The best part of doing a Creative Writing degree, is that you get to play with so many different genres that you may never have explored on your own. One module I’ve really enjoyed this semester has been one about writing Historical Fiction, a type of fiction I’ve never had any proper experience with. It took a while to get into it, to see all the possibilities and understand the amount of research that’s necessary to write good historical fiction, but I got there in the end, and it ended up being one of my favourite modules out of all three years at uni. I think what I’ve come to really enjoy about Historical fiction in general, is that it just shows how people have always been people; we’ve fallen in love, we’ve been angry, we’ve been awkward and hopeful, for as long as we’ve been around.
I started off the semester by thinking I wanted to write my piece about Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany, a badass lady who basically became a pirate out of revenge, in 1340’s France. However, research makes you fall down weird rabbit holes, and somehow I ended up reading about the British prison hulks on the Thames, in the late 1700s-early 1800s. I also got into reading about the Battle of Trafalgar (something we learnt very little about in History in Norwegian schools), and I found out that a lot of the prison hulks were “retired” battle ships. Imagine serving out a jail sentence on a ship you once fought for your country on, was a thought that just couldn’t leave me, and I started spinning this story about a man who was sentenced to jail for desertion, and ended up serving his sentence on the same ship which he had tried to desert from. It became a short story I really enjoyed writing, and it was fun to be able to try out a bit more “pretentious”, old-fashioned language. Hopefully not too pretentious or old-fashioned though, I feel like there is a fine line between creating a feeling of “old”, and just boring your readers, when it comes to Historical Fiction.
However, if you want to read the piece, I’ve put it here under the “Read More” bar.
Question of the Day: Do you like historical fiction? If so, why?
The Portland, A Winter’s Night, 1818
Matthew kept his eyes closed and his breathing even. Around him, 30 or so other young men slept. Or, at least he thought they did. Maybe they were just pretending, too. No one really slept here, and if they did, it was never peaceful. The coughs of thin men ridden with night sweats, frequently rung through the air. Gaol fever will get us all in the end, he thought, as cries of nightmares crawled along the darkened floorboards.
He had gotten used to how the winds blew through what was left of his undershirt and his tattered trousers; another day of nearly freezing to death. The floor he lay on rocked beneath him, and he could feel the other bodies close to him. He had gotten used to the cold, too, to how his clothes never properly dried on his skin, and how they woke up to frost roses on the walls some mornings. What he swore he could never get used to, however, was the smell. Blood and piss and rotting seaweed.
Between frozen fingers, he clutched what was left of a piece of paper. Every day for thirteen years, he’d taken it out of his pockets, held it in his hand, read the neat lettering. The words were gone now, smeared by his desperate fingers and the ocean air. He had the words memorised; My dear, I am with child and I cannot wait for the day that you come home and meet your son or daughter.
After all these years, Matthew Taylor still had no idea whether he had a son or a daughter. As he held the remnants of the letter to his cheek, he imagined he could feel the warmth of Christina’s skin through the paper. It had been written in the penmanship of the rich and the educated. She had left that life to be with him, and he had left her to serve his country. He could see her sat by the window that overlooked the crowded streets outside, how her dress lay over her lap and her hair fell in ringlets over her shoulders. No more rich silks, but rough cotton. He imagined how her family had taken her back after his capture. Taken both her and the child who was not yet born away from their little flat, to make sure the child grew up well-fed and properly dressed. They wouldn’t let neither Christina nor the child talk to him, he told himself. That had to be why they’d never written again.
The Bellerophon, October 21st 1805
Matthew was standing on the spar deck of the ship, his eyes searching the unforgiving ocean, as the sun went down on a day that had lasted a lifetime. He clasped a piece of paper in his hand, a letter he had struggled his way through again and again. He heard someone walk up behind him, heavy boots slamming against the wet deck. The sound imitated the cannons they had fired that morning. The boots got closer, before Samuel leaned on the taffrail next to him.
“I didn’t see you at supper,” he said. Matthew didn’t turn to him.
“I need to go,” he simply said, still looking out towards the horizon. “Christina’s with child.”
“Oh,” Samuel sighed. Matthew gave him the letter.
“What good am I to my child if I die at sea?” he said, voice barely a whisper. “What good am I to my child if I never even get to see him?” Samuel looked from the letter to Matthew.
“They’ll have you for desertion,” he said, reading the panic in Matthew’s wide eyes, the fear in his trembling fists.
“What kind of father am I if I’m not there to see my child grow up?”
Samuel folded the letter neatly.
“A navy one,” he said, handing the letter back. “One who serves his country when it’s needed.” Matthew all but ripped the letter out of Samuel’s hand, before straightening out any creases. Carefully, he put it in his pocket.
Samuel sighed again and put a hand on Matthew’s shoulder. In the corner of his eye, he could see an officer on the quarter deck. He looked at the stiff lapel on the blue coat, the red belt, those white trousers. His buttons were gilded. It was a stark contrast to their well-used cotton shirts; there were no uniforms for men like them. He lowered his voice. “There are prison sentences for this, Matthew.” He clasped his shoulder tighter. “What good are you to your child from a cell?” He released his grip and let his hand drop. “We won the battle, that’s got to count for something, right?” He looked out at the sea, at the pieces of wood and shrapnel that followed them, floating on October’s uneasy waters.
Matthew shook his head. “There’s always going to be another battle, Samuel. Cape Trafalgar today, who knows where we’ll set sail tomorrow.” He closed his eyes and tightened his fingers around the letter in his pocket. “What if it never ends?” Samuel left the question hanging in the air, didn’t have an answer to that. Then he nodded slowly. He let his head hang for a moment, eyes closed, like he was thinking. When he raised his head again, he didn’t look Matthew in the eyes, but focused his gaze on a point above his shoulder.
“Very well,” he said, “you do what you’ve got to do.”
Matthew said nothing, only returned the nod. Then he took a deep breath and hurried off into the shadows of The Bellerophon.
The Portland, A Winter’s Morning, 1826
“No esperanza, hay,” a voice suddenly said from behind his shoulder. Matthew turned around, surprised. The voice belonged to a man he had never seen before. He wore a shirt even more tattered and dirty than his, and dark curls hung around a filth covered face. What colour was left on his clothes, was dark yellow, almost orange, not white cotton like Matthew’s.
Prisoner of war, Matthew thought, narrowing his eyes. The man continued talking. “El recuerdo de mujeres hermosas es lo que queda para vivir.” He had a cap pulled down in front of his eyes and was leaning against the wall. It was clear that he made the most out of the crowded space he was resigned, and he had managed to get a corner when they’d been brought in from the day at the bay.
“I thought I knew everyone in this cell?” Matthew said, raising an eyebrow at the man. He sat with his legs crossed at the ankles, but not outstretched. There wasn’t room for that.
“Mi amor se ha ido para siempre,” he simply said, before lifting his face. Matthew gave him a small smile.
“I don’t understand a word you’re saying, mate,” he said, “but you look even worse off than me. You must’ve been here a while.” The man didn’t respond. Instead he waved a hand at the men sitting quietly on the floor around them, before he tapped his hand on the metal grills on the walls, their makeshift windows.
“El aire del mar será bueno para ti, dijeron,” he said. Matthew raised an eyebrow. Del mar, the sea. He had blasted enough ships, watched enough of the Franco-Spanish fleet hurl themselves into the dark depths as their hulls caught fire, to know that one. The man sat up and put his hand towards him. “Guido,” he said, making it clear that he was introducing himself. Matthew nodded.
“Matthew,” he said, taking the hand. The skin felt hard and it was red with callouses, not much different from his own.
“Hey,” a watchman suddenly said, banging a gloved hand on the bars to their cell. “Quiet in there.” They followed his back as he walked away. Guido pointed to the letter in Matthew’s hand.
“Su mujer?” he said, voice quieter. Matthew only blinked. Guido held up his hands and tried again. “Su esposa,” he was looking for words he knew would sound familiar in both their tongues, bridging the gap between them. “Tu amor?” he said, laying both his hands over his heart, clasping his own fingers like a lover’s vow. Matthew smiled and nodded.
“Yes,” he said, looking down at the paper in his hands.
The Bellerophon, October 21st 1805
Matthew managed to lower a life boat onto the water. It made more noise than he was comfortable with, but normally this was no one man’s job. The dark of the late autumn night kept him hidden, or so he thought. I cannot wait for you to meet your son or daughter, was echoing in his head. He had to get back to Christina. To her and their little child. In his mind he could imagine himself holding the baby, how the little hands would wrap around his fingers, could almost hear the small taps of feet learning to walk. Beneath him, Matthew could feel the creaking wood, wet and slippery, but sturdy, and beneath that, he felt the sway of the water as his boat hit the ocean.
Matthew’s face paled as he suddenly heard voices. He started unknotting the thick ropes that he had reeled the boat down on, but he wasn’t quick enough. The knots were too well-done, the rope too wet and slick. His fingers were unable to undo them. A lantern was lit and the light shone down on him. He let go of the rope and looked around, wide eyes wild. There was only one thing to do. As he felt the boat being pulled up, reeled up on the ropes that had helped him so far, he drew a sharp breath and dove into the freezing ocean.
The Portland, A Winter’s Evening, 1818
They had them working on the Thames. Matthew wasn’t entirely sure who they were, but they were high in power and they had money. Some sort of office, someone who was supposed to take care of the convicts, but instead saw an opportunity to earn even more. He rose with the sun that day like any other; it peeked through the holes in the rotting side of the ship. Then, like any other day, they were led out in lines, feet shackled, to drudge the Thames, to make sure the rich men’s river didn’t move.
“Time to earn your keep,” one of the watchmen would say, with a grunt of a laugh. They were sent out in lighters, small boats that were too heavily loaded with working men. When they reached the middle part of the Thames, were the canals were meeting each other, where the mud and seaweed was blocking the water, they drudged the river bed. The smell of muddled and brackish water hung in the air and the only sound that could be heard was the clinking of their shackles, the heavy breathing of starving convicts working.
After what the winter sun told them was about seven hours, Matthew found himself back in the cell. He looked around, tried to find Guido again. It had been a couple of days since he had seen his unexpected friend. But there was no yellow shirt resting in the corner of the cell, no Spanish words were thrown out without a care for who might understand them or not. The cell wasn’t as crowded as it usually was either, at least ten men must’ve disappeared. Matthew looked to the watchman outside the cell and moved towards the bars. He kept his head lowered.
“Where is everyone?” he asked loud enough to be heard by the guard, but quiet enough to not cause any trouble. The guard looked over at him and raised an eyebrow. “Exactly where they should be?” His voice got higher at the end, like he was answering a stupid question with another question. Matthew looked back at the men in the cell.
“We’ve got more space here than usual,” he said, looking at the watchman.
“You gonna complain about being able to lie flat at night?” the watchman said with a sneer. Then he pursed his lips and waved a hand. “You’re all being moved,” he said, matter of fact. “Transported. There’s too many of you in here.” Matthew fell back from the bars, as the man started walking away, down towards the rest of the cells. Then he turned around and with a smug smile, he looked Matthew directly in the eye. “There are just too many goddamn worthless criminals in this country, we just don’t know where to put you all,” he said.
Matthew’s hand went into his pocket, fingers finding the letter still resting there. It was more a clump of paper now, but Christina’s words still rung in his head. I cannot wait for the day that you to come home and meet your son or daughter. Would they be able to find him if he was transported somewhere new? Somewhere he didn’t even know where was?
The Bellerophon, October 21st 1805
What good am I to my child if I die at sea? Matthew inhaled a big gulp of sea water as his own words suddenly rang in his ears, deafening the sound of his own heart. What was he doing? He needed air. Gasping he reached the surface, eyes blinded by the salt. He stopped where he was, and turned slowly in the water. From the ship, three other men had managed to get themselves down on the little lifeboat. One of them leant over the side, grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the water.
“You alive?” one of the men quickly asked him, when they’d gotten him into the lifeboat. Matthew said nothing, as the lifeboat was slowly pulled up alongside the dark brown side of the ship. The short journey was jolting and not as smooth as lowering the boat had been, and as they reached the rail, Matthew was dragged back on board. He stood, leaning against the rail, clothes drenched and breath ragged. One of his hands was in his pocket. On the deck he saw an officer waiting for him, and behind the officer, Samuel was standing. He was staring at the ground, hands balled into fists by his side. The officer walked over so he stood right in front of Matthew. He towered over him. “Matthew Taylor,” he started, lifting an eyebrow. Matthew didn’t take his eyes off Samuel to look at the officer. “You are charged with desertion, and will be sentenced thereby.” He looked at the men that had climbed over the rail after them, before throwing a quick glance back at Matthew.
He was still holding onto the rail, eyes still trained on Samuel. The hand in his pocket was clutching Christina’s letter, cold and wet.
“Take him to the brig,” the officer said with a wave of his hand, and the men who had stood waiting nodded and took hold of Matthew’s arms.
“Sorry, mate,” the man who had talked to him in the boat quickly said. Matthew didn’t acknowledge him. He tried to catch Samuel’s eyes, but Samuel refused. As Matthew was led away, the last thing he saw of the top deck of the Bellerophon was Samuel slowly lifting his eyes to look up at the horizon, as the sun started rising.
A January morning, 1819
They’d been transported from The Portland on carts, and still in irons they were led onto the new ship. Matthew’s stomach churned as he walked up a too-familiar walkway. A ghost ship, she had become, one that floated too high on the water. Where the proud masts had once carried even prouder sails, they now held clothes lines, drying racks for dirty shirts. Where the gleaming black cannons used to rest, iron grills shut off the gun ports. The Bellerophon, his Billy Ruffian, looked darker now, like the ship had given up.
“Lofty between the decks, you’ll have lots of room to breathe,” a watchman said mockingly, as the convicts were shoved along. Almost 400 men were waiting on the docks. Matthew had to close his eyes as they passed what used to be the sailors’ quarters, heading for their new cells. The cruel irony of fate was not lost on him. A journey going nowhere, on the ship he had once been willing to give his life for. He could no longer hear Christina’s voice in his head.