browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Using Literature as a Historical Resource

Posted by on April 27, 2013

Finding myself unexpectedly stranded at Eastbourne Railway Station I was seduced by a WH Smith’s book promotion of ‘buy one get one half price’.   I gathered up ‘The Soldier’s Wife’ by Joanna Trollope, herself a piece of history as a descendent of the famous 19th century writer Anthony Trollope who was quoted as saying:

“What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee?…Was ever anything so civil?”

The Soldier’s Wife  is examines the difficult times that members of the armed forces and their families have readjusting to the separation of active service.   That is, returning from the last international areas of conflict in which they have either been fighting and or peace keeping.

Needless to say, the story brings into focus the frustrating life for the spouses; usually wives – the subject of house husbands was not raised –  who have already given up their own careers and dreams when they married into the forces.   Now they are trying to step forward into one role to manage the months of separation, being a single parent, having the task of supporting the temporary community of the current ‘patch’ they live in as befits their husband’s rank in the regimental hierarchy only to have step back into another role when their husbands arrive home again and resume their status as Head of the House.   The children either muddle along or rebel at being sent to boarding schools that the parents hope will give them some sense of continuity of education and stability of childhood friendships.   Instead the corralled darlings are living under the shadow of their school chums experiences as their Dads return sadly home either physically or mentally injured or in a coffin.

As I have been encouraged to look at 18th century literature as a way of getting in to the atmosphere London and life as Joseph and Alexander van Aken would have known it, something that historical narrative  non-fiction writers such as Kate Summerscale and Kate Chisholm frequently do in their books, I thought that if someone wanted to get a feel for life in the forces today, I probably would recommend A Soldier’s Wife to them as a good resource.   

Joanna Trollope creates a group of interesting fictional characters, but I have to say that the heroine of the story is considerably better off with the relations she has been given than could be expected in real life I suspect.   The Soldier’s Wife is a story, and characters are drawn to react in a way that helps resolve the issues at hand that may not be as neat or possible in real life.   A contemporary novel can give a flavour of an age, its society, expectations and limitations, but often the sheer drudgery of living, trying to succeed , even if that is just to keep alive from one day to the next as was often the case in the 18th century, does not come through.   Fiction can highlight emotions, explain human motivations and illustrate codes of conduct, expectations and realisations. It is just that stories tend to have happy endings and real life is not so certain.

The other book I bought was by Joanne Harris – Peaches for Monsieur le Curé – which I heartily recommend for the sheer enjoyment – but you could find it an interesting comment on the growing rural multi-cultural issues in 21st century France.


3 Responses to Using Literature as a Historical Resource

  1. Diana Devlin

    Thanks for these recommendations. I am on the lookout for stuff I can put on my Kindle when I go on a month-long trip to Canada and US in May/June.
    I am finding George Eliot a wonderful source for everyday life in early 19th century England. Only just discovered what a ‘taxed cart’ means.

  2. Diana Devlin

    A ‘taxed cart’ is a cart that is licensed to carry passengers – the license, and therefore the fare, is cheaper than for a public coach. Poor Adam Bede gets one to go home after a fruitless search for Hetty Sorrel, his betrothed, who has not gone to visit Dinah Morris as planned, and is under arrest for murdering her child.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *