Over the next few weeks, we’re going to relive some of the highlights of the recent Literary Festival, held as part of the Summer Spectacular of Chudfest and Carnival. This week, long-time member and former Chair of Chudleigh Writers, Manny Lewis, takes us back in time, as she talks about the workshop on writing historic fact and fiction, given by local historian Dr Todd Gray.
“The ninth Chudleigh Literary Festival started with a proverbial BANG. Dr Todd Gray captivated a group of more than thirty Chudleigh Writers and their guests with his dynamic personality and his understanding of social history found in his research into historic fact and fiction.
It was evidence based and authentic. He sourced his material from the excellent archives held in Exeter, Barnstaple and Plymouth, saying that Exeter had the best County collection of local history.
Todd stressed the importance of crossing boundaries into social history to explore authentic voices. He made reference to the fact that academics are not source based; in his view, there is real danger that in another ten years archives like those stored in Exeter may never be explored by interested social historians and the rich ripe language of the past would be lost.
Dipping and diving into manuscripts and printed collections from the 16th and 17th centuries, Todd shared with us stories that had made the headlines in judicial records, church archives, parish records and other documentation. He romped through stories of questionable behaviour which would mirror similar articles in today’s press, although I doubt whether the language would be as vivid and accurate.
We explored the poetry of language and how insults teach attitudes; listening to a cacophony of words that gave a rich and varied description of society as it was then.
Todd Gray’s latest book Not One of Us explores many aspects of the evidence that he shared with us; stories of adultery, rape, murder, theft, gender deception, and ill-gotten gains of one sort or another. It was a fascinating workshop. Todd emphasised that because he cross-referenced his research through a number of authentic documents, the evidence was true.
We were encouraged to participate, share thoughts, and raise questions at any time. Emotions changed from actively listening; through shocked silent reaction to the description of the punishment served on women found guilty of a particular crime; to laughter at some of the pranks that members of the community were involved in, crossing social boundaries.
The evidence collected by Todd in his social history was powerful and varied. He related many Stories that were Chudleigh-based and fascinating regarding the local environment, places of interest, and names of those involved. He shared the background to Uncle Tom Cobley and Widecombe Fair with all its characters, and the place that the Devon folk song has in social history. He referred to the story of the Alphington Ponies, two unique ladies in 19th century Torquay, and how members of elite society chose to outcast them.
There was no time to pursue more questions of personal interest; for example, to debate in greater detail the story of the three women from North Devon, Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, and Mary Trembles, hanged as witches in 1682.
At the end of the morning Todd Gray left us, as writers, with much to think about:
- Evidence from archives from civil courts and church courts, rich in truth;
- Using fact as the basis of fiction, taking real lives and expanding on them;
- A little piece opens up the word;
- Historians say so much; Literature does so much more .
It was as though we as a group were given a clarion call: to seek the truth and find out the social history that surrounds us before it is all forgotten. Find out the truth i.e. the difference between a book and a film. Is it denying facts in history? Is it deliberately misleading?
Thank you Todd for giving us such a comprehensive morning full of fact and fascination from your research into social history. It was informative, enlightening and entertaining. We will pick up our pens and write!”