Literary Notes: Bursting bodices and romantic beheadings

WHEN I was a child, my favourite book in the world was neither The Wind in the Willows nor Winnie the Pooh, but a battered volume in my parents' bookcase called The Tower of London.

A fictionalised history of the eponymous palace/prison, it was by someone called Harrison Ainsworth, who appeared on the title-page as upright and bewhiskered as any Victorian gentleman could be. The fact that he had depths of the utmost gruesome Gothic purple was vouchsafed only to those who, like me, ventured into the murky passages dealing with the final hours of such romantic characters as Lady Jane Grey, who saw her husband's decapitated body while en route to the scaffold herself; or Archbishop Fisher, practising being burnt at the stake by putting his hand in the fire of his prison chamber.

If the old martyr's veins snapping and crackling in the flames were, so to speak, hot stuff, even that paled beside the high drama of the death of Anne Boleyn. The pages would fall open at the description of her sloe- black eyes and mysterious sixth finger and her enduring legacy was that, for years after, I imagined an executive to be someone dressed in a black mask and wielding an axe. From the moment I picked up the book, I was addicted to historical fiction.

I eschewed television for a pile of mint-green Georgette Heyers from the local library. Then I moved on to the colourful oeuvre of the stunningly plain-sounding Jean Plaidy. Her range was as astonishing as her titles were colourful; from Henry VII (The King's Bed) to Charles II (A Health Unto His Majesty), from Ferdinand and Isabella (Spain for the Sovereigns) to Marie Antoinette (the fabulously named Flaunting, Extravagant Queen), she galloped through British and European history with swashbuckling zeal. I neither realised nor cared that this meant my reading matter was tragically unfashionable.

The academic advantages of my historical-novel addiction were, after all, almost infinite. I was light years ahead of my peers in general knowledge. To one who had been reading conversations starting "prithee mistress" and "good my lord" practically since birth, the language of Shakespeare was as familiar to me as if I'd been in the original productions. The only let-down, ironically, was history. How colourless the official version of events was, I thought. There was no sex in any of it. For, among the many virtues of historical novels, chief in my eyes was what you might call their codpiece-centricity. Scarcely a bodice went by without some breasts bursting out of it. Finely turned calves of both sexes abounded, as did mistresses, bastard children and pairs of dancing, naughty eyes. This, I suspect, accounted for the old ladies' interest as well.

Although historical fiction seems to be enjoying a revival of late with Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, these works seem to have acquired a literary and even quasi-academic status apparently bent on removing them as far as possible from the bedjacket brigade. A pity, as is the fact that Jean Plaidy, Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer have been relegated to much the same status in the eyes of the literary establishment as the author of the Wicked Willie books, or perhaps the no-longer-read Walter Scott. Even Jilly Cooper, reportedly considering writing a historical novel, has abandoned her plans for another orgasmic orchestra. A wonderful configuration of chances to rehabilitate the historical novel has been tragically eschewed.

I've done my best to keep the faith with having a tumbledown stately home complete with tumbledown aristocratic family in my forthcoming novel, but it barely scales the foothills of Jean Plaidy's Everest-like legacy. For the foreseeable future, it seems, the term "historical novel" will remain a dirty word. Just let them remain dirty books, that's all.

Wendy Holden is the author of `Simply Divine' (Headline, 14 January, pounds 10)

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