Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of historical novels is brought to you by Margaret Muir.
Jane Austen and Patrick O’Brian – bridging the gulf between?
Though their stories are set in a similar era, there is a gulf between the historical romance novels of Jane Austen and the maritime fiction of Patrick O’Brian. The divide between these two extends beyond obvious gender difference and the genres in which they write, to the readership they attract and to the authors who attempt to emulate them.
Jane Austen is acknowledged as the quintessential Georgian Romance writer, while Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester are recognised as the masters of nautical fiction set in the Napoleonic period. Yet, born 100 years after Miss Austen’s death, Patrick O’Brian has been called ‘her rightful heir’ (Kirkus Reviews).
Jane Austen’s empathy for naval officers stemmed from having two brothers who served in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Both rose slowly through the ranks from mere midshipman to Admiral. But despite her close affiliation with, and knowledge of the navy, Austen did not attempt to write in the sub-genre of maritime fiction. Similarly, while Patrick O’Brian (author of the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series) allowed love interests to filter into his novels, as did CS Forester in his Horatio Hornblower series, neither wrote genre romance.
In the past, writing romance in the Austen style has been and, for the most part, still is the domain of female authors. Conversely, writing in the sub-genre of nautical fiction set in the age-of-sail has been, and still is, the domain of male writers.
But it was not only the writers who fell into this distinct divide. In the past, the readership they attracted reflected a similar distinct male / female split. Generally, females read romance and male readers read maritime fiction. These unsubstantiated variants still appear to apply to a greater extent however very slowly the worm is turning. Today, more male readers are attracted to Austen’s novels, and increasing numbers of women are savouring heroic sea stories set during the Napoleonic wars. Perhaps the in-home TV presentations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ have introduced men to Miss Austen. Similarly, the ‘Hornblower’ series, and the epic movie ‘Master and Commander’ have brought nautical fiction to the screen and introduced this genre to a general, rather than a mostly select male audience.
So, apart from the media, what other factors are bridging this gulf? Today, women feature almost as much as men in ocean racing and sea-faring achievements. Only a few decades ago, women who enlisted in the navy did not step aboard a ship, yet recently, a woman was appointed as commander of a British Royal Navy Frigate. Today, the navy is no longer an exclusive male domain, and maritime fiction is no longer just read by men.
But there is one area where the great divide still appears to be anchored in tradition. It relates to the authorship of the two historical sub-genres. As stated earlier, it is accepted that female authors write romance. A few male authors cross the divide, with some opting to write romance under a female pseudonym. From my observations, authorship of age-of-sail maritime fiction is accepted as being exclusively by males. For many years Forester and O’Brian have been the respected authors of classic Georgian age-of-sail novels. More recently, new names have appeared, such as Alexander Kent, Julian Stockwin, Richard Woodman and many more. But there are no female names on the list. It would seem, therefore, that for the female author, this is a difficult sub-genre to enter and gain acceptance in.
To compete in either genres, writers must know their craft. Just as authors of Georgian Romance must be conversant with the society of the day, the accepted behaviour, mannerisms and dress etcetera; the prerequisites for writing nautical fiction is a thorough knowledge of tall ships, historic sea battles and familiarity with all the bells and whistles of the Royal Navy in Napoleonic times. But is this sufficient for a female author to gain a foot on the ladder of the male dominated sub-genre?
From my own experience, having had four historical novels published, my fifth novel, Floating Gold, was a maritime fiction adventure. As an apprenticeship to writing this type of story, I sailed on several tall ships. I crossed the Atlantic on a barquentine and cruised most of the world’s oceans including the Southern Ocean and crossing Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. I have hauled on ropes, climbed the mast, taken the helm and immersed myself in the days of wooden ships. I have also visited numerous historic vessels and walked the decks of many.
But a knowledge of tall ships is not the only prerequisite to be competitive in this sub-genre. More importantly, the author must be capable of writing an engaging story, and be familiar with the historical facts in order to form the framework on which the story can take shape.
Having graduated with a BA (Writing) in 2004, I returned to University in 2010 to learn more about the Age of Revolution, the Atlantic World and the events of the Napoleonic Period. Just recently, I completed a second maritime fiction novel titled, The Tainted Prize. This is a sequel to Floating Gold, and my second book in this male dominated domain.
Just like the length of time it takes for a young midshipman to rise to the rank of admiral, I imagine it will take some years for female writers to rise up the list of accepted authors in the narrow and rather exclusive sub-genre of nautical fiction. But, I believe the worm is turning. Or, should I say, the tide is on the turn.
I loved that. Thank you, Margaret!
After a career in Cytology (cancer detection), Margaret’s turned to writing, and after completing a Writing degree in 2004, her first novel, Sea Dust, was published in 2005. This was followed by three more novels set in the north of England.
Inspired by the works of Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester, Margaret’s first nautical fiction adventure, Floating Gold, was published in 2010. Recently she completed a sequel to this story as part of a proposed series.
Having a keen interest in the convict history of colonial Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), she also plans to write the story of one of Tasmania’s famous bushrangers – ‘a far more engaging character than Ned Kelly,’ she said.
Apart from writing, Margaret loves to travel and in September she will be flying to London to attend the Historical Novel Society Conference. High on her agenda during this trip are visits to the Greenwich Maritime Museum and the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. ‘A real treat to look forward to’ Margaret said.
Here follows a a little about Margaret’s novel ‘Floating Gold’:
1802 – The Treaty of Amiens heralds a fragile peace in the war with France. Britain’s fighting ships languish in ordinary and sailors litter the alehouses of Portsmouth. From a beach on the Isle of Wight, Captain Quintrell observes a fleet preparing to sail, little knowing he will soon have command of a naval frigate. Entrusted with secret orders from the Admiralty, he heads south, unaware of the horrors which lie ahead, but when he enters the freezing Southern Ocean, a near mutinous crew, murder most foul and the dangers held within a simmering volcanic island pose as much of a threat as a broadside from a man-of-war.
Other electronic versions available from www.belgradehouse.com.
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.
The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with adventure novelist and non-fiction author Sondra Smith – the four hundred and eighty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything… and follow me on Twitter where each new posting is automatically announced. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords, Sony Reader Store, Barnes & Noble, iTunes Bookstore, Kobo and Amazon, with more to follow. I have a new forum, friend me on Facebook, like me on Facebook, connect with me on LinkedIn, find me on Tumblr, complete my website’s Contact me page or plain and simple, email me. I also now have a new blog creation service especially for, but not limited to, writers.
Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.