Death-marching through The King’s War (five hundred pages down; one hundred to go), I find myself considering a question that’s been in my mind for some time.
Why is seventeenth-century England so neglected in fiction?
Seventeenth and eighteenth both, really, but I haven’t gotten into researching the eighteenth yet. There’s some stuff there, but they get trampled by the Elizabethan period from one end and the Victorian from the other. (Starting early with the Regency.) Tonight I’m probably going to take time off from the death-march to watch one of the only pre-Restoration movies I’ve been able to find (To Kill a King). I know of almost no fantasy novels set during the Stuart era.
Yet the seventeenth century is chock-full of conflict and change. You’d expect to find lots of fiction exploiting that . . . but you don’t. Why?
We can frame it as a question of “what does the Elizabethan period have that the seventeenth century doesn’t?” Sexiness. Elizabeth is a far more charismatic character than Charles; Shakespeare stomps Milton into the ground. (Shakespeare, obviously, extends into James’ reign; as you might expect, I’m looking more at the middle of the century.) And Elizabeth comes out of the Tudor dynasty, so she’s joining forces with her father and sister to make for an interesting setting. Charles? Has James. Yeah, not so much.
Or perhaps it’s what the seventeenth century has that the Elizabethan period doesn’t: more complications than you can shake a historian at. Not that Elizabeth’s reign was simple, but every bit of reading I do just underscores the impossibility of drawing clear lines through, well, anything during this time. Peoples involved during the Civil War: English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and half of Europe, as the Queen and other emissaries ran around trying to recruit help from anybody who would stand still long enough to listen. (Charles even sent a message to the Vatican.) Religions: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and the Independents, who were a grab-bag of everything fringe. There were peers on both sides, and gentry, and merchants, and common folk; about the only division you can find there is that Royalists tended on the whole to be younger. Brothers fought on opposite sides, as did fathers and sons, even husbands and wives; people changed sides, sometimes more than once. Some towns exchanged hands so often you wonder if the locals thought about installing a revolving door. And none of these categories match up: there were Roman Catholics in Presbyterian Scotland, Protestant Irish refugees in Wales, Anglo-Norman-Irish Catholics trying to support the Anglican King against the Puritan Parliament . . . maybe writers just look at it and say, “screw it, I’m going somewhen easier.”
But maybe it’s just that they’re all a bunch of unlikeable bastards. Charles was arrogant and intransigent, and far too inclined to stick his fingers in his ears and go “la la la the Irish army will come save me any minute” when his more level-headed advisers told him he was screwed and by the way allying himself with Catholics was a bad idea. Pym was a brilliant politician, but I can’t like him when I detest his tactics — declaring everything he didn’t like a breach of privilege of Parliament (GOD have I come to hate that phrase), voting his political opponents to the Tower until nobody was left but his allies, carrying out the exact same actions for which he had been lambasting the King just a short while before. (But it was all in a good cause — a godly cause — which makes it okay, right? Yeah, that hits too close to home to be remotely amusing.) Neither side is really all that admirable to me, and the moderates, whom I might find sympathetic, were politically naive to the point of idiocy.
I know some of you are at least moderately familiar with the period, though, so I thought I’d toss it out there. Why the lack of love for Stuart-era fiction? And can you make me any good recommendations of pre-Restoration novels or movies?