QAB Guest Writer: History Against the Skin, by M. M. Bennetts
As any woman who has ever succumbed to being laced into an 18th century corset and set of panniers has learned, possibly the short-of-breath way and as they wore them for a bit, slouching in one of those garments isn’t possible, nor is walking briskly, doorways are negotiable, and what they do to one’s ribcage and, er, feminine attributes…well, this is a family magazine, isn’t it? So I’ll just leave that one, shall I?
Or shall I? Because this about living history against the skin. Their lives, their experiences, not as I imagine it (well, I’d always exclude the lice and the fleas, wouldn’t I?) but as they felt and knew it.
It all starts so innocently though, doesn’t it? That insatiable desire to just visit the place where it happened–because that would help so much, wouldn’t it? You could see it, imagine it all happening, perhaps catch a trace of those long-unheard voices, sense their deepest sentiments even, see a bloodstain on a wooden floor…
But then, then comes the powerful seduction of just tracing one’s fingertips over the unsmooth grit surface of the lime-washed Tudor walls where they lived or the stone walls that were not cut with electrical tools but the hard way, with hammer and chisel…And all without any hint of a cloud on the horizon that this will soon become an obsession bordering on the stark raving cuckoo-nuts.
(Did I mention this is a cautionary tale?)
I am, as I’m guessing you’re becoming aware, one of those who revels in ‘site visits’.
And ya, because many of the places about which I write are within a certain reach, I can indulge in the detailed observation that these allow: so yes, there may have been the odd 3-day visit or several to the Musee D’Armee in Paris…(Can any thing beat just spending time with the ACTUAL uniforms the troops wore? I don’t think so. Or seeing the coat and boots and hat worn by Napoleon and thus being able to say authoritatively, “Sorry but the chap had diddy feet!”)
And then there are the homes and stomping grounds of those about who lived before–their parish churches, their wynds and lanes, their houses, their gardens, the very cobbles upon which they walked arm in arm with their friends in the rain.
And the historical conferences–with bells on!
The several conferences leading up to the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar in 2005 were splendiforous! Magic! (As are so many.) A history junky’s weekend high!
Not only were there all these top academics, museum curators and sea-faring geniuses from England, Spain and France, all discussing the Napoleonic period at sea, Lord Nelson and the actual battle and guns and things–there was the full-gun salute from the Victory–which I’ll tell you, if I had any doubt about could anybody on board see anything they were shooting at or just who was coming over the side–well let me tell you, the lads on deck couldn’t hear a blind thing, and they definitely could not see anything.
You’ve never seen so much smoke in your life–well perhaps if you burnt about nine hundred pieces of toast at one time…and yes, the smoke is that heavy and that black…and it only grows more so as the guns continue to fire, loading the air with the smell of cordite…
(We are now talking historical author succumbs to a serious fit of blissikins!)
But these events only fuel the need to know more, to understand more, to get even closer and feel the history within the palms of our hands and hold it there.
To be sure, I know nothing about historical re-enactment fairs in the US. But in the UK and Europe, and particularly for the Napoleonic period which is the lodestar of my existence, across Europe at the moment, there is a great interest in reenacting the significant events and battles of 200 years ago. And the chappies who perform at these fairs here, they are good. They know their sausage and one can learn infinitely much from a couple of hours conversation with them. (Do bring a camera.)
Those I have met and whose brains I have picked and picked and picked, do more research into the minutiae of life in their period of interest, the troops who fought against or for Napoleon–down to the kinds of dye used for the uniforms which faded, where the wool was from, how many shots a musket could get off before clogging (particularly in the rain), the stench of the troops’ breath whose teeth were worn down through years of biting off the cartridge paper top, spilling the gunpowder in their mouths, holding the lead ball in their teeth…and were there not different lengths and weights of musket?
The music, the tents, the kit, the food, how they actually fought (not how a filmmaker likes to think makes a great camera shot!)
Ya, we’ve have crossed the borders into historygeekocracy!
The shelves of the house have long since begun to groan, pout, whinge, buckle…it’s gone well beyond a bad habit now. And still those cheeky publishers and academics keep producing more fodder for the immersive historical author. And no detail is now too small to be rated insignificant. (It’s getting barmy isn’t it?)
Whereupon, one finds oneself in the kitchen with the, shall we call them, older recipes desperate to recreate a syllabub or to use rose and pink petals in the salad. Or in another country asking to be fed what Wellington’s troops would have been fed when they arrived 200 years ago. Kid and eggs and stinging nettles as it happens. Wondrous!
And the horses! The long rides out in gale force winds when one should not have even been on the roads, the rain a sheet of sideways, with the branches cracking about one and bouncing off the pathway, spooking some horses but not others. Perfection for understanding life by horse-power and just how wild and dangerous it might be. (Also what fine riders they must have been just to have survived!) And that ride straight into the hanging brambles that left one with a sabre-like slash across the nose? Very dashing. Or not. (And every throw and landing with the foot twisted in the stirrup? Gold-dust for me.)
(Did someone say bonkers?)
Which somehow leads to the inarguable need to learn to take snuff a la Brummell, a manoeuvre practiced for hours, to play Beethoven on the fortepiano rather than a modern instrument, to learn their sensibilities through reading their favourite literature and magazines, to see what they saw as beauty (or not)–losing our modern Hollywoodised sense of that–by working from period portraits and miniatures (get a load of the crimped curls on that chap!), to Regency dance (a lot more air-sucking than you’d think!) to crack a Napoleonic military cypher, to use a sabre–how could one write about the cavalry otherwise…
Or better yet, learning to clean, load and fire a 16-bore used at Waterloo: to load and reload and shoot and shoot, until one’s face is black with powder (just as theirs would have been) and to wear the bruised shoulder after hours of this as a badge of honour…How can one write of the weight and measure of an Napoleonic duelling piece without having held the gorgeous thing, so having one on the desk is a comfort and, er, necessary. It helps.
And all until that history against the skin has transmogrified into history under the skin and the daily reading is eye-witness accounts, journals, letters, newspapers, their philosophers and poets, so that one is soaking in their sentiments and perceptions, their turns of phrase, their fears and hopes…
(I’d just like to make it perfectly clear that as far-gone as I appear to be, I do not and shall not indulge in their oral hygiene or lack thereof…One must have a few lines of demarkation.)
Yet anything of their world that can be experienced and lived (not the diseases or the medicines, thank you)–that’s undeniably what must be soon and next.
And if it all sounds like a long walk in mad as box of frogs-land…well, ya. It is. But as far as I can tell, it works. So what’s a poor historical body to do? Because it is about them. Not us. Their lives, the fabric of their existence, what was against their skin. And how tremendous is the resultant work bound to be?
M. M. Bennetts is a highly respected historical fiction author “with an emphasis on history”. Her writing focuses primarily on the Napoleonic Era. A book critic for the Christian Science Monitor for over 20 years, M. M. is multi-talented and has varied interests. Besides being a prolific writer, poet and researcher, M. M. is an accomplished cross country horseman and pianist. To learn more about M. M. Bennetts, visit her website at http://mmbennetts.wordpress.com/.
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