Historical Musings #52: Medicine through time

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

The history of medicine is something I’ve always found fascinating and clearly there are many historical fiction authors who find it fascinating too, given the number of historical novels which feature doctors, nurses and healers from times gone by, doing their best for their patients despite the limited equipment, medicines and knowledge available to them. I thought I would mention some of them here, and then, if you can think of any others, I would love to hear your recommendations.

The first books that come to mind are three novels by Noah Gordon which I read before blogging and loved (or two of them, anyway – the third was slightly weaker). The Physician is set in the 11th century and follows the story of Rob Cole, a Christian boy from England who disguises himself as a Jew so that he can travel to Persia and study medicine with the great Ibn Sina. In the second book, Shaman, which is set in 19th century America, we meet one of Cole’s descendants, another Rob J. Cole and his son, a deaf boy known as Shaman who is determined not to let his deafness prevent him from carrying on the family tradition and becoming a doctor. The final book in the trilogy, Matters of Choice, has a contemporary setting and a female protagonist (Roberta J. Cole), but I remember feeling disappointed by it. The first two books are on my list for a re-read so I can see what I think of them now.

Thinking about books which aren’t specifically about medicine but have characters who are doctors, there’s Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series. Stephen Maturin, one of the two main characters, is a physician and ship’s surgeon during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. One of the things I love about O’Brian’s portrayal of Stephen is the way he only allows him the knowledge that would have been available to him in that period and avoids any irritating anachronisms. There’s also Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. The books are narrated by Claire, a 1940s nurse who travels back in time to the 18th century, which provides an interesting perspective as Claire’s more advanced medical knowledge and skills mean that she is able to save people who would otherwise have died – but at the same time arouse suspicions that she is a witch.

It didn’t take much for a woman to be described as a witch in less enlightened times. A reputation as a healer and an interest in herbs and remedies was usually all that was needed. Some examples are Froniga in The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge, Frances Gorges in The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman or the title character in Corrag by Susan Fletcher. Ariana Franklin, in Mistress of the Art of Death and its sequels (set in the 12th century), tells us that her protagonist Adelia Aguilar studied at the medical school in Salerno which accepted female students, and in Margaret Skea’s 16th century novel By Sword and Storm, Maggie Munro is given an opportunity to study medicine in France, although not quite in the way she would have liked. But they are exceptions and usually, in historical fiction set in those early periods, if women had a gift for healing and wanted to use it, it was difficult for them to do so without leaving themselves open to accusations of witchcraft.

By the 19th century, things have improved, although still not enough. Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss is the story of Ally, a girl from Victorian Manchester who is among the first group of women to attend the first medical school in London to take female students. This book made me appreciate how challenging it must have been for these early female medical pioneers to enter a field dominated by men.

This post is starting to get very long and I still have a few more books I want to highlight, so I will just give them a brief mention:

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – the story of twins, Marion and Shiva, who grow up in and around a hospital in 1950s Ethiopia after the disappearance of their father, a British surgeon.

Restoration and Merivel – Robert Merivel is an aspiring physician in Restoration London, but not a very successful one, as he discovers when he is made ‘Surgeon to the King’s Spaniels’.

The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas – a fictional look at the lives of three trainee nurses at a teaching hospital in 1930s London.

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry – the first in a new series of historical mysteries set in 19th century Edinburgh. The protagonist, Will Raven, is a student apprenticed to the famous Scottish obstetrician Dr James Simpson. I have the second book, The Art of Dying, on the TBR.

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Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Do you have any other novels about medicine through time to recommend?

Historical Musings #51: The Long Take – and a question of perspective

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

Let’s start with the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, which was announced yesterday at the Borders Book Festival. Congratulations to Robin Robertson who has won the prize with The Long Take, a book written in a combination of prose and verse. I haven’t managed to read this book yet, but here is what the Walter Scott Prize website has to say about it:

Walker is a Canadian veteran of the Normandy Landings and this extraordinary and exceptional prose/verse narrative tracks the progress of this damaged but decent man through the bleak and violent streets of post-war America. While New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are in a state of constant change and reinvention Walker is trapped by his searing experiences; his devils too present for him but to remain an outsider. Illustrated with grainy black and white photographs and inviting comparison with cinema The Long Take defies conventional literary boundaries but is a moving, memorable and wholly original work of writing.

The other shortlisted books were:

After the Party by Cressida Connolly (my review)
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (my review)
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (my review)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (not yet read)
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (not yet read)

The Long Take was probably the book that sounded least appealing to me from this year’s list, so I will be interested to see what I think of it when I get around to reading it. If you have read it, did you enjoy it and do you think it is a deserving winner?

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On a different topic, I came across this interesting quote in one of my recent reads, The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie:

Mr Quin shook his head gently. “I disagree with you. The evidence of history is against you. The contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting the true perspective, of seeing things in proportion. If you like to call it so, it is, like everything else, a question of relativity.”

Alex Portal leant forward, his face twitching painfully. “You are right, Mr Quin,” he cried, “you are right. Time does not dispose of a question – it only presents it anew in a different guise.”

What do you think? I think the opposite argument could be made – that it could be the contemporary historian who writes a truer history because they are actually experiencing the period and events which they are writing about and will understand them in a way a later historian can’t. On the other hand, somebody in the modern day writing about an earlier period will be able to look at that period in the context of what happened afterwards, has a wider range of sources to study and can draw on research and information that has come to light more recently (such as the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in 2012).

To give an example from the world of fiction, would we learn more about the Regency period from reading Jane Austen, who lived and wrote during that time, or from an author like Georgette Heyer, who was writing in the 20th century but researched the Regency thoroughly? Which gives us a more accurate idea of Victorian society – Bleak House by Charles Dickens or Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters?

What are your opinions on this?

Historical Musings #50: Presidential Historical Fiction

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I got the idea for this month’s post when my blogging friend Judy commented on one of my reviews that as an American she knows a lot more about American history than British history. I’m sure most people would say the same – that we have a better knowledge of our own country’s history than any other – and it’s certainly true in my case, which is why I’ve been making an effort over the last few years to branch out and read more historical fiction set in places I’m less familiar with. In previous posts I’ve asked for some suggestions of novels set in Japan, Australia, India, China and Wales, to give just a few examples.

But Judy’s comment reminded me that there are also some areas of American history than I know very little about – not so much the major events (I’ve read quite a lot of fiction set during the Civil War and Revolutionary War, as well as books that span several centuries of history like New York by Edward Rutherfurd) but the people. I’m ashamed to admit that there are many presidents and First Ladies who are little more than names to me.

This month, then, I’m looking for your recommendations of historical fiction about US presidents and/or their wives and families. I’m sure some of you will have read non-fiction books about the lives of presidents and I’m happy to hear about those too, but when I don’t know much about a subject I often find it easier to learn through fiction at first. The only one which comes to mind that I’ve read so far is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; apart from that, I’ve read some books where presidents make brief appearances, but I can’t think of any others where they have been the main focus of the story. Here are some lists I found that might provide a starting point, but as I don’t know anything about any of these books I will need some advice!

Historical Fiction about Presidents or Their Wives (Goodreads)
Presidential Historical Fiction Books (Bookbub)
Historical Fiction Books about First Ladies (Bookbub)

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Have you read any Presidential/First Lady fiction? Which books would you recommend?

Historical Musings #49: Exploring China

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I have recently read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, which is set in an alternate version of eighth century China, during the Tang Dynasty. Although I enjoyed the book, the historical period it was based on was completely unfamiliar to me, and this made me think about how little I actually know about China and its history.

Most of the novels I have read set in China are by Lisa See. The most memorable of these was probably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, from which I learned a lot about Chinese customs such as foot-binding, ‘laotong’ relationships and the secret women’s language known as Nü Shu. I also enjoyed Shanghai Girls, about two sisters who grow up in Shanghai before being sold into arranged marriages and forced to leave China behind for Los Angeles. In the sequel, Dreams of Joy, the daughter of one of the sisters returns to China and lives through the horrors of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. Lisa See also wrote China Dolls, which is not actually set in China, but follows the stories of three girls – two Chinese and one Japanese – who work as dancers at a San Francisco nightclub in the 1930s. I haven’t read the rest of her books yet, but have The Island of Sea Women on my NetGalley shelf.

There are two books by Jamie Ford that I’ve read which feature Chinese-American characters living in Seattle in the 1930s and 40s. These are Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost. I enjoyed both and gained some interesting insights into life in Seattle’s Chinese communities.

Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, which I really enjoyed reading a few years ago, is set partly in China and partly in India before and during the First Opium War. You will need to start with the first book, Sea of Poppies, but the second two – River of Smoke and Flood of Fire – are where the action switches largely to China (mainly Canton and Hong Kong).

I loved The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham which is set in 1920s Hong Kong during a cholera epidemic, but that book was contemporary (published in 1925) rather than historical. There’s also the wonderful Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which is non-fiction – an autobiographical book telling the story of Chang and her mother and grandmother – but every bit as readable, dramatic and emotional as fiction. Otherwise I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read about China. One of my current reads, The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, has some Chinese folklore in it but is set in 1930s Malaya – and I do remember, years ago, enjoying a book called Cloud Mountain by Aimee Liu but all the details of the plot have faded from my mind apart from the fact that it was about an American woman who marries a Chinese man in the early 20th century.

I’m sure some of you will have read much more about China than I have, so I would love to hear your recommendations. I would be particularly interested in books set in earlier periods – such as the Tang Dynasty I mentioned at the start of this post – but any suggestions are welcome!

Historical Musings #48: The Welsh Edition

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

This month Paula of The Book Jotter is hosting her first ever Wales Readathon* (also known as Dewithon 19). I have started to read How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn but I’m not sure if I’ll have time to finish it and write a review before the end of March so, as I do still want to participate in some way, I thought it would be interesting to devote this month’s Historical Musings post to Welsh historical fiction.

I’m listing below some of the historical novels set in Wales that I’ve already read and written about on my blog (some are by Welsh authors and some are not), but I’d love to hear your recommendations too.

Starting with the book set in the earliest time period, Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr takes us back to 11th century Wales and introduces us to Nest ferch Rhys, daughter of the last king of Deheubarth. I have the sequel, The Drowned Court, on my shelf to read soon.

Then there’s Sharon Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy, which begins with Here Be Dragons, the story of Llewelyn ab Iorweth (known as Llewelyn the Great) and his wife Joanna, an illegitimate daughter of England’s King John. The second book in the trilogy, Falls the Shadow, is set several years later and tells the parallel stories of Simon de Montfort’s rebellion against Henry III and, in Wales, the rivalries between Llewelyn’s sons and grandsons. I still need to read the final book, The Reckoning.

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters, the first in her Cadfael mystery series, involves a journey to a Welsh village to bring back a saint’s relics to Shrewsbury Abbey.

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine is a time slip novel set in Hay-on-Wye, close to the border between England and Wales. The historical thread of the story involves a young woman who becomes caught up in Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the rule of Henry IV of England.

In First of the Tudors, Joanna Hickson looks at the Welsh origins of the Tudor dynasty, with a focus on Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, uncle of the future Henry VII.

The Child From the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge is a beautifully written novel about Lucy Walter, a mistress of King Charles II and the mother of his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth. Lucy grows up at Roch Castle, on the Pembrokeshire coast, and her Welsh childhood is described in vivid detail.

My Beautiful Imperial by Rhiannon Lewis begins in 19th century Wales with a young boy dreaming of a life at sea before developing into a fascinating novel about the Chilean civil war.

Moving forward into the 20th century, I remember enjoying Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan (renamed simply Dead Man’s Embers since I read it a few years ago). The book is set in the 1920s and follows the story of a woman whose husband returns home to Wales after the First World War suffering from shell shock.

I found all of the books mentioned above interesting in different ways and would recommend any of them. But now it’s your turn…

Have you read any of these books? Can you think of any other good historical fiction novels set in Wales?

* It’s also Reading Ireland Month – you can see my earlier post on Irish historical fiction here.

Historical Musings #47: Exploring Ancient Egypt

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. This month I’m going to be asking for some recommendations…

In January I read When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney, a non-fiction book about six female rulers of Ancient Egypt. I didn’t particularly enjoy that book as I thought it was too preoccupied with drawing parallels with modern politics, but it did make me aware of how little I’ve actually read about Ancient Egypt! I can’t think of any other non-fiction books I’ve read on the subject and not much historical fiction either.

Years ago, before I started blogging, I read some of Christian Jacq’s Ramses novels about the pharaoh Ramses II, although I can’t remember which ones – The Lady of Abu Simbel, I think, and at least one or two others. More recently, I have read Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran, about Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony – although that book was set mainly in Rome rather than Egypt. I’ve read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra too, but otherwise I’m really struggling to think of anything at all that I’ve read set even partly in Ancient Egypt. As I’ve mentioned before, in my posts on Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, I have never really felt drawn to books about the ancient world and am much more comfortable with later periods of history.

I have read the first two books in the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters – Crocodile on the Sandbank and Curse of the Pharaohs – but they are set in 19th century Egypt with storylines revolving around Ancient Egyptian archaeology rather than being set in Ancient Egypt itself, so they’re not really the sort of books I’m looking for here.

I found a list of Best Egyptian Historical Fiction on Goodreads, but I want to hear your suggestions too.

Have you read any books set in Ancient Egypt? Which would you recommend?

Historical Musings #46: Books to look out for in 2019

I like to use my first Historical Musings post of each new year to look ahead at some of the exciting new historical fiction coming in the next twelve months. The books listed below are just a few that have come to my attention and that I’m planning to read. The publication dates I’ve given are for the UK only and may be subject to change.

If there are any other new historical fiction novels you’re looking forward to in 2019 I’d love to hear what they are!

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January

Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (24 January 2019)
This debut historical crime novel set in the 18th century will be published later this month. I have a NetGalley copy which I should be starting soon.

February

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (7 February 2019)
I’m looking forward to this one as it’s set in Iceland, which is always an interesting and atmospheric setting.

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo (12 February 2019)
This book sounds like a fascinating mixture of history, mystery and folklore set in 1930s Malaya.

The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson (21 February 2019)
Unsure about this one as all I can find is the title and nothing else, so I suspect the February date might be incorrect. A new Thomas Hawkins mystery will definitely be worth waiting for, though!

March

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (4 March 2019)
I loved some of Lisa See’s earlier novels. This one is the story of two girls who grow up on a Korean island in the 1930s.

The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick (7 March 2019)
A dual time frame novel set in 1765 and 1996. I enjoyed The Phantom Tree and House of Shadows so am looking forward to this one.

The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies (21 March 2019)
Dinah Jefferies’ books all have such interesting settings and this one will take us to 1930s Burma.

April

Sunwise by Helen Steadman (1 April 2019)
The sequel to Widdershins, a novel about witchcraft and witch-finders.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (4 April 2019)
This sounds like an intriguing debut novel about a maid on trial for murder in 19th century London.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor (4 April 2019)
Following the wonderful Ashes of London and The Fire Court, this will be the third in the James Marwood and Cat Lovett mystery series.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (4 April 2019)
A Victorian detective novel by another new-to-me author.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (4 April 2019)
I always love the sound of Michelle Paver’s books but have never tried one. This gothic novel set in Edwardian England will be my first.

May

Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir (2 May 2019)
The fourth book in the Six Tudor Queens series is the one I’ve been looking forward to the most as I have read so little about Anne of Cleves compared to Henry VIII’s other wives.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (2 May 2019)
Another debut novel set in 19th century London, in the world of the pre-Raphaelite artists.

June

The Devil’s Slave by Tracy Borman (13 June 2019)
This sequel to The King’s Witch will continue the story of Frances Gorges and her family

August

A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien (22 August 2019)
Anne O’Brien’s new novel will tell the story of a medieval woman I know almost nothing about: Constance of York, Lady Despenser.

September

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick (12 September 2019)
Loosely connected to her William Marshal series, this book is about William’s wife’s parents, Richard de Clare and Aoife of Leinster.

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Will you be reading any of these books? Which other new historical fiction novels do you think will be worth waiting for in 2019?