Thursday, March 04, 2010

Breaking news

I was at the library just now checking a few quotations in the diary of Samuel Pepys...

Usually I am very tough about including all footnotes from the get-go, but these are some opinions Pepys expressed on several plays by Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet: "the play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life"; Midsummer Night's Dream: "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life"; Twelfth Night: "one of the weakest plays that ever I saw on the stage") that I have had in my 18th-century drama lecture notes since time immemorial, and I did not have library access in Cayman as I finished the essay in January (it is a piece on Shakespeare adaptation for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century).

It has been on my mind, due to Dunnett-reading and the pondering of Dick Francis's mortality, the question of what sort of popular fiction I really would be best suited to write. In fact there are others better suited by intellect and sensibility to write Franciscan thrillers, as sad as it makes me to admit it; but on the other hand I am almost uniquely well-suited to undertake a massive historical narrative of the scope of Dunnett's.

Earlier this morning I was reading a piece in this week's TLS about Louis XIV and thinking what a delightful milieu it would be for a grand historical series, only I am too lazy to read so many sources in French - but handling Pepys reminded me of the true delights of England in the 1660s and 1670s...

I should write a huge series, at the sweet spot between Dorothy Dunnett and Neal Stephenson, set over the first decade of the Restoration! There is theater, there is science, there are political shenanigans and financial developments of great interest, there is the Court and the City - there is Pepys as a source, and Andrew Marvell can be a character - there are all sorts of other delightful sources that I would love to be spending my time reading - there is the fact that my utter deepest passion has always been historical fiction as practiced by Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Gore Vidal - it is moot, because my next year of writing is pretty much already spoken for (the little book on style, the bread and butter of the novel) but it might be that this is my true literary calling!

My heart is pounding in my chest, it seems so momentous!...

What I can do right now: order the eleven volumes of Pepys's diary with the dollars remaining in this year's research budget!

(This edition was attractively reprinted by HarperCollins a decade ago - it may be that I have to order it from the UK, though...)


  1. The only drawback to that edition is that it's on cheap paper--Penguin quality--that gets a bit irritating as it browns. For most books that wouldn't be a problem; for something like Pepys that you just want to always have at hand, it make you long for a better edition. But that's really just a quibble! And you have a research budget!

    Oh, and yes, the Restoration: Marvell, Christopher Wren, Lord Rochester, Milton . . . good god, there's so much to work with there!

  2. Thanks for this funny and interesting blog post. have you read "Forever Amber"? I think that you would enjoy that - and yes Samuel Pepys certainly gives a wonderful flavour of his age...

    Thanks for sharing


  3. Yes, yes, yes!! How marvelous and just-right.

  4. I assume you have read Claire Tomalin's fantastic Pepys biography? If not, you must!

  5. Is Rose Tremain's *Restoration* any good?

  6. Looks like there are copies on Alibris of that edition of the diary (ex vol 1: Not sure why they aren't on Amazon.

  7. How very exciting! Can't wait to read it, so all you have to do is write it...

    Funny you should mention Stephenson. In a "How I came to write the Baroque Cycle" essay in the trade paperback edition, he gives an inspirational hat-tip to Dunnett and Dumas. Though he's mostly tell and little show, whereas they're both the reverse, he does share with them a lot in terms of sheer scale, weaving fictional and historical events and characters, etc.

    I do wish he'd taken a bit less liberty with the historical characters in Baroque Cycle. I'm always having to ask myself whether a certain person is "real", or if fictional, who is the historical person (or persons) the character is standing in for, did a particular event happen, and if so, did it happen then, etc. And then when I'm later thinking about the period, I have to sort out in my mind whether I'm remembering the real history or one of Stephenson's invented characters or events. Too much work!

    I admit that in some ways Stephenson's technique works very well. His composite fictional/historical characters - I'm thinking of the competing Royalist/Tory Parliament/Whig families and characters - are cleverly handled to illustrate the main political, ideological and social conflicts over multiple decades without getting too lost in a multiplicity of actual historical personages and specific complex intrigues. I also like the way he uses Marlborough as the archetype of the ambiguous, somewhat principled but always opportunistic character with all the loyalty and betrayal themes that presents. And he manages not to romanticize the Whig Junto even though he's on "their" side of the Revolution.

    But he sure makes the Tories cardboard villains and plays fast and loose with events and chronology on the Tory side, especially during the latter Queen Anne phase, to make the Hanoverians into heros and the suspense elements of his plot work. I can barely forgive him for what he did with the comic book villainy of Bolingbroke (although Stephenson joins exalted company of Whig historians and 19thC novelists when it comes to not "getting" Bolingbroke as a character).

    Anyhow, one of the many things I love about Dunnett is that she refuses to play fast and loose with history. She has her own take on the personalities and motivations of the historical people who populate her stories, but she's got historical backup for who-what-when-where-why. About the only place where she fudges is on some ages of secondary characters, and then by less than a decade. (Will Scott comes to mind.) I'm always amused when someone thinks they've discovered a Dunnett goof (either a wrong date or event or an anachronistic detail) and invariably, with a bit of Googling, by George, she was right!

    Anyway, a long-winded way of saying that one of the things you'll have to decide in finding the "sweet spot" between Dunnett and Stephenson is whether you create more of a "real" or a "fantasy" historical, recognizing that both are thoroughly fictionalized worlds imagined by the author.

  8. I think I have to keep the real historical characters who are well documented playing only minor roles - Locke, Marvell, Isaac Newton - I think I will have to be closer to Dunnett than to Stephenson on this. I have to confess that I have not actually read the Baroque Cycle, though I loved Cryptonomicon and absolutely adore The Diamond Age - found myself not in the mood for anachronistic faux eighteenth-century language when the first vol. appeared - though I do think he's an excellent writer, and I've been meaning to get them & read them (certainly now that I am contemplating similar!)...

  9. Books are so much more enjoyable when bought from the research budget.

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  11. This post reminds me, appealingly, of 84 Charing Cross Road (source of my first exposure to Pepys, whom I now RSS).