Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Women of the Past Part III: Sparta vs Athens

Are They Singing in Sparta?
The Spartan treatment of women was one of the features of Spartan society that set Sparta apart from all other Greek cities, and the relative freedom of Spartan women was viewed in the rest of the ancient world as scandalous. Most modern readers, however, have no idea the extent to which ancient Greek women – outside of Sparta - were restricted, disenfranchised and disdained. As a result, when writing about ancient Sparta, the challenge is not merely to show how Spartan women differed from us, but also how they differed from their contemporaries. I address the differences in a variety of ways. Here are some examples:

The first scene is from Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge. Twelve year old Leonidas and his friends, Alkander and Prokles, have come to watch Prokles’ younger sister compete in a girls’ race at one of the Spartan festivals.

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge“Why are there so many strangers here?” Leonidas asked because he noted that almost everyone around, although Greek, was speaking a different dialect – mostly Ionic.

“Oh, that’s because they don’t have maiden races in other cities,” Prokles’ grandmother Leonis explained. “In fact, they don’t let their maidens out of their houses at all.”

“So how do they go to school” Prokles wanted to know.

“They don’t.”

“They don’t go to school?” Leonidas was shocked. “Not at all?”

“And that is the proper way of things!” one of the men standing near them insisted, butting into the conversation firmly. He addressed himself to the boys rather than the women. “Everything a girl needs to know in life, she can learn at her mother’s knee in the safety and seclusion of her own home. By letting girls run around in public view you only encourage licentiousness and disobedience! The less a girl sees and hears the better she is.”

The three Spartan boys stared at the stranger in open bafflement. Because he looked at least 40 and by his rich clothes and carefully coifed hair appeared to be a man of wealth, they dared not contradict him.

It was Prokles’ grandmother who answered him sharply. ”If it is such a scandal, why are you here?”

“See! That’s just what I mean!” the man declared, still addressing the boys. “Silence, SILENCE, is a woman’s greatest virtue.” Then turning on Leonis, he sneered at her, “Flaunting your bodies is not half so bad as the way you chatter and interfere in men’s affairs!”

“If you are afraid of women’s words, go back where you came from!” Leonis retorted.

“I intend to do just that!” The man said indignantly and would have turned away, but Leonidas stopped him.

“Excuse me, sir.”

The man looked back.

“May I ask where you are from, sir?”

“I am from the great city of Athens!” the man proclaimed, loudly enough to make others start to take notice.

“Oh!” Leonidas looked so surprised that the man’s curiosity was aroused.

“Does that surprise you?”

“It does, sir.”

“Why?” the man asked, perplexed. He evidently felt that his nationality should have been obvious from his clothes and accent.

Leonidas hesitated. He glanced a little uncertainly at Prokles’ grandmother. She could not know what he was going to say, but she awaited it expectantly. “It’s only that I was taught that Athens was a great and powerful city, sir.”

“As indeed it is, boy – nothing like this provincial pig-sty you call a city! Why, your whole acropolis wouldn’t qualify as more than a collection of third-rate district temples in Athens, and your agora would fit inside ours three times over!”

“I accept your word for it, sir, but it surprises me nevertheless – although I knew you had walls....” Leonidas trailed off enticingly.

“What surprises you, boy?” the man asked impatiently, frowning, sensing something behind Leonidas’ words that he could not identify yet.

“It surprises me that you are so easily frightened.”

“Frightened?!” the Athenian demanded, flabbergasted and uncomprehending.

“I mean,” Leonidas still sounded baffled and respectful, because it was a guise he had long since honed to perfection in the syssitia. “If you fear even the words of women, how you must tremble before the spears of men.”

This exchange is important because it highlights women’s comparative freedom, but also stresses that in Sparta too “the spears of men” were still more important.

The next example also comes from my Leonidas Trilogy, in this case from the second part, A Peerless Peer, (scheduled for release this coming fall). In the exchange below, Leonidas is now 24 and on a visit to Athens. He is speaking with the son of his host, a man of roughly 30 years of age.

“What about your wife?” Leonidas asked.

Kallixenos looked at him startled. “What about her?”

“Can’t you talk to her?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never tried. Why should I? She’s about to provide me with an heir – at least I hope it won’t be a girl. What more is a wife for? Surely you don’t talk to your wife?”

“I would, if I had one.”

Kallixenos just laughed at him. “You may know about war, Leonidas of Sparta, but you know nothing about women.”

“It would seem I know more than you, since I have spoken to many of them.”

Kallixenos raised his eyebrows in obvious disbelief. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. My stepmother was a student of Pythagoras and is literate in the tongue of the Egyptians as well as Greek.”

Kallixenos stared at him. Then he shrugged. “The women in Sparta must be different then. Here they are all illiterate and dumb as sheep. Believe me, my wife hardly knows how to add 2 and 2 together and I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say a whole sentence at a time.

In the following example from The Olympic Charioteer, the exiled Spartan Lysandridas realizes his wife is miserable and wasting away in the confinement and inactivity of her life in Tegea.

“My wife is an excellent driver.”

The Olympic Charioteer“Your wife?!” Antyllus gapped at Leonis, who had been watching Afra being backed into the traces and not heard what Lysandridas had said. He was completely flustered and turned back to Lysandridas. “This is ridiculous! I know women are allowed to drive in Sparta, but you aren’t in Sparta any more. Women do not drive in Tegea!”

“I’m not suggesting she drive in public, not in the city. I’m only suggesting she help you to victory by driving on the training track here.”

“That’s the most demanding kind of driving there is! And what horses would I give her?”

“She drove my father’s team – two at a time. How else do you think he got them in shape for Delphi? My cousin Nikandros certainly didn’t do it!” Lysandridas scoffed, and Antyllus raised his eyebrows. He looked back at the oblivious Leonis. She was not his type at all. He found her tanned skin ‘common’ – like a slave’s – and she was too tall and lanky to be appealing. Her face was too square and her mouth too wide. She was even old by Spartan standards! … Of course, he had no idea what Leonis was like – he had no notion of her personality, education or temperament, as it was not his business to have any discourse with another man’s wife – not even his son’s.

Later in the novel, Lysandridas must make a choice between Sparta (which once exiled him) and Tegea. By now his wife Leonis is pregnant.

The Olympic CharioteerA terrible thought came to him. What if she carried a girl-child in her belly? How could he raise a daughter in Tegea? How could he confine Leonis’ child to a life alien to the sun and the wind and the strength and fleetness of her own body?

Yet for all the freedom Spartan women enjoyed compared to their sisters in other cities, they were not the equals of men. They were not trained in war, did not fight, nor were they enfranchised. Even in Sparta, marriages were arranged by families and while the girls often knew their bridegrooms and may have had some say in the matter, they were still expected to marry their parents’ choice for them. The excerpt below is from Spartan Slave, Spartan Queen and is self-explanatory.

Spartan Slave, Spartan Queen: A Tale of Four Women in Sparta“Have you met your intended?” he asked cautiously when their laughter faded naturally. Kassia shrugged, and Pharax was puzzled by her apparent indifference to her wedding and bridegroom. Most girls preened and beamed at the prospects of an imminent marriage – much less one to a prince. “Didn’t he meet with your approval?” he asked her.

“I don’t know. It was a formal introduction at the palace with Uncle Anaxandridas and Uncle Leobotas and Uncle Charillos – not to mention Queen Eupolia, Mom and Agesandros – all looking on. If Anaxilas had so much as touched my hand, I fear Agesandros would have gutted him on the spot. Mom was close to fainting the whole time, and Uncle Charillos looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. Actually, it was hilarious.” Kassia giggled, covering her mouth with her hand.

Spartan women remained women and felt themselves to be very different from their men. It would therefore be wrong to portray Spartan women as modern feminists. This last quote is from Are They Singing in Sparta?
Are They Singing in Sparta?Alethea lay in bed exhausted from another sleepless night and wished that she could sleep in. She wished she could hide here and not face another day with all her problems unresolved. Wasn’t it bad enough that Niko was still seen by his peers and the Peers with intense suspicion? That Kassia had lost the young man she was in love with in the Massacres? That the wine harvest was sour? That they had a plague of mice threatening the barley? Did Sandy have to disgrace her too?

Had she neglected Sandy these last years? He had always seemed the easiest of her children. With Niko running away and then Kassia almost killing herself with grief, maybe she had paid too little attention to Sandy, who had seemed so well adjusted and content?

How could she have raised a son who could ridicule a lame man? That was the worst of it. Not, as the others thought, that he had shown so little endurance under the cane…What was the world coming to when 11 year-old boys mocked and ridiculed lame men in the streets?

There was no way around it: it was her fault that her sons had both turned out so badly. She should have re-married right away, at the first opportunity, when the boys were still very young. How could she have been so selfish? How could she have deluded herself that she could raise two boys to manhood without a husband?

As this excerpt illustrates, a Spartan matron’s world consisted of her household and her children, and raising good sons was her principle concern. Sons who failed to meet the standards of society were a disgrace and the widow Alethea acknowledges that she has failed, and that she should have done what society expected -- marry a second time. Spartan matrons were not feminists in the modern sense. They too, like their sons and husbands, were products of their society, but at least that society recognized their role as important and honourable rather than treating them like a necessary and contemptible evil as in the rest of Greece.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Women of the Past Part II: Britain and America in WWII

Last week I wrote about women in Nazi Germany. I pointed out that women who lived through the period were often very frustrated, not to say outraged, by the way modern behaviours and mores were projected backwards. They complained that most films and novels produced today but set in Nazi Germany got things very wrong when it came to the behaviour of women.

Hard as it is for many women today to believe, the same is true for British and American women in the Second World War. The woman’s movement, the pill, equal opportunity laws and successful role models have all contributed to a significant – but often subtle and gradual – alteration of women’s behaviour, attitudes and role in society. I’m not talking here about rigid stereotypes of dumb blond housewives versus savvy modern career girls. Particularly in wartime Britain, many women were doing men’s jobs from factory work to flying. But they did it differently. Most saw their role as supportive, not leading, and they were neither surprised nor offended to be paid less for doing the same work. They thought, as many told me personally, that the pay differential was ‘only fair.’

Likewise, although there was an increase in unwed pregnancy, given the fact that there was inadequate sex education, a widespread lack of effective contraceptives, and the huge emotional stress of a war, the numbers reflect a far lower level of sexual activity than is common today. Yet because the women of World War Two don’t seem as strange to us on the surface, as say, the women of the Civil War or medieval Europe, it is very easy to forget how different they were – and forget some fundamental differences in attitude.

For those interested in a study on women’s roles and men’s attitudes toward them in the Second World War, I recommend my non-fiction study: Sisters in Arms: British and American Women Pilots During WWII.SISTERS IN ARMS: British & American Women Pilots During World War II

My novels set in wartime Britain reflect that research. Here are two scenes from The Lady in the Spitfire that highlight the frequently forgotten fact that “nice” women didn’t wear trousers, at least not in a social context. Thus, even when a woman’s uniform put her in trousers there could be consequences socially.

The Lady in the SpitfireEmily removed her skirt from her parachute pack, thinking again how lucky she had been not to have to use the latter. She removed her flying boots and trousers and changed into the skirt, stockings and pumps. She packed the boots, trousers and Robin’s flight jacket into the parachute bag (frowned upon but practical), slung the parachute pack over her shoulder and re-emerged.

Although a woman pilot and an officer, Emily cannot enter the officers’ mess at an RAF station in her flying uniform. She must always carry a change of clothes with her.

The next example highlights the attitude toward women in trousers that was even more extreme among Americans, who at this point in time (1942) were less used to the sight of women in slacks.

“You saw those sluts come in –“

“What sluts?”

“The girls in slacks!”

“WAAFs, you mean.”

“WAAFs, sure!” Brier sneered, curling his lip derisively. “We know what they’re there for! Service the RAF, don’t they, sir? Well, why not us? What’s the big deal? Just because we’re American, we’re not good enough for them, or what? Since when are whores so fussy? I told her she could have a pair of nylons! You would have thought I spit in her face.”

“Worse,” J.B. told him bluntly. “Where have you been hiding the last three months? Those WAAF all out-ranked you, corporal!”

Another huge difference between now and the 1940s was the attitude toward women in the workforce. Again from The Lady in the Spitfire:

“Barb,” (this was third and youngest of J.B.’s sisters) “wants to quit her job at Jacobsens and go work on the assembly line at Willow Run. She says they pay a lot better, but your father won’t hear of it.”

“I should hope not!” J.B. agreed. “Doesn’t she know what it’s like on those assembly lines? Work till you drop isn’t the worst of it! Jeez, Mom, I’ve heard the worst stories – you know, if a girl is so hot on being down there with a bunch of guys, then they figure there’s only one thing she wants!”

“Well, you talk to Barb about it. She says she knows lots of girls who’ve quit their ‘five-and-dime’ jobs to earn ‘real’ money, and she says they’re all nice girls.”

“Well, that may be what they were when they quit work at Jacobsens or whatever, but it sure the blazes isn’t what they are after they’ve been working in some aircraft factory for a few months!

In the next example, also focussing on women in the work force, I focus on another aspect of job discrimination. This time not sexual, just stereotyping. It too is from The Lady in the Spitfire and describes the USAAF.

“I mean, can you believe it? I’m a great driver and I can fix a tire or change a spark plug better than half the guys in the motor pool. They send me over here, which I thought was because I was so good. But when I get here I find out I’ve been assigned to the motor pool, alright – as a clerk! I’m not allowed to drive anything! Just sit in the office and keep track of who’s driving what. It’s crazy!”

The below example from Chasing the Wind is set in a Salvation Army Seaman’s mission in Portsmouth England during the early summer of 1940, and again addresses attitudes toward women working.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” He put his look into words.

Chasing the Wind: A Story of British and German Pilots in the Battle of Britain“What makes you think I’m a nice girl?” Emily quipped back without even thinking, falling back into the kind of repartee that was so much a part of her university days.

He laughed, but retorted without missing a beat, “Innocent until proven guilty – or some such thing.” The he gave her another quick but observant glance.“So what are you doing here?” He pressed her.

“Oh, well, in case you missed it, there is a war on, and I wanted to do something useful.”

“Most girls seem to be flocking to the Women’s Services – WRNS and WAAFs and all that. A bit more glamorous than the Salvation Army, surely?”

“Well,” Emily drew a deep breath to answer his question with sufficient forcefulness to assure him that she was not the kind who had eyes only for a uniform. “Glamour is not the issue. I simply don’t want to be a member of a military organization. I admit, Hitler has to be stopped and only military force is going to stop him now, but that does not mean I have to personally join an organization whose raison d’etre is war.”

“Well, it’s not as though the women’s services are being asked to carry guns or drop bombs. Most of what they do is just clerical, answering phones and all that,” the young man pointed out reasonably.

“That may be, but I’d still be part of an organization that quite frankly has been involved in a great deal of oppression – particularly in the colonies....”

Finally, after so much talk about “nice” girls, a dominating distinction throughout the period, I want to highlight the double standard of the time with an excerpt about the hero of Chasing the Wind. The scene takes place at his mother’s house, when his aunt comes upon him after a hasty telephone call.

“Just who was that?” Hattie asked giving him a piercing look.
“Virginia Cox-Gordon.”

Chasing the Wind: A Story of British and German Pilots in the Battle of BritainHattie’s eyebrows went up. She didn’t read the gossip pages, but many of her staff – and of course her sister Lydia – did. She knew exactly who Virginian Cox-Gordon was: daughter of a millionaire, debutante and “catch of the season” just last year, before the war started.

“You know your other girlfriends call my flat,” she told him in a low, reproachful voice.

“I’m sorry—“

“Just how many girls did you give my number to?”

“Only two.” He thought about it. “Three.”

Hattie sighed and gazed at him sadly.

“I am sorry they bothered you,” Robin insisted, looking contrite. “I told them not to call unless it was an absolute emergency, and—“

“Yes, well, I’m sure things look very different from your superior male perspective, but to us poor females here on the ground, the fact that you were last seen duelling with two Messerschmitts over the ruins of Calais in the midst of the worst rout in English history seemed very much like an ‘emergency.’ I can’t say I blame them, but I do wonder about you sometimes....”

Robin concluded this might not be the best time to ask her for Emily Pryce’s telephone number.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Women of the Past Part I: Nazi Germany

The role and behaviour women is one of the most difficult and delicate components of good historical fiction. Few aspects of past societies are so consistently mishandled and misrepresented as the role of women. Some novelists, particularly the writers of historical romance, find it impossible to recognize that women did have attitudes different from those common today with respect to men, fathers, husbands and sex itself. Other writers are determined to portray women of the past as oppressed, underprivileged, weak or brainless.

A good historical novelist looks at the specific period and society in which the novel is set very carefully. He/she researches the role and, to the extent possible, known attitudes of women of the period and ensures that his/her characters operate within the norms of the society in which they live in the novel. Even gestures and language should be consistent with the social restrictions of the period. Because of the importance of this aspect of historical fiction, I have decided to devote three entries to the topic, each focused on a different context. Today I am looking at Nazi Germany.

When interviewing women who lived in Nazi Germany, I was told again and again that “we weren’t like girls nowadays.” The women repeatedly complained that modern portrayals of Nazi Germany ignored fundamental cultural rules - simple things like women not smoking, not swearing, not wearing make-up, not talking about sex and not sleeping around. I was consequently very careful to make the female characters in my novels set in Nazi Germany conform to “the rules.” I also try to explain these rules to my readers.

In the first example, from An Obsolete Honor, Alexandra, a young woman with a law degree, is talking to her younger brother Stefan about her job as a secretary with the German General Staff and her fiancé, a German staff officer and baron.

“The work itself is boring – typing, typing, typing – but I do get to hear and see a lot of fascinating developments. If I swallow my pride and look at it as an opportunity to learn things, it’s actually quite exciting. Besides, can you really picture me as a housewife? It’s a good thing Mother never gets here. She’d be appalled to see I haven’t washed the windows since last fall!”

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to Hitler“That’s not the point,” Stefan countered. “The point is whether Freiherr von Feldburg would be scandalized by the state of your windows.” He turned to look at them, shaking his head in mock disgust.

"Mother says I’m marrying ‘under false pretences’ if I let Philip think I’m a good housewife, when all the time I can hardly fry an egg. She wants me to settle down and learn to cook properly and all that.” Stefan rolled his eyes sympathetically. He knew how hard Alix had struggled to avoid being turned into a housewife. “So I wrote to Philip,” Alix continued, “and said: Look, I’m a terrible cook and housewife. Do you still want me?”


Alix grinned at her younger brother. “He said: if he was concerned about cooking and cleaning, he’d hire someone – but he didn’t intend to marry them.”

When he finished laughing, Stefan remarked, “Money is wonderful. I hope we win the war, or it might not be that simple.”

“I’ll worry about that tomorrow.”

“You’re right: enjoy the war, the peace is going to be terrible!”

One very important aspect of this exchange is that although Alexandra doesn’t like the expectations of her mother and society, her ‘rebellion’ is within the realm of the possible. She has a law-degree, which she can’t use. She is working in a secretarial job, and trying to make the best of it. And, although not explicit in the scene above, the reader knows she is still a virgin. Alexandra is a “good” girl rebelling only as far as her family, her society – and her fiancé – allow her.

In the next example, also from An Obsolete Honor, the young medical student Marianne encounters a different reaction from her fiancé with respect to her non-conformist behaviour, in this case membership in the non-Nationalist Confessing Church.

“When we marry, you’ll have to give up the Church,” Peter told her.
"Why?” Marianne demanded sharply, turning back.
“You know the Leadership disapproves of religion. It would be disastrous for my career if you were a practicing Christian – much less in the Confessing Church!”
“Well, then, maybe we shouldn’t get married after all!” Marianne decided.
Peter was flabbergasted. “Marianne! You can’t mean that!”
“I’m not going to give up the Church for you or any one!”
She opened the door and ran down the steps without a backward glance...

But Marianne has already slept with Peter so she soon realizes she cannot maintain her stance....

In the exchange below, I return to Alexandra and her brother but much later in the novel than the excerpt above, Alexandra tries to make Stefan, who is now dating himself but does not want to commit himself to marriage, to see things from a woman’s point of view.

“You’re right,” Alix stated with a shrug, sitting upright and leaning against the back of the bench. She fixed a cold gaze at him. “Of course, you’re right. How could we women dare to ask for anything in times like these? Your sacrifice is greater, your fate more bitter. Everything you face is more heroic and more tragic.”

Stefan felt no better than before. He wasn’t even sure whether she was sincere or sarcastic. Alexandra wasn’t sure herself. “It’s not that,” Stefan started lamely.

“What is it then? You want to have your cake and eat it too, don’t you? You want Klara to love you and give you all she has – without complaint, without jealousy, without making the slightest demand or receiving the slightest payment – not even in the form of empty promises. You want to be free to go out with your comrades, and free to flirt with other girls, and yet be certain of Klara’s unconditional love for you. And you think you can justify it all because an unjust regime is making unfair demands on you. But it’s not the regime that pays the price, is it? It’s Klara – and she’s as much a victim of the regime as you are yourself.”

Stefan looked down at the gravel and scuffed it with his boot, his thoughts in turmoil.

“It’s most unfair to girls like Klara,” Alexandra continued, “girls who have never wanted anything else out of life but love and marriage. With every day of this slaughter there are fewer young men, less hope. Pure statistics condemn her and millions like her to a fate that is hardly less dismal than that of their slaughtered would-be husbands – only the woman’s agony is long and drawn out. Don’t you remember the old maids that populated every family gathering, every cafe and every train compartment as we were growing up? Didn’t you ever stop to think how empty, pointless and miserable their lives were? Maiden aunts with tiny incomes. Ladies’ companions, governesses, needlepoint stores and copy work.”

The last of my examples for this entry is, I think, self-explanatory. From An Obsolete Honor:

M. St. Pierre glanced over his shoulder at his wife, whom Dieter could hear hissing at him in a flood of furious, hate-filled French. But then he signalled Dieter into the formal parlour with its overstuffed furniture and patterned wallpaper. He closed the door behind him and demanded: “What do you want? We are conquered. You know you can do as you please. Do you want my approval as well? Well, you can’t have it! Yvette was like a daughter to me. Gabrielle – well – what can you expect of a girl like that? If it hadn’t been your friend the Baron, it would have been someone else sooner or later. But I wanted something better for Yvette.”

Dieter was offended despite himself. “I come from a good family, Monsieur. My father is a respected veterinarian. My mother was a nurse in the last war, and I am an officer, Monsieur--”

“So was Yvette’s father!” M. St. Pierre interrupted with a burst of fury. “He was an NCO, an honourable and brave man! He was wounded three times. He fought at the Marne, the Somme, at Ypres. He died fighting for his country, trying to prevent just this: an occupation by you Huns. And now his daughter – under my very roof – I am so ashamed!” M. St. Pierre broke off. He was so overcome by his own emotions that he could not even look at Dieter. He turned away and stared at his cold fireplace with the polished coal grate.

“Ashamed of what, Monsieur?” Dieter asked softly to his back. “That Yvette and I love each other? What is shameful about that? Our hearts wear no uniform. I would – and will – marry Yvette as soon as possible. This is not some cheap affair for me. Don’t confuse me with Christian v. Feldburg.”

M. St. Pierre turned back and gazed at him. “I know you are a decent young man. That’s why I tolerated it. I thought: ‘He’s a nice young man; he won’t dishonour Yvette. It’s good for her to have a little fun. She’ll only be young and pretty once, and there are so few young Frenchmen here. Why shouldn’t she go dancing? Why shouldn’t she be taken to expensive restaurants? But I trusted you not to go too far, Monsieur. I trusted you...” He broke off and turned away again. His hands were working, clenching and unclenching, not in rage but agitation.

Dieter, too, was clutching his cap in his hands in distress. M. St. Pierre had succeeded in making him feel ashamed. But he couldn’t undo what he had done. He didn’t want to. And nor did Yvette.

M. St. Pierre turned back and faced him. “You are frightened. I understand that. I know what it is to face death and horrible injury day after day.” He gestured vaguely to Dieter’s mutilated face and hands. “I know that there is no greater comfort than the love of a woman. I do not even know that I would have acted differently in your shoes. But I am no longer a young man, and I see too that Yvette will suffer for the rest of her life for this. A collaborator. An unwed mother. Who will look after her and her children when you are killed, Monsieur?”

Friday, March 4, 2011

Today there will be weather as usual….

Global warming notwithstanding, weather is one of the few factors in our lives that truly has not changed regardless of the historical period in which a novel is set. How temperatures were measured and how people coped with extremes, on the other hand, has changed. Likewise the interaction of weather with technology can be quite period specific. As a consequence, weather can play a significant role in the plot of a historical novel no less than in a contemporary one.

Let me start with an example from An Obsolete Honor that describes the impact of the Russian winter on the German Wehrmacht. The Wehrmacht was initially a heavily motorized army that increasingly turned to horse-power to cope with some of the challenges of transportation in Russia. As this passage reminds the reader, however, not all the problems could be solved by horses. The passage below appears in the novel as a letter from a German officer to his sister. It is based, incidentally, on diaries describing an actual event.

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerOver Christmas the weather had been mild and most of us had soaking wet feet when suddenly the temperatures dropped to minus 30 degrees. Our feet froze inside our boots. The gasoline froze in the vehicles, even when the motors were left running. The horses slipped and fell until their knees were torn open, and they didn’t have the strength to get up again. The blizzard was blowing in our faces the whole time, which made it impossible for the artillery to provide effective protection for the withdrawal. The MGs jammed in the cold, but because of the earlier thaw, the apparently frozen swamps that we tried to cross sometimes gave way, swallowing man, horse and wagon….

Aviation was also severely restricted by weather in the Second World War when radar, weather forecasting and air-to-ground communications were poor. This combination often led to difficult situations such as the incident described in the following passage from The Lady in the Spitfire:

The Lady in the Spitfire“How the hell can they get the weather so fucking wrong?!” Tony burst out, giving voice to what they were all feeling. For three days in a row they had been alerted, leaves had been cancelled, aircraft bombed up and crews briefed – then the whole thing had been called off due to ‘weather.’ A murky, wet low-pressure system with fits of rain and squalls of wind had settled over the British Isles, turning the airfields into shallow lakes and the skies into cauldrons of dark, pregnant cloud. Today the mission originally scheduled for 6 am had been postponed twice. Now, at 2:30 in the afternoon, when it was almost too late to reach the target in daylight anyway, they had been ordered to take off yet again. The crews had been transported out to their ships, even though anyone who bothered to stick his head out of his office would have noticed that it was still drizzling from low cloud.

As “Halifax Hooker’s” crew dropped off the back of the truck, rain was running off the wings of the big bomber and splattering onto the concrete hardstand. Inside the aircraft it was damp and gloomy, making Jay shiver despite his flight jacket as he settled into the damp leather seat on the flight deck. Rain rolled down the windshield in rivulets.

Weather’s influence on us not always via technology, it can also be very direct. One simple way the weather affects us the way it influences our mood. In the next example from The Olympic Charioteer the weather affects the character’s mood -- but inversely to the normal impact because he is grieving the loss of his son.

The Olympic CharioteerThe spring that followed was the most painful of his long life…It started when the crocus began to bud around the house. Lysandridas had always rejoiced at the sight of the first crocus. Teleklos found himself remembering how as a little boy of five or six Lysandridas had come running inside one early morning breathless with excitement, “The crocuses, Teleklos! The crocuses have popped up overnight!”

Weather can also be a catalyst. In the following example from An Obsolete Honor, the weather provides the push that helps the two main characters overcome their inhibitions – and so leads to a significant step forward in their relationship.

It was pouring rain when Philip and Alexandra finished dinner and went out into the street. The rain had blown in unexpectedly and put an effective end to their plans for a long walk. Alix sighed in disappointment. It was only 8 pm and she did not want to go home yet. She’d looked forward to the evening with Philip all week, not least because he had suggested the walk rather than a concert or movie. Alexandra much preferred his conversation to anything cultural. Besides, they could not talk uninhibitedly in public places, since there was always the risk of being overheard. The walk had been a means of avoiding unwanted ears.

With Lotte’s advice ringing in her ears and her heart thundering in her breast, Alix collected all her courage and suggested – without directly looking at Philip: “If you won’t get the wrong idea, we could have a glass of wine in my apartment.”

Philip, who had been trying to find the courage to make a similar suggestion, agreed at once.

Finally, here is an example from Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge in which weather has a major, long-term impact, in this case causing a drought that leads to the impoverishment of one of the characters and his near loss of citizenship. Here is the description of how two ten year-old boys face the consequences.

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge“See you tomorrow then, Alkander,” Leonidas addressed the other boy.

Alkander spun around, and his face was struggling with emotions. “No, you won’t! The harvest was horrible. My mom can’t scrape together the agoge fees any more. I won’t be there tomorrow or ever again.”

“But if you don’t finish the agoge, you’ll never get citizenship!” Leonidas protested.

“Are you stupid or what?! I can’t afford the syssitia fees, either. I’ll never be a citizen. Never! I never fit in anyway, and you won’t care if I’m gone.”

Leonidas was shocked and stunned. He could find no words, except a rather weak denial. “That’s not true. I’ll miss you. I’ve never forgot how you saved me from a flogging last winter.”

“Just go away and leave me alone!”

Weather always has and always will have an impact on agriculture and so economics, on human moods and movements and on war. As such it will always play a role in novels as well.