I was very young and impressionable when I met my husband. To me, he was the equivalent of finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (boy, I can see him squirm should he read this) and it helped that we both shared a childish sense of fun, with me hollering “Heathcliff” to his “Catherine” and throwing myself into his arms whenever opportunity arose. (This inspired by Dave Allen, not by “Wuthering Heights”)
One of the things I found interesting about my young man was the fact that he carried a signet ring with a coat of arms, casually telling me his family was a member of the Swedish nobility – albeit a most minor member – and that he could trace his roots back to fifteenth century Scotland.
My husband’s family is descended from a twelve year old boy who landed on Swedish soil in 1624, accompanied only by his mother, Joneta. His father is presumed to have died and Joneta’s Stuart blood was not sufficient to shield them from whatever threats she and her family were subjected to, hence the emigration to Sweden. In the documents, it is stated rather cryptically that Joneta fled due to issues of faith. To this day, the real reason behind Joneta’s drastic move from Scotland remains shady. The dates don’t coincide with any major religious upheaval, her husband seems to have been a minister, and as stated above her Stuart blood connected her with a number of powerful families who could have protected her. No, I fear there may be other reasons behind this headlong flight – but we will never know. Anyway, my interest in Joneta and her son had me expanding my historical readings even further, submerging myself in thick tomes about the seventeenth century, mostly in Britain but also in other countries.
This is the background to why I’ve set my books in the seventeenth century and why my hero, Matthew Graham is a devout Presbyterian who has fought in the Commonwealth armies in the Civil War. To Matthew, faith is an integral part of who he is, a defining characteristic that is as much a part of him as an arm or a leg. Enter Alex Lind, a concussed badly singed woman that lands at his feet on an empty Scottish moor, and while Matthew’s life is very much enriched by this strange woman, it also becomes rather more complicated.
Alex Lind is all blue eyes, dark short hair and legs encased in the oddest garment Matthew has ever seen, light blue and tight they showcase her every curve, and Matthew can’t quite grasp what she is and how she came to be here. Plus, of course, there’s the matter of her obvious lack of religious education – and her open scepticism to certain aspects of Matthew’s beliefs.
For Alex, life has taken a most dramatic and unexpected – hang on, impossible – turn. In a matter of seconds she’s been propelled from her safe existence in 2002 to land in the seventeenth century, complete with political strife, religious unrest – and Matthew. Which is why at times Alex can be heard mumbling that maybe it was all meant to be, maybe God – should he exist – had an ulterior motive that day when he threw her three centuries backwards in time – how else would she ever have met Matthew? It always makes Matthew smile to hear her say thus: of course God had a plan, gifting him with this miraculous and enervating woman!
(If you want to read more about the “astounded man meets shocked woman” scenario described above, I’d recommend you to read the first book in The Graham Saga series, A Rip in the Veil.)
My main problem with setting a story in the seventeenth century is wardrobe related. I’m not overly fond of men in sashes and floppy collars, in velvet and curls. Yet another reason why Matthew had to be of sterner ilk, a man who prefers to cover his body (and showcase that rather spectacular physique of his – unintentionally of course…) with narrow breeches in broadcloth, linen shirts and not much else. Okay, the occasional flashy coat will find its way to enhance his shoulders, and he’s vain enough to wear the odd pair of silk stockings when he finds them, but overall simplicity rules, in sober colours with no frills. I do, however, think it’s a misconception to label all Puritans as having been stark and dark in their clothing. Even a man dressed in sombre black can subtly adorn himself, his coat in expensive velvet lined with silk, his collar – however discreet – in dazzling white linen decorated with priceless Brussels lace. And no matter how devout, no matter that vanity was frowned upon, I bet you even the staidest Puritan matron would now and then succumb to decorated garter ribbons, to a bodice in softest yellow or palest pink. I sure hope they did!
This period dress thing is difficult.
First of all, as the writer of historical fiction it is important to understand what people wore, who wore what and how it was worn. In some cases it’s straightforward: stockings cover your feet and the nether part of your legs no matter if you live in the twentieth century or the fifteenth. But take that rather ugly male adornment that Henry VIII was so proud of flaunting – the codpiece – and I am somewhat stumped. How did it work? ( Okay, so I’ve looked this up; strings, buttons or hooks kept this decorative little (hmm) flap of fabric in place.)
Secondly, it helps if the writer in question finds the period attire alluring in some way or other. It’s difficult to write convincingly about handsome men in codpieces and padded breeches when all you see in your head is something resembling a man in a huge diaper.
Finally, there must be a familiarity with how people dress and undress. ” He told her to turn around and zipped up her gown.” is not a good description of the intimacy between man and wife in the fourteenth century. (BTW, the modern zipper owes a lot to Swedish inventor Gideon Sundback. It’s nice to know us Swedes have contributed to human development: dynamite, zippers, gauge blocks, the AGA cooker …) Having exploring male fingers encountering panties in the sixteenth century is also something of an anachronism, and should the dashing regency rake pulls down his boxers you’re not reading historical fiction, you’re reading about a masquerade.
Back to the seventeenth century and my choice of hero: One of the very interesting developments in the seventeenth century was the rapid increase in literacy – this as an indirect consequence of the Reformation (more of that in a future post). I rather liked having a hero who could read and write, and while Matthew’s early reading was constricted in that his father mainly had him studying the catechism or the Bible, since then Matthew has read both this and that. Not that he’s much given to such romantic nonsense as declaiming verses to his beloved, but should he want to, he has quite the repertoire, much of it written by his personal favourite John Donne.
And then, dear people, Matthew has hair. Okay, okay, no major revelation as most of us do. What I mean is that Matthew has hair in just enough quantity, long enough that Alex can fist her hands in it, short enough that it looks manly, not foppish. I’ve never been much impressed by the men of the latter seventeenth century and their masses of curls (quite often false, as few men grow such luxurious manes of curly hair). It makes them look quite feminine – with one notable exception, king Charles II, because whatever else one might want to say about this man, feminine he most definitely is not.
“Rogue, more like it,” Matthew mutters. “All those mistresses…”
“You’re biased,” I inform him.
“Biased?” Dark brows arch, his long mouth thins into a line. “Not all that surprising; I spent my youth fighting to rid this country of kings and such.”
“Well someone screwed up, or he wouldn’t have been back here, would he?” Alex points out.
“Not me,” Matthew says, “and I would gladly take the field again if…” He breaks off abruptly and strides across the room to where Alex has sunk down to sit on a stool, looking very pale. “It’ll not happen,” he says. “I can’t very well take on the king and his armies all by myself, can I? And it’s not as if my parliamentarian brethren are baying for his royal blood.”
“Thank heavens for that,” she says, gripping his hand. Of course, Alex has yet to learn that conflict there will be aplenty in the coming years, and not for nothing is Matthew a man of integrity and valour. I decide this is not the right moment to tell her about all those adventures she has in store… I mean, in The Prodigal Son, Matthew will… nope; don’t go there.
“He will what?” Alex asks.
“Nothing,” I say, stretching my lips in a bright smile.
So far my hero is a literate man of strong convictions, with a nice head of hair and a simple taste in clothes. Well, one can find that in any age, more or less, but the truly intriguing aspect of the seventeenth century is the continous religious strife, the fact that faith as a denominator was fundamental in all aspects of your life. Catholic? Great if you were living in Spain or France, a tad of a problem in Ireland while Cromwell was doing his ethnic cleansing thing, and definitely an issue in the staunchly protestant Sweden – which was why there was a greater hullabaloo when the former queen (she abdicated first) Christina converted to Catholicism than there was when she did the actual abdication (truth be told, many Swedes were quite relieved when the young queen chose to turn the crown over to her dashing MALE cousin). Anyway, people were killed because of their faith and even more mindboggling people knowingly risked their lives on behalf of their faith. Difficult to comprehend for most of us today, right?
In Matthew I have a devout man, an excellent counterfoil to Alex, who considers all this religious stuff ridiculous
“Ridiculous? Stuff?” Matthew sounds rather disapproving.
“Stuff.” Alex bites of the thread and holds up the shirt she’s making, frowning at the hem. “And it’s not as if there’s any fundamental difference between your Presbyterian beliefs and those of the Church of England.”
“No differences? Of course there are differences! We don’t …”
“Ultimately it’s all about believing in the one God, right? And in his son. As far as I can make out, all Christians believe in that – even if the Catholics are nice enough to have a female representative up there beside God.”
“Female representative? I’ll have you know that…”
Okay, we can leave them to it. These religious discussions tend to become very heated – even more so when Matthew brings real, tangible danger into his home by hiding the outlawed ministers of his Kirk.
If I’m going to be honest, I suspect I might be slightly in love with Matthew Graham. When I dream, I tend to dream of him (well, except for when I dream of my husband which OF COURSE is twice as often). Those hazel eyes that shift between golden brown and light green, that dark wavy hair that throws off chestnut sparks in the sun,, that…
“I knew it,” Alex mutters. She sinks blue, blue eyes into mine. “Hands off, lady!”
Hands off? The man only exists inside my head. Or does he? As if in response, my seventeenth century dream man straightens up from where he’s lounging against the sun warmed barn wall and gives me a dazzling smile. (Courtesy of Alex and her insistence he keep his teeth clean) Tall and strong, of firm convictions and strong beliefs – in God, in his Kirk, in his ministers, but also in his wife – he has grown out of my head to become a constant, pleasant presence in my life. I might be lucky – or stark raving mad. The jury is still out…