At the very outset let me admit that I am a fan of historical fiction – a genre that weaves fictional accounts around historical events, and characters. ‘I, Claudius’ by Robert Graves, ‘Desiree’ by Annemarie Selinko were among my early favorites – but the vast majority of the historical fiction I read was based from events in English history. This was probably because my early access to books was either my father’s collection or the Delhi British Council Library (then housed up the spiral stairs of AIFACS on Rafi Marg). There were the novels on the crusades by Arthur Conan Doyle ( he wrote stuff besides the Sherlock Holmes novels), about the court of King Arthur and Merlin by Mary Stewart, novels of Walter Scoot (yes, I read them unabridged) etc… I am not sure if these books were the motivation for reading all the volumes of Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking people’ but with a better overview of the history, I savored these stories around courts and intrigues, prime ministers and priests and the politics of religion and conquest. There were the many novels around Henry VIII and his wives, of Richard II and Cromwell, of the Napoleanic wars and the Regency period (including the light romances of Georgette Heyer) and of course Victorian England and the exploits of the Raj.
It is good for me that over the last 5 decades the genre has only thrived, as seen by the double Booker for Hillary Mantel for her novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the bodies” based on the life of Cromwell and his role in the ascent of Anne Boleyn and the demise of the Catholic church, followed by her descent and execution. And after a gap of almost 5 decades, I recently renewed my British Council membership. And there in my random selection from the Fiction section I picked up “The poison maid” by an author I had never heard of, Paul Doherty. It turns out that he is a prolific writer, and has published almost 100 books. Many of them are historical thrillers, as is the “The poison Lady”. This is set in an earlier England, in 1308 just after Edward II became King. It is full of court intrigue and murders, in the times when the Catholic church and the French Kings were trying to dominate England, through marriages, treaties and manipulative diplomacy. It is an easy read, the suspense is not very suspenseful and although I learn that this is the second book in a three book series, I was left with no urgent desire to find the other two.
In fact, as I read the book, what drew my interest more than the plot was the detailed description of the life on the London streets, the hustle bustle, the strays, the inns and hostelries……’hawkers, hucksters, chapman, free fruiterers and pedlars sold tarts, fresh eels, meat pies of every description, mousetraps, birdcages, shoehorns and lanterns. Tipplers with their upturned casks offered stoups of beer to passers-by. Water-beareres staggered along with ladles and buckets of ‘pure spring water’. Stalls in crooked lanes, built for the wheelbarrows rather than carts, forced the crowds to pause’. The description would well fit equally well today for the old cities of Varanasi, Meerut, Old Delhi – except for the nature of the wares on sale!!
The description of the food served at court (honey coated dates, juschelles stuffed with eggs and herbs, boiled and spiced veal, oat-stuffed pike, white broth with almonds, leg of mutton in lemons) and in the eateries (beef broth with freshly baked maslin bread, venison stewed in ginger, chicken boiled and stuffed with grapes) was also interesting. It almost sounds inviting – something not connected with English food today. Are these descriptions authentic? Was trade brisk enough to take dates and almonds to UK? and when was all this lost – with the loss of the French connection?
I am sure that there is a lot of documentation available of the times and with enough research the picture painted maybe authentic. But how do we know? As readers, do we accept that the author’s research is authentic or does artistic liberty give the right to sketch it as the author envisages it? But in spite of these thoughts, the genre does not pall – and while I will take the descriptions with a generous dose of salt, the stories will continue to bring to life the romance of times gone by.