Saturday, November 5, 2016

With a Dark Lantern and a Burning Match

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night in the UK, and I continue to advocate for its adoption on the US. The Fourth of July is great, but you can't tell me we don't NEED booze, bonfires and fireworks this time of year. Especially this year - I don't know about you, but I could keep a blaze going well into the night with all the political pamphlets I've gotten in the mail.

Many Americans know the basic outlines of the Gunpowder Plot, the failure of which our British cousins celebrate. (As an aside, can you think of any other country where they whoop it up over something that DIDN'T happen?) Guy Fawkes and an increasingly large number of Catholic conspirators rented a building with access to an undercroft directly beneath the House of Lords, and managed to smuggle twenty barrels of gunpowder into the area. Fear of the plague postponed the opening of Parliament from February to the end of October, and in that time the plotters brought in an additional sixteen barrels. Parliament was set to open on November 5th; less than ten hours before the ceremony, Fawkes was caught emerging from the undercroft, as the folks song goes, "with a dark lantern, and a burning match."

What foiled the plan? On October 30th, Lord Monteagle, a Catholic peer, was advised in an anonymous letter not to attend because "they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament..." The warning probably came from conspirator Francis Tresham, Monteagle's brother-in-law. Monteagle, who had been brushed by a conspiracy five years before and had narrowly escaped imprisonment, sensibly turned the letter over to the king's chief minister.

One letter. No wonder it's so irresistible to ask what might have happened if Tresham hadn't liked his brother-in-law. For the 400th anniversary of the plot, a recreation of the Parliament building as it existed was built and blown up with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. The force of the blast shattered seven-foot wide walls and  would have killed everyone within a 100 meter radius - including the king, the queen, the heir to the throne, the peerage, the political elite and the leaders of the church.

The shock waves through history could have been enormous. The Catholic minority would have been wiped out in England. Charles I would have been raised by staunch Protestants, possibly averting the English Civil War and the subsequent wars in Ireland. An Anglican church divorced from any of its Catholic roots might have been more accepting of Evangelicals, so the Puritans would have had no impetus to move to the cold and hostile land of Massachusetts. The French could have pressed their advantage in the New World, and up here in La Maine, I might be drinking cafe and eating beignets for ma petit dejeuner. Meanwhile, in Britain, President Theresa May would be celebrating The Fifth of November, marking the beginning of the revolution against the absolute monarch James V in 1795. Can you tell I love alternate history? Can you tell I wish I had time to write this book?

Reds, what's the historical moment you think might have changed the world? And how tempted are you by alternate history?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, I love alternate history...that Robert Harris book about what would have happened if the Nazis won, and The Man in the High Castle, and even TIMELESS. In that TV show, a bad guy time machines back in time to change history (for his own nefarious purposes, somehow) and our heroes have to follow him to make sure it stays the same.  Maybe...women getting the vote when they did?

JULIA: Hank, the Robert Harris book is FATHERLAND. One of THE central canon of alternate histories. But women's suffrage? I never considered that...

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hank, what a horrible thought! But certainly interesting from a fictional viewpoint.

HANK: But  Debs, what if they had gotten it--earlier?  Hmmm...see what I mean? 

 DEBS:  Oh, definitely!   But, Julia, I LOVE this. I'll be in the Cotswolds tonight, where there will be bonfires, I'm sure. And my book is going to be set around Guy Fawkes day!!!

JULIA: Wonderful, Debs. It seems like a night ready-made for either wickedness or romance, doesn't it? Carola Dunn had a Daisy Dalrymple mystery - GUNPOWDER PLOT - where the murder takes place on Bonfire Night during a house party in 1924. It was a wonderful setting.

RHYS BOWEN: I always think back with nostalgia to Guy Fawkes Day because it was a big thing when I was a child. The excitement of making the guy, putting him on top of the bonfire and then setting it alight, as well as all the fireworks, the hot sausages, the baked potatoes. It was one of the highlights for a small girl. And I never once thought of poor Guy Fawkes who was essentially a decent man. I married into an ancient aristocratic Catholic family and the Catholics were certainly persecuted until a century ago. John's grandmother was born at Sutton Place which had priests hiding holes and a secret passage to the chapel so that the priest could say mass.

But an event that changed history to me would be Hitler's decision to turn his attention to invading Russia in 1941. If he had pursued his quest to invade England he would probably have succeeded. England was poorly equipped compared to the German force. I'm sure the population would have fought hard, but who knows what might have happened!

JULIA: Rhys, there's a rivetingly creepy book by CJ Sansom - DOMINIUM - based on the premise that Neville Chamberlain was succeeded by Lord Halifax, an appeaser, instead of Churchill, which leads to Britain becoming a client state of the Third Reich by the early fifties. It's really good; Ross and I both read it and enjoyed it.

Dear Readers, please chime in with your thoughts on Guy Fawkes, alternate histories, bonfires, baked potatoes or anything else that catches your fancy!


  1. I love the idea of celebrating something that didn’t happen and I would most definitely appreciate a bonfire or two to consume the political pamphlets that keep clogging my mailbox. [I’m up for the sausages and baked potatoes, too.]

    Alternate histories are so interesting to contemplate although the thought of the Nazis actually winning the war is quite horrific to contemplate. In that same vein, what might have happened if Japan hadn’t been bombed? Or, going back further in history, if Joan of Arc hadn’t been burned at the stake . . . .

  2. Philip Roth wrote a book called The Plot Against America, an alternative history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. I've not read it, but I gave a copy to my father-in-law, years ago, and when he died I brought the book home to read myself. Wonder where it is?

    Alternative histories are a bit like the fanfiction my youngest daughter used to read and write. Hers was based on the characters in Harry Potter, but it's still kind of the same premise, don't you think?

    Off to spend the day at a writing workshop. Hallie is one of the teachers!

  3. Karen, lucky lucky you to have Hallie for a teacher. I wonder if she offers this skill as an online course?
    I love to ponder alt history. Ideas come easily to me, the execution and development always gets caught in the mire of doubt and perfectionism.

    Here are 3 ideas from my morning meditation 1. Native Americans had DNA that caused them to be resistant to European viruses. Small pox did not kill.
    2. In 1492 Muhammad XII wins the Granada War. Islam then spread through the entire Iberian peninsula. Portugal and Spain do not participate in the age of exploration.
    3. This one is for those interested in psychology. Schizophrenia is recognized as a true method of connection with the Divine. Prophecy and Miracles are scientifically proven.

    okay the last one verges on "unicorns are real". Thanks for suggesting some mental exercise.

  4. A couple of 'what-if' points in history: What if none of Columbus's ships had made it to the North America? What would this continent be today?

    What if the South had won? I always think that the US would have continued to devolve into separate nation-states--the UP would separate from the rest of Michigan--ditto northern California from southern California, Ohio would have some wack-job president who would try to build a wall along the Ohio River....

    But, I say we need a Guy Fawkes Day and I hope to start the impetus for one after next week's election--I would gladly light the fire every year and shudder at what might have happened if a certain dangerous loudmouthed buffoon had been elected!

  5. What if 9/11 hadn't happened?

    This year I haven't received a lot of political mail. During the last couple of mayoral elections I received enough to fill an entire trash can, which is where it all ended up. One candidate's team in particular sent out so much that I wrote to them and told them to STOP. They didn't. I didn't vote for him, but I wasn't going to, anyway,

    Deb Romano

  6. Oh have fun with Hallie! Please give her lots of jungle red love.
    And I am off to Scottsdale, to poisoned pen, to sign today with Diana Gabaldon (!!!) and tomorrow celebrate SAY NO MORE and sign with Linwood Barclay!
    And writing for the next six hours on the plane…

  7. And, seriously, what if women had gotten the phone much earlier? What might've happened to Eleanor Roosevelt?

  8. Dominion was an amazing book. Most of my teachers in grade school were British war brides so we received dual continent educations. I remember celebrating Guy Fawkes Day in the first grade and in the second grade, the lot next to the school had been cleared to build an outdoor gym playground so the school allowed the fathers to build and maintain a bonfire. We never had that much fun again, but we did continue to build a guy every year.

    What would have happened to Eleanor? Interesting question, Hank. Even more interesting, what if she'd been elected president after FDR served two terms? How would that have changed the global landscape and the prosecution of the War?

  9. Jo Walton's Small Change series, beginning with Farthing. History shifted in 1941 when Hess flew to Britain to make peace between Germany and Britain. And it worked.

    I haven't actually finished reading the third book yet, because I get nervous easily. But they're so good.

    (Jungle Red Love, Hank? Sweet!)

  10. I am rather fascinated with Guy Hawkes Day, too. All those lovely bonfires in the fall. Julia, thanks for the great summary of the history behind this day. I need to go to FaceBook and post my annual Guy Fawkes picture.

    And, I'm a fan of alternative history stories, too. I'll be checking out the ones mentioned here that I haven't read. Another intriguing alternate history book is The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It is uncomfortably timely for our country right now, with the hate that fuels the action of the alternate Americas. Here is the Amazon description of The Plot Against America:
    "When the renowned aviation hero and rabid isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the 1940 presidential election, fear invaded every Jewish household in America. Not only had Lindbergh, in a nationwide radio address, publicly blamed the Jews for selfishly pushing America toward a pointless war with Nazi Germany, but upon taking office as the thirty-third president of the United States, he negotiated a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, whose conquest of Europe and virulent anti-Semitic policies he appeared to accept without difficulty. What then followed in America is the historical setting for this startling new book by Pulitzer Prize–winner Philip Roth, who recounts what it was like for his Newark family — and for a million such families all over the country — during the menacing years of the Lindbergh presidency, when American citizens who happened to be Jews had every reason to expect the worst."

  11. I am glad Susan D. mentioned the Small Change series by Jo Walton. I just read them over the summer, and there were enough parallels to the current US election to make them nerve-wracking.

    I'm a middle school librarian, and there's a new WWII alternative history trilogy by Ryan Graudin that the students and I love. In the first book, Wolf by Wolf, Hitler won the war, and there's an underground movement to overthrow the government. One young woman, Yael, is a concentration camp escapee who had developed the power to skin shift after horrible experiments on her in the camp. She sets out to win a motorcycle race from Berlin to Toyko so she can dance with Hitler at the celebration ball and...

    I'm rubbish at summarizing, but it's alt history, adventure and a bit of romance that has my students clamoring for the second title, Blood by Blood, which was just released this week.

  12. Oh, Karen, I just saw your comment where you mention the Philip Roth book, too. I also lent my book to someone, a friend, and I never got it back. We have since lost touch, and it was a book I really had wanted to keep. I guess I need to buy another copy sometime.

  13. I'm not a fan of alternate history. History as it happened is debatable enough. Just as an example, compare A Man for All Seasons to Wolf Hall. Or, bringing it somewhat closer to home, were there conspiracies surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

    But I'd love to be in England for Guy Fawkes day sometime. By chance, I was there Nov 11,a bunch of years ago, and it was very moving.

  14. I was in England for Guy Fawkes Day in 2000. And for that travesty of an election. And on Nov 11, was in Gatwick. There were two minutes of silence at 11:00 am. The only sound in that enormous space was the wail of a baby. I'll never forget it.

  15. SEMS Library Lady - my oldest is a children's librarian (which covers everything from board books to high school reading) and that Ryan Graudin trilogy sounds fascinating. I'll suggest it to her.

  16. Would you believe I'm staying about a mile from Chastleton House, which was the home of Robert Catesby, one of the major instigators of the Gunpowder Plot? So fascinating. Julia, you should write that book!!!

  17. Rhys,

    I wonder if the Catholics' priest hiding holes were similar or different from the marranos in Spain (they were Jews who were forced to convert to Catholic religion in Spain) ? They continued to read the Torah in secret!

    Interesting history!

  18. Okay, thanks for these ideas. I've ordered Half a Crown (the 3rd Small Change book) from the library to finish it. Also The Plot Against America. And perhaps I'll Ryan Graudin books too.

    This blog wreaks havoc with my TBR piles. :^0

    And now my skin is crawling, just thinking about Tuesday. I sincerely hope that the results will be such that someone can then write an alternative history about what would have happen had You-know-who won.