiction par excellence

The year is 1785. The place is the centre of Paris. Unusually heavy spring rain causes the bank of the cemetery of les Innocents, crammed full of bodies from the plague and the years since, to give way. The neighbours are overwhelmed by the stench and the effluent washing through their cellars. It’s poisoning the very air of the city.

A young engineer from Normandy, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is called in. The church and the burial ground must be destroyed, he is told; everything must be made sweet again, the poisonous influence of the past must be eradicated. So says no less a personage than the king! Baratte sets about amassing a rag-tag workforce and equipment to achieve this objective, and the macabre task begins. Before long the skeletons become visible … the depths of the many plots are plumbed … a steady procession of horse-drawn carts carries the disinterred bones, under velvet drapes, accompanied by chanting priests, to a newly sanctified quarry for their last resting place … the church and its precious organ are dismantled piece by piece. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, the terrible smell lifts, beautiful flowers begin to grow in the new sanitised soil. But it comes at a price.

It’s a year of
bones, grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. … A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of desire. Of love …

The cemetery has been at the heart of life in the area for many people. Their very breath smells of it. Some indeed perceive themselves as its guardians. So what does this clearance mean for them?

There’s pretty Emilie Monnard aka Ziguette, daughter of a prosperous shop owner, whose window overlooks the cemetery. She’s watched burials there for years. Long after the mourners have left, she’s continued to keep watch over the dead like a sister or an angel. Now the man who is to destroy all she holds dear is lodging in her family home, and she will go to any lengths to save her precious heritage.

Then there’s the sweet auburn-haired emissary of death, Jeanne, teenage granddaughter of the aged sexton, who knows the cemetery intimately, and regards herself as custodian of its inmates, her vast extended family. Her affiliation to the dead moves her to be protective of what the project unearths. But her naivety, her dreams, end in smithereens when she’s rejected and then ruined.

Jean-Baptiste, however, from the moment he glimpses her, is unaccountably obsessed by the mysterious Austrian, Héloïs Godard – otherwise known as the town’s whore, nothing to do with the cemetery. No one is more disconcerted than he when she agrees to move in with him in his lodgings.

An unlikely setting for a novel you might think: a rank burial ground; it’s destruction. Especially in an age when justice, mercy, honour, sanitation and medicine are crude concepts. But somehow, the very unlikeliness of the backdrop gives additional heft to the story.

Pure, by Andrew Miller, is beautifully rendered with exquisite turns of phrase, and similies, and descriptions, which are pitch-perfect for the era they capture.

… riding out of the rags of last night’s mist

… the kitchen – that scrubbed and orderly world where even the light seems to lie like lengths of rinsed muslin …

Somewhere between very late and very early, some deep velvet-lined pocket of a winter’s night.

He has a candle in his head, all the light he needs, and he begins to play a Couperin trio from memory, his spine and neck arched slightly backwards as though the organ was a coach-and-six and he was hurtling through the centre of les Halles, scattering geese and cabbages and old women.

I was mesmerised – read it in a sitting!

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Living breathing history!

14th November 1553
It is over. My trial has ended, and I am back in the Tower of London, this place that was once my palace and is now my prison.

What a fab opening paragraph; dramatic, intriguing, suspenseful. And credible. Here is a 16-year-old girl surrounded by ambition, scheming, greed and treachery: ‘I am to die when I have hardly begun to live.’ And we know it to be true. That’s the thing with historical fiction about famous figures. We know the basic plot, we even know a lot about the characters, but Alison Weir brings them totally alive. And because she’s an authority on the historical detail, she weaves in so much real life, that we can easily believe the fiction too. We’re in extremely safe hands. Some parts of this book may indeed seem far-fetched, the author concedes, but they are the parts most likely to be based on fact.

A word then, about this remarkable author. Alison Weir is the biggest-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian) in the UK since records began in 1997. She has published twenty-three titles and sold more than 3 million books. Her biography makes fascinating reading in itself.

Having published ten factual history books, she moved into fiction, ‘which is something serious historians attempt only at their peril‘, as she says herself. But it gave her ‘a heady sense of freedom’, allowing her imagination free reign, trying to penetrate the minds of her characters. In telling the shocking stories of life in one of the bloodiest and dangerous times in history, her aim is to enthrall and appall in equal measure. And indeed she achieves that aim.

Her writing is masterly. We can smell those fetid, hot, dark, fearful birthing rooms; sense the backbiting and treachery behind the obeisance; fear each fickle regal mood change and caprice; despair at the restrictions and inequalities of court and diplomatic etiquette, class and gender; tremble with the naive maidens, pawns in their destiny as obedient and virtuous brood mares; cringe at the barbarity of religious fanaticism. Weir weaves together a massive cast of characters, intricate contextual detail, politics, religion, romance, with consummate skill.

Innocent Traitor is the first of two books set in Tudor times, telling the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey from her birth to her death through, not just her eyes, but those around her.

Lady Jane Grey is the granddaughter of Henry VII, great-niece of Henry VIII; cousin of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Precious Tudor blood runs in her veins. From the moment of her birth, she is in direct line to the throne, and destined for great things. As a growing child she is bright and articulate, extremely well educated and articulate and a devout Protestant. Unwanted daughter of a ruthless mother and a scheming father, she nevertheless becomes a pawn in their dynastic power games. They set her up to be Queen of England, a reign which lasts a mere 9 days from 10th to 19 July 1553.

These are the times when a sovereign could command a whole country to espouse his/her preferred religion. With a change of monarch or a regal whim the people are required to swing from Catholicism to Protestantism … and back again. Protesters are put to death as heretics. Following Lady Jane’s brief reign, Queen Mary demands a return to the Catholic faith. Initially she is keen to show leniency and give people time to change, but  unscrupulous schemers (including Jane’s father) take advantage of her gentleness and plot to overthrown her. She is forced to accept the dangers of giving them a foothold – heresy, revolt, treason – and concludes: ‘I have thought long on this, and prayed for guidance and I have decided to revive the old statute against heresy, and root it out, for it is like a canker that gnaws away at the very vitals of the Church. Those who do not recant will be burned at the stake. If my people will not come to salvation by gentler means, then they must be constrained to it, for the safety of their souls.‘ As the French Ambassador puts it: ‘…a foretaste of hell-fire on Earth wonderfully concentrates the mind, and can bring about the conversion of the most stubborn heart.‘ Gibbets are placed at every street corner to help the people ‘learn that it is no light thing to rebel against their lawful sovereign.‘ And Weir doesn’t spare us the horror of what burning at the stake, beheading, drawing and quartering, mean. The people of the time thronged to watch the spectacle; she drags us into the crowd, forces us to watch with them. But looking on through the eyes of a 16-year-old innocent girl counting down the days to her own beheading, walking to that feared block, kneeling, praying for the last time … it’s powerful, harrowing stuff and definitely not for the faint-hearted.  As a reviewer from The Times says: ‘If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone.’

Faced with the burden of consigning that innocent girl to death, Queen Mary says: ‘I am discovering that it is no easy thing to be a queen, and not for the first time I find myself wishing that I were a simple country goodwife with a houseful of children instead.’  I suspect there are royals closer to our time who might embrace the same sentiments at times!

 

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