Farah Mendlesohn has a new book out, and it is a dense deep dive into how the history of the English Civil Wars has been written for children, and therefore for everyone, and what this says about how our understanding of seventeenth-century history has been shaped by its teaching.
Mendlesohn is a scholar in the old-fashioned polymathic style, unfettered by the requirements of a department or a disciplinary ideology. If she’s fascinated by a subject that hasn’t yet been written about in the way she thinks it should be, she writes the book. Her PhD thesis was on Quaker relief work in the Spanish Civil War. Her writing on fantasy literature ranges from the seminal (it really is a ground-breaking work) Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), to the synoptic with A Short History of Fantasy with Edward James (2009) and Children’s Fantasy Literature. An Introduction with Michael Levy (2016). All those won or were nominated for prizes, and in 2004 she and Edward James won the Hugo for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003).
Where does a work on a children’s historiography of the English Civil Wars fit into her research? She’s been writing about children’s literature since 2005 and her book on Diana Wynne Jones, and The Inter-galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens’ Science Fiction (2009). Her work on histories of science fiction and fantasy (she and Edward James also edited the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature in 2012) shows that she understands how literary historical writing speaks to earlier and later periods. I don’t know if there are connections to the English Civil Wars in her last book, a biography of Robert Heinlein (2019), but she’s been researching English Civil War fiction for many years.
The subtitle of Creating Memory is Historical Fiction and the English Civil Wars, and ‘Historical’ is the key. The book is about how we understand nationhood and national identity by reading the fiction about these wars written for children and young people at their most formative and impressionable ages. Mendlesohn uses over 170 novels, published from Daniel Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720) to a couple of 2020 titles. She frames her arguments with critical writing on theories of history and historical fiction, and does a very sound job indeed of summarising and explaining the actual history that the novels feed and grow upon.
Her primary research is excellent, exhaustive even, leaving no novel unprobed for the ideas about the construction of nationhood that it might reveal. Mendlesohn’s findings on the whole match the pattern that the historiography of the period reveals: that there were ebbs and flows as the centuries, and regimes, changed, in contemporary attitudes to Charles 1, to Oliver Cromwell, to Prince Rupert, and to whether a Parliamentarian soldier could be a hero-figure to a child. She is scrupulous in separating out the wars in Scotland, Ireland and Wales from those in England, and connecting the right lines of conflict and political turns to the right individuals and events. Inaccuracies in the fiction in reflecting geographical, cultural and religious differences are examined with a forgiving but exacting eye. (Now I know what a lovelock was, and what it signified.) Mendlesohn’s remarks about how artists have depicted the Civil Wars were especially tantalising: reproducing some of these as illustrations would have definitely helped here, since I was looking them up as I read about them.
Creating Memory is a solid achievement is laying the groundwork and establishing that the Civil Wars are as important as the First World War in showing how the construction of British history in fiction and art profoundly affects how we think about historical events in the past, and why generations before and after us may think differently.
Palgrave Macmillan skimped shockingly by ignoring the final proof-reading stage, which is an indictment of their attitude to authors. Their attitude to readers is even more appalling when you see the price of the book, which is swingeingly expensive even by academic market standards: I advise you to wait till this comes out in paperback. They also should have taken a stronger editorial stance, by urging Mendlesohn to step back a little from her findings, and add more digested analysis to take the reader past the vast amount of plot descriptions that at times becomes a little repetitive.
But Creating Memory is an invitation to other writers to finish the job, even extend the work into the Scottish and Irish Civil Wars in more detail. Mendlesohn’s groundwork is a firm establishment of a corpus, if not a canon, for future work.