No – sorry – it hasn’t been invented yet. I only wish it had. For me, as a passionate researcher and writer of historical novels, I could imagine absolutely nothing more exciting. Time travel is my ultimate dream.
Of course, some element of control would be necessary. It would be all too frustrating to be yearning for medieval exploration, only to find oneself in the middle of the Australian outback facing gigantic monitor lizards with huge appetites. Whereas the eager palaeontologist dreaming of meeting the extinct creatures of forgotten worlds, could discover himself wandering my beautiful medieval cobbled streets, staring with melancholy at the surge of the Thames beneath London Bridge while wishing desperately to come face to face with some sweet placid Tyrannosaurus Rex instead.
And even supposing I could control the time itself, I would also need some element of control over place of arrival and my own appearance. There is, for instance, a good deal I long to know about Richard III. So I need to fiddle with the control buttons on my Tardis, manipulate the settings back to 1483, arranging to land in one of those apposite spots within London (The Tower, Baynards Castle, or beyond the London Wall in Westminster Palace) – but only perhaps to find myself thrown bodily from the premises because I’m dressed indecently in modern clothes (yes, that would give them all a shock, I would be considered either a hussy of the worst kind or a dangerous lunatic) – or I could be handed a mop and bucket and told to get scrubbing. So I must insist on the right clothes, the right bearing, and the right place.
I want to be dressed as a minor noblewoman – the sort of gown I personally would adore. I can just imagine those amazing medieval materials which I would just love to touch. No artificial silks, no nylon velvets, no plastic or polypropylene, but the real thing – hand woven and sumptuous with gold thread and damask shot with indigo. Woad and lapis, madder and kermes, cinnabar and azurite. Bliaut and baukerkin – fabrics so lustrous I would fear to touch them.
Some clever and adventurous modern-day souls do make an eager hobby of sewing up very accurate copies of medieval clothes, and they research assiduously, getting every detail as perfect as possible. But we don’t know enough to be sure of everything, and some aspects of clothing are still entirely mysterious. Besides, the main difficulty is the fabric. Those sumptuous materials of the past do not and cannot possibly exist anymore.
Yet I cannot appear so richly dressed that I arouse curiosity or even suspicion. A woman appearing as a lady so grand that everyone should immediately recognise her and know her name and title already (nobility was a small world and most were loosely related to each other) – and yet be entirely unrecognisable – would be suspicious indeed. There were laws about dressing within one’s station, and false pretence would hardly be the best way to start up friendships. But I cannot be a serving woman either, for I have no desire to be punished for not getting on with my work, and even a vague attempt to clean up somewhere would completely confuse me. I would not know where to collect the required soaps and cloths – nor even how to do such things in the proper medieval way. Besides, I desperately want to find out exactly what was going on with the high and mighty of the period – and I can’t do that if I’m locked out of state rooms and sent to the laundries. I might still get the local unsubstantiated gossip – but gracious – that’s exactly what we get already. Most of what we now call history is little more than old gossip!
So – we have that sorted. A minor noblewoman, please. But there’s a lot more I need to control. The principal aim of my first time travel is to have a good close look at Richard III, and if possible to get some detailed knowledge of exactly what he did, what he didn’t do, and how he was viewed by others. Of course like all passionate writers of historical fiction, and one who believes firmly in research and basing fiction on truth, I already have a firm idea of what England’s most controversial king was like and how he behaved. But I could be wrong. I accept that. And whether I am right or wrong, I want to understand what this fascinating man really accomplished, and why. But as a woman, can I do that? Women were not admitted into council chambers or meetings of parliament. I might sneak into some places, but I would need some sort of respectable companion, or preferably a full retinue.
So it’s getting more complicated. Perhaps I need to stop and think. And while I’m at it I need to beware of draughts, since women wore no knickers. Yet they had to keep their hair respectably covered. Frankly, I’m used to the other way around.
Perhaps a different period of history would be easier. I’m eager to see every century, glimpse every fascinating character and witness every intrigue. Not that I want to witness executions or battles, since I have a good enough imagination without being there on the vile and bloody scene. I’d probably be extremely sick, and that would certainly spoil my anonymity.
But to meet Shakespeare – oh, that would be utterly glorious – to speak to him, and to see what he was really like. Then, less glorious but almost as interesting, there’s Henry VIII, and the chance to discover whether he really was entirely unpleasant, cruel and dangerous as I imagine he was. And what about Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Cecil and Walsingham? Then I could go back further, for I am curious about King Richard II and those thoroughly rigid and unbending kings Henry IV and V who took his throne.
Charles II would probably be more approachable. Any young and attractive looking female (yes, I’d have to make sure the Tardis arranged that too since I’m afraid even Charlie the promiscuous wouldn’t look twice at me as I am) seemed fairly able to get close to that particular monarch. Actually it’s one of his more glorious courtiers, the sublimely talented and fascinating Earl of Rochester, who interests me more. And I know full well that an attractive female could get close to him too, and without much difficulty at all. Now wouldn’t that be fun! I could become a time-travel groupie.
Then there’s the distant but exotic past of other countries. I would adore to get a look at the much maligned Emperor Nero, maybe Spartacus, and certainly Genghis Khan. The Medicis were such amazing characters, De Vinci, the illusive Caravaggio, certainly Machiavelli, and there were some very exotic and dubious popes too.
I have my historical favourites, though the list is so long it would take me a lifetime of time-travel to meet them all. I also have historical characters I dislike very much – but since I believe in keeping an open mind where possible, perhaps it would be more to the point to discover what I could about the so-called villains. And that, of course, would include most of the Tudors. They have a lot of fans, those mad, bad larger than life Tudor personalities – and I can understand why, even though I don’t share the admiration. After all, it was such a colourful period of time, and everything sounds so dramatic.
I have other pet-hates. William the Conqueror, for instance. Now that’s a man who makes Henry VIII sound like a congenial hampster. And there’s Napoleon, who sounds like megalomania on speed. I suppose I could even get very adventurous and attempt to meet up (carefully from the shadows, with both my camera and my pistol at the ready of course) with Jack the Ripper, and discover who he really was.
Time travel is the ultimate dream, because history is made up of riddles, mysteries and endless questions. The documentation remaining to us is often limited, sometimes non-existent, and at the best, is written with the bias of the existing political imperative. There is everything to discover, and nothing to take for granted.
But in the end it is often the tiny things that fascinate me the most. The smell of the cities, and the bustle of the markets, the taste of the food and the touch of the old stone and plaster, the language of the past, the howling of wolves and the tolling of the bells. That’s what I want time travel for. I want to genuinely experience the absolute inside truth of what I imagine and write about every day.
So is there anyone else out there who has time travel all worked out yet? Where would you go first?