I have just finished the first draft of my new novel, the 3rd in the trilogy about life in Georgian London told through the eyes of characters and their personal stories. It is now time for the first rewrite. As a preview however I am reproducing here the prologue to the novel, where the narrator outlines the difficulty of understanding our ancestors.
History is my passion. No first things first; my name is James Postlethwaite and I will be your narrator through this story and I am an historian - or is it - I am a historian; I never know. Let's get something out of the way to start with; yes I know, Postlethwaite is a bloody stupid name but it doesn't sound so bad in Rochdale where I come from where you can find Satterthwaites, Utterthwaites Olthwaites and other such names. Thwaite surnames by the way originate from an old Viking word for clearing, but then that’s just me being an historian again (or is a historian).
There's something you need to know about history. When you think you understand it, you probably don't. Look at it this way; if I try to explain when I live I can say I live in the present, or I could say I live in the now. If I wish to give this a more precise explanation I could say that I live in 1992, 2012 or 2022. But that in itself creates a problem in that the present immediately becomes the past. The now is transitory whereas the past is, well, is always the past.
But that in itself is a deception. If I try to tell anybody in the present, a story about the present, then although they may have a different view to me they still have, in the main, the same points of reference as I have. If they live in my country they will have gone through the same education process and watched the same television programmes, read the same newspapers.
To look back into history however you have to look back at a point in time or multiple points in time and in every one of these points the people will have a totally different set of references. These long dead people may be of the same nationality as me, or spoken the same language but in most other areas their reference points are different. These people did not behave like I behave, did not think as I think; they are not the same people. To understand them we have to be sensitive to the ripples that come down to us through times, look into the shadows of their stories.
Yet occasionally we get a real glimpse into these people's lives, how they lived, how they thought, the emotions that drove them; ordinary people speaking in their own words from across the centuries. Ok; let's start our story; I will narrate but I will let the two main characters speak for themselves.
The fictional Professor James Postlethwaite is keen that his readers do not think of these long dead characters as modern people - they are far from that. Perhaps I can also share the following piece of research by an actual real life historian that illustrates what he is trying to say.
Several years ago I was doing some research and looking at all the manorial document of one particular Hall ( took me years to persuade them to let me see the private records and papers) and I found a diary written by the lady of the house ( a Catholic and a family of high nobility at this time) which basically condemned a female servant for 'tempting' her brother on his visit to the Hall for which she was 'put out'....on further research with other ( external documents) I found her in the Workhouse 'with child'....at the age of 14 years.............something tells me that no 14 year old had controlled a 45 year old man...........on this childs baptism the vicar had wrote some very disturbing , sexist ( in today's standards) and very condemning notes in the parish book about this single mother with bastard child...harsh times, harsh words and the story was very sad....I later found the girls family was 'put out' of their home by the Hall.....so the whole family suffered.
So the lecherous brother defiles a fourteen-year-old servant, but it's the servant that suffers being condemned to the workhouse with her baby, and her family 'put out' of their tied home. If the home was tied the father also probably an estate worker and lost his job so the family would have faced starvation. Even more startling is that the local community in the guise of the vicar sees the fourteen year-old as the immoral one, the undeserving poor that does not deserve their sympathy. The words of the traditional song come to mind:
It’s the same the whole world over,
It’s the poor what gets the pain,
It’s the rich what gets the pleasure,
Aint it all a bleedin' shame.