Babbitt, history, Levellers, Lucey, new books, politics, ponderations, present, writing

In Praise of the Plain Russet-Coated Captain (or, Why Historical Fiction Needs Anti-Heroes)

 I was reading a review of a Bernard Cornwell novel this morning and once again I am inspired to set fingers to keyboard (around the cat, who is demanding cuddles with menaces)

Once again, you see, I cannot do the dashing white knight on his trusty steed thing.
Sharpe. Let’s take Sharpe. (Please, someone, let’s take Sharpe.)
You know when you open a certain genre of book, or a book by a certain author, pretty much to the last semi-colon what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an infallible hero, who may be wrong-footed but never fail. He will come good in the end – he will get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the entire planet. Laughing in the face of doom, and clearing tall buildings with one bound.
And, you know, that’s kind of nice. It’s all soft and comforting and cosy. No nasty surprises.
But history is full of nasty surprises.
After the battle of Naseby, the godly Army of Parliament hunted down and massacred over a hundred Royalist camp followers for the unpardonable sin of speaking their own native Welsh language, and therefore being suspected of being either whores, witches, or dangerous Irishwomen.
After the siege of Bolton, the Royalists massacred anything between eighty and two thousand people, both soldiers and inhabitants including women, making it reputedly the worst massacre on English soil.
That’s not nice stuff. On either side. 
My Babbitt is anything but indestructible. He spends most of the books wrong-footed, miserable, irritated, wishing he was anywhere else but tagging on the back of the Army of Parliament. Periodically taking a pasting and then, being middle-aged, hurting. Not being irresistible to the fairer sex, even if he wanted to be. Missing his wife and wanting his supper, mostly, and wondering when he’s next going to get paid. Ans how he’s going to manage to run a troop till Parliament gets round to paying them.
A superhero, he is not. (He had a cape when he was seventeen, bought for the express purpose of impressing his first wife, but he never got the trick of not catching his sword hilt in its swirliness and Margriete told him he looked a tit in it, so he never really took to cape-wearing after that.)
Hollie’s a decent man, fighting a war he doesn’t want for a cause that’s shafted him fairly thoroughly, and committed to it for the sake of six troop of horse who expect him to stand their corner because he’s the only bugger stupid enough to open his big mouth in company.
Luce is a ditherer, a dreamer and a romantic. Luce is a nice boy who ought not to be let out of the house without directions. (Luce is not, bless him, officer material. But you work with what you got.)
Russell – well, Russell’s a bipolar functioning alcoholic with anger management issues, and certainly not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.
The Army of Parliament had a bad habit of not winning glorious victories. Powick Bridge – lash-up. Edgehill – no-score draw. Naseby – not the finest moment in Parliamentarian history, gentlemen. No glittering triumphs. No moral high ground.
No heroes. No villains.
Ordinary men – and women – on both sides, people of honour and principle, as well as ruffians and rogues: people fighting to defend their freedom of conscience, or just to stay alive from one week to the next. People not too dissimilar to me and you, standing up for what they thought was fair. A good cause, fought by good men, badly.
Now I ask you. Sharpe and his like – men of honour, or principle? Sexy, maybe, if you like that kind of thing. Love ’em and leave ’em, almost certainly. Daring and gallant and swashbuckling, probably.
Believable – maybe not.
Surprising, amusing, appealing, poignant, gripping – almost certainly not.
So, meh. More people read the adventures of Sharpe et al, knowing what they’re getting, than read the misadventures of one plain russet-coated captain of horse circa 1643, where believe me, they do not.
Be nice if millions of people read the Babbitt books. I’d like it. (He’d like it, the smart-mouthed Lancashire bugger. Be thrilled to bits, he would. In a sort of not-admitting it kind of way.) But…. Would I rather write books that make people laugh out loud on public transport, and three chapters later make them cry?
Where people tell me off because it can’t end like that?
(Google Burford, 1649, and work it out.)
Ah, hell, yeah, I would. Because Hollie Babbitt is real. He’s all the lads in 17th century history whose names never made it into the books, the ones that did their duty and stood their ground, that weren’t glamorous or poetic or noble or well-connected. He is what he is and God willing, the lad will remain a joy and a sweary, scruffy, appealing maverick from now until the end of the Civil Wars.

As you were, gentlemen.

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