Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Sunne in Splendour
Sharon Kay Penman, 1982

They say there is no creature in nature, however seemingly malign, which doesn't have a benign impact somewhere (the ichneumon wasp would seem to come close). Even Ken Follett, whose truly appalling novel World Without End befouled my mind for a fortnight, can been seen to have a positive effect; when I was reading some reviews to see if anyone else thought it as bad as I did, I came across a couple of approbatory references to Sharon Kay Penman, along the lines of "this is how it should be done".

So it was that I tracked down her best-known work, The Sunne in Splendour, a vast saga covering the Wars of the Roses from 1459 to the Battle of Bosworth a quarter of a century later. Although it deploys, very skilfully, multiple viewpoints, it is really the story of Richard, Duke of Gloucester--later Richard III. Penman takes the increasingly fashionable view that Richard's reputation was the result of propaganda designed to obscure the Tudors' tenuous right to the throne, and instead presents him in a highly positive (but still nuanced) light.

All but one of the main characters are drawn from history, so anyone familiar with the period or Shakespeare's history plays will have their own sense of who they are - which can only make Penman's task more difficult, but they are all realised with crispness, freshness and vigour: Edward IV, a man for a crisis but rudderless without one; Elizabeth Woodville, his calculating and ambitious parvenu Queen; John Neville, destroyed by his split loyalties; his brother Richard, 'the Kingmaker', at once charming, manipulative and egostistical. Penman is accomplished in drawing subtle characters, and while she is clearly sympathetic to the Yorkist cause, the Lancastrians are not uniformly reviled.

I'm not giving anything away in saying there is no happy ending, and Penman is at her best when she touches on grief and loss. This is a book with real emotional power, and doesn't attempt to sugar-coat just how grim the period really was.

The book is not faultless: the extended courtship between Richard and Anne Neville is far too long, and the dialogue occasionally jars in its archaism (although at least the reader never cringes at excess modernity). Taken as a whole, though, it's magnificent, capturing the otherness of the 15th century in a world peopled with rich and believable characters. This is just about as good as historical fiction gets.

How will it influence me?

The first influence, strangely, is a negative one. Any thoughts I might have had of writing a Shakespearan wide-screen epic on the Wars of Roses are effectively scuppered, since The Sunne in Splendour does it so well. While I remain keen to tackle the Wars of the Roses, I'll need to find a different approach.

Nonetheless The Sunne in Splendour does show that the period lends itself to the epic tale. In that sense, it is more inspiration than encouragement.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Historical fiction is set in the past (doh!), so don't try to modernise the diction or the mindset
  • You can write a successful historical novel using primarily historical figures
  • Just because Shakespeare's already done it doesn't mean you can't
  • There are better choices than the Tudors for your historical novel
  • You don't have to give 'em a happy ending
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Alis said...

I love Sharon Penman's books - she wrote a couple about the Welsh royal house of Llewelyn Fawr as well - Here be Dragons and The Reckoning - fabulous stuff. I agree with you Tim, this is how it should be done and though I'm not really interested in famous people in my fiction, I am full of admiration for SKP.

Tim Stretton said...

I'm keen to read these too. Penman is a real find!