It's books and reading that incline a child toward writing, they say, and for me, at least, it's true.Though I was an outdoors active kid during the day, in the evenings I was a total book worm. I pretty much read everything I could get my hands on, but since this is a historical blog, I thought I'd share a few of the fabulous historical writers I grew up with.
The very first historical I recall was a little book called Guy of Warwick (and yes, I suspect I was the one who colored in those letters on the cover.) It was special because I got it when we were away from home and I had nothing to read. It was about a brave knight (Guy) who committed great acts of bravery (usually by wiping out the last of some endangered species) in order to win the heart of the cold Lady Phyllis. I was a picky romance reader even at eight, for I thought Guy deserved someone a whole lot nicer than Phyllis. But I still read it over and over.
Rosemary Sutcliff was the next historical writer I remember reading as a child. She swept me away into Roman Britain and to this day I love The Eagle of the Ninth (a story of Roman Britain and a young man's quest to retrieve the lost Eagle of his Father's Legion, the Ninth)
But the writer who truly thrilled and haunted me with his historical settings was a man called Henry Treece.
His books were called 'children's books' and certainly, in the libraries where I found them, they were shelved in the children's section, but they were bold, dark, confronting, fascinating books. They took me to places and times I'd never known, and brought Romans, Britons, bronze age tribesmen, Vikings, Ancient Greeks and more to life for me.
Rereading them, I can't believe they were called children's books. He didn't hold back, didn't soften or sanitize his books for the sake of young readers —there was blood sacrifice, sex, politics, and violence, all taken completely in context — not written to shock, just to evoke the times—he was a schoolmaster and a passionate historian. And evoke the times they surely did.
Here's a piece I read when I was 11 or 12 and never forgot. It's from The Dark Island — when Romans first come to pagan Britain. I'd visited Stonehenge some years before, when we lived in Scotland and were tourists every weekend, but it was this book—this scene— that truly brought the place to life for me.
The tribes have gathered and some Romans are there as guests of the chiefs. A group of boys —chieftains' sons—have sneaked up to watch a forbidden ceremony.
Suddenly an old woman began to call out and whine, "O King, it is my son on the stone before you. He did no evil. He loved the gods. Why must you take him, lord?"
The boys heard her start to cry and then scream; then she was silent and Beddyr looked with his wide black eyes at a gaunt soldier he knew and said, "What has happened, Pedair? Why is the old woman crying , then?"
The soldier, his eyes still fixed on the blood-stone, said, "It is nothing, Prince, only an old cockle woman selling her wares."
And before the boy could ask again, a group of black-haired Picts began the long, low, rhythmic moaning that is the prelude to their death-dances and a party of soldiers had to break ranks to quieten them down.
So the boys got onto their knees and tried to look between the legs of the chiefs, but they could see little.
"He's got red hair," whispered Morag excitedly.
"They always have," said his brother.
Then they shrank back, blinded for a moment by the sun's first long ray that struck inch by inch along the eastern avenue. And when they could see again, Caradoc said to his friend Gwyndoc, "I can see Father's feet. He's dressed like a druid."
"What's he doing?"
"He's pushing a stick into the red-haired one! No, it isn't a stick, it's a mistletoe stake! He's having to push very hard, the red one is wriggling so much!"
Then they became aware that they were enveloped by a great silence, that no-one, the length or the breadth of the plain, was speaking or moving, and they fell silent, too. And a strange sound came to their ears; it was quite like a hare when you tried to wring its neck and couldn't quite. Then there was sobbing and gurgling, and all over the plain people were gasping and moving and talking again.
[Henry Treece, The Dark Island]
Powerful stuff, eh? No wonder I devoured his books, even though I'm sure they gave me nightmares at times.
But shortly after I'd worked my way through all of Henry Treece, I discovered an author who affected me even more powerfully, though in a very different way. I wasn't haunted by her, her books weren't frighteningly real — they were pure, delicious fun!
Of course, I'm talking about Georgette Heyer. I borrowed These Old Shades from the adult section of the library on a dare. My friend Merryn and I were sure I'd be told off for such impudence, but to our amazement the librarian didn't turn a hair. We never looked back.
These Old Shades plunged me into a world of Georgian fabulousness, where men wore red high heels and jewels and powder, and yet were still thrillingly masculine—and a little bit sinister. I was hooked. I practically inhaled all the Heyers in the library, giggling madly at Pel and Pom in The Convenient Marriage, and at Ferdy and his Nemesis in Friday's Child, loving the gallantry of The Mountain as he guarded his Prudence's sleep… and swooning at Damerel and his rose petal scattering habits… and I guess that stamped me as a romance reader forever more.
We moved to the city when I was fifteen, and I found a wonderful old second hand store, Berry's Antiques, that had tables full of books for 20 cents. I spent all my pocket money on those books and I gathered an almost complete collection of Heyers. I have them still, and reread them often; my favorite comfort reads.
I'm sure, if I hadn't read and fallen in love with Heyer's books and Heyer's world, I wouldn't be a romance writer today. Who knows, perhaps I might be writing dark historical novels…
What about you? What books did you love as a child? Were there books that confronted, and maybe haunted you? What were your first, beloved historicals?