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On the Record – The Permanence of History through Fiction #amwriting


“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” – Desmond Tutu

Mr Swiftstory and I have been watching The Secret History of Writing on TV. If you live in England you can watch this programme on ‘catch up’ and it’s well worth a look. One of the things that surprised me was how places like Turkey changed their written language from Arabic letters to Latinate letters overnight, and how this affected their society. Writing meant the unstoppable spread of ideas, and to me as a writer, this is its first appeal.

The Permanence of Speech

But it’s not only the printed word that is permanent. Yesterday I gave a zoom chat along with some other authors and discovered afterwards that it had been posted on Youtube here. It made me realize that now, even the words you speak – far from being transient, are now indelible on the internet for everyone to see/hear. So they have gained a kind of longevity. (But no-one knows for exactly how long). Making a gaffe could be painful, and worse, it could be around for very long time. So now, instead of the written word being recorded, the spoken word is also being made less ephemeral through podcasts, youtube and other types of recording equipment.

Tape Recorder Permanence of Words
Pic from Encyclopedia Britannica

The Urge for Permanence

When we write books, often we are looking to give our words some weight and permanence, and this is why authors love to be published in a paperback or hardback edition. Digital words are only on loan to us, and so the kindle versions of books might be lost to us if no physical copy ever exists. So why do we want our words to be permanent? One obvious answer is, as a salve to the ego. A sort of proof that you were here on Earth and had made a big enough impression to leave a physical object behind.

The Inside Story

Yet its more than that, because books actually come from INSIDE us. They are a form of direct transmission experienced like an intravenous drug from one vein to another. And the fact you have experienced that journey is evidenced by the physical object, the book. This is why we can’t bear to part with books that have meant something to us, even if we never read them again. A novel transports us from the surface to the interior of who we are, and helps us understand why others behave the way they do.

It isn’t just the words but the story they carry. The novel can be a record of lived experience. In fiction the experience is an imagined one. This often makes it more of a reality for the reader than a non-imagined history. When writing A Plague on Mr Pepys, I turned to Daniel Defoe’s book Journal of the Plague Years, even though it was written years after the event and he must have had to re-imagine it all. The re-imagined history was stronger than the bare facts.

Historical fiction seeks to render realities of the past into present lived experience. But will historical fiction be permanent?

Pic by Guillaume Henrotte

Archivists will probably not save historical fiction from the fire or flood. They have to decide which documents contain intrinsic value for future generations and so deserve permanence, and often this decision is based on whether the documents are ‘true’ or ‘first-hand’ accounts, and so there becomes a hierarchy of sources:

“One word in the archival lexicon used repeatedly without reflection is the word permanent. Archivists speak almost instinctively of their collections as being the permanent records of an individual or entity. The materials in archives are separated from the great mass of all the records ever created and are marked for special attention and treatment because they possess what is frequently identified as permanent value. Whether by accident or design—and the distinction is at the heart of the modem idea of appraisal—certain materials are selected by archives for preservation into the indefinite future. They are in that sense permanent.’’

On the Idea of Permanence  – James M O’Toole American Archivist 1989


Our interpretation of the past shifts with every generation, so historical fiction needs to tap the archives anew for new fresh ways of re-presenting the same stories from history and then by making sure those interpretations are as widely available as possible.

In the programme The Secret History of Writing, much was made of the impact of printing on the permanence of ideas.

The Massachusetts Historical Society declared in 1806:

“There is no sure way of preserving historical records and materials, but by multiplying the copies. The art of printing affords a mode of preservation more effectual than Corinthian brass or Egyptian marble.”

So by printing multiple copies, we ensure that our re-presentations of history are never lost, even if archivists don’t save it, and despite any dystopia where there is no wifi, electricity, or wind-up radio.



Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue – The Life of the Earl of Rochester #Stuart

Hat & Flower smallI’m delighted to welcome Susan Cooper-Bridgewater to my blog today to talk about her novel about John Wilmot the second Earl of Rochester – one of the rakes and rogues of Restoration London that I am fascinated by, and wrote about here. Welcome Sue!

 John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester is known for his satirical verses and his wit, how did you get that across in your narrative?

Rochester was certainly famous for his infamous wit, verbal, poetical and satirical, even calling himself ‘The Wildest and Most Fantastical Odd Man Alive’. So writing in the first person so as to represent Rochester’s persona was, in essence, either a brave act or a moment of madness on my part, not to say a risky undertaking for any author to attempt, but scripting the story in this way seemed natural to me from page one. Nevertheless, I had to remind myself frequently to adhere to the era of the 17th century, and hopefully not let slip any 21st century terms which would irk a reader.

After researching the man for many years and with my Notes and Queries article on him back in 2011, three years prior to the writing of ‘Ink’, I felt that I had come to know his character to a certain degree. However, Rochester was, and I believe always will be, a mystifying individual. Many a scholar has tried to fathom him, and although at times you think you know him well; at others he quickly challenges your perceptions.

So, with imagination, I trust that I have given the reader a fair comprehension of this charismatic character, whether he be good or bad and more often than not he was the latter. I intermittently portray him in a more realistic role, as a loving husband, father, and ardent lover, and not just as ‘Rochester the celebrated reprobate’.

Ink wit IntrigueI included certain of his poems to show his prowess as the most brilliant, witty wordsmith. And throughout the story I adopted my own imagined Rochester retorts such as; in the rat incident – ‘Yes my dearest, it’s dead. It has a large gap between its arse and its head.’; in the fantastical Dr. Alexander Bendo affair – ‘As she and her companion entered the crowded street, I smirked. If Loveall could not oblige his wife, then I could all too readily offer my services.’; in his arguments with his mistress, Mrs. Elizabeth Barry – ‘Well there speaks a lady of breeding.’ I said to Beth, ‘If you wish for the finer things in life, then I suggest you whore yourself to His Majesty.’; after a bout of illness he replies to the King – ‘As long as the frailty of my body is surpassed by the sharpness of my wit, so as to divert you and your Court, what more could a man in the throes of death wish but to thus entertain His Gracious Majesty?’ Bowing gracefully, I then added, ‘To be the bringer of pleasure and jollity to the most deserving of enthroned Monarchs is all I could desire.’; To George Etheredge – ‘Best, George? I have long been the best, but now my feeble body is resorting to the worst. Let us not dwell on that damnation,…’ ; after a wager to covertly sleep with a Landlord’s two young daughters – ‘I shall be down shortly, gentlemen.’ I said quietly, and whispered to the one, ‘So have ready the fruits of our wager that you owe, only doubled if you please, sir.’

Apart from taking on the language of the century, you made this a diary. What attracted you to writing this book in diary format?

Well, someone once remarked that ‘Ink ‘seemed to them a cross between The Diary of Samuel Pepys and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I wasn’t sure whether I should take that as a compliment or not! Strangely, that was quite perceptive as I did read Pepys many years ago. Whether or not that influenced me to write the book in that way, I honestly could not say. As a researcher your head is full of dates, with mine usually beginning with 16. I expect with the book being a cradle to the grave story, and beyond, supposedly written by Rochester himself, it was inevitable that it would take the guise partly as a journal.

What were your favourite research books and did you use any real objects or artefacts in your research?

For my research on Rochester, which commenced in 2006, I read many books then in print; ‘Lord Rochester’s Monkey’ by Graham Greene; ‘So Idle a Rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester’ by Jeremy Lamb; ‘The Works of John Earl of Rochester: Containing Poems, on Several Occasions’ printed for Jacob Tonson, 1714;  ‘Enthusiast in Wit’ by Vivian de Sola Pinto and ‘John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Selected Works’, Penguin Classics, and various online out of print material. But my main source of study came from reading the brilliant, and in my opinion the definitive biography of Lord Rochester, ‘A Profane Wit’ by James William Johnson, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Rochester, NY. To compete with such an expert as Johnson in non-fiction would be a tough call, hence my decision to write a historical faction on the subject, as comprehensive novels on Rochester are a rarity.

As for real objects or artefacts, these took the form of visiting many places in the Cotswolds, where Rochester was born and lived a great deal of his life. These included; Ditchley, the place of his birth; the Old Grammar School at Burford, the scene of his early education; Adderbury House and village, where he lived with his wife and family, when not cavorting elsewhere; and High Lodge, in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where he held the office of Ranger for many years, and where sadly was the place of his demise aged 33, which historic event was famously recorded in Gilbert Burnet’s ‘Some passages of the life and death of the right honourable John, Earl of Rochester who died the 26th of July, 1680’. And last but not least the idyllic Cotswold village of Spelsbury, and its wonderful church, the scene of Rochester’s poignant burial.

Spelsbury Church
Spelsbury Church

It’s a massive undertaking. Does Rochester change through your narrative, which spans most of his life, and if so, how?

I am pleased you asked this question. The book does in fact span all of his life, beginning with his birth and ending with his death. With this in mind, I was able to portray the innocent young boy developing into a perceptive youth with a growing awareness of the changes that surrounded him as a boy, such as; his days at Burford when, at the age of 11, he inherited the title of Earl of Rochester in 1658 following his father’s death; His time at Oxford and then on The Grand Tour as a young, impressionable teenager. The narrative for these times is written as a light hearted, happy and courteous Rochester, with hints of a loveable, mischievous rogue showing their signs. But as the shackles of domesticity, illicit liaisons, love of the God Bacchus and the Earl’s insufferable declining health, cast a shadow upon this once promising youth, the narrative grows ever more disturbing to those closest to him and this is reflected in his insincere, capricious comments and amusing but disturbing poems.

But for the reader’s sake, so as not to end in utter despair, there is an Epilogue where one enters a chapter full of twists and turns and mystification.

Thanks for this insight into what was obviously a labour of love. Your obvious enthusiasm for his life and works really shines through, Sue.

Of Ink Wit and Intrigue is published by Troubadour. 17th century fans who want to know more can find out more here