When I retired and was no longer in a position of having to give all my time to the subjects I taught, I made my way straight back to my first academic passion, Shakespearian Studies. However, decades had past since I’d done any serious work in the area and things had changed with a vengeance. Instead of simply concentrating on the texts of the plays themselves and trying to find ever deeper and more complex meanings behind them, the discipline had expanded enormously to take in not only theatre practice, textual veracity and education and heritage studies, but also the political and cultural history of the time in which the works were written and the way in which that influenced what Shakespeare produced. It is this aspect of the work that I found most enthralling. I love tracking down obscure references to matters at court that might just have influenced half a line here or the choice of a particular word there. I want to know how all the various art forms reflected not only each other but also the society out which they grew.
One thing that has become apparent, however, as I’ve read around this subject, is that as well as being aware of what was going on in Late Tudor and Early Jacobean England I also need to have a better understanding of the foundations upon which that particular society was built. With that in mind I have been building myself a programme for the next two years that I hope will fill in the gaps (many and varied, I promise you) in relation to my knowledge of the history, philosophy, religion, science, art, music and of course, literature of the the period from the Conquest to the fall of the Plantagenets, so from 1066 to 1485. I’m trying to be as broad as I can and so I shan’t just be considering England in this period, but in respect of overseas developments the way in which they influenced what happened here will be my ultimate focus.
Collecting materials that I can both afford and access easily has occupied quite a chunk of the last couple of months and now, as the new academic year approaches, I’m ready to start. However, it struck me last night that one way in which I could embellish my plans would be to include novels that are set in this period in my reading for pleasure and so I’m looking for suggestions. I don’t really want crime fiction, of which there is an almost endless supply, and neither am I really interested in books that are purely historical fiction. What I have in mind are novels like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play, which have something more universal to say but which happen to be set in the Medieval period. Of course, if you think there is an historical novel that has the literary worth of a Wolf Hall then I’m happy to know about that as well. I’m probably very badly biased against historical fiction from teenage reading of bad examples of the genre that were really poorly researched and only an excuse for a second rate romance so perhaps I need my horizons expanding in that area as well. As usual I know I can rely on the wider reading community to help me in this matter and I promise that all suggestions will be gratefully received and that you have my heartfelt thanks in advance.