Religion is often something of an elephant in the room of historical fiction. If the past really is a foreign country where they do things differently, faith is about as different as it gets, and for secular authors in today’s secular western societies, reconstructing its all-pervasiveness is perhaps one of the trickiest challenges of all. Indeed, perhaps it’s a challenge that can never truly be met successfully. The actual mindset of the most profound medieval piety, for example, is unlikely to be very appealing to most modern readers – after all, its nearest modern parallel is the blinkered fundamentalism seen in much TV news coverage of events in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and so forth. Too many authors, though, seem to pass up the challenge entirely. I love the ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ books by the late, lamented Arianna Franklin, having stumbled upon them by chance in the unlikely setting of the superb Kinokuniya bookshop in Dubai Mall, but the books tend to treat religion perfunctorily, and in the real medieval world one suspects that her central character (a 12th century Sicilian woman doctor practising in England) would have been burned as a witch long before the end of the first book. Series set in even profoundly religious pre-modern societies often have cynical, irreligious central characters who are inevitably going to be more sympathetic to many modern readers: witness Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste or Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond. Obviously there are many honourable exceptions, and it’s both interesting and suggestive that the most successful historical novel of recent times, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, should present religion in a markedly intelligent way, making it absolutely central to the narrative rather than a necessary but reluctant bolt-on. (The same is true of Howard Brenton’s play Anne Boleyn, which recently provided a stimulating evening’s entertainment at the Globe Theatre.)
If an arms-length attitude to religion can be found in much historical fiction as a whole, the problem is multiplied many times over in my particular genre. Throughout whole swathes of naval historical fiction, sightings of God are about as frequent as those of victorious Frenchmen. Jack Aubrey is sceptical of religious enthusiasm and uses the crew’s formal worship enjoined by his orders as a means of bolstering his authority. Forester’s Hornblower is even less of an enthusiast: for instance, the beginning of Lord Hornblower finds him sitting through a particularly boring sermon in Westminster Abbey, his attention wandering in all directions. If this is true of the acknowledged masterpieces of the genre, it is even truer of some of the other series set in the ‘Nelson/Napoleon’ era, where God’s limited appearances are invariably preceded by ‘oh’ or ‘by’, or followed by ‘help me’ or ‘damn it’. Yet many – most? – naval officers of that time were deeply, if conventionally, religious: Adam Duncan’s last act before sailing into battle at Camperdown, and his first act after victory, was to order the crew to assemble for prayer, while Nelson’s prayer before Trafalgar surely proves the point that downplaying the centrality of religion in naval service risks turning one’s characters into thinly disguised modern-day secularists. I’ve had to confront this head-on in the ‘Quinton journals’, for Matthew’s England was a far more religious place than even Nelson’s or Hornblower’s. After all, religion had been (arguably) the principal cause of the civil wars, and although there was a growing scepticism and belief in science (epitomised by such wildly different exemplars as the Earl of Rochester’s atheism and the birth of the Royal Society) there was also a profound legacy of Puritanism on the one hand and a resurgence of militant Anglicanism on the other. Matthew Quinton himself is a conventional churchgoer, rather like the historical Samuel Pepys, but by making the chaplain Francis Gale one of the central characters of the series and having frequent allusions to the actual prayers, psalms and forms of service that would have been used, I hope I’ve given due weight to the centrality of religion. For one thing, the period saw the first appearance of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, an undoubted masterpiece of the English language (Gale manages to get hold of an ‘advance copy’ in Gentleman Captain), and it seemed criminal not to call upon such a marvellous source: no words of mine could ever better the Book’s prayers for a ship about to sail into battle, or for thanksgiving after a storm.