J D Davies

Laugh, Torquemada- Damn You, Laugh!

I went to the Historical Novel Society conference in London on Saturday. This was a very jolly affair, for all sorts of reasons – it was good to see old friends and meet new ones, to have a delegate come up to me and launch into gushing praise of Gentleman Captain, and to attend some very enjoyable sessions, notably Conn Iggulden’s knockabout keynote talk and a hilarious panel debating whether ‘My Period is Better Than Yours’, a session punctuated by frequent references to Giles Kristian’s big axe. But all of that laughter conceals another side to the conference. Quite a lot of the questions, and many of the informal discussions between people during the breaks, were deadly serious, and there was a fair amount of earnestness, not to say angst, in certain quarters. Now, I won’t deny that there are certain topics about which authors of historical fiction ought to be very serious: getting published, for one; getting readers to read one’s books, for another; and, of course, getting one’s research right. But beyond that, it seems to me that some of my fellow authors tend to take the whole business rather too seriously for comfort, as if doing justice to the past, and proving oneself as a ‘proper writer’, means treating it all as though one is crossing a minefield while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The consequence is that I’ve read quite a few historical novels which are meticulously researched, well written, set in an interesting period and dealing with what should be interesting people – but which end up being deadly dull, simply because the author has forgotten that people in the past actually had senses of humour. (As supporting witnesses for my assertion, I summon the likes of G. Chaucer and W. Shakespeare. I then rest my case, m’lud.) Consequently, pretty well all of my favourite historical fiction books have generous lashings of humour. It’s why I prefer Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin over the distinctly more po-faced Horatio Hornblower, or why I’d go for Dorothy Dunnett’s (literally) weighty Lymond books over the equally shelf-straining tomes by Monaldi and Sorti. One of the great-granddaddies of the entire genre is Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, a book that contains plenty of good laughs – a lesson that Dumas forgot as he churned out the ever-darker sequels.

Of course, there are some things that probably shouldn’t be the subject of humour in fiction. For instance, I take the writing of my battle scenes very seriously indeed, and certainly wouldn’t make a joke of someone’s death; as I’ve said before in this blog, I’m often writing about real battles in which real people died, and they deserve exactly the same degree of respect currently being accorded to the casualties of World War I. On the other hand, perceptions of what might or might not be considered suitable subjects for humour in historical fiction clearly change over time, and topics that were once taboo are now fair game. Who’d have thought in 1945 that one day, we’d get Springtime for Hitler, and very few people would ever have expected the Spanish Inquisition… (And if you’re not a fan of the Pythons, maybe this remarkably authentic footage of the activities of the Inquisition will be more to your taste.) Last night, we went to see the acclaimed new play, King Charles III, in the West End. This is a very well constructed and well written piece (in iambic pentameter, no less!), with plenty of deliberate echoes of Shakespeare, some more or less plausible than others – Charles as a King Lear figure, William as a Henry IV, Kate Middleton as Lady Macbeth (!), even the ghost of Princess Diana. But it also contained plenty of humour, much of that provided by the kebabs-at-dawn character of Prince Harry, and proved the point that even the most serious themes – in this case, issues of where constitutional power truly lies, the power of the press, and the dysfunctional recent history of the royal family – are best treated by leavening them with a laugh or ten. (A digression: I had to watch the second half standing at the back of the auditorium, due to the crippling lack of leg room. Let’s face it, London theatres, if you were airlines, you’d never be allowed to fly…)

My point is that, for all of the reasons outlined above, the Quinton Journals have always contained quite a lot of humour. This is also partly a consequence of personal inclination – I actually wrote quite a lot of satire at one point, notably at college – but is also simply a reflection of the times I’m writing about. After all, this was the age of Restoration comedy and the court wits (Rochester makes an appearance as a major character in the latest book, The Battle of All The Ages), and having Samuel Pepys as a recurring character pretty well guarantees that there’ll be a few laughs along the way. The same will be true of the next novel, which will have an even greater amount of humour than usual, principally because –

Ah, but that’s a blog for another day, when I reveal all about the very, very different story that will be ‘Quinton 6′!


There won’t be a post next week as I’ll be in Scotland, taking in the final days of the referendum campaign and the result itself. I’ve always had a deep love of the country and a strong interest in its history, as witnessed by the fact that I spent ten years researching and writing a book on an aspect of it, so I felt I simply had to be there for what will be a remarkably historic occasion, regardless of the result. So in a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll blog my first-hand impressions of what might or might not be the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.