What Every Historical Fiction Writer Dreams About

Review of ‘A Terrible Tomboy’ by Angela Brazil (sort of).  ‘A Terrible Tomboy’ is available here by the way.

What we historical fiction writers dream about are sources informing us of exactly what we need to know in order to write our story.  Mostly, we don’t lack sources on major political events, because these are easy to find, but details of everyday life, precise details synchronised very exactly in time, without which our novel feels unrealistic and unconvincing, and plots and characters fall apart.  These things are particularly hard to dig up – sometimes literally, in the archeological sense.  What we know about how people lived in centuries long ago is largely down to chance.  For example, much of our knowledge about how Romans lived their lives derives from what was buried under molten lava when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

I am currently preparing to write a school story, of the traditional sort, based at a girls boarding school in the first half of the twentieth century.  How wonderful it is, therefore, to find a book like ‘A Terrible Tomboy’, which is not a novel at all, but more a succession of events in the life of a pre-teen girl living in genteel poverty on the English-Welsh borders in the 1900s.  (I have already reviewed author Angela Brazil’s autobiography.)   This was Angela’s first publication and, although she later became known as the first writer of school stories for girls, this was not one of them.  Prefixing every chapter with a highbrow literary quotation, Angela describes everything as she sees it, the landscape and what grows on it, how people ran their households, how schools were run, what they wore, what tools they used and how, attitudes and opinions, what people enjoyed and valued.  Of course, primary sources like these can be subjective and need to be balanced against others, but Angela never tries to deceive, embellish or even gloss.  She writes with that mixture of innocence and confidence redolent of someone living in the Britain during the time of the British Empire, on which the sun would never set – obviously.

It was a world in which twelve year olds were generally at peace with their world and their likely role within it.  Peggy Vaughan (the terrible tomboy in question) and her brother Bobby, without the distractions of electronic media, not even television or radio, liked nothing better than their pets and to play outside, spotting wild flowers, and also wild birds and insects… which they would then capture and stick on a card.  The underlying point of view was that the natural world was wonderful and exciting, but theirs for the taking.  Although The Abbey, where they lived, was falling down around them and their poor father was struggling financially, being saddled with debts and mortgages incurred by profligate ancestors, they were Vaughans and better than those around them – better, however, in the sense of having higher moral standards.   These are attitudes which we in the twenty-first century, not only do not share, but regard as repugnant, and we find it difficult to write characters who think this way.  Nevertheless, in my opinion, we must, because that’s how it was.   What I cannot stand is right-on, politically correct modern opinions emanating from the mouths of people, albeit fictitious people, living many decades or centuries earlier.  The worst example ever was in a Children’s BBC programme I watched in the 1990s which included a girl knight.

Notwithstanding all these things – or maybe because of them – ‘A Terrible Tomboy’ is a wonderful resource for writers of historical fiction.  I have often considered setting up a resource-bank, of things I have experienced, things I have heard my parents talk about, and other people I have met, and I would hope to gain insights from other people’s experiences as I needed them for my writing.  To give an example, everyone knows that GIs billeted in England during World War 2 caused havoc amongst local British girls, but my mother used to tell me about how shy black American soldiers were at dances and that, if she danced with one, all his black friends would line up to ask to dance with them.   It’s these sorts of details that can make a historical piece real.  I thought about writing my next post about British elections, setting down everything I observed from voting myself, watching election results and being a poll clerk and presiding officer.

Another thing I have learned about researching historical topics is the value of images.  A picture truly can tell a thousand words.  Even when browsing for an image to go with this blog, I found a wonderful resource on early twentieth century schoolgirls.

Back to ‘A Terrible Tomboy’, if you wish to consider it as literature, it has no real storyline and the one bit of plot at the end is implausible, but, given the tone of the rest of the book, very predictable.   Enid Blyton, many decades on, wrote the same sort of stories, with defined characters and plots that worked.



7 thoughts on “What Every Historical Fiction Writer Dreams About

  1. julielees

    I agree with you entirely. If historical literature is to be authentic it has to be representative of the period, even if that offends modern day sensibilities, otherwise we are at risk of losing the essence of the age. I used to love reading Enid Blyton books as a child: she instilled in me a passion for reading. Unfortunately, her work is seen as un-PC these days, and the books that have survived have been doctored to death.


  2. FictionFan

    It’s a tricky one. Like julielees I grew up with Enid Blyton and she didn’t turn me into a sexist racist, as far as I know. But on the other hand I can’t read books that are overtly racist now even knowing that they were representative of the time they were written in. But I agree entirely that I hate contemporary viewpoints being spouted by characters in historical novels. Definitely tricky!


  3. charliebritten Post author

    Aah, but… Julie and FictionFan… I have copies of the undoctored versions of Mallory Towers and St Clares! Enid Blyton is definitely several levels above Angela Brazil imo.


  4. memoirsofahusk

    I desperately wanted to be with the Twins at St Clare’s. And as for The Naughtiest Girl in the School … EB is often (mis)underestimated, rather like Agatha Christie 😉


  5. charliebritten Post author

    EB is very much under-estimated. The literary snobs can’t stand her writing because children actually enjoy her stories. As a teenager, I used to believe that the difference between a ‘classic’ and a ‘non-classic’ was whether a book was enjoyable or not. I’ll leave you to work out which was which in my mind.


  6. Patsy

    It’s amazing how many historical romances have women who feel held back by things which to them would have seemed entirely normal. If they really wanted to get jobs, help the poor and swap crinolines for trousers they wouldn’t spend all their time in carriages and bonnets looking for titled husbands, would they?


  7. charliebritten Post author

    No, Patsy, they wouldn’t. This is another angle on getting into the mindset of the age you are writing about.



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