Historical Musings #61: Art through the ages

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction.

The winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced on Friday: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to read all of the shortlisted titles (I posted the shortlist back in March) but I hope to catch up with them eventually. The Narrow Land is about the American artists Edward and Jo Hopper and the summer they spent in Cape Cod in 1950, so I thought it would be interesting this month to look at other historical fiction novels which feature famous artists.

Most recently, I have read Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin, which explores the relationship between James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his model and muse, Maud Franklin. I’m currently working through a backlog of books I need to review, so you will be able to read my thoughts on that one eventually!

Thinking of others I’ve read, the first that comes to mind is Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Set in the Netherlands in the 1660s, it tells the story of a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. There’s also The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan, a fictional memoir of the 15th century artist, Hans Memling.

Novels about early female artists are particularly interesting as they have received so little attention throughout history. The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen is a book about the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, who spent many years painting portraits at the Spanish court, while Michelle Diener’s In A Treacherous Court features Susanna Horenbout, a Flemish artist who worked as an illuminator at the court of Henry VIII. And although she’s not the main focus of the novel, Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle is written partly from the perspective of Levina Teerlinc, another female artist working during the Tudor period and best known as a painter of miniatures.

I’m sure I must have read other books about artists but these are all I can think of at the moment (I have read plenty of books with fictional artists, but that would be a topic for a separate post), so now it’s your turn. Have you read any fiction about the lives and work of artists – of any nationality and from any time period? I would love some recommendations.

Top Ten Tuesday – and Historical Musings #60: Ten reasons I love historical fiction

It’s been a while since I took part in Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) so I decided I would join in today. This week’s topic is: “Reasons Why I Love…[a favourite book, genre, author etc]”. I didn’t get round to putting one of my Historical Musings posts together for this month – I’m finding that even though I’m on furlough with all the time in the world to read and blog, I somehow seem to be getting less done than ever before – so I’m combining the two here by listing 10 reasons to love historical fiction.

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1. It provides the perfect opportunity to learn about other times and places.
When I read a good historical fiction novel, I am left with the feeling that not only have I been entertained by a great story, I’ve also learned something new. If a subject particularly interests me, I sometimes look for a non-fiction book so that I can add to my knowledge with some factual information, but in many cases my initial introduction to a new historical period or historical figure has been through fiction.

2. I find it much easier to retain facts gained through reading fiction rather than non-fiction.
For some reason, no matter how hard I try and no matter how fascinating the subject, I often seem to struggle to concentrate when I’m reading non-fiction. By the time I reach the end of the book I find I’ve forgotten a lot of the information I’ve just read. I am much more likely to remember names, dates and facts if they are given to me in the form of historical fiction.

3. It’s a great way of escaping from modern life for a while.
Although I do sometimes like to read contemporary fiction, I am usually much happier reading books set in the past (both classics which were actually written in the past and historical fiction). I live in the modern day, so I like my reading to take me somewhere – and sometime – different, especially at the moment with everything that’s going on in the world!

4. Reading historical fiction can be a thoroughly immersive experience.
I love books where the author has clearly gone to a lot of effort to create a complete and believable historical world – and yet the very best authors make it seem so effortless! My favourite historical fiction books often contain maps, family trees, character lists, authors’ notes and other material all of which adds to the world building. I really do like to feel as though I’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back in time.

5. Understanding the past can help us to understand the present – and maybe even the future.
Just because a novel is set in the past doesn’t mean it can’t incorporate themes which are universal and timeless. When I read Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, I was struck by the similarities between modern politics and the politics of the Roman Republic, while Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer draws parallels between the extreme weather of 1816 and the climate change the world is experiencing today.

6. There’s so much variety!
Historical mysteries, historical romances, historical adventure novels, quick and light reads, long, challenging or ‘literary’ reads, books set in Ancient Greece, books set at the Tudor court, family sagas, classic novels such as A Tale of Two Cities, Romola or The Three Musketeers…the term ‘historical fiction’ encompasses such a wide range of different types of book that it should always be possible to find something to suit your mood.

7. I love to see how different authors portray the past and how they tackle some of history’s greatest mysteries and controversies.
Some people may wonder why I enjoy reading about the same topics over and over again. Well, no two books are exactly the same and every author has a different approach and a different way of interpreting the same historical people and events. One of my favourite periods is the Wars of the Roses and no two novels I’ve read set in that period offer the same opinion on Richard III or the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. Only by reading as much as possible can you begin to put together a balanced picture and to start to form your own views.

8. Historical fiction can give a voice to women who were unable to tell their own story.
History has often been described as written ‘by men, about men’ and fiction can help to redress the balance. For example, I knew nothing about women like Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli until I read That Lady by Kate O’Brien or Lizzie Burns until I read Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea.

9. It’s a chance to get to know historical figures who have been forgotten or ignored.
Following on from reason 8, I have already mentioned some of the lesser-known women who have been subjects of historical fiction; there are also lots of men who have played important roles throughout history but whose names have been largely forgotten. How many people have heard of the Scottish soldier Thomas Keith and yet he had a fascinating life and career which is recounted in Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff.

10. There are just so many great stories to be told.
From the Thomas Overbury scandal to the Gunpowder Plot, from the Affair of the Poisons to the Pendle Witch Trials, the possibilities are endless!

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Do you enjoy reading historical fiction? Can you think of any other reasons to add to this list?

Historical Musings #59: What are you reading?

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. I hope everyone is having a good Easter – or as good as it can be under the circumstances. I’m pleased to report that, after struggling to concentrate on anything for the last few weeks, I seem to be out of the reading slump I was in and am starting to write reviews again as well, but I still haven’t been in the right frame of mind to put a long post together in time for today’s Historical Musings. Therefore, I’m keeping things simple this month and asking you to share your current and upcoming historical reads.

I am currently in the middle of two very different historical novels. First, I am still working through Hilary Mantel’s third and final Thomas Cromwell novel, The Mirror and the Light. I bought my copy in the first week of its publication but didn’t start reading it immediately because I wanted to wait until I felt slightly less stressed and distracted and would be able to give it the attention it deserved. I am now completely absorbed in it, but it will still be a while before I’m finished.

My other current read is A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley, a reissue of her 1988 novel which was the first in the Margaret of Ashbury trilogy, set in medieval England. Despite some very dark topics, it’s an easy, entertaining read and I’m enjoying it so far.

The next two historical fiction novels I have lined up are The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor and Royal Flush by Margaret Irwin, both from NetGalley and both authors I have enjoyed before, so I’m looking forward to reading them.

Are you reading any historical fiction at the moment? If not, do you have any coming up soon on your TBR? I’d love to hear about your historical reading, particularly if you have something good to recommend!

Historical Musings #58: From the TBR…

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I haven’t had much time to put a post together this month, so I thought I would just take a quick look at some of the books I have waiting on my TBR. On Friday I reviewed The Brothers York by Thomas Penn, a non-fiction account of the Wars of the Roses, which is one of my favourite periods of history. I have already read a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, set in that period and have listed them here, but there are a few others I’ve acquired over the last few years and haven’t had a chance to read yet. Here are some of them (with descriptions taken from Goodreads):

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The Seventh Son by Reay Tannahill (2001)

Reay Tannahill’s enthralling novel is a family saga in the grand tradition, a tale of brother against brother, cousin against cousin, of love, hate and intrigue, of women inescapably entangled in the fates of their men, and of a mystery that has exercised people’s minds for more than five hundred years. At the heart of it all is the complex human being known to history as Richard III, a king whose reign is darkened by the murder of the young Princes in the Tower, but who also found a touching love with the woman he married, and possessed immense courage. Here, brought vividly to life in this most moving novel, is a man who inspired loyalty and hatred in almost equal measure, until at last the implacable enmity of one woman brought about his downfall.

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Originally serialized in a periodical of boys’ adventure fiction, The Black Arrow is a swashbuckling portrait of a young man’s journey to discover the heroism within himself. Young Dick Shelton, caught in the midst of England’s War of the Roses, finds his loyalties torn between the guardian who will ultimately betray him and the leader of a secret fellowship, The Black Arrow. As Shelton is drawn deeper into this conspiracy, he must distinguish friend from foe and confront war, shipwreck, revenge, murder, and forbidden love, as England’s crown threatens to topple around him.

The King’s Grey Mare by Rosemary Hawley Jarman (1973)

The King’s grey mare was Elizabeth Woodville, Queen and wife of Edward IV. Beautiful beyond belief, with unique silver-grey hair, she had once known joy of a marriage based on love—only to see it snatched away on the battlefield. Hardened and changed by grief, Elizabeth became the tool of her evil ambitious mother—the witch, Jaquetta of Bedford—who was determined that her daughter should sit on the throne of England. By trickery, deception, and witchcraft, Jaquetta’s wish was fulfilled. But even a witch could not have known the tragedy which lay in store for the King’s grey mare.

Queen of Silks by Vanora Bennett (2008)

This novel brings together the silk business of fifteenth-century London and the personality of King Richard III, suspected throughout history of having murdered his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower. The story begins with silk merchant John Lambert’s decision to marry off his two beautiful daughters at the end of the Wars of the Roses. Elder daughter Jane starts a notorious liaison with King Edward IV – Richard’s older brother – while her sister, Isabel, as the new silkworker to the court, becomes privy to its most intimate secrets. Could the sisters hold the keys to power at this time of uncertainty?

The Lodestar by Pamela Belle (1987)

For Christie Heron, ruthless ambition is the lodestar of his destiny. Determined to break free from his humble origins in the border country of Northumbria, he enlists in the household of Richard of Gloucester, rising with his lord to the dangerous pinnacles of power. Tangled in Richard’s web of treason and tragedy, Christie learns the full price that his destiny demands, Meg his beloved sister and only friend, rejects him. Julian, daughter of a knight of Oxfordshire, bears him undying enmity. And the long shadow of the Welsh adventurer Henry Tudor falls dark over Bosworth Field….

The King’s Bed by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1961)

For seventeen-year-old Tansy Marsh, life centres upon her father’s inn, The White Boar, in Leicester. Richard III sits upon the throne of England, and all seems well. But the threat of the would-be usurper, Henry Tudor, looms like a gathering storm and soon the eye of that storm is uncomfortably close to Tansy, disrupting her reassuringly ordinary life. Once King Richard is defeated, that life becomes even less ordinary for Tansy has met Dickon Broome, the man who will change her existence forever. And while life goes on under the Tudors, Dickon has particular reason to bear a grudge.

Non-Fiction

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou by Amy Licence (2018)

He became king before his first birthday, inheriting a vast empire from his military hero father; she was the daughter of a king without power, who made an unexpected marriage at the age of fifteen. Almost completely opposite in character, together they formed an unlikely but complimentary partnership. Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou have become famous as the Lancastrian king and queen who were deposed during the Wars of the Roses but there is so much more to their story. The political narrative of their years together is a tale of twists and turns, encompassing incredible highs, when they came close to fulfilling their desires, and terrible, heart-breaking lows.

Blood and Roses by Helen Castor (2004)

The Wars of the Roses turned England upside down. Between 1455 and 1485 four kings, including Richard III, lost their thrones, more than forty noblemen lost their lives on the battlefield or their heads on the block, and thousands of the men who followed them met violent deaths. As they made their way in a disintegrating world, the Paston family in Norfolk family were writing letters – about politics, about business, about shopping, about love and about each other, including the first valentine. Using these letters – the oldest surviving family correspondence in English – Helen Castor traces the extraordinary history of the Paston family across three generations. Blood & Roses tells the dramatic, moving and intensely human story of how one family survived one of the most tempestuous periods in English history.

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If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought. Which ones do you think are worth reading and which aren’t? What are your favourite books set in this period?

Historical Musings #57: Historical fiction to look out for in 2020

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction.

As has become a tradition here, I am devoting my first Historical Musings post of the year to a preview of some of the new historical fiction being published this year. This is by no means a complete list – simply a selection of books that I personally am interested in reading or that have caught my attention for one reason or another. Publication dates are for the UK and could change.

January

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson – Joanna Hickson’s latest Tudor novel tells the story of Joan Vaux, one of Elizabeth of York’s household. I have already started reading this one which was published on Thursday. [9th January]

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau – Having enjoyed all of Nancy Bilyeau’s previous novels (the Joanna Stafford trilogy and The Blue) I have my copy of Dreamland ready to begin. Set in Coney Island in 1911, this is a very different time period and setting for Bilyeau, but is already getting good reviews. [16th January]

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende – I wasn’t very impressed with my first Allende book, The Japanese Lover, but I thought I would give her another chance and try her new one, set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. [21st January]

February

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – I have to admit, it was the cover that drew me to this book, but the setting – 17th century Norway – and the plot, ‘Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials’, both sound appealing too. [6th February]

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd – I loved Glasfurd’s first book, The Words in my Hand, about the mistress of Rene Descartes, so I was excited to find that she has another book coming out soon. This one is about the eruption of an Indonesian volcano in 1815. [6th February]

Requiem for a Knave by Laura Carlin – I had mixed feelings about Laura Carlin’s previous novel, The Wicked Cometh, but I still want to read her new one, about a 14th century pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, as it sounds so interesting. [6th February]

March

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – This, the final part of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, will surely be one of the most anticipated new releases of the year for many people. Not much longer to wait now! [5th March]

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey – Another book that I was initially drawn to by the cover and title, but the plot sounds intriguing too. It’s the story of a woman tasked with the evacuation of a collection of stuffed animals from the Natural History Museum during World War II. [5th March]

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson – I enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s last novel, The Sealwoman’s Gift, and this one sounds equally fascinating – a story woven around the building of the Loch Katrine waterworks in 19th century Scotland. [19th March]

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry – This is the sequel to Barry’s hugely successful Days Without End, which was actually my least favourite of his books so far. Barry’s writing is always beautiful, though, and this one, which focuses on one of the characters from that novel – the Lakota orphan, Winona – sounds more appealing to me. [19th March]

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – I haven’t read any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other books, but where better to start than with this new book about Shakespeare and the loss of his son, Hamnet. [31st March]

April

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor – I love Andrew Taylor’s books and have been enjoying his Marwood and Lovett series, set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. This is the fourth in the series and I’m sure it will be as good as the first three. [2nd April]

The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick – Nicola Cornick’s latest time slip novel moves between the present day and the 1560s, following the story of Amy Robsart, wife of the Elizabethan courtier Robert Dudley. [30th April]

May

When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby – I loved Carolyn Kirby’s first novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns, so I’m pleased to see she has another book out this year – although this one, set during World War II, sounds completely different! [7th May]

Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir – This fifth novel in the Six Tudor Queens series will focus, unsurprisingly, on Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katheryn Howard. I have read all of the first four books, so I will be reading this one too. [14th May]

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain – Rose Tremain’s new novel takes us from ‘the confines of an English tearoom to the rainforests of a tropical island via the slums of Dublin and the transgressive fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.’ Sounds intriguing! [28th May]

June

Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson – Following last year’s Blood & Sugar, this is another historical mystery set in the 18th century and featuring the character of Caro Corsham. In this book, Caro is investigating the death of a woman found in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. [25th June]

July

The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies – This sounds like a very different setting for Dinah Jefferies, whose previous novels have all been set in Asia. This one is about an Italian woman in 1940s Tuscany. [23rd July]

August

The Coming of the Wolf by Elizabeth Chadwick – This is a prequel to Chadwick’s first medieval novel, The Wild Hunt, which was published thirty years ago and which I still haven’t read. I will probably read this one first and then read The Wild Hunt and its sequels. [6th August – No cover for this one yet]

The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson – The next book in Antonia Hodgson’s wonderful Thomas Hawkins historical crime series. It seems like such a long time since the last one! [6th August]

September

China by Edward Rutherfurd – I’ve been waiting for this for years, but the publication date keeps being pushed back, so I hope it’s true that it’s finally coming in September. Like his other books, it will tell the story of a particular place – in this case, China – over a period of many years. [3rd September]

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett – This is set at the end of the Dark Ages and is described as a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth. I will probably read it, but I hope it will be better than the last book in the series, A Column of Fire. [15th September]

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Do any of these interest you? What have I missed? Are there any other new historical fiction novels being published in 2020 that you’re looking forward to reading?

Historical Musings #56: My year in historical fiction – 2019

It’s my final Historical Musings post of 2019, which means it’s time for my annual summary of my year in historical fiction! I have kept the same categories as in the previous three years so that it should be easy to make comparisons and to see if there have been any interesting changes in my reading patterns and choices (my 2018 post is here, 2017 here and 2016 here).

I know the year is not quite over yet, but I have a lot of other posts to fit in before the end of December and I don’t think I’ll read enough historical fiction in the final two weeks of the year to significantly affect these statistics anyway.

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Time periods read about in 2019

The 19th century has been the most popular time period in my historical fiction reading for the last three years and yet again it’s the clear winner.

I’ve only read two books set earlier than the 12th century this year and they were The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff and The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis.

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54.2% of the historical fiction authors I read this year were new to me.

This is up from 31.2% last year (and higher than 47.3% in 2017 and 26.4% in 2016 too).

Three books I’ve read by new-to-me historical fiction authors in 2019:
Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss
The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan by Cynthia Jefferies
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

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Publication dates of books read in 2019

No big surprises here. Most of the historical fiction novels I’ve read this year have been new releases with the rest spread evenly across 1950-2018 and only a few published earlier than that. The earliest was from 1810 – The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter.

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20.8% of my historical reads in 2019 were historical mysteries.

Up from 14.3% in 2018.

Three historical mysteries I’ve read this year:
The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve
The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor
Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

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I’ve read historical fiction set in 16 different countries this year.

Sadly, this is down from 22 countries in 2018 and 21 in 2017 – I’ll have to make more effort next year! As usual, I have read more books set in my own country (England) than any other, which is not a deliberate choice but more a reflection of the subjects and time periods I tend to be drawn to. France and Scotland were in second and third place this year (the opposite way round from last year).

Three books I’ve read set in countries other than my own:
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (South Korea)
Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop (Greece)
The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (Iceland)

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Four historical men I’ve read about this year:

Sir James Simpson

Richard II (A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle)
James Simpson (The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry)
William Wallace (The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter)
Casanova (Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon)

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Four historical women I’ve read about this year:

Grace Darling

Constance of York (A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien)
Grace Darling (The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor)
Isabella of France (The She-Wolf by Maurice Druon)
Nest ferch Rhys (The Drowned Court by Tracey Warr)

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What about you? Have you read any good historical fiction this year? Have you read any of the books or authors I’ve mentioned here and have you noticed any patterns or trends in your own reading?

Historical Musings #55: Lest we forget

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. As tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday, I thought it would be appropriate to devote this month’s post to historical novels which explore the impact and legacy of the First World War. I’ve always found this an interesting and moving period to read about and have come across books which cover almost every aspect of the war you can think of.

I’ve read books about wartime nurses (The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally and The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr), the horrors of life in the trenches (The Lie by Helen Dunmore) and men left suffering from shell shock (Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan), what it means to be a conscientious objector (The Absolutist by John Boyne and If You Go Away by Adele Parks), the class and social changes that came about because of the war (The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn and The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson), and even the bravery of the horses that served in the war (War Horse by Michael Morpurgo).

I’ve also discovered family sagas which are set at least partly during the war (Post of Honour by RF Delderfield and The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville), historical mysteries set during or just after the war (The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller) and fictional accounts of real people and their wartime experiences (Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud and Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore).

A good range of books there, I think, and although I can’t say that I loved all of them, I do think they all have something to offer and provide some insights into different aspects of the war. One thing I can say for certain is that reading about the war has helped me to appreciate the courage and resilience faced by both those on the front line and those left behind at home.

Now it’s your turn. Which books set during World War I would you recommend?