What is the purpose of historical fiction?

When I asked this question on a social media forum recently the most common response from readers was, ‘Knowing about what happened in the past can help to make sense of what’s happening today.’ Writers responded with comments such as, ‘I have always had a fascination with . . . [the Roman period, Medieval Britain, the history of the woman’s movement, the colonising of the USA, etc etc].’

My own response comes from my experiences of researching for my non-fiction books about the history of colonial Australia as experienced by my Australian ancestors. Among the books I read were a smattering of novels, because while non-fiction doesn’t necessarily focus on people’s emotions or reactions to events, a well-written and –researched historical novel can bring to life the people behind those events.


As the late writer Hilary Mantel said, history can tell us what characters did, but not what they thought and felt – “the interior of my characters’ lives,” as she put it. And in response to the criticism that historical novels often falsify the past she asserted that readers of historical fiction are “actively requesting a subjective interpretation” of the evidence, and that the writer’s job is “to recreate the texture of lived experience: to activate the senses, and to deepen the reader’s engagement through feeling.” (I’ve written about the hazards of playing around with history here.)
Click here for the full text of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture.

In my case if there is a particular event or period in the past that interests me that’s a good enough reason to want to write a book set in that period. A case in point was the Bloomsbury Set between the World Wars, which features in my second novel The Purpose of Prudence de Vere. The battle in the theatre world between the Old Order of the actor-manager and the New Idea of plays that challenged the status quo through the likes of Ibsen and & Shaw, plus a fascination with the suffrage movement, were the inspirations behind my Edwardian novels The Makings of Violet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons.

When writing about her own family history at much the same place and time as mine, the writer Kate Grenville decided to turn her book The Secret River into a novel. As she says on her website: “Solomon Wiseman [her real-life ancestor] emerged from the documents as a vivid, strongly-present individual man, but he was also a representative of his class, time and place. I realised that I could use what I knew of his life, but turn his story into fiction so that I could tell the silent part of his story as well. The story of one man could stand for a much bigger story, about the often-violent reality of white settlement in Australia.”

The image is the programme of the play of The Secret River staged in a quarry outside Adelaide as part of the 2017 Festival. I wrote about this amazing experience here.

If anyone is reading this I would love to hear of any particular historical novels you’ve read and enjoyed, and why!

Patsy Trench
London 2022

Booksweeps competition

Images of Violet (illustrations by Anna de Polnay)

Violet is being offered free as part of a competition organised by Booksweeps. It’s free to enter and all you need to do is type in your email address and click the link and presto! you could just be the lucky winner of 52 books of historical and literary fiction, plus a Kindle.

You can also choose an author whose newsletter list you want to join (which is the ultimate purpose of the whole thing). I am in the throes of learning the whole process so if you want to take the journey with me – and I could really do with your company – just click on my name.

The link to the competition is here.

Good luck! And let me know if you win.

Where do you get your ideas?

This is the one question that writers allegedly dread being asked. But as a writer myself, and a reader, it’s the question I would most like to know of another writer.

Some authors are inspired by a place, or a period in history, some by personal experience, others by a real event read about in a newspaper (or these days on social media). As for me, my ideas always begin with people.

The first book in my Modern Women series, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday, featured a 50-something society lady and mother of three whose moribund life is revitalised by her discovery of the joy of sex. The idea sprang from a short story which in itself was partly inspired by Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, in which a young couple’s married life is ruined on the first night of their marriage by the bride’s deep-rooted fear of sex.

Well now, I thought, isn’t that a common experience? Not all sex entails couples panting up against a wall, or groaning and writhing in a rumpled bed. Sex, particularly for women in the past, was not necessarily regarded or expected to be either joyful or particularly fulfilling. Sex was for procreation only. We have our forefathers (and –mothers) to thank for that.

When I expanded my short story into a full-length novel I decided to set it in the Roaring Twenties, a time of revolutionary change for women: off with the corsets and the inhibitions, in with bohemianism, free sex and Marie Stopes. It was Ms Stopes who first posited (in her book Married Love) the idea that sex could be fun for its own sake and not just for the continuation of the species; who actually mentioned the c-word in print (not that c-word). In my book it was the discovery of the outlandish idea that sex did not necessarily mean lying back and thinking of England that opened Claudia’s eyes to the changing world around her, which in turn led her to realise life can begin at fifty.

Marie Stopes’ groundbreaking book

Then, since one thing inevitably leads to another, subsequent books in my Modern Women series featured women who’d appeared in the previous book. So Prudence, Claudia’s free-wheeling best friend, became the subject of book two, The Purpose of Prudence de Vere; and Violet, Prudence’s unhappy suffragist friend, the subject of book three, The Makings of Violet Frogg and again of book four, Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons.

As I immersed myself first in the Roaring Twenties and then in the Victorian and Edwardian periods – the books went backwards chronologically – I became more and more intrigued by the role of women in those societies. The series title ‘Modern Women’ only occurred to me some way down the line, as I realised Claudia, Prudence and Violet – and indeed Merry and Gaye, two actresses who feature in my later books – were all in their different ways bucking the trend of the worlds in which they lived. They were not campaigning feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst. But they managed, in their different ways, to find the means to live their lives as they wanted irrespective of what was expected of them; whether that meant partying with bisexuals in a flat in Parsons Green (Claudia), or proposing marriage to John Maynard Keynes (Prudence), or breaking away from an unhappy marriage to join the suffragist movement and work for a living (Violet).

Quiet revolutionaries all.

Publication day!

MRS MORPHETT’S MACAROONS is published today.

Available as an ebook and paperback on Amazon. The Book Depository,
Waterstone’s, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia & Angus & Robertson

© Patsy Trench
30 December 2021

The modern lady milliner

An extract from my forthcoming novel ‘Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons’, as performed by the redoubtable duo, Merry and Gaye. With apologies to W S Gilbert (and Sir Arthur Sullivan).

It celebrates the glorious OTT fashion for hats in Edwardian England. (And the fact that one of my characters is a milliner.)

I am the very model of a modern lady milliner,
I own a little hat shop off the Strand – you may have been in there,
My clients are exclusively the cream of our society,
I’m known for my discretion and my taste and my propriety.

I know the latest fashion and I’d say that I’m ahead of it,
You’ll never find a hat that’s out of style, I just get rid of it,
I’ve simple hats and fancy hats with trimmings and with featherers,
I’ve hats for all occasions and for every kind of weatherers.

GAYE: (accompanying the words of the chorus with a strange little bobbing motion)
She’s hats for all occasions and for every kind of weatherers,
She’s hats for all occasions and for every kind of weatherers,
She’s hats for all occasions and for every kind of weather-weather-ers.’

Each model is unique, you will find there’s only one of it,
Fads and mass production, I’ll have absolutely none of it,
No Merry Widow nonsense and no passing whims or silliness,
For I’m the very model of a modern lady millin’ress.

GAYE: (chorus)
No Merry Widow nonsense and no passing whims or silliness,
For she’s the very model of a modern lady millin’ress.

I’ve curly brims and floppy brims and hats completely brimless,
Panamas with ribbons on, irregular or rimless,
I’ve Buckets, I have Cartwheels, I have Gainsboroughs with flowers on,
Tricorns, tam o’shanters, and a cloche with Eiffel Towers on.

Wedding hats and party hats, Derby hats and toques,
I’ve hats from off the shelf, made to measure and bespoke,
I’ve bretons and I’ve turbans, on the straight or asymmetrical,
Berets plain or stripy or with patterns diametrical.

Berets plain or stripy or with patterns diametrical,
Berets plain or stripy or with patterns diametrical,
Berets plain or stripy or with patterns diametri-metrical.

(The tempo of the music slows)

Each bonnet is a statement, every beret tells a story, 
A hat is so much more than just a mere accessosory,
I’ve sober hats and jaunty hats, for fun’rals or festivities,
Hats for servants, mistresses, and maids of all proclivities.

There are hats to make a maiden swoon, hats to dance a reel in,
Picture hats to hide beneath or cloches all-revealing,
Boaters that will guide you in your speech and your behaviour,
Yes, a hat can be your dearest friend, a hat can be your saviour.

GAYE: (chorus)
A hat can be your dearest friend, a hat can be your saviour.
A hat can be your dearest friend, a hat can be your saviour.
A hat can be your dearest friend, a hat can be your saviour-saviour-er.

From the promenades of Paris to the salons of Sofia,
You’ll find my darlings perched on every noble head you see-a,
In halls of fame throughout the world my name is all-familiar,
I am the very model of a modern lady milliner.

GAYE: (chorus)
In halls of fame throughout the world her name is all-familiar,
She is the very model of a modern lady milliner.

(Images from Pixabay.com)

© Patsy Trench

In praise of Nancy Mitford

Someone on BBC Radio 4 recently described Nancy Mitford – who along with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was the inspiration behind my first novel, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday – as ‘allergic to earnestness’.

This is spot on. Despite the fact she was writing nearly a century ago, and about that unfashionable species known as the Upper Classes, her prose is so light, and so witty, it is easy to forget she is writing often about tragic – or worse, apparently trivial – matters.

The Radlett family that features in her novel The Pursuit of Love (currently on BBC 1 on Sunday nights) is dysfunctional to its core, thanks to tyrannical, xenophobic Uncle Matthew (played with great gusto by Dominic West). He uses his children as hunting prey and abuses them, in public or otherwise, at any given opportunity. He rages about ‘huns’ and ‘wogs’ and refuses to allow any of his children to be educated. He humiliates his niece Fanny – the narrator of the book, the only one of her cousins to receive a proper education – with dogged relentlessness. If this was a modern-day family he’d have been locked up years ago and his children taken into care.

The dysfunctional Radlett family, with Uncle Matthew (Dominic West) as Father Christmas, Fanny (Emily Beecham) top step centre and Linda Radlett (Lily James) on her right

The Pursuit of Love on the surface is about the desperate desire of the central character Linda Radlett, Fanny’s cousin, to fall in love and to marry. But the book is a long long way from a romantic novel. The apparent triviality of the central theme is an example of the sort of empty, purposeless lives so many young women were forced to lead back in the earlier part of the twentieth century, when very few of them were expected, or given the opportunity, to make a career or lead any kind of independent life.

Ms Mitford’s determined lack of sentimentality at times comes across as harsh, even shocking, especially when it comes to childbirth. But what also strikes me about her is the economy of her writing. It is this economy and lightness of touch that above all I have tried to emulate in my own novels, and some reviewers have, most gratifyingly, picked up on this. My favourite kind of review is along the lines of ‘a partly tragic story told with wit and a lightness of touch’. Just the sort of thing one might say about Nancy Mitford, if I may be so bold and arrogant as to mention myself in the same paragraph as her.

The Pursuit of Love, adapted and directed by Emily Mortimer, is currently screening in three parts on BBC 1. In celebration of this I have reduced the price of Claudia for the duration of the series to 0.99c (0.99p).


© Patsy Trench
London 2021

Publication day!

Book 1 in my Entertaining Edwardians series

All the world’s a stage, and one man in his time plays many parts
As You Like It, Act II Scene VII

Welcome to Violet Frogg, vicar’s daughter, socialite wife, working woman, suffragist and housekeeper. A woman who plays many parts under different names and identities, and all in the cause of a hunt for fulfilment and happiness and everything that makes life worth living. Her adventures take her to Her Majesty’s Theatre, where for years she works as assistant to the acting manager of a company run by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and to the stately home of Lord and Lady Armstrong, for whom she acts as housekeeper.

Is Violet running away from love and life or running to something else?

Available on Amazon,
Book Depository, Booktopia, & to order from

SURVIVING LOCKDOWN: The joy of small discoveries

By and large we writers are suffering less than most people during lockdown (unless we have small children to home-school, which is another story altogether). We are used to working from home, we are used to spending time on our own – along with our characters of course. And there are no distractions.

There are minor inconveniences of course: not being able to get out and about to libraries – the British Library in particular – or museums, galleries and theatres for inspiration, not to mention parts of London one might ordinarily want to visit, for research purposes or perhaps even for pleasure.

Trafalgar Square in lockdown (bbc.com)

Small discoveries
But one of the small pleasures I have experienced of lockdown is what I call the joy of small discoveries. For example as I heard the other day, the British Museum has found mysterious cracks appearing in some of their artefacts. It turns out that without the usual thousands of daily visitors, or more precisely their breath, the air inside the museum becomes so dry it damages some of the exhibits. This is not too much of a problem for the BM as they can just turn up their humidifiers, as I imagine can the larger art galleries.

From the same source[1] I heard that when you are asked online to prove you are not a robot by annoyingly having to identify which of the eight tiny squares on your tiny screen have traffic lights or cars in them, you are contributing to research into driverless cars.  I’m not quite so sure how reliable this is (and if it is why aren’t they paying us? I can’t help asking), but if it’s on BBC Radio 4 then it must be true, mustn’t it?[2]

19th century theatre
Also, and more particularly to the point for this novelist looking into theatrical history in Victorian and Edwardian times, I was surprised to see how many women played such major roles, both on stage and more particularly, off. Acting was one way a woman could earn a living in the late 19th century without causing too much of an uproar (unlike fifty years earlier when she was regarded as no better than she should be), and many of them wielded considerable power. Mrs Patrick Campbell (who features in my novel The Purpose of Prudence de Vere) not only played starring roles on stage, she also produced several plays in her own right, as did actresses Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt and other less well-known women such as Gertrude Kingston and Genevieve Ward.

Messing about on stage
On a slightly more irreverent note, Mrs Pat was notorious for the pranks she got up to on stage when she was bored, such as chucking chocolates at the scenery.[3] She was not the only one. Herbert Tree, arguably the greatest actor manager ever (who features in my forthcoming novel) also played around when he got bored, by appearing on stage from the wrong place, or ad libbing (which he was prone to do anyway as he hated learning lines).

There is a marvellous book called The Truth about Pygmalion[4] about the first English production of Bernard Shaw’s play, which starred both Mrs Pat and Herbert Tree. Tree was a character actor who found it impossible to play straight roles. In rehearsals he gave Henry Higgins, on different occasions, a limp and a Scottish accent, on the grounds that every middle-aged bachelor drinks too much and has gout, and that most linguists are Scottish. It took all Shaw’s patience and self-control to get him to play without any accoutrements (and to stick to the script). Mrs Pat’s accent was so appalling it took Shaw considerable more ingenuity to teach her to speak cockney than it ever did Higgins to teach Eliza to speak posh. Then on the final week of rehearsals Mrs Pat disappeared completely and her place was taken by an understudy. She turned up out of the blue for the dress rehearsal as if nothing had happened. (She’d got married in the interim.) Meanwhile the moment the famously unromantic Shaw’s back was turned Tree added his own touch to the end of the play when he had Higgins throw a bouquet at Eliza.

The Word
Pygmalion was also famous – or notorious – for the uttering on stage, by a woman, of a Word rarely heard outside the pubs and pits; a Word that has since been superseded – and how – by others far more intentionally offensive, but which at the time caused a furore in the national press. Tree was so nervous his audience would be irredeemably shocked he tried to get Mrs Pat to cut it, but she refused. In the event it brought sustained howls of laughter in the theatre, and once word had got around about the Word the theatre was subsequently packed out night after night.[5] It even became fashionable to use it among certain societies.

Audience reaction to The Word (The Truth about Pygmalion)

How times have changed.

© Patsy Trench
January 2021

[1] ‘The Museum of Curiosity’, BBC Radio 4 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00k3wvk [Probably not available outside the UK]

[2] I once worked years ago as a transcriber for a commercial company. One of our tasks was to transcribe verbatim verbatim – meaning including everything from ers and ums to coughs, throat clearing and any extraneous noise such as a dog barking or passing traffic – a series of apparently meaningless phone conversations between people who didn’t know one another. The point? They didn’t tell us until much later this was research into voice recognition for software.

[3] The Truth About Pygmalio, Richard Huggett

[4] By Richard Huggett, William Heinemann, London 1969

[5] The Word, in case you didn’t know, was ‘bloody’

Claudia goes on tour

Claudia Faraday, like her author, is a shy and reserved woman who hates to draw attention to herself.

However in the big bad world of books, of which there are far too many, a person – and an author – does from time to time have to raise her head above the parapet and say ‘Here I am!’

So it was for this purpose that Claudia and I enlisted the services of Rachel’s Random Resources, who took us on a five-day blog tour last week in search of reviews. It was the most attention either of us had received ever since Claudia appeared on the scene back in 2015 (she was revamped in 2019), which was heart-warming to say the least. Here are some of the comments from the book reviewers:

I loved reading how Claudia really opens her eyes and sees a whole new world and starts imagining things she never thought of . . . For me, it was not purely a sexual awakening for Claudia, but more on an emotional level . . . A funny read, with an important message underneath! https://tizisbookreview.music.blog/2020/09/15/the-awakening-of-claudia-faraday-written-by-patsy-trench-bookreview-patsytrench-rararesources/

Headline news?

I really enjoyed this story and I thought that the author has a superb writing style that really brought the period, the characters and what they were going through and dealing with to life . . . Very highly recommended! https://donnasbookblog.wordpress.com/2020/09/15/blogtour-bookreview-for-the-awakening-of-claudia-faraday-by-patsy-trench-rararesources/

Thank you Rachel’s Random Resources for introducing me to Claudia Faraday. We went on an interesting journey together . . . Patsy Trench’s story has an unexpected elegance . . . The chronology in the journey of sexual awareness depicted in the story is one of the beautiful elements here. https://trails-of-tales.com/book-review-the-awakening-of-claudia-faraday/

. . . an interesting feminist take on sexual diversity. https://jessicabelmont.wordpress.com/2020/09/16/blogtour-the-awakening-of-claudia-faraday-patsy-trench-patsytrench-rararesources-gilbster1000-amreading-bookblogger-bookreview/

The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a delightful novel which consistently confounds expectations . . . Claudia is a lovely protagonist. A gentle and well intentioned woman who, in her sixth decade, is only beginning to question her wants and desires . . . It is not a difficulty to spend time in the world of these delightful characters. https://pajnewman.com/

Patsy Trench writes a fun, easy and totally relatable story that translates well to current day . . . it’s a page turner that I know every woman can identify with in their own way and will absolutely love . . . With a really great cast of characters and a brilliant plot, I honestly have to repeat myself and say “you gotta read this book.” https://www.facebook.com/readinggirlreviews/

A bit of subtle advertising in a London street

Trench combines the charm of the early 20th century with a facet of womanhood that hasn’t really changed that much at all. We put the pleasure of others before our own, because society tends to deem it be correct that way. And goodness gracious me if one does endeavour to discover and enjoy pleasure, and demand it no less – well I never, what would people say? https://mmcheryl.wordpress.com/

A coming-of-age story set in the 1920s where the protagonist, Claudia, shakes off the shackles of a prim, well-to-do lady and discovers the joy of sex . . . Offering something a little different from other books, I think this would appeal to fans of the 1920s or historical fiction . . . It’s an unusual story that provides a different perspective on what it means to be a woman. https://mrsbrownsbooks.wordpress.com/

Photos courtesy of photofunia.com.

The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is available here: https://mybook.to/ClaudiaF

Patsy Trench
September 2020