The Royal Court is celebrating playwright Caryl Churchill’s 70th birthday with a series of readings of her plays. Mark Ravenhill is directing a reading of her British Civil War play Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, which I have a special fondness for as this is a rare cultural recognition of this heady period. Somehow the Civil War fails to register in our culture as a major historical moment – compare it with other revolutions and civil wars the world over. (It was because of its scrubbing from popular discourse that I wanted Verso to publish an edition of the Putney Debates last year, and I’m delighted to say it was a success.) This may be because, in one sense, it failed, but it did provide Britons with the first coherently expressed demands for democracy and freedom. So how strange that, despite the conflict, the tragedy, the religious enthusiasm and the utopian vision, you can count on the fingers of two hands the cultural product that has been prompted by, or even set in, this period.

My list is:

Literature: Paradise Lost (Milton); Marvell’s poetry; Englishmen with Swords (Montagu Slater); Sexing the Cherry (Jeannette Winterston); and Winstanley (David Caute)

Films: Cromwell (Hughes); Winstanley (Brownlow); To Kill a King (Barker); and Witchfinder General (Reeves)

Ok – so what am I missing?

Readers Comments

  1. One novel missing could be Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost. Set in 1663, but it's suffused with the revolution of the preceding couple of decades, and the emotional heart of the book, if you like (it's a murder mystery in form) is exactly the sort of thing which is also at the heart of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

    I remember a promenade production at the National Theatre in the 70s (80s?) of something very similar to the Churchill: a dramatisation of the seminal history The World Turned Upside-Down by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill.

  2. Quite amazing that someone has dramatised Hill's book - I used to hear about it from a lecturer all the time while studying 17thC lit.

  3. There is of course, "Children of the New Forest", and the lesser known novel by by Montague Slater: "Englishmen With Swords", Ronan Bennett's "Havoc in its third year" just misses inclusion by ten years. There was a television drama series "By the Sword Divided" and a 14 episode radio dramatisation - the name of which escapes me. Surprisingly given the potential of the era there has been very little really.

    I don't know if it counts, but last year I helped organise an evening of 17th century pub poetry:
    which ended with a crowded room singing The Diggers' Song

  4. Hi all

    Thanks for these! I'd got the Slater - a fascinating book, although not entirely successful (incidentally, Slater wrote the libretto for Britten's Peter Grimes). I'd read the Bennett, but had forgotten about it. A great evocation of the time, but ultimately an uninspiring attack on fanaticism. Both those dramas sound fascinating - please rack your brains! I have on tape somewhere a documentary cum reconstruction of key events from the civil war and it's pretty excellent. I don't know Children of the New Forest.

    The Pears sounds fascinating - I'll hunt that down. I re-read the Churchill over the weekend and it is incredible - I'll blog about it again later this week.

    That event sounds great - I'm gutted to have missed it! Next January is, of course, the 360th anniversary of one of my favourite dates in British history...

  5. Believe it or not, there is actually a full-on scholarly bibliography of fiction set in the the mid-Stuart period, by Roxane C. Murph: The English Civil War through the Restoration in Fiction: an Annotated Bibliography. Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2000.

  6. And one of Georgette Heyer's least successful novels (in both literary and commercial terms) is Royal Escape, about Charless II's escape from Worcester...

  7. That bibliography sounds perfect. That there is my birthday present, thank you! But that's a 'no' to the Heyer from what you're saying!

  8. Richard Blakemore Thursday 13 November 2008

    I don't know that it essentially counts as 'fiction' seeing as it's technically a memoir: Edward Hyde (earl of Clarendon's) 'The History of the Great Rebellion' is available in multiple published forms. It's a standard for most history students of the period: a very entertainingly written, fluid account, although very one sided (as the title suggests, Hyde was a royalist) and perhaps deserves to be called 'Tragedy' rather than 'History', as it is pretty much justifying Charles' gallant, but doomed, plight - which is probably not quite how it was in reality. One of the best aspects about Hyde, frequently cited, is his character-sketches of the people involved, many of whom he knew personally.

  9. Robert Graves "Wife to Mr Milton"
    Daphne du Maurier "The King's General"...

  10. Now showing in the UK TV on Channel Four is The Devil's Whore by Peter Flannery (Our Friends in the North). An odyssey through the radical politics of the English Civil War.

  11. Not sure if it counts as 'literature', especially given the way that they all blend into each other in the memory, but Nigel Tranter wrote several Civil War novels from a Scottish perspective (including a trilogy on the Marquis of Montrose). And there's a not-entirely-terrible 'By the Sword Divided' type pair or trio of novels by Pamela Belle.

    But I agree that it's surprising that there isn't more on the Civil Wars (or at least, if there is - this bibliography looks worth checking out - it isn't at all well known).

  12. Thanks for all the above. Gutted that my lack of a TV (he says a little too often and a little too smugly) means that I haven't been able to see The Devil's Whore.

    A visit to the National Portrait Gallery's selection of paintings of Cvil War figures and their fascinating room devoted to representations of King Charles I prompted a little more research and I've discovered that Balzac's first writing was a poem about Cromwell - does anyone know where this can be found? Victor Hugo also wrote a play about Cromwell. Extraordinary that they both aren't more widely available.

    I'm also deeply ashamed not to have already flagged up Bunyan - both Pilgrim's Progress and his spiritual memoir Grace Abounding include references to his involvement in the Civil War period. A free copy of the Putney Debates to the first person who can name the character in the Pilgrim's Progress who is representative of the Ranters. For Grace Abounding see the excellent OUP edition which includes some of Laurence Clarkson's delicious spiritual journey through the 17th century sects (including the Ranters), The Lost Sheep Found.

    Oh, and there's Aphra Behn's play The Widow Ranter, which I believe is connected with the Ranters.

  13. And one last one: Walter Scott's Woodstock or the Cavalier: A Tale of 1651

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