A while ago, I wrote a piece for The Conversation on ‘Guilty Pleasures: Reading Historical Fiction’. While the piece in itself was fun to write and allowed me to discuss favourite authors, such as C.J. Sansom, Sarah Dunant, Ariana Franklin and Toby Clements, the real joy of the article actually came from the feedback and comments left by readers. It turns out that quite a lot of people love reading historical fiction, and even better, love sharing their recommendations. The comments included numerous suggestions for further reading to add to my list of ‘must read’ books, and for interest, I have included that list at the bottom of this piece- and please do feel free to add more by commenting on this post! Any recommendations are always gratefully received.
The book that jumped out at me from the list was Geoffrey Trease’s The Hills of Varna, originally published in 1948 and clearly aimed at the kind of reader who would pick up Jack London, James Fenimore Cooper, and similar types of stories; basically, the stories I grew up with and the kind of books I read. Actually, just as an aside, the stories I really devoured as a (German) child were the works of Karl May, great examples of nineteenth-century adventure writings, preoccupied with travelling the world and arguably, reflecting German policies regarding colonial expansionism in the late 1800s, but to be fair, I was not really able to see the stories like this and grew very fond of the characters May so vividly depicts. May’s stories are ‘slices of time’, in the Foucauldian sense, and actually all the more interesting for providing an insight into the mind of an author who was writing for a nineteenth–century audience from the point of view of a nineteenth-century author. May’s stories have become history as much as they have ever been fiction.
Anyway, back to Trease and The Hills of Varna, which is actually every bit as much a piece of period writing as May’s, and appealing for the very same reasons. Trease is writing for adolescent readers, and his story of a fifteenth-century hunt for a rare Greek manuscript, involving pirates, marauding Turks and mad-eyed bearded monks, remains as compelling a page turner as it has ever been. Trease sets his story, with its protagonist, the Grecophile Yorkshireman Alan Drayton, in 1509, at the very moment of the ascension of Henry VIII to the throne of England. Drayton finds himself forced to flee Cambridge when he is caught up in a tavern brawl defending Copernicus; the argument, rather than focusing on arguments, ends in a sword fight and for Alan, this means he needs to leave. The man who comes to the rescue is none other than Erasmus, his tutor at Cambridge, who charges Alan with finding a rare Greek manuscript that had been spotted in an inaccessible monastery by a pilgrim to Jerusalem. Erasmus dispatches Alan to Venice, to Aldus Manutius, to get directions to the Monastery at Varna where the manuscript is languishing unread in a dark and dank library, at danger of becoming yet another manuscript that gets scraped and reused. Alan has to be the one undertaking the journey, for the manuscript is in Greek and only a Greek scholar will be able to identify the right one, plus the journey is arduous so the traveller needs to be fit and young . …Secrets though are rarely entirely secret, and the existence of this covetable manuscript is also known to the ruthless Count of Molfetta who sets his henchman Cesare Morelli on to Alan. What ensues is a fabulous race to Varna to retrieve the manuscript. There are pirates, ambushes, treks across mountains, raids by Turkish janissaries, and of course, there is Alan’s sidekick, the beautiful and feisty Angela d’Asola. Angela is Aldus Manutius’ adventure-loving niece and after eavesdropping on Alan and her uncle, tags along dressed as a boy. The Angela/Angelo cross-dressing subplot becomes an essential part of the story, with Angela and Alan soon becoming mutually dependent on their complementary skills and abilities. Trease sketches a relationship between his two protagonists free of any romantic subplot and where instead the girl and the boy get to shine in turn and both get to move the plot forward. In the end, it is Angela whose brains resolve the final crisis, and Alan who earns a return to England with a copy of the manuscript in his bag and the prospect of joining the Court of Henry VIII to teach Greek. Alan’s return to England, armed with the knowledge of the past, is a harbinger of a new Renaissaance for England and signalling the onset of a new golden age. Trease explains why his protagonist has to go to Venice:
‘Already, in his passage through other cities in Northern Italy, he had marvelled at a civilisation far higher than was dreamt of in France or England. Not only the palaces of the Dukes, but even the houses of the merchants, were magnificent. All but the poorest class seemed clean, well mannered, and brightly dressed. Whereas in other countries one rode or walked through the town, here the well-paved streets made it possible to drive comfortably in a carriage’ (p.31)
Italy is the enlightened cradle of the Renaissance and the model for England to aspire to. Alan needs to experience Italy so he can bring the Renaissance to England. It’s all about new beginnings and hope after years of darkness, and surely, in this context the original publication date of 1948 Is surely of additional significance in marking a post- World War II sense of optimism and a new beginning, and maybe another new Renaissance for an England coming out of another dark age? A new Age of Enlightenment and learning?
There is nothing obscure or obtuse about the moral of this story which stands out for clear, beautiful writing and its tight plot, complete with superb contemporary illustrations by Treyer Evans, which actually are an essential part of the characterisation of the main protagonists, Alan Drayton and Angela d’Asola. On the cover, Angela and Alan appear more mature and ‘adult’ than in the illustrations inside, where they are younger, more innocent and usually pitched against opponents that loom over them, preferably dark, hairy opponents whose disshervelled appearance contrasts quite sharply with the neat looks and presentation of Alan and Angela (clean and neat appearance= clean and impeccable morals). Evans’ illustrations tell of quick-thinking and agile protagonists who are physically inferior to their brawny enemies, but intellectually superior because of their quick-witted action as well as their superior knowledge and education. Angela and Alan are frequently depicted in the light and Evans emphasises their youth by showing them fair haired and curly-headed. You might argue that this overdoes the characterisation and the plot telling-but Geoffrey Trease wrote his historical novels for children.
As Trease has started to intrigue me, I did a bit of digging on Trease and it turns out that he was born in Nottingham (incidentally this is where I live), and on top of 113 historical novels, largely aimed at children, Trease also wrote a book called ‘Tales out of School’, a rather influential book which even led to the production of a televised (sadly not easy to get hold of) interview with Trease, broadcast on Channel 4 in 1992. ‘Tales out of School is largely contemporary to The Hills of Varna, and in it, the author sets out his ideas about good literature for children. He writes lucidly about the importance of good literature that both entertains and instructs; he draws on the writings of Evelyn Gibbs (also, incidentally active in Nottingham, in the circle of Dame Laura Knight. And the influential Midlands Art Group) to emphasise the significance of appropriate illustrations for books (which explains the care taken over Treyer Evans’ illustrations for The Hills of Varna) and Trease also speaks of the importance of bringing history alive and making it accessible by choosing strong male as well as female protagonists What I am left with is a curiosity for wanting to know more about Trease and his approach to writing, so watch this space as I will certainly return to his writing in a later blog post.
Further reading- gleaned from comments and in no particular order.
Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist
Ian Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
Bernard Cromwell, Saxon Chroicles (renamed The Last Kingdom series)
Anne (Sergeanne) Golon, Angelique
Dorothy Dunnett, The Lymond Chronicles; The House of Niccolo
SD Sykes, Plague Land; The Butcher Bird
Sharon Kay Penman, Falls the Shadow
Jane Harris, The Observations
Maria McCann, As Meat Loves Salt
Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle