It’s that time again: publication of a new book. Two years’ work – or in this case rather more, if we include the research – launches out into the world and we find out if those outside the charmed and charming circle of our publishers, friends and fellow authors, want to read it enough to pay for it. If, indeed, anyone is reading books at all any more when they could be playing Frontier: Dangerous, binging on an entire series of Vikings, or catching up on Facebook.
For some of us, reading remains inspiring. I’ve lost track of the days this year when I’ve been up into the small hours reading something so utterly entrancing that I’d rather read than sleep – and that’s saying something for an ex veterinary surgeon for whom a night’s unbroken sleep remains one of life’s more wonderful luxuries. But Ben Kane’s new one, Eagles at War saw me through until 02:30, as did Elizabeth Fremantle’s ‘Watch the Lady’, and Oscar de Muriel’s entrancing debut historical crime ‘The Strings of Murder’.
What they all have in common is a deeply grounded sense of place and time: the feeling of being in the Teutoburg forest with Varus’ terrified legions (and isn’t it nice for those of us who fundamentally don’t like Romans to be able to say ‘terrified’ and ‘legions’ in the same sentence?), or the waspish Tudor court, or Edinburgh, in the wake of a Ripper-a-like series of murders. And this is why I still read when I could be playing Frontier, or watching Vikings, or checking up on Facebook. It is also, at least in part, why I still write – because the one thing you can be sure of when reading something that transports you back into another era: the author was similarly transported, only they lived in their time period for days, weeks and months, while as a reader, we stay for only a few hours.
So I’ve spent the past few years at least partly in the fifteenth century. It’s not a time period that I’d previously investigated much. I knew vaguely that the Hundred Years’ War happened, and that the French/Scots won – and as a Scot, that means I was on the winning side, although if we’re discussing Crecy or Agincourt, I can become quite English. I had heard of Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orléans, of course I had, but other than working out that she can’t possibly have been what the history said, I didn’t think much about her. Until I read an article that pointed in the direction of who she could have been. It didn’t say how or why, but it made a new kind of sense and it was enough to open the gates.
I’m not going to preview the book here, but there are two major points. The first is the one already stated. I don’t care how much you believe in an imaginary friend in the sky, or how much you think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that everyone in 1429 believed in the same imaginary friend – it is a logistical impossibility for an untutored peasant girl to get on a warhorse, don full armour and ride into battle.
Let’s not argue that she was nothing more than a banner-carrier there to raise the morale of an army that had been losing for three generations; she fought as a knight – a good knight, in an army where most of the good ones had died on the field of Agincourt – from before she raised the siege of Orléans, and when her king set her under house arrest in the year after she saw his anointing as the true King of France, she escaped and led a band of Piedmontese mercenaries, functioning as an effective mercenary captain. These men were the best in Europe and they travelled specifically to fight with her: men who fight for a living are not in the business of following figureheads: they fight for the leader who will make them the most glory and honour – and money. And it matters that this leader will keep them alive. She was a war leader, and a good one. She had a knowledge of tactics, strategy and basic battlefield behaviour that outmatched the best in France at that time. Certainly she outmatched the man she put on the throne, who was not only a waste of space as a fighter, he was, according to his mother, not the son of the king to whom she was married.
The second point – and one that only became clear when I began writing, is the extent to which otherwise intelligent men and women in the twentyfirst century are wedded to a fantasy that is demonstrably untrue. It’s not only historians who would rather believe three impossible things before breakfast than risk their careers by looking at possible alternatives – though they would (and I am wondering if there’s some kind of atavistic memory of the penalties for heresy that still frightens people into silence?) – it’s the political weight against change in the country for which she fought.
The man who proposed the idea that I have followed, was thrown out of France for the temerity of suggesting that the Saint they all revere was not the fainting, mystic peasant of history. And since then, the political parties of the right have continued to use her as their emblem with no sense of irony. To them, she is the figurehead of perfect womanhood, virginal, young, committed to her country and her imaginary friend in the sky. They see no irony in their selective appreciation of her character when in fact she scandalized just about everyone by riding to war, and was burned at the stake by her own countrymen for the ‘crime’ of wearing men’s clothes.
So, we have a necessary lie that kept a Kingdom whole six centuries ago, and that nobody, I imagine, thought would survive more than a few years – and we have that same lie being used to support political movements in the twenty first century – with sufficient power that anyone challenging it risks having their visa revoked.
Which is, when you think about it, a short step away from the kinds of nefarious deeds that are perfect fodder for a thriller. And which allow the author to explore the past and the present equally. Which has to be one of the world’s better jobs…
Manda Scott began her career as a writer with a series of crime novels set in Scotland, the first of which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. The dark, edgy thriller which followed, No Good Deed, was nominated for an Edgar Award and hailed as one of the most remarkable thrillers of the year in 2001. She is also the author of the bestselling Boudica series, which was translated into over twenty languages, and an acclaimed series of Roman novels.