A L Berridge’s swashbuckler is a challenge to this male-dominated branch of historical fiction, says Sian Norris
There are two types of historical fiction. The type where women are the centre of the action (usually focusing on sexual intrigue, romance and more sexual intrigue), as demonstrated by Philippa Gregory. Then there are swashbuckling adventures (where men draw swords and wage battle), as demonstrated by Bernard Cromwell. The former is overwhelmingly written by women, the latter by men. Enter A L Berridge, a woman writing the latter, an epic adventure of rebel men fighting against their Spanish occupiers, at the heart of France’s Thirty Years War.
Popular culture fans will recognise A L Berridge as the former executive producer of Eastenders, who left, according to the press release, amidst a “flurry of headlines” and has since used her grounding as a soap producer and English teacher to write Honour and the Sword, the first in a trilogy dealing with the mid-1600s.
This was my first venture into the male-dominated swashbucking genre (I am generally found with my head buried in a Philippa Gregory) and I was suitably impressed. A L Berridge has a knack for setting the scene and her deft use of description puts you right in the centre of the action, until you can feel the sweat, blood and fear that permeates her pages. The action centres around the young Chevalier Andre de Roland, a lord of the manor who at 13 witnesses the horrific death of his parents at the hands of the Spanish invaders, and vows to restore justice and honour, revenging the death of his parents and the destruction of his home. He goes into hiding with the stable lad of his father’s estate, Jacques, and, together with the other villagers (including some women) they form a rebel army intent on destroying the Spanish occupation and restoring order to the area of Dax-Verdame.
Berridge has structured her novel so that is is written as a series of testimonies, given to an Abbe long after the events of the 1630s, and then recovered in the 21st century by Cambridge scholar, Edward Morton. This has a curious effect on the narrative. Instead of hearing Andre speak directly to the reader, we hear this life from the perspective of the people around him, chiefly Jacques, his faithful friend and guardian, but also from his fellow rebel soldiers and the Spaniards themselves. He is presented as a legendary figure, almost a super hero, immortalised in the memories and the words of his fellow fighters and history.
As I said earlier, this strand of historical fiction is male-dominated, an environment of which Berridge has had obvious experience, working in television production. Perhaps it is so male-dominated because most of the characters are, by necessity, male, seeing as these novels are so often set within war-like, army settings. The stereotype of course goes that women can’t write male characters, (although of course, no one complains about D H Lawrence and his insistence of writing about female sexuality!) and Berridge profoundly smashes this stereotype. She gives life and voices to these characters, she profoundly expresses the rivalries, angers and camaraderie between the men in the rebel army. One of the most interesting characters in the novel is rebel army leader Stefan. He’s arrogant and is constantly out to test and challenge Andre, but rather than becoming a one dimensional or a caricature of the cocky soldier, Berridge imbues him with depth, leading you to desperately want to know what it is that Stefan has experienced to make him this way. His relationship with Andre is particularly curious, a competitive anger, respect and dislike is all mixed up in a confused attraction that neither of them are able to fathom.
Another achievement of Berridge (and another bucking of the stereotype) is her refusal to shy away from the violence of war. There are passages in her book, particularly the death of Andre’s parents, that are both horrifying and heartbreaking, where you could almost hardly bear to look at the page. She also looks at the issue of violence against women, both domestic and within the context of rape as a weapon of war. Whereas many of the male writers in this genre only concentrate on the effects war and occupation have on men, Berridge doesn’t ignore how war effects women, particularly in the issue of rape and domestic violence. Although I find these sections of the book quite awful to read, I was glad of their inclusion as it made the feel of the occupation become more real to me. War fiction needs writers like her to prevent it becoming a story just about men. Women are effected by war, rape has always been used as a weapon of war, and this needs to be addressed and made real in fiction.
The novel isn’t perfect. Sometimes conversation became quite stilted, and the use of modern swearing to create the atmosphere of the working class men of the village seemed a bit strained at times, and on occasion the action becomes a bit stalled due in part to the narrative style. It’s a long book and only part one of a trilogy, I sometimes felt we could get there a bit faster. But in terms of characterisation, atmosphere and a refusal to conform to the stereotypes used to challenge women writers from entering this genre this novel is really impressive and hopefully will encourage more women to tackle this traditonally male-dominated arena.