Writing the Glorious Revolution: The Goldilocks Effect

So, I’ve noticed more traffic recently on this blog of people looking for ‘Edward Vallance Glorious Revolution’ and going to the specific posts here on that. Anxious to find out what was causing the sudden rash of activity, I did a quick ego-search, only to find this new review of my book posted from Kirkus.

England’s Glorious Revolution was far more sanguinary and disruptive than traditional histories and the popular imagination would have it, argues Vallance (Early Modern History/Univ. of Liverpool).The author hasn’t entirely shed dissertation-ese in his first [sic] book, a sometimes stodgy and generally humorless, though otherwise sensible and sturdy effort. Britain’s King James II, converted to Roman Catholicism, endeavored to liberate Catholics around the British Isles, causing many to wonder if the Isles were slated for more rounds of heresy-hunting, burnings and forced conversions. The birth of James’s son with his Catholic second queen prompted the final crisis, since it would prevent the throne from passing to James’s Protestant daughters from his first marriage. When William of Orange, husband of elder daughter Mary, invaded England from Holland, many Britons cheered. James raised an army of opposition but little other support; even his younger daughter, Anne, slipped out of London and allied with William and Mary. James declined his chance to fight – hence the revolution’s reputation as bloodless. He ran, was captured and practically had to be forced to “escape” by his Dutch guards, who simply wanted James out of the country so William and Mary could assume the throne without messy complications. Anne returned to reign following their deaths; after her, George I established the Hanoverian line and kept Britain safely Protestant, not to mention newly considerate of Parliament. Vallance excels at showing how the emerging press played a pivotal role in the transition, wryly noting the influence of both booze and coffee on the populace’s fiery political fervor. The author also reminds us that the revolution was far from bloodless in Ireland and Scotland, where religious passions ran deep and the ultimate political settlements were “far more divisive.” Among Vallance’s few light moments: a funny word portrait of famously ugly King William.Provocative dissenting view on a major historical event, but it could have used a lighter touch and a breath of wit. (Kirkus Reviews)

‘Stodgy and generally humourless’? – ouch! But scroll down the Amazon page to the one (genuine) reader review of my book. This complains that my style is ‘perhaps too racey for this heavyweight subject.’ (The same accusation was put against the book in a review by my old doctoral supervisor in History Today. Cheers Robert.)

So my writing is too cold for some, too hot for others. I suppose what this shows is that there is a very delicate balance to be struck in writing non-fiction for a general audience. Editors (I think rightly) tend to push authors away from the kind of humming and hawing, ‘on the one hand, but on the other’, style that comes naturally to most academics. What they, and the audience, are looking for is someone tell them how it is (or was): this is what happened and this is why. The ‘magisterial’ mode.

And yet, adopting the persona of an all-knowing historical God can not only make a doubt-filled academic feel uncomfortable, but also put off the reader. ‘Magisterial’ can easily become school-masterish. General readers buy books to be entertained, not to be lectured at. So the ‘what happened’ needs to be gripping, the characters vivid and the analysis, the ‘why’, deft and concise.

But go too far in the other direction, deliver your narrative as if it was a pulp thriller, and you are in danger of losing your audience again. Non-fiction readers expect a certain amount of seriousness from their books. After all, if they had wanted to buy the latest James Patterson/Patricia Cornwell/Kathy Reichs they could have gone and done just that (and at a fraction of the price of your expensive hardback.)

A delicate balance, and one that very few serious non-fiction authors (myself included, obviously) get right.

PS. Small note to Amazon. When you insert a new review, please can you do it in such a way that it doesn’t b**ger up all the other (much more positive) reviews on there? Thanks.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. ‘So anyway, James II and William of Orange are supping a pint in their local, when James sez “you’re gettin right stodgy these days, Dutchy.” and Billy sez “Well, my Mary sez you’ve always always been a humourless old git.” So then…’

    By the way, the first sentence of your ‘About Me’ page! (I am historian of early modern Britain…’) sounds like the start of one of those suspicious e-mails that clog up our in-boxes every morning. But maybe I’m just being stodgy and humourless.

  2. Please send me bank details for urgent transaction.

    Well spotted Dave! Its only been up there for about six months, so no damage done…

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