Jane here, pondering a question I was asked this week: “If you didn’t write about Roman times, but still wanted to set books in the past, what period would you choose?”
There are so many interesting periods, aren't there, that would make wonderful backgrounds for mysteries. I’ve no plans to explore any of them immediately, but it’s fun to speculate.
I think I’d stick to European history, or at least a time and place with European roots. I’m not well-read enough to tackle locations like China, South America, India…OK, I could research them of course, read books, ask people, and go travelling there – what a marvellous excuse for journeys to fabulous places!
But one of the things I relish about learning the history of Europe is the connections, the resonances, the cross-currents between the different cultures and countries, past and present, and in particular between Britain and its adjacent continent. Observant readers will conclude (rightly) from that last sentence that I’m of the generation that does NOT consider Britain to be fully part of Europe; it wasn’t, it isn’t, and it never will be. I don’t go as far as that famous newspaper headline of, I think, 1912, “Fog in the English Channel. Continent cut off.” But as a historian, I realise that much of Britain’s strength comes from our love-hate relationship with continental Europe. We know we can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it. Fascinating.
Given that my setting would be Europe, I’d pick a period of change. Yes, of course every era embodies changes, more obvious with hindsight perhaps than at the time. But I mean events so massive that their effects were apparent to their contemporaries. The discovery of the New World…the upheavals brought about by the French Revolution and Napoleon…the spread of railways and industrialisation…World War 2, though as I was born during the ‘40s I can’t quite think of that time as history!
If I had to choose one setting right now, I’d go for London in the 1660s, the period known as the Restoration because the Stuart monarchy had just been brought back following the turbulent decade or so of the Puritans. Many people then would have hoped that they were done with violent change; they wanted “the good old days” back again. But that wasn’t possible. Change was everywhere. The Americas had been discovered, bringing with them trade and colonial ambition, not to mention all sorts of desirable commodities, from gold to potatoes. Scholarship, especially science, had shaken itself free from the shackles of religion. The spread of printing and literacy was making people realise that knowledge could be for everyone – it must have had an impact in its day similar to that of the Internet now.
And last but certainly not least, in learning about the Restoration I’d have such a wonderful richness of contemporary writings, from Pepys and Milton to everyday journals and pamphlets by people who never became household names. This would be quite a culture shock for me after Roman Britain, where the written sources that we now treasure are such a small proportion of what originally existed.
So, Restoration London is my choice. I’d be interested to hear other people’s selections. If you were picking a historical setting you haven’t tried before, which one would it be?