Five Reads from Five Genres: Guy Fawkes Night.

Halloween is gone, but if you’re British then you’ll know that the loudest night of the year is coming up. Guy Fawkes, or Bonfire Night as it’s very often colloquially known, is the fifth of November every year. It’s really just another night of glorious snack food and festive social gatherings, (plus fireworks!) but the roots of it lie in the subverted conspiracy to blow up Parliament in 1605. It became a celebratory occasion when establishment figures realised they could generate public faith in the parliamentary government by throwing a big party every year.

So here are five things to read, from five different genres, all about this noblest of sticky-toffee and fireworks related holidays.


ONE- For a straight history…? James A. Sharpe – Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day

From the abstract: “Guy Fawkes is amongst the most celebrated figures in English history and Bonfire Night is a remarkably long lived and very English tradition. But why is it that in a modern, multicultural society people still turn out every November to commemorate a planned act of treason and terrorism which was defeated four hundred years ago? Had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded and the Catholics managed to blow up the king, the royal family and Parliament, English history would have been shaped by a terrorist act of unprecedented proportions, shattering in terms of both the damage inflicted and its propaganda value. James Sharpe examines the fateful night of 5 November 1605 and the tangled web of religion and politics which gave rise to the plot.”

This academic history of Guy Fawkes comes from an old lecturer of mine, who has just retired from the University of York. He’s a real historical heavyweight, publishing the definitive texts on witchcraft, crime and highwaymen in the early-modern period.

This book provides an unmatched narrative of the event, which has been obscured and mythologised by historical accounts. But arguably more importantly, Jim’s book considers the religious and political context that could cause such a conspiracy, and considers how this event was used at the time to commemorate and celebrate a particular type of English, Protestant identity.


TWO- For a period romance…? William Harrison Ainsworth – Guy Fawkes, or the Gunpowder Treason: An Historical Romance

This is a reprint of a novel from the 1840s. “The story of Guy Fawkes starts in summer 1605, when a plot to blow up Parliament was underway.”

If you’re looking for a different take on the old story, then look no further. Fawkes is portrayed far more sympathetically than you might expect: here is almost a dashing hero, caught up in an issue of religious freedom. The story is peppered with mystical symbolism and appearances by Dr John Dee, an apparently magical early-modern figure, as well as harbouring a romantic subplot. Dashing swordfights, prison escapes and actual treason? What more could you ask for.


THREE- For kids…? Izzi Howell – Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (Why do we remember?)

A description of the series: “This simple, friendly children’s first history series, aimed at readers aged 5 and up, takes a close look at some key events and personalities through history and reveals how and why they are still important to us today.”

Howell has a tough job- the Guy Fawkes tale is not the cleanest or the prettiest one. But this children’s history book picks out the key events and issues in a friendly, open way that will engage little brains and keep them quiet. Quieter. Maybe.


FOUR- For a modern/contemporary thriller…? James Jackson – Treason: The gripping Gunpowder Plot

From the blurb: “In a desperate race against time, spy Christian Hardy must uncover a web of deceit that runs from the cock-fighting pits of Shoe Lane, to the tunnels beneath a bear-baiting arena in Southwark, and from the bad lands of Clerkenwell to a brutal firefight in The Globe theatre.
But of the forces ranged against Hardy, all pale beside the renegade Spanish agent codenamed Realm.”

This is the classic mix of fact and fiction you’d expect from any novel set during a real event, but the meticulous detail included really raise this novel above the rest of the class. If you’re familiar with this period of history, then this will suit you perfectly, because it pulls out real figures like King James I, Lord Cecil (from the Elizabethan reign), the Princess Elizabeth, and others, in order to set up the conspiracies and counter-conspiracies of a politically and theologically tumultuous era. The dialogue is good and the author is well-practised at this kind of historical fiction.


FIVE- Welcome to the niche corner… Lewis Call – “A is for Anarchy, V is for Vendetta: Images of Guy Fawkes and the Creation of Postmodern Anarchism

From the abstract: “Although the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 failed at the level of conventional political action, it had a profound impact on Anglo-American political culture. The Plot added the face of Guy Fawkes to our political iconography, and Introduced the word ‘guy’ into the English language. This paper argues that the face of Fawkes and the word ‘guy’ have become what poststructuralists call ‘free floating signifiers.’ Liberated from all permanent meaning, this image and this word have become potent instruments for the promotion of postmodern anarchism.”

If you’ve ever wondered about the links between some strains of contemporary anarchism, V for Vendetta, Guido masks, and the actual ‘Guy Fawkes,’ then this article from a leading American scholar of political thought and anarchism should give you everything you ever wanted to know.


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