My friend Silas
At the risk of repeating myself, my work with those who are most vulnerable and at risk in society was bound to colour how I wrote historical fiction. Today, there are still so many people who find it hard to fit in, and any variation from the norm can cause a degree of lampooning and even abuse. When I was young, this could be as extreme as someone who had polio or even a child who had to wear glasses.
What fascinated me when I thought about the mid-16th century was how they treated one another. Despite it being a brutal age, run by a paranoid dictator, there is evidence that on a day-to-day basis, family was very important and so were neighbours. People looked after one another but didn’t really know what to do with those who were ‘different.’ It is only recently in human development that we are making conscious decisions about how to care for those in society who have needs.
Silas was born out of several students and people I knew. And you may have realised that when I write, I purposely mislead the reader, at least for a while. The fact that I refer to him as the ‘village idiot’ earlier on has caused some controversy with readers, but I wanted him to have a nickname which was relevant to the time he lived. I suppose (unintentionally) he’s turned out a little like a cross between Forrest Gump and Frank Spencer, but I always knew that he was autistic and of course, it is only really in book five that I talk about this.
If you used the word autistic in the 16th century, they would probably think you meant somebody who painted pictures. I wanted to know how he would get by and how people would relate to him. After all, he has a very difficult life. Without giving away too many spoilers, he loses his mum quite early (which is in two books) and he must fend for himself and get used to the many failings of human beings: lies, deceit, selfishness, coveting, infidelity.
He is a simple and naïve soul, but incredibly kind, forgiving, and wants to get on in life. He is obsessed and knowledgeable about one thing, like other people with Asperger's syndrome. For Silas, this is the world of pageantry, Royal hierarchy, coats of arms and maps. As soon as he can express it, he tells everyone he wants to become a lord. No wonder he soon becomes known as ‘Lord Sillyarse.’
In some ways, he is every man (and woman). When he finds himself in a relationship, he cannot possibly conceive that someone else would feel the same about him. Even if he does for a second, he then thinks of a reason why he isn’t good enough. He often makes mistakes and receives criticism, which makes him feel worthless. Therefore, he depends on others to validate his self-worth. This value comes through the Agents, although he manages to navigate a decent relationship with both William Fawkes and Robert Hall whilst he is still a child. There are two things that are important about the agents.
The first is that they cling to the core message of Christ. Goodness, forgiveness and loving everyone, including your enemies. The second thing is that they become good at seeing people. By that, I mean they get to know the real Silas. They enjoy the errors and the silliness of course, but love his pure heart. Which is more important, they ask themselves, someone with money and titles or someone you can completely trust in every situation?
After four years, Silas is incredibly real to me. I know exactly what he looks like and how he will react in every situation, and it makes me smile. Ridiculous? I suppose it is as he is a fictional character amongst some real historical characters within the Micklegate series. But he’s central to the whole theme of the books: love, redemption, righteousness, forgiveness, the history of common people, even ministering to King Henry the Eighth.
One spoiler I will share with you is that I decided long ago that he would have a long life. I wanted him to be around for as many adventures as there could be although at the moment, I can’t tell you how many of those that will be.
The other thing about Silas you’ll probably notice is that he doesn’t change. He accrues skills, even learns something about how to relate to other human beings, but that childlike vision remains with him throughout his life, and it is what people love about him.
But it is always going to be comical when he meets somebody new. Once again, he must work out how he makes himself understood without being a nuisance or upsetting this new acquaintance. Whilst others try to use logic to get through life, it is almost like Silas has a superpower. For instance, although he doesn’t fully understand it, he knows, having seen Thomas farrier and Father Matthew in the same room, that there is an attraction between them. There is nothing in him that wants a moral or political debate about whether it’s right or wrong. He just knows it’s a good thing, and he sees love when it’s present. He likes love. After all, he has struggled so hard to find it.
You will also notice that he gets into some scrapes which terrify him. Being in battle, or scaling the inner tower of York Minster, is something he would only have conceived of in his dreams, but he doesn’t shy away from these duties because he is doing it for other people, usually Wynnfrith and his fellow Agents.
If you are new to Silas or the series, have a look at this excerpt from book 2, ‘1542, The Purge’ where poor Silas has been recruited to observe the embalming of Sir Anthony Bask, who has been murdered.