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.


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

Six in Six: The 2019 Edition

We’re halfway through the year and I’m pleased to see that the Six in Six meme, hosted by Jo of The Book Jotter, is back again! I love to take part in this as I think it’s the perfect way to reflect on our reading over the first six months of the year. The idea of Six in Six is that we choose six categories (Jo has provided a list of suggestions or you can come up with new topics of your own if you prefer) and then try to fit six of the books or authors you’ve read this year into each category. It’s not as easy as it sounds and I usually find that there’s a lot of overlap as some books could fit into more than one category, but it’s always fun to do.

Here is my 2019 Six in Six, with links to reviews where possible (I’m behind with reviews and will be posting the rest of them eventually).


Six classic crime novels

1. The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
2. Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence
3. Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E and MA Radford
4. A Knife for Harry Dodd by George Bellairs
5. The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
6. And Death Came Too by Richard Hull


Six books with a touch of fantasy

1. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
2. The Binding by Bridget Collins
3. Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb
4. The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick
5. The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence
6. The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo


Six books that are not novels

1. The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie (short stories)
2. Margaret Tudor by Melanie Clegg (non-fiction)
3. The Return of Mr Campion by Margery Allingham (short stories)
4. The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith John Coleman (non-fiction)
5. The Doll by Daphne du Maurier (short stories)
6. Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough (narrative poem – I know this could be classed as a novel in verse, but I needed a sixth book!)


Six books set in different countries

1. The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (Iceland)
2. Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (Ireland)
3. Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (India and Italy)
4. Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (France)
5. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (Korea)
6. Death in Kenya by MM Kaye (Kenya)


Six authors read for the first time this year

1. E Phillips Oppenheim (The Great Impersonation)
2. Sarah Moss (Bodies of Light)
3. John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps)
4. Michelle Paver (Wakenhyrst)
5. Alex Reeve (The House on Half Moon Street)
6. Samantha Harvey (The Western Wind)


Six of my favourite books so far this year

1. The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop
2. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
3. The Devil’s Slave by Tracy Borman
4. Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
5. Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
6. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper


Have you read any of these books? Will you be taking part in Six in Six this year too?

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

A remote, snow covered mansion; a group of people arriving for a Christmas house party; a seemingly impossible locked-room murder; a detective whose methods are unusual and unorthodox. These may sound like the ingredients of a classic British Golden Age mystery, but Murder in the Crooked House is actually a Japanese novel first published in 1982 which Pushkin Vertigo have now made available for the first time in an English translation by Louise Heal Kawai.

I was really looking forward to reading this book as it sounded like just my sort of thing, and it did get off to a great start. The descriptions of the Ice Floe Mansion in northern Japan are fascinating, with its sloping floors and drawbridge leading to a leaning tower (which gives the house its nickname, the Crooked House). Inside, the mansion resembles a fairground fun house with a maze of rooms, unusually positioned staircases, and a room containing a collection of Tengu masks and mechanical dolls, including a life-size Golem which is said to get up and walk around at night.

This weird and wonderful building is the home of retired businessman Kozaburo Hamamoto, who has invited his family and friends to spend the Christmas of 1983 with him. The guests include his daughter Eiko and her two suitors Togai and Sasaki, his great-nephew Yoshihiko, and a former business partner Eikichi Kikuoka, who brings several of his employees along with him. On their first night in the Crooked House, one of the guests is found dead inside a locked room, Kikuoka’s secretary is terrified by a face at her top-floor window, and Golem appears to have thrown himself into a snowdrift outside. The local police are baffled; there seems to be no explanation for any of these incidents and no obvious motive either. It is only after several more murders take place and the brilliant detective Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives on the scene that the truth is finally revealed.

Murder in the Crooked House is a very clever murder mystery. I found the culprit easy to guess – there was only one person it could have been, in my opinion – but what I didn’t know was how they carried out the murders. The solution is certainly very original and although Shimada states in a ‘Challenge to the Reader’ towards the end of the book that he has given us all the clues we need to solve it, I will be impressed if any reader has actually managed to work out the exact method used by the murderer! However, the cleverness of the novel was also one of the things I disliked about it.

The book contains a number of diagrams showing floor plans and layouts of rooms and sadly these weren’t included in the ebook I received for review, which obviously wasn’t the finished version. Although Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature came to my rescue and allowed me to at least see the plan of the house, I think even if I’d been able to study all of the diagrams I would still have found the plot overly complicated. As well as a lot of importance being placed on alibis and who was in which room at what time, there’s also a lot of discussion of distances of windows from floors, positions of ventilation holes in walls and which rooms can be reached from which staircase. I do like mysteries with puzzles to solve, but I felt that this one became too technical – too concerned with the details rather than with the characters and their motivations. As a result, the characters seemed to lack depth and didn’t feel like real people to me, which wasn’t helped by the dialogue which felt a bit stilted, although that could have been due to the translation.

Most of the novel is written in the third person, so I was surprised to find that, when Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives at the Crooked House well into the second half of the book, the perspective switches to the first person (from the point of view of Kazumi Ishioka, Mitarai’s friend who has accompanied him to the house). It seemed unusual to have such a change so far into the book, but I got used to it quickly enough. Although this is the first novel I’ve read by Shimada, I’ve learned that this is one of a series of mysteries featuring the partnership of Mitarai and Ishioka, as a sort of Holmes and Watson. I would possibly try another book in the series – the first one, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is also now available in English and presumably some of the others will follow.

Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is a prequel to 2016’s Children of Earth and Sky but although they are set in the same world and share one or two characters, each book also works as a standalone. I think this is probably my favourite of the two, although I enjoyed both.

Like most of Kay’s novels, A Brightness Long Ago takes place in a land which closely resembles a real historical setting – in this case, Renaissance Italy. Our narrator is Guidanio Cerra of Seressa, a city which, with its lagoon and canals, clearly corresponds to Venice. Guidanio is looking back at events from his past, beginning with his time at the court of Uberto of Mylasia, a cruel tyrant who once ‘sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died’ and who has become known as the Beast due to his treatment of the young girls and boys he summons to his chamber at night. As the son of a humble Seressan tailor, Guidanio knows it is a great honour to have been given a position at Uberto’s court but he quickly discovers what sort of man he is serving and so he is not at all sorry when the Beast is assassinated one night by the latest young woman who has been brought to his rooms.

Her name is Adria Ripoli, the Duke of Macera’s daughter, and she is acting on the orders of her uncle, Folco Cino, a leader of mercenaries. Having witnessed Adria enter Uberto’s chamber to carry out the assassination, Guidanio helps her to escape before she can be captured. He expects never to see her again, but as chance would have it their paths do soon cross again and Guidanio finds himself drawn into the conflict between Folco Cino and his rival mercenary commander, Teobaldo Monticola, two powerful men whose actions could determine the fate of Batiara (Italy).

A Brightness Long Ago explores some of Kay’s favourite themes, such as chance encounters, the spinning of Fortune’s Wheel, and the idea that the small decisions each of us make every day of our lives could have wider repercussions, affecting not only our own future but the future of others too – in other words, that everything we do matters. These are topics that Kay returns to again and again in his novels but they seemed particularly dominant in this one and that was my only slight criticism of the book – not the ideas themselves, but the way the authorial voice is constantly reminding us that ‘things matter’. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think! Anyway, the writing was still as beautiful as I’ve come to expect; as some of you will know, I choose a quotation from every book I read for my end-of-month Commonplace Book posts – I will have a difficult choice when I come to put this month’s post together as almost every sentence in this book was worthy of being quoted!

The 15th century Italian (or Batiaran) setting was already familiar to me from Children of Earth and Sky, but even if you haven’t read that book, if you have any knowledge of Renaissance Italy you will probably be able to draw parallels between some of Kay’s characters and members of the Medici, Borgia and Sforza families, among others. There’s a dramatic horse race – one of the most memorable set pieces in the book – inspired by the real life Palio race which has taken place in Siena for centuries, and the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) is also covered. The different names Kay uses for these people, places and events, along with the two moons in the sky – one blue and one white – mean this book can be classed as ‘historical fantasy’, but there aren’t really any other fantasy elements in the story at all. That’s not a problem for me, but if you’re new to Guy Gavriel Kay and hoping for something with magic and wizards, I would recommend starting with Tigana instead.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters who share my name

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl, is a ‘Character Freebie’ (any topic of our choice that deals with book characters).

I thought it might be fun to list some characters who have the same name as me (Helen). I wondered whether I would be able to think of ten, but it turned out to be easier than I expected – in fact, I could have included more!

1. Helen Burns – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The saintly Helen Burns was Jane’s best friend at Lowood School and although her role in the novel is short and tragic, she has a lasting influence on Jane’s life.

2. Helen Irvine – Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

Helen of Kirkconnel Lea was the heroine of a famous ballad and her story is told in this beautifully written historical fiction novel.

3. Helen of Mar – The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

The daughter of the Earl of Mar, Lady Helen falls in love with Scottish hero William Wallace in Jane Porter’s 1809 novel.

4. Helen Franklin – Melmoth by Sarah Perry

This secretive Helen becomes fascinated by the story of Melmoth the Witness and discovers that the legend holds a personal significance.

5. Helen Schlegel – Howards End by E.M. Forster

The younger and more impulsive and passionate of the two Schlegel sisters in Forster’s classic novel.

6. Helen of Troy – For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser

I’m sure this famous Helen needs no introduction!

7. Helen Fong – China Dolls by Lisa See

One of three young women who become friends after meeting at an audition for dancers at a San Francisco nightclub in 1938.

8. DCI Helen Rowley – Sacrifice and the Lacey Flint series by Sharon Bolton

A recurring, though minor, character throughout Bolton’s Lacey Flint series (as Dana Tulloch’s partner) and also has a bigger role to play in the standalone novel Sacrifice.

9. Helen Giniver – The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

This Helen is one of several characters whose lives and relationships are explored in Sarah Waters’ World War II novel.

10. Helen Huntingdon – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

A Brontë character started my list so another Brontë character will finish it! Written in diary format, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall describes Helen Huntingdon’s marriage to an abusive, drunken husband.


Can you think of any other literary Helens? Are there any fictional characters who share your own name?

Six Degrees of Separation: From Where the Wild Things Are to House of Names

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we are starting with a children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

I can’t remember ever reading this book, or having it read to me, as a child. I wondered if I would be the only person to admit that, but having looked at a few other people’s chains today I’m pleased to see that it’s not just me! For my first link, I’m going to choose a children’s picture book that I do remember: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. This means I’ll have to break my own rule of only including books in my chain that I’ve already reviewed on my blog.

It’s the very simplest of stories, but the illustrations, the bright colours and the holes in the pages make it very appealing to a child! I can’t think of any other books I’ve read with a caterpillar connection (although I have just started The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley), so I’m going to use the word ‘hungry’ as my next link instead.

Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier tells the story of five generations of the Brodrick family beginning in 1820 with Copper John Brodrick, the owner of a copper mine in Ireland. The book reminded me of Penmarric by Susan Howatch, another family saga in which a mine plays an important part – in this case, a tin mine in Cornwall.

The lives of the fictional characters in Penmarric closely mirror the lives of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons. Elizabeth Chadwick wrote an excellent trilogy of novels about Eleanor, of which the first is The Summer Queen.

‘The Summer Queen’ makes me think of the woman who was known as ‘The Winter Queen’ – Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia. She was given that name because her husband’s reign in Bohemia only lasted for one winter (1619 to 1620). Elizabeth is one of the characters whose story is told in Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows, a novel set in multiple time periods.

My final link is to another book with ‘House of’ in the title. I had a few options here, including House of Glass by Susan Fletcher and House of Gold by Natasha Solomons, but the one I’ve chosen to end my chain is House of Names by Colm Tóibín, which retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus from Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia.

And that’s my chain for this month. My links have included picture books, the word ‘hungry’, mining, Eleanor of Aquitaine, summer and winter, and ‘house of’ books.

In August, instead of Kate giving us the first book in the chain, we will be starting with the book we ended our chain with this month, which for me will be House of Names.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver is an author I’ve been meaning to try for years, since I noticed all the hype surrounding her 2010 novel Dark Matter. For some reason I never got round to reading that book or any of her others, but I put her new one, Wakenhyrst, on my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would read it.

Wakenhyrst begins in the 1960s with the elderly Maud Stearne coming under pressure from journalists to tell the story of a murder committed by her father many years earlier. Maud is the only person who knows why Edmund Stearne left the house one day in 1913, armed with an ice-pick and a geological hammer, and killed the first person he came across ‘in the most bizarre and horrible way’. Edmund spent the rest of his life in an asylum and Maud stayed on alone in the family home – the old manor house, Wake’s End, in Suffolk – never speaking about the tragedy to anyone. But now the house needs urgent repairs and Maud can’t afford to pay for them. It seems that she will have to sell her story after all.

Maud then gives her account of the events leading up to the murder, beginning by describing her lonely childhood, growing up at Wake’s End on the edge of Guthlaf’s Fen, ‘the oldest, deepest, rottenest fen ever’, with a father who is cold and domineering and a mother who is constantly pregnant (although most of the pregnancies result in stillbirths or miscarriages). Edmund, her father, is a historian and enlists Maud’s help in transcribing a book believed to be written by Alice Pyett, a medieval mystic. The book that really interests Maud, however, is her father’s secret notebook in which he records his innermost thoughts and fears. Maud already knows that Edmund is not a nice person, but even she is shocked by some of the things she reads in his journal. And when he becomes obsessed with a medieval painting of the Last Judgement, known as ‘the Doom’, she worries about her father’s mental state. Are there really evil forces at work in the fens or are they all a product of Edmund Stearne’s imagination?

I enjoyed Wakenhyrst, but it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I think because I’d seen Dark Matter and Paver’s other recent novel, Thin Air, described as creepy ghost stories, I assumed this book would be the same, but I didn’t find it very scary at all – although I’m not necessarily complaining about that! There are plenty of Gothic elements, and the setting – a remote fenland community steeped in folklore and superstition – is certainly atmospheric, but it is not really a horror story in the usual sense. The horror in this book is more of the psychological kind, in the portrayal of a man’s descent into madness and obsession. Edmund’s notebook entries, which are interspersed throughout Maud’s narrative, become more and more disturbing and outlandish as his fears of the Doom and of demons in the fens spiral out of control.

I can’t really say that I liked Maud, but my sympathies were with her, particularly after her mother dies – weakened by too many pregnancies, or ‘groanings’ as the young Maud thinks of them (because that’s how each one ends). Maud’s life from this point becomes very isolated and unhappy, trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of Wake’s End as her father, never the most pleasant of men to begin with, gradually loses his grip on reality. The only bright spots in her life are her love for her tame bird, Chatterpie, and her relationships with Clem, the under-gardener, and Jubal Rede, the ‘wild man’ who lives in the fen.

After a slow start, I found Wakenhyrst quite an entertaining novel and I do still want to try some of Michelle Paver’s other books. I’m sure I will get round to reading Dark Matter eventually and will be interested to see how it compares.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.