Thinking Big


Rebellion, the sequel of Succession is out this week. This has led me to consider what I might say about it, if asked. Obviously I might not be asked. but this, in any case, is what I would say…

The fiction that has most impressed me in the past has had a certain quality that I think of as epic.

Epic: heroic or grand in scale or character, monumental, relating to the history of a nation.

Jeremy Hawthorn viewed the epic as opposite to the novel in terms of characterisation and presentation of society. However, novels as diverse as War and Peace and the Old Man and the Sea, A Scots Quair, As I Lay Dying, Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot and Joyce’s novella, The Dead, all seem to me to have an epic quality.

My own definition, therefore, would be something like this: literature that portrays humanity in relation to larger forces; history, nature, mortality, God.

We don’t choose what we respond to in fiction, but it does leave an indelible impression. I’ve spent my life as a writer pursuing this elusive ideal. When I wrote about the tower block estates in my first novel, I was writing about the destructive impact of certain policies on a whole class of people, but also about passing of an era, which seemed to me (if not to anyone else) to be epic. Even when I wrote my first books for children, Frank the hamster was my epic hero; fighting for the liberation of his species. Ultimately the hamsters of Bright St don’t make it back to Syria, but they do set up an anarcho-syndicalist commune in The Wild (about 15 metres from their owners’ homes), although Puffin wouldn’t put that on the back cover!

It’s hard to say why I chose to write about the Wars of the Roses in my recent novels. Subject matter, they say, picks you. If asked at different stages of the writing process, I would have said different things: that I was fascinated by Margaret Beaufort, or by the roles of women in these wars or by certain mother-son relationships; and all of this would be true. If I had to analyse now what has kept me so absorbed for the past eight and a half years however, I would say this:

The change in English society from medieval feudalism to the early modern era.

The question of faith, and the changing concept of God.

What impact would it have on your faith if all your children were killed? If you were the Duchess of York, for instance -Cecily Neville had thirteen children, but only two of them outlived her. Two became king, but one of these had his brother executed. The other has been represented in history as usurping the throne and murdering his two nephews, her grandsons.

Or Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, who in one year lost her husband and all her sons.

Or Margaret of Anjou, who in one week, lost her husband, her only son and the nation.

Or Margaret Beaufort, whose only son was taken from her in infancy and she spent 28 years trying to get him back.

Two of these women were famously religious and three became reclusive. It was an era in which many women chose to become actual recluses –  the figure of the anchoress being an extreme example of this. Medieval England was a deeply religious society, of course, but even so I’m fascinated by the question of what effect their suffering would have on their belief.

The medieval setting allows me to ask this question – contemporary England is less obviously religious, or less orthodox and more varied at least. But it seems to me that in humanity there is this question of belief, in gods, ideals or philosophy, so even in this contemporary world it’s illuminating to examine it.

Also it seems to me that when it comes to portraying the lives of women it’s not possible to make such a stark distinction between the epic and the novel. These four women all had a profound effect on English history and the nation; a status worthy of the epic, but only the novel can venture into the reclusive aspect of their lives; the intimacy of their sorrow and the question of belief.

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