HistFic Outside the Box

Creative and unconventional doesn’t always describe historical fiction and its subgenres, but today (and until Nov 30) five authors are offering you exactly that.

Click HERE to see the books by:

Bryn Hammond, stories derived both closely and imaginatively from The Secret History of the Mongols.

Julie Bozza, with books set from Rome in the 19th century to the ‘wild west’, with historical characters seen through a different light.

Elles Lohuis, whose stories transport you to 13th century Tibet.

Laury Silvers, offering detective stories set in 10th century Baghdad, exploring not only solving the crime, but the paths of Sufi practitioners.

And mine, a reimagining of what a world that looks a lot like Europe after the decline of Rome might have been.

Great storytelling combined with diverse representations of places, times and peoples – take a look!

Empress & Soldier

A boy of the night-time streets; a girl of libraries and learning.

Druisius, the son of a merchant, is sixteen when an order from his father that he can neither forgive nor forget drives him from home and into the danger and intrigue of the military.

Eudekia, a scholar’s daughter, educated and dutiful, is not meant to be a prince’s bride. In a empire at war, and in a city beset by famine and unrest, she must prove herself worthy of its throne.

A decade after a first, brief meeting, their lives intersect again. When a delegation arrives from the lost West, asking Eudekia for sanctuary for a princess and support for a desperate war, Druisius is assigned to guard them. In the span of a few weeks, a young captain will capture the hearts of both Empress and soldier in very different ways, offering a future neither could have foreseen.

A stand-alone novel that can also serve as a second entry point into the Empire series. No previous knowledge of my fictional world is needed.

Electronic ARCs available after November 15, 2022. Email request to arboretumpress (at) gmail.com

Writing for Effect: A dialogue with Bryn Hammond

This is the first in a blog series, the purpose of which is not only to spotlight an author’s work, but, in a dialogue between myself and the author, to illustrate the variety of ways the techniques of writing can be used, and how styles differ. My first guest is Bryn Hammond, author of Amgalant, historical fiction based on the Secret History of the Mongols, which is is the oldest surviving literary work in the Mongolian language. It was written for the Mongol royal family some time after the 1227 death of Tchingis Khan (Temujin). Bryn has chosen to discuss how she used poetic speech, homely metaphor, and lively conversation in her work.

Bryn

This is going to be about Amgalant, my main work – my life’s work, though I potter with other things.

I call my historical fiction a ‘close reading’ of the Secret History of the Mongols. More than a source, the Secret History is my original, and I want to imitate its features – not merely its content. Early on, I confronted the fact that I had one major difference from most historical fiction: that I am text-based, text-to-text, not trying to re-create history as such but to give a version of a story already told. In search of a model or template, I looked to T.H. White and Malory. White’s Once and Future King riffs on Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, quotes Malory, talks to him and about him. That was me and my text. I was after a deep fidelity, and yet room to be myself – as T.H. White does not shy from idiosyncrasy of style or interpretations that are meaningful to him. My aims often felt like a contradiction, but as my Temujin says once, ‘Contradictions, when they work, generate much heat and light, or else they blow up in your face.’

Topic: poetic speech

In my first excerpt, young Temujin composes a message to his anda – a friend with whom he has exchanged blood, where resides the soul. His anda too has suffered at the hands of the king who has stolen Temujin’s wife. This is Temujin’s request for Jamuqa to join him in a war of rescue.

Simplest leaves least to go wrong, he thought, and he stitched together a few simple verses. Verses, for formal wear. And when underway he found that verses gave him a truer language, truer to his emotion, that was only flagrant in daily felts and furs.

They have cut the liver from my side.
How our fates, my anda, coincide.
Can we right the wrong?
We feel each other’s injury:
Your wound bleeds my blood and mine bleeds yours.
My other self, can I avenge you?
Can you comfort me?

It was his first draft, but he didn’t fiddle.


I feel strongly that I have to use as much poetic speech as does the Secret History, or else I belie the rich oral culture of the Mongols as well as the techniques of my original. The Secret History itself gives much weight and space to the spoken word. I am dialogue-heavy, but only in equivalence to my original. The Secret History marks significance by turning a speech into poetry, but it also reports people’s own poetic speech. People use this particularly when they need to be ceremonious, or courteous, or emphatic, or heartfelt.
Now, Temujin grows into a great ability with words. Here he is young and gauche and not used to formal communications. It is his first go at a message in verse. I had to make him heartfelt, I had to make him sound first-drafty, spontaneous, yet suggest he has a knack for this.
I took the opportunity to explain, through his experience, the value of talking in verse from time to time. Of course, the challenge is not to be off-putting to a readership who doesn’t burst out into verse, who might tend to see verse as stilted, as the opposite of spontaneous and heartfelt. I have to convince readers that the Mongols, in a culture of oral poetry, could slip into poetic speech with facility and no loss of genuine feeling.

Marian

“No loss of genuine feeling.” – or maybe a way to express deeper feelings, or perhaps more subtle ones? The use of ‘flagrant’ in verses gave him a truer language, truer to his emotion, that was only flagrant in daily felts and furs is an interesting choice – I think of ‘flagrant’ as meaning ‘blatant’, or even ‘over-the-top’, so I read this as an indication that verse allows him to convey a more nuanced, truer emotion.

The use of avenge/comfort in juxtaposition – I think Western perceptions of Mongol culture (as a warrior society) would expect ‘avenge’ but not ‘comfort’. The cognitive dissonance for the Western reader here speaks to our own preconceptions, but what does it reveal about Mongol society?

My last comment on this section is that the use of verse here in formal (courteous, ceremonial) context is reminiscent of Shakespeare, where nobles speak in verse but commoners do not. Did you consider that at all?

Bryn

With ‘flagrant’ I wanted to suggest an extravagance of emotion, that might have seemed too much to talk about. Verse gives him permission to feel as much as he feels, and say so. ‘Comfort’ I chose with great care, aware that it subtly undercuts preconceptions about the Mongols. I can say the same of hundreds of other choices I made.
There’s a word, ‘hachi’, important to the story from the start, because a khan before Tchingis, captured and tortured by China, sends a message back to his people in which he asks for ‘hachi’ – a message Tchingis cites as motivation when he strikes at China over thirty years later. If you’ve read a history on the Mongols you’ve probably seen ‘give me my hachi’ translated simply as ‘avenge me’. Now, my interest in revenge as a motive, whether I’m reading or writing, hovers around zero. So I’m going to look closely at that word, and I’m going to give you more shades to its meaning. I have Temujin’s grandfather think about the word when he hears the captured khan’s message:

Hachi means that which is owed, or felt due. It can mean an act of humanity. It can mean vengeance. It meant justice.

The word occurs in the Secret History for both gratitude and revenge. That’s nothing if not juxtaposition. ‘Hachi’ became one of my most beloved words to use – one I leave untranslated, because my reader has grown familiar with its cluster of meanings.
There is a strong tendency to translate things, understand things, believe things as per our preconceptions. When I began to write about the 13th-century Mongols, back in 2003, I had to dismantle the preconceptions in my own head. That wasn’t a short or easy process – it took real vigilance, self-examination, again and again stepping back to question.

On Shakespeare – I am a Shakespeare-head. I am certain he helped teach me how one talks in verse, or how verse can be a cadence in more ordinary speech, when the culture is steeped in it. The noble/commoner split doesn’t map onto the Mongol situation, at least in my telling (everything about the Mongols is contested, everything).

Topic: homely metaphor

My next excerpt is Temujin as Tchingis Khan, a king, fifteen years later. He has been caught listening to what his companions are saying about him.

Laughingly he called across to him, “Ile Ahai, you have your hare by the ears. I listen to learn, to learn what you make of me, for you are one of my principal makers. You make very much, but I shan’t be cowed, neither embarrassed. For my task is a joint labour and whereas Temujin is me, Tchingis is us. Mine is the sack, yours is the milk poured in; Tchingis is stood by the door with the churn in his neck and together we try to beat him a thousand times a day, and whenever we step in or out we lend a hand.”


To help write Temujin’s turn for homely metaphor, I admit I thought of Jesus’ parables in the Bible, that use a humble subject matter. Temujin’s style as a king is humble and common, but a gift for speech is among his greatest assets. So this is one of Temujin’s little parables, based on a homely subject: the process of churning milk into the fermented drink ayrag. It is spoken to his inner circle, and involves them in the Tchingis project, in his kingship.
Metaphor is much used in speech acts recorded by the Secret History – and other Mongol histories. Sometimes, at a critical moment, people have expressed themselves by a metaphor whose context is lost to us, and we can’t make sense of what they say. My challenge is to keep my English-language readers familiar enough with Mongol daily life that I can use those metaphors drawn from humble things, without the clunk of an explanation in (figurative) brackets. To work, this piece of speech has to have the casual references to ayrag-making and -drinking through the few hundred pages before it.

Marian

The concept of the separation of Temujin from Tchingis – the individual vs. the role really struck me (perhaps because I am writing a character in a similar situation.) The ‘homely metaphor’ works really well here to delineate this separation of person from position, and using the Mongol analogy brings it into its context beautifully. Which came first, the references to ayrag-making and -drinking in the previous pages, or the metaphor?

The lost metaphors: I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Darnok, where Picard is trapped on a planet with an alien captain who speaks a metaphorical language (from his own culture) incompatible with the universal translator. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but while (of course) it was easily solved, there are other examples in the Scandinavian sagas and perhaps even in Old English where we don’t understand the metaphors, concepts lost to time and change. It also brings to mind Robert MacFarlane’s book The Lost Words, which came about because of the loss of words related to nature in the 2007 edition of The Oxford Junior Dictionary. How much, do you think, are the lost metaphors due to cultural change separate from the evolution of language?

Bryn

Which came first? Daily life, always. Then it is there when you need it – waiting to be picked up in a metaphor.

I loved that Star Trek episode – particularly because those metaphors were drawn from a body of epic story. And then Picard recites from Gilgamesh to the alien! – my heart.
So yes, I think a lot of the loss is down to lost story, lost anecdotes. Most unfortunately, the only survivals of the oral story-world that Temujin lived in, pre-writing, are snippets extracted for use in other contexts. We know there was a wealth because of the Secret History’s ease of reference, as well as by analogy to the vast and wondrous world of Turkic epic, that began to be recorded from medieval times on because of its proximity to writing cultures.

Topic: lively conversation

Back to young Temujin for my third excerpt. He faces a circle of experienced companions-in-arms, who laugh – or try not to laugh – at Temujin’s naivety over the size of armies mentioned by his patron the khan of Hirai.

Grey-tailed Jungso of Noyojin started to effervesce silently and couldn’t stop. Others, two or three of them, told him, “Jungso. Jungso, don’t be uncouth.”
“I’m not,” he effervesced. Then he claimed, “I’m laughing at the khan of Hirai.”
“Fair enough, too,” declared Jirqoan of Oronar. “It helps when people are precise in military matters. Tumens,” he addressed to Temujin, “you can bet your bottom goat, is here imprecisely used.”
Temujin turned student-like to him. “A tumen doesn’t mean ten thousand?”
Bisugat, next to Jirqoan, answered. “In a fat year, like a cheese. Cheeses shrink in a lean year, but we still call them a cheese.”

It is an often-acknowledged truth that the real hero of the Secret History of the Mongols isn’t Tchingis Khan but his companions. I do a lot of group conversations to convey the input of the group. This means I have cast members who have one line, but I still want them to feel alive, like individuals.
One reason I chose the Secret History of the Mongols is its wonderful exchanges of speech. That suited the writer that I am. In historical fiction, the danger is that speech becomes stiff and stilted, in part because our slang isn’t theirs, in part because we often hear them through paperwork and not everyday speech at all.

Marian

The group conversations convey the richness of the oral culture and the importance of individuals within it.

I loved ‘bet your bottom goat’ because I as an English-speaker of a certain age and time expected ‘bet your bottom dollar’ and that it wasn’t that familiar phrase reminded me very sharply that this was a different time/place/culture. Was that your intent?

The flexibility of the measure of a tumen is superb, so easily understood. Is this your invention, or something shown in the Secret History of the Mongols?

Bryn

I do like to merge English-language slang with Mongol slang. This one was an easy example. I use whatever Mongol slang and figures of speech I can convey sense in, but where I need to amalgamate them with English idiom for explanatory value, I don’t scruple to do that.
Sometimes there’s a clash that’s fun to work with. Milk is a substance for infinite idioms in Mongol, which often come straight across in English. But if Westerners hear ‘he has milk in his veins’, they might well assume that’s an insult. In Mongol idiom, milk is pretty much always positive, and this isn’t said negatively, although it does tie in nicely with the English – and Shakespearean – ‘milk of human kindness’.

Tumens: This explainer was me.

You can find more information on Bryn and her books at

https://amgalant.com/

or purchase her books here

https://payhip.com/b/2ERGv or https://books2read.com/ap/xK6AY8/Bryn-Hammond


Would you like to be part of this series? Authors published or unpublished are welcome – leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

How Has Writing Changed You?

Good art – writing, music, poetry, painting, sculpture – has the power to change those who witness it, whether it’s for a few minutes or forever. As writers, when we go deep into characters, situations, places, times, worlds – they change us too.

I’m inviting writers and readers to contribute a guest post on this subject.

For Writers:

You can address this question however you like – but here are some starting points (none compulsory – just to get you thinking!):

  • Your self-concept – how you see yourself
  • effects on your self-discipline
  • personal satisfaction with your life
  • ways of looking at the world
  • recognizing your strengths & weaknesses

Six hundred words or so, plus links to your sites, a brief bio and a photo if you’d like.

You could also include a few sentences on one piece of art (of any sort) that changed how you saw the world.

For Non-Writers:

If you’re an artist of another sort, please feel free to answer the questions above with reference to your own discipline.

If you’re not an artist, but a reader/listener/viewer – tell us about a piece of art that changed your world – what it was, what about you changed?

E-mail submissions or questions to marianlthorpe at gmail dot com, please! (and thank you.)

Research, Imagination, Empathy

Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In both my next two novels, the work in progress, Empress & Soldier, and the planned last book of my series, Empire’s Passing, death and grief play an important role. In Empress & Soldier deaths transform my central characters in different ways. For both, deaths are the pivots that change the directions of their lives. One grieves in ways he cannot articulate (he may not even realize he is grieving); one is forced by circumstance to pick up the pieces of a shattered life far too soon.

The personal relationships of the characters of my Empire’s Legacy series have always been a metaphor, or a reflection, of the political relationships among their countries, their creation of an unusual ‘found family’ and the depth and expression of love among them echoes their work towards understanding and cooperation among their nations. The loss, in Empire’s Passing,  of two of these central characters, deeply loved, deeply grieved, will also reflect the fragility of the political alliance; both families and political unions can be strengthened or destroyed by catastrophic events.

I am 64 years old. In my life death has, of course, touched mine. But not yet the deep, life-changing grief of losing life partners that my characters will experience. My parents died at 93 and 99: I mourned them, miss them still, but life didn’t change in any significant way. My brother’s too-early death came closer, hit harder, but I wasn’t left to find a way forward alone.

So I turned to others accounts: CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Personal accounts, too: friends, family – not interviews, but remembering what they said or described. Listening, squirreling away words and concepts, as writers do.

I know what my characters do, in response to their losses. The challenge is entwining the feelings, the mental response, the confusion and darkness and irrationality with their actions in a way that is plausible and to some extent explanatory. Grief is universal but intensely personal, and in what I am attempting I am conscious I am not writing from lived experience,  but from research, imagination, and empathy.  Will my characters, who live only on the page and in a world that has never existed, express their pain and grief and love in ways that speak to readers? I will find out in time, I suppose.

Featured Image: Stele of Titus Fuficius in Split Archaeological Museum, Split, Croatia

To Wait Upon the Queen

A guest post from Karen Heenan

Lady, in Waiting, the third novel in my Tudor Court series, takes place during the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I. Its main character, Margaery Preston, is a chamberer, one of many levels of waiting-women in the royal privy chambers.

Image by Jo-B from Pixabay


Unlike a court headed by a king, where all public and private duties were carried out by men, a queen’s attendants, other than guards, were all female. This gave them some degree of power at court, as courtiers, court officials, and ambassadors all vied for attention and influence. To be a woman in Elizabeth’s court required connections: many attendants were related on her Boleyn side, but there were also cousins descending from her father’s sisters, Margaret and Mary.

The women were required to amuse the queen, and so had to be well­-educated, often speaking several languages; skilled in music or dance; and able to keep up with the queen on horseback or at the archery butts.


At the top of the heap was Katherine (“Kat”) Ashley, first lady of the bedchamber and the queen’s former governess. Mistress Ashley kept the privy chamber running smoothly, handling expenses on behalf of the household and keeping an eye on the younger women. But her main concern was always Elizabeth.


The ladies of the bedchamber came next—senior ladies-in-waiting whose duties included dressing and undressing the queen, combing and styling her hair, serving her food, entertaining her with music or conversation, and occasionally sharing her bed. (The queen was a bad sleeper and liked company; it was also a form of security in that she would never be alone). These ladies were generally older, and often married. Most were related to Elizabeth in some way.


Next in line were the maids of honor, who were both entertaining and decorative. Maids were generally well-born girls of fourteen to eighteen years of age. Their placement made it easy to secure good marriages under the queen’s eye.


The other women, including chamberers, were more all-purpose, and did whatever needed doing at any given time, from carrying trays to emptying chamber pots to my character Margaery’s least favorite task, collecting the pins which held the queen’s daily costumes together. (Heads would not roll if Her Majesty stepped on a pin, but it would be an unpleasant time, nonetheless).


With so many women, the court should have been a brilliant display of color, but it was not. As Margaery learns early on from Mistress Ashley, “Her Majesty likes her women to be soberly dressed.”


Elizabeth Tudor did not like to be upstaged, even by those closest to her.

Lady, In Waiting

by Karen Heenan
Book III of The Tudor Court

This unusual story of a marriage made for reasons other than love, between two people both with sometimes-conflicting duties to their sovereign and her advisors.

You can read the first chapter here.

Limits

Did I unfollow you on Twitter? Don’t take it personally. You didn’t offend me.

Like most of us, after 21 months of pandemic, I’m tired. I don’t need to go into the reasons why: we all know them.

Social media is both a blessing and a curse; a place to connect and relax, and a place to be embroiled in controversy. A place where I find readers, and researchers to connect with, and things about archaeology and late-antiquity/early medieval history I didn’t know, and a place to find authors and books to read.

But there is just too much of it. My Home feed isn’t giving me what I’m on Twitter for, primarily. I have to search for the people I want to interact with, whose tweets I want to read, with whom I want to check in. It’s not that you’re not all valuable members of the Writing Community – it’s that I don’t have enough mental energy left to appreciate you all. I need, for a while at least, to focus on history, archaeology, birding and nature, and the writers who write and/or tweet about these subjects. Mostly.

So I am culling who I follow down to fewer than 2000. How many fewer, I don’t know. Already my Home feed is looking better, frustrating me less, giving me the connections I’m looking for.

I probably – almost certainly – have unfollowed people I didn’t mean to. I hope I’ll figure that out over the next few weeks. If you’re upset by what I’m doing, I apologize for my actions inducing those reactions in you – but not for doing what I need to for myself.

Social media’s not the only place I’m pulling back. I’m not planning on doing any serious work on the WIP for a couple more months. Too many responsibilities, some self-imposed, others not, have come together just now. I’ll be culling those, too, as I can.

Let’s hope 2022 is a better year for us all.

Offerings

Midwinter’s eve, and the fire burned high. Food had been shared, and beer, and for once the sheep were unguarded, the fire and songs thought to be enough to dissuade the wolves. We sat with Fél and Kaisa and Aetyl, and beside me Audo and his three dogs. His brindle bitch, who had taken a liking to me, lay with her head on my feet.

Kaisa had instructed me in the expectations for tonight: come newly washed and in clean clothes, and bring something to give to the fire. The more precious, the better. The sun must be honoured, she said.

I had struggled to find something to bring. Audo sat with an ermine skin on his lap, his gift to the sun. My most precious possession was Colm’s history of the Empire, and I certainly wasn’t sacrificing that. Cillian had devised a solution for himself: a poem, written on a small piece of his carefully rationed paper. In the end, I gave an arrow, one of the small ones from the bird bow that had kept us fed on our journey across the mountains.

One by one, people rose to throw their offering to the fire, the men first. When they were finished, the women gave their gifts, and finally, me. Drumbeats had sounded throughout, and now the men began to sing. Audo, on one side of me, growled the words, not keeping time, but Cillian sang true. When did he learn the words? His singing voice was light, but clearly trained: Dagney’s hand there, I thought.

Aivar rose as the song ended. Everyone quieted. The two boys who became men tonight stepped forward. They both looked tired and a little disoriented: I guessed they had fasted for at least a day. There had been rituals earlier for them, attended only by the village men.

In any other year they would now just be presented to the village as men, but I had something to do, first. Aivar, leaning on his stick, called my name. He and I had spoken a few days earlier about what I should do.

“This village has never had a devanī,” he told me, “but others have. I remember what their vēsturni told me. A blessing from you is all I ask. Will you do that?”

I told him what Cillian and I had discussed. “Very good,” he said.

I rose, the two arrows in my hand, walking to where the two boys waited. At a word from Aivar they both knelt. I kissed each boy on his forehead and placed an arrow in each waiting hand. “The huntress guides your hand,” I told them as I did. Aivar had chosen those words.

The devanī should give her blessing to us all for the new year,” Ivor shouted, as I turned to leave. Other voices joined his. I thought I heard Gret’s among them. Aivar raised his hand.

“We…” He began to cough, a deep, racking cough. He tried again. “We do not ask for what we do not need,” he rasped. “Our men hunt well. If we need the devanī to give luck to a hunt, she will give it at the time. Do not waste the gift.”

Aivar’s edicts could not be disputed. Ivor and his friends quieted. The drumbeats began again, and this time women began to sing, and a few to dance. More beer made the rounds, Cillian, as usual, refusing. In the northern sky, green lights flickered; shadows rose and fell in the firelight. Fél wrapped a fur around himself and Kaisa, holding her against him. “Keep Lena warm,” he told Cillian, “or she’ll have to cuddle Audo, or his dog.” I glanced at Cillian. We had never touched in public.

“Then I better,” he said. I moved close, tucking the fur around us, leaning into him. We listened to the drums.

Ivor walked by, dressed only in a light tunic, spurning the cold. The empty mug in his hand told me what he searched for. He gave us a scornful look. “Devanī,” he said. “Why waste yourself on this man?” One of Audo’s dogs snarled. “Incapable vēsturni and idiots,” Ivor spat. “I will show you what a real man is one day.” He kept walking.

“Be careful of him, Lena,” Fél warned.

“I am,” I assured him. The drumbeats continued, faster; the dancing grew wilder. Under the fur, Cillian’s hand began a gentle caress.

“Shall we go to our bed?” he murmured.

We rose. Fél looked up. “Sleep well,” he said, “when you finally remember to sleep, that is.” Kaisa laughed. “Can we send Aetyl to sleep with her cousins?” I heard him say to her, as we left.

In our hut the fire had burned to coals. Cillian added wood. “Do you need to make tea?”

“I did, earlier.” My mouth was dry. I dropped the fur on the bed. We regarded each other across the space, in the light of the newly blazing fire. “It is a new year,” I said softly. “Don’t you have a fancy to fulfill?”

He crossed the room to me, beginning to smile; not his usual, quickly-gone smile, but one slow and genuine, lighting his whole face. My breath caught. He looks so much younger, I thought, and so beautiful. I saw tenderness in this smile, and vulnerability. He took me in his arms. I raised a hand to his face.

“This is something I haven’t seen before,” I murmured. “Why have you kept such a beautiful smile hidden?”

He turned his head to kiss my fingers. “My one legacy from my mother, I am told,” he said. “As to why, it is just reticence, Lena, like much else about me, long habit.” He bent to kiss me, a long, exploratory kiss. “Perhaps I will have more reason to let it show after tonight.”

I didn’t need to damp down desire now. My hands, low on his back, found his skin. I pulled him closer. Part of my mind noted the ridges of a scar under my fingers, but it wasn’t important. Nothing was, except his lips on mine and his hands, under my tunic now, making me gasp.

“You are very sure?” he asked, his voice low and barely controlled. “Tell me now, if you are not.”

“Yes.” I fought to speak. “Are you?”

“I am.” His mouth came down again, demanding now, insistent. How long has it been for him? I wondered, before I gave myself up to my need, and his. He hesitated once, just for a moment, and then there were only lips and hands and cresting pleasure, and unexpectedly, tears that were not mine.

(c) 2018 Marian L Thorpe

Image: geralt / 23743 images

How Accurate is that Historical Drama?

The Lost Prince
2003
BBC/WGBH biopic of Prince John.

Even for those people with an interest in the British royal family, Prince John is a shadowy figure. Not the ‘evil’ brother of Richard the Lionheart, whose barons made him sign the Magna Carta in 1215, but the youngest child of King George V and Queen Mary.

John was born in 1905 at York Cottage on the royal family’s private Sandringham estate, in west Norfolk, and here too he spent much of his early childhood, until his father succeeded to the throne in 1910. His early childhood was uneventful, but by age four he was described as ‘painfully slow’ by Queen Mary’s biographer Anne Edwards. Later, Queen Mary would write to a friend, saying John ‘a great anxiety to us for many years, ever since he was four years old.’

A seizure some point in his fifth year led to a diagnosis of epilepsy, but other behaviours, especially a repetition of actions and an inability to learn from consequences have led to a posthumous diagnosis of autism. As a result, and typical of the times and social class, John was removed from the public eye, to live quietly with his governess Lalla at Wood Farm (then Marsh Farm), one of the farms on the Sandringham estate.

Wood Farm (the red arrow in the map below) is isolated, even by Norfolk standards. At the end of a long private track which itself runs off the public lane that circles the hamlet of Wolferton, it is five kilometers away from Sandringham House itself. Overlooking flat farmland out to The Wash, and on private land without footpaths, it would have been indeed a quiet, private life. Although, in the years John lived there, the train from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton ran very close to Wood Farm, with a station at Wolferton for the royal family. Perhaps it provided some excitement.

But quiet and private did not mean neglected or forgotten, even as his seizures worsened. Along with his nanny, local children were chosen to play with John, and among those children was my father’s first cousin Mary. Her father was an estate employee, as was his father (my great-grandfather). Two years younger than John, she remembered this vividly in the last years of her life; it was one of the stories she loved to tell us when we visited her in the 1990s. I spoke to the last surviving member of that generation of cousins, Anne, last week; she’s in her 101st year, with a memory clearer than mine. I had been under the impression that the estate children were taken out to Wood Farm for their ‘playdates’ with the prince, but that wasn’t the whole story. John was also brought to the village, and Anne told me of her grandmother’s exasperation after Mary and the prince had made themselves horribly muddy jumping in the stream of water that ran down the side of the lane my great-grandparents’ house stands on.

John died in 1919 at Wood Farm. My cousin Mary died in 2001, before The Lost Prince was made. I would have loved to have known her reaction to it. Like me, she would have to have first get past the landscape: it was filmed in Buckinghamshire, which does NOT look like the flat coastal landscape of west Norfolk; nor did the house they used bear much resemblance to Wood Farm. But those details aside, and allowing for dramatic flourishes and emphases, my overall reaction was one of a reasonably fair portrayal of a child whose neurology did not allow him to adapt to the demands and changes of the early twentieth century, ones that also nearly destroyed the royal family. An allegory as much as a biography, perhaps.