The main characters in Highwaypersons seem to drink a lot of wine, sherry, port, brandy, whisky and ale. In short every drink containing alcohol, whenever available. So do most of the other characters. Was this a period of a great deal of drunkenness? How typical were these individuals?
Was drinking considered a sin?
Someone reminded me that he associates Welsh nonconformity with teetotalism but he had noticed that my two main characters were educated by their uncle, a Presbyterian minister.
Presbyterians in Wales, as indeed in the rest of the British Isles, almost always disapproved of drunkenness and heavy drinking. However, for a long time, many tended to favour moderation rather than total abstinence. Complete hostility to alcohol, among almost all nonconformists, became the norm during the Nineteenth Century. This led to most of their churches using non-alcoholic alternatives to wine in the Holy Communion. Many people reacted against the increasing problem of excessive drinking throughout Britain.
What about the Highwaypersons?
It is likely that the consumption of alcohol was quite high throughout the population in the early Eighteenth Century. Let us consider my characters specifically. They spent their teenage years working in an inn and then spent a decade in army camps, after which they returned to the inn. It is not surprising that they became accustomed to drinking alcohol, despite their early upbringing. To be fair, they do drink tea in some scenes. It was just becoming popular at that time as British trade with India increased.
What about water?
It is worth bearing in mind that water was often polluted in those days, even in the countryside, all the more in cities. Alcohol has the effect of protecting drinkers through its antiseptic qualities. Small beer and small ale were watered down drinks, which enabled people to stay safe and sober. Relatively. Wine was also sometimes diluted for the same reason. It is interesting that the Victorian moral crusades against alcohol got going after cleaner water had become available. This improvement was a result of government action following the cholera outbreaks of the middle of the Nineteenth Century.
What is your judgement?
Do not be too hard on Billy and Bethan but remember that I would not choose a highwayman or highwaywoman as my moral guide.
In Highwaypersons, characters send and receive letters between London and Cardiff and between Cardiff and Cardigan. When he read this, someone asked whether or not this was an anachronism. Surely, there was no national postal service in the early Eighteenth Century? I am happy to assure him and you that there was.
- A postal service of some kind was established in 1516 by Henry VIII, a king renowned for innovation and reform.
- The service became known as the Royal Mail in 1635 when it was made available to anyone. The recipient paid, on a scale relating to the distance.
- Parliament made further reforms in the days of the Commonwealth in the 1650’s, making it a national service, covering England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
- In 1661, the restored Charles II reenacted only very few of the acts passed by the Commonwealth. Those concerning the postal service were among them. He must have placed a lot of importance upon communications at that time.
I have no hesitation, therefore, in asserting that by 1715 anyone could send a letter by Royal Mail from Cardiff to London or Cardigan and vice versa.
Does it matter?
Some people think I should make my books conform to people’s expectations regarding life in the past.
- I intend to be as true to history as I can be, allowing that I am writing fiction. I fill in the blank parts.
- Many authors have taught me history without my realising it at the time and I hope I can do the same.
- I try to help readers by including a few historical notes at the back of the book, to separate the facts from the fiction. I thank Bernard Cornwell for that idea.
I hope our postal service will remain, in effect, a national public service despite its relatively recent privatisation.
I have seen the series, The Victorian Slum.
It was interesting to see a group of modern people trying to survive under Nineteenth Century slum conditions. It certainly brought the subject to life. For those of us who enjoy reading, and even writing, historical novels, it was a useful reminder to avoid getting too romantic a view of the past.
How typical was it?
I am aware that not everyone lived in the slums and that not every change since then has been unquestionably for the better. However, poverty and social injustice were facts for many people. Yes, things have improved a lot.
- The last episode showed how things began to change in the early Twentieth Century.
- They did not change automatically. Politics and the trades unions played important roles in the transformation.
- One important change was in social attitudes. Most people stopped thinking the poor were victims of their own idleness or other shortcomings.
The programme tried to be balanced and showed how many well-intended initiatives, such as slum-clearance and compulsory education, had unforseen and unfortunate effects on some of the poorest people.
There were lots of lessons for us all today.
City versus Country?
- One thing the programme did not go into was that, for all the harsh living conditions, many people chose to go to London and other cities. Why? Were they actually better off than in the countryside? If so, how bad must rural poverty have been? Or were they forced out of their homes as agriculture became less labour-intensive?
- I was amazed, a few years ago, to learn that the population increased greatly during that period, mainly due to a fall in the death rate. That suggests that people were actually better off in the slums than their predecessors had been in the countryside. Merrie England? Perhaps that could be the subject of another series.
Some people assume that historians and historical novelists are obsessed with the past. They suppose that we think everything was better in The Good Old Days and oppose every innovation. Some might even imagine we are all Conservatives politically.
They are wrong, at least in my case.
- I do love history and believe we can learn a lot from it. I am in favour of keeping links with the past: physical ones such as monuments, listed buildings, archives; and less tangible ones such as old traditions, mottoes, folklore. Then there are words and expressions that link us to their origins. Swing a cat. Keeping your light under a bushel.
- I do question the assumption that change is always for the better. What Americans call ‘progress’. (I wish they would pronounce the word properly). There is such a thing as throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Privatisation has not necessarily led to improvement every time.
This is the coat of arms of the old county of Monmouthshire.
The motto means ‘loyal to both’, i.e. England and Wales. Like me.
On the other hand, I do want to see real progress in many fields. I do not believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. I want to us take advantage of new technology wherever it offers benefits.
- I rejoiced when they invented the satnav as I have a hopeless sense of direction.
- I know that I need to make more use of the social media to contact lots of people whom I am unlikely to meet in person. The trolls are the downside but we must not let them keep us from seeing the benefits. They include making the World more open and democratic. So did the printing press.
- I am glad the Army keeps some of its old traditions, like Trooping the Colour but I want our soldiers to have the most modern weapons available and to use the tactics to defeat today’s enemies, not Napoleon.
The people we look back on as history makers were mostly innovators. They were the ones who changed the world. Winston Churchill was proud of having ridden in the last full cavalry charge in British history but he was also one of the first people to see the potential of aircraft, almost as soon as they had been invented.
I would probably not like to literally live in the past. I value modern comforts too much. And the NHS.
I have been watching Black and British. It is an attempt at making us all aware of the history of black people in Britain.
- For some, this would sound like an exercise in political correctness.
- You could think that this is a subject only black people should be interested in.
- You could argue that teaching black children about the injustices their ancestors experienced is likely to maintain or even aggravate the tensions and conflicts that already exist.
I think you would be wrong.
- Thinking about the question in the title , I want to say one thing above all: history should be taught. Not all schools bother with it these days. I am glad someone is encouraging an interest in history.
- A person without a memory is said to suffer from amnesia. It is not a sign of good health. The same is true of a nation or any group within a nation.
- We cannot pretend that race is not an issue today. Exploring the history of Britain without looking at the slave trade, colonialism and immigration, seems to me to be bound to give us a distorted view and to make black children feel excluded from the conversation.
- If thinking about some of this history makes us uncomfortable, so be it. It is not good to be in denial. Let us face unpleasant facts and learn the right lessons.
- I do not believe white Britons should feel guilty for what our ancestors did, neither should we accept unquestioningly the views of any one historian or select group. Oscar Wilde wrote, “The truth is never pure and rarely simple” – you know, The Good Guys versus The Bad Guys. There needs to be proper study, recognising the complexity of many of the issues.
- Most Lancastrians in the Nineteenth Century probably knew very little about the slave trade but, unknown to them, the cotton they span mostly came from plantations worked by slaves. What would a just society have looked like?
- Finally, I would like to see Scottish, Welsh and Irish history included in the same way. Remember that my motto, that of Monmouthshire, means Loyal to Both.
I have enjoyed writing about the Eighteenth Century in Highwaypersons, Book I, Debts and Duties. I have now written more than half of the sequel, Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice and I am looking forward to writing the third book in the series, although I have not yet decided on the title. All are set against the Jacobite plots and rebellions of the years 1714 to 1720. There is plenty of scope there for mysteries, adventures and swashbuckling.
The early Eighteenth Century is a period many people know little about. That makes it more attractive to me. I get tired of the Tudors and of the 1920’s and ’30’s. Perhaps you can think of periods that you have heard about more often than you would like.
I have found interesting true stories in almost every century and dramatic events which would form a suitable background to a mystery or almost any kind of story. So what period to write about next? Preferably another little-known one. I might even go back to prehistoric times.
A murder mystery can be set in any century.
- Be sure that there is no age where murder has not taken place.
- I believe there have always been some people who wanted justice, not merely revenge.
- There must have been some who tried to apply reason rather than prejudice or superstition in their quest for the truth.
I am also planning a novel set in World War II even though a lot has been written, televised and filmed about that war. It may or may not include a murder mystery.
Why? What can I add to what is already there?
I have a collection of letters and diaries written at the time by a man who served in that war. His account of his time as a prisoner of war is especially moving. I hope I can honour him by turning this material into a novel. There is a story that needs to be told.
Surely, a book set in the Eighteenth Century should be a safe haven from today’s social and political concerns?
Certainly, race was not a subject most British people were as conscious of in the Eighteenth Century as they are today. In particular, most people had never seen a black person or had any knowledge of other continents. Even so, attitudes among many do not seem to have been so different from today.
- A sense of the superiority of your own class or social group.
- Suspicion of anyone different.
- The need to blame someone for all wrongs: preferably someone distant, if not physically, at least psychologically.
Billy and Bethan encounter some of these attitudes on their travels but Billy does not hate the French or the Jacobites, not even when he has to kill them in battle. His feelings are similar to those expressed by Rudyard Kipling:
I do not love my Empire’s foes,
Nor call them angels, still
I don’t see why I should hate
The man I’m paid to kill.
Prejudice is not always racial. The assumption that a girl from a lower-class background was illiterate was one that Bethan turned to her advantage at times.
All that is in the first Highwaypersons novel, Debts and Duties. In the sequel, The King’s Justice, Billy and Bethan have several encounters with the slave trade, something of which they were totally ignorant at first. They see it from several angles. What they learn will surprise them, as it surprised me when I looked into it, and it is likely to surprise you too. For some, race was a serious issue in the Eighteenth Century.