Though his first and most famous novel, Mist over Pendle, remains in print to this day, Robert Neill is very much a forgotten writer in the Twenty-First Century. A Google search reveals nothing more than a brief Wikipedia entry on his career that mentions neither his birth or death, yet for three decades he was one of Britain’s favourite authors of historical fiction, and his books are still examples of thoughtful, entertaining, thrilling, lively fiction, and, above all, unobtrusively accurate in their portrayal of times and places of centuries earlier.
Neill was born in Manchester and studied science at Cambridge, which did not suit him. He was a research worker for the Scottish Marine Biological Association, a schoolmaster and an Electrical Lieutenant in the RNVR during World War II. After leaving he Services, he was a professor of biology and zoology at Saint Paul’s College. He lived in Cheltenham and, for several years, was part of the Literary Festival Management Committee, but resigned to move back to the Northwest, settling in Cumberland. At one point, he described himself as too much of a northerner to be content south of the Mersey.
Neill had a lifelong interest in historical fiction, which he had always read critically, aware of its errors and believing that he could bring a fresh perspective to developing stories. This was put into practice with Mist over Pendle, published in 1951 and an immediate success, both in Britain and America where, Pendle being meaningless, the book was re-titled The Elegant Witch.
He would go on to write a total of sixteen novels over the next three decades, his final novel, The Devil’s Door, appearing in 1979.
Neill’s work is based on detailed research in original sources as to the periods in which he set his stories – frequently in periods of upheaval, or the aftermath of upheaval – when people are trying to build their lives under the shadow of events that threaten peace, in one manner or another. Being a Lancastrian, Neill sets most of his books in or around central Lancashire, and whilst he varies his time-periods, most of his work is set in the Seventeenth Century – the Stuart Century – which was far from a time of peace.
The fruits of that research are never thrust at the reader as evidence of the cleverness or thoroughness of the author. Neill is always willing to explain unfamiliar things to his readers, in the words his characters would use, but there is never the sense that research is being regurgitated because the author has spent all that time finding things out and doesn’t want to feel it would have been wasted if it isn’t shoe-horned in, nor is there ever any “As-you-know” moments, where characters tell each other what they already know for the benefit of the reader.
Instead, the knowledge is there in the descriptions of places, the things they do, and in the author’s quiet and never too detailed settings. The books are solidly grounded in what actually happened – if Neill describes a certain day as being full of rain and wind, you may be sure that he was read the parish records for that day and set his story in the weather of the time.
The books, however, always centre on the personal story of people, usually relatively young, and there is always a relationship to be forged, in one manner or another.
I first discovered Mist over Pendle in my mid-teens, in abridged form in one of those Readers Digest Book Club anthologies, in which four often wildly different novels would be compressed (or was it crushed?). I recognised the title, though from where I’ve no idea, and enjoyed the adaptation enough to want a copy of the full novel for myself, though I’m not particularly a lover of historical fiction.
In those days, indeed for most of the Seventies, Pendle and its first three sequels, together with Neill’s more recent book, Witch Bane, were commonly available as Arrow paperbacks. The intervening six novels were nothing more than intriguing titles. I bought all those available, and have my original copies still, reading his succeeding books from the library. I even managed to read the earlier, Cumberland-set, The Devil’s Weather, but it was not until the 2000s, and the advent of e Bay, that I was able to collect the now rare mid-career novels.
Given Neill’s commercial success, as much as the high standards of his work, it’s disappointing to see him slipping into obscurity. I’ve recently dug out my collection of his works and I’m proposing to read them all in publication order, for the first time, and to review each book in order. I’ve already finished Pendle, for what must be the dozenth time: it’s a fine, deep yet smooth read, and I’ll be composing my thoughts on it and posting my comments shortly.
Though those mid-period books are rare, and can be expensive to collect, there are still many of the paperbacks that can be had for very reasonable prices on Amazon or e Bay, and if you’ve any liking at all for historical fiction, you should try a couple of them.