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Interview: Lucy Beckett, historian, author

14 April 2023

‘Knowledge of history is vital. Most of our current politicians know none’

At my small but enterprising girls boarding school, history was feeble, but English and Classics excellent; so I did Latin, Greek, and English at A level. After the Oxbridge exams, I went to Paris for six months to learn French properly and do the Sorbonne Cours de civilisation Française.

I knew some modern French history and had read Dumas, but learned about the Wars of Religion, which were particularly horrible, and the lead-up to the Revolution, and Napoleon, and the terrible war in Algeria that was still going on in the ’60s while I was there, though no one talked about it. We forget that France wasn’t a unified country speaking a single language till relatively recently, and ancient feuds in western France were reawakened by the German occupation, and hatred between sections of the Resistance and collaborators. I returned to read history at New Hall, Cambridge.

I taught for nearly 50 years, Latin first to prep-school girls, then boys at Ampleforth, from 13 to 18. The headmaster let me choose English or history, and I chose English because I thought it was easier to make it interesting. We did plays in the school theatre by Gogol, Chekhov, Beckett, Stoppard, Pinter, and a lot of Shakespeare, including all four big tragedies and some plays not often done in schools, from A Comedy of Errors to Coriolanus.

I added some Oxbridge Latin and courses on Russian literature to my English teaching, and became head of English, and then Head of Sixth Form. I rescued the Ampleforth prep school from a bit of a curricular crisis, and for two years taught ten- to 12-year-old boys English, history, and Latin, and did productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. I very much enjoyed all of this. I think they enjoyed themselves, too.

After I retired to help my elderly parents, I taught junior monks Latin and church history, and GCSE Latin as a volunteer — I couldn’t be paid because I was too old and not qualified as a teacher — in the local comprehensive. That was very rewarding, as the students were volunteers, too, and did very well.

I was fascinated by late antiquity, Augustine, and North Africa, which inspired The Year of Thamar’s Book, my novel about France and Algeria [Books, 14 December 2018], and In the Grieving of her Days [Books, 19 March 2021], partly about Libya.

I was also interested in the dissolution of the monasteries and the English Reformation. I live close to Rievaulx Abbey, and Mount Grace is ten miles away.

I was taught medieval thought by David Knowles, a Downside monk and Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. He was very impressive, and I was terrified of him, but his history of monastic life in England inspired my Reformation novel about Cardinal Pole and Robert Fletcher, a name listed as one of the last English Carthusians. Henry VIII had 20 Carthusians killed, far more than in any other order. All nine houses had copies of Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and The Cloud of Unknowing in their libraries: that mystical tradition informed their lives. I became a Catholic at Cambridge largely because of Tudor history and Thomas More.

Nicholas Pole was the son of Margaret Pole, best friend of Catherine of Aragon, and governess to her daughter, Mary. Catherine wanted Mary and Reginald to marry, but he became a cardinal and a key figure at the Council of Trent, making the opening speech which called for reform of the Catholic Church before deciding on how to deal with the Protestants. Vatican II revisited his criticisms. Pole was the last surviving Plantagenet, with a good claim to the throne, which is why Henry VIII was terrified of him, and executed his mother out of sheer spite when she was 72.

The history of 19th- and 20th-century Germany, Russia, and Poland inspired two more novels: A Postcard from the Volcano [Books, 11 December 2009] and The Leaves are Falling [Books, 28 November 2014]. I wrote about refugees from Hitler and Stalin, and my new novel, A Late Finding, like In the Grieving of her Days, is about an elderly widow living in London who has limited experience but deep anguish at the state of the country and the world. Her unexpected friendship with a refugee from Sarajevo lights up her life.

There’s no need to anchor narrative to actual documents; but a deep knowledge of period and place, even if it all comes out of books, is essential. I loved Scott, Ainsworth, and Dumas. Pushkin and Tolstoy are the best historical novelists. I can’t do Hilary Mantel for a lot of reasons, but one is the nastiness, cruelty, and horror: you can suggest the brutality of a period without making a novel horrible to read. And I couldn’t watch Downton Abbey, because the dialogue is jarring.

I’ve always been an English teacher; so I think I have an ear for what people could have said, without trying to make dialogue archaic. In my French novel, I’ve tried to keep the French behind the English in my mind all the time, not making characters say things that are not sayable in French.

I’ve enjoyed writing them all. I wrote The Time Before you Die almost 50 years ago, and no one in England was interested in publishing it. Thirty years later, Ignatius Press published it, and three more books, but turned down my French novel as “soft on Muslims” — reflecting Trump’s America. Probably the best novel is A Postcard from the Volcano. My own favourite is The Year of Thamar’s Book.

Knowledge of history is vital. Most of our current politicians know no history, not even recent history — hence Brexit. We were all so spoiled in England in the 20th century, although a lot of people were killed. We didn’t have dictatorships and invasions. We didn’t experience what the rest of Europe did, and so we didn’t care enough about the new peace that the EU represented right from the beginning. Labour refused the invitation to join France and Germany’s iron and coal agreement after the war, and, if we’d done that, we’d have been in at the beginning. By the time of Brexit, no one had a clue why the EU had started in the first place.

They know nothing about Russian history either, and don’t realise that Russia really won the Second World War for Europe; so they don’t understand how embittered Russia is at not being counted as a great power since Communism collapsed, much as Germany felt embittered after the First World War.

I had a happy, privileged childhood, with no religion — lukewarm Anglicanism at school — and a very good education. I love schools, and chose to be a schoolteacher rather than a university teacher because of the classroom challenges, though my husband was an Oxford don. Now, I am 80. I still review books for The Tablet and the TLS, and might manage another book. My husband is 95, and needs a good deal of looking after, and I have four children and ten grandchildren; so I’m busy.

My first experience of God was in a moment of understanding that a beloved teacher who had recently died was with God. I was in a beautiful Saxon church, alone on my knees.

I became a Catholic at 19, which infuriated my parents — one an old-fashioned Tory, and one free-thinking liberal. In the Reformation, I’d have been impressed by Luther’s early writings, but I hope I’d have seen the force of the arguments for loyalty to Rome, however unedifying Rome then was.

Lies and stupidity make me angry, in politicians particularly. I am more, not less, angry about Brexit as time goes by, and really angry with Edward Miliband, David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, and Dominic Cummings for the short-termism, manipulation, folly, and dishonesty which made it possible.

A beautiful day in this part of Yorkshire makes me happy. And mass in the wonderful church at Stanbrook Abbey, six miles away.

I love the sound of a song thrush in the summer-evening garden.

The young give me hope for the future, and their passionate resolve to deal with climate change and injustice.

I do pray, every day, always for the dead I love, and for the living in trouble, and in gratitude for so much.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with St Augustine, for the chance to experience his warmth, his uncanny sense of priorities, and his unparalleled intelligence.


Lucy Beckett was talking to Terence Handley-MacMath.

A Late Finding by Lucy Beckett is published by Gracewing at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-0-85244-144-2.

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