Historical Musings #38: Reading Edward Rutherfurd

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. For the last few months, I have been looking at the work of some of my favourite historical fiction authors; having previously featured Elizabeth Chadwick and Anya Seton, this month it’s the turn of a very different author: Edward Rutherfurd.

Edward Rutherfurd is the pseudonym of Francis Edward Wintle, born in Salisbury, England in 1948. His first novel, Sarum, was published in 1987, and since then he has written seven others, with a new one expected in 2019. Rutherfurd’s novels all follow a very similar format; they each tell the story of several families who live in one particular country, city or region over a period of many years. Sarum, for example, is set in and around the city of Salisbury; it begins in prehistoric times, then moves forward a few generations with each chapter, bringing us right up to the 1980s, and in this way, we watch the entire history of the city (and of England) unfold. His most recent book, Paris, is slightly different from the others as instead of moving forward chronologically in time, the narrative jumps backwards and forwards from one century to another, and although I didn’t find this as effective it did make a change!

As you can imagine, covering so much history means Rutherfurd’s novels are very long – most of them have around 1,000 pages, which I’m sure will put a lot of people off reading them. However, the way in which they are structured makes each novel feel almost like a collection of interrelated short stories, so once you start to read they are not quite as daunting as they seem! I have read all of his novels and own all of them apart from New York, which I borrowed from the library and didn’t like enough to want to buy my own copy.

Sarum (1987)
Russka (1991)
London (1997)
The Forest (2000)
Dublin: Foundation (2004)
Ireland: Awakening (2006)
New York (2009)
Paris (2013)

Of these, my favourites are Sarum, Russka and the two books set in Ireland. His new book, which I think should be coming next year, is apparently going to be about the history of China and I’m sure it will be another fascinating read.

You can find out more about Edward Rutherfurd and his work at his official website.

I will be looking at another historical fiction author in next month’s post, but for now:
Have you read any of Edward Rutherfurd’s novels? Which are your favourites?

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

Paris Of all the new books being published this year, this is one that I’ve really been looking forward to, having read and enjoyed all seven of Edward Rutherfurd’s previous books – my two personal favourites, Sarum, set in and around the English city of Salisbury, and Russka, which covers almost two thousand years of Russian history; his other two ‘big city’ novels, London and New York (probably the two I’ve enjoyed the least); his two books on the history of Ireland, Dublin and Ireland Awakening; and The Forest, the story of England’s New Forest.

After reading all of those, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from Paris but I was surprised to find that I was wrong. With all of his other novels, Rutherfurd has followed the same format: beginning in the distant past then moving forward chronologically through the centuries, he attempts to tell the story of a city or a country’s entire history by following several families down through the generations. Paris has a very different structure.

In this book we concentrate on one set of characters who are living in Paris during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the era known as the Belle Époque). Most of these characters are introduced in the first few chapters of the book and belong to six families, all of different social classes and political backgrounds. First, there’s the bourgeois Blanchard family – Jules Blanchard, the owner of the Josephine department store, and his three children, Gerard, Marc and Marie. Next, there’s Thomas Gascon, an iron worker, and his charismatic younger brother, Luc. There’s the aristocratic Roland de Cygne and his enemy, the revolutionary Jacques Le Sourd. And finally, a Jewish family, the Jacobs, and the Renards, who are merchants. The personal stories of all of these people and their ancestors are cleverly woven around the events that shaped the history of Paris.

Interspersed with this main storyline are several chapters in which we go further back in time and meet some of the earlier generations of our six families. There’s a chapter telling the story of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, for example, and another set in the city’s Jewish community in the 14th century. However, I was disappointed that some of the earlier periods in France’s history were given very little attention at the expense of the Belle Époque chapters. There was nothing prior to the 13th century so the Romans were completely ignored, Napoleon was barely mentioned at all, and I also couldn’t believe that we were only given one short, thinly plotted chapter on the French Revolution. I can see that choosing to focus more on the 1875-1940 thread of the novel allowed Rutherfurd to develop more complex storylines, but unfortunately his characters are just not strong enough to make this new format work. I still thoroughly enjoyed Paris and don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t; it’s just that I’m sure I would have loved it more if it had followed the same chronological structure as the previous books.

While I don’t have any problems with the factual content of Rutherfurd’s books, they do require you to suspend disbelief. You have to be able to accept that Thomas Gascon works on both the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower and is singled out by Gustave Eiffel from all the other hundreds of workers, that another of our fictional characters spends an evening with Ernest Hemingway and another one models for Coco Chanel, to give just a few examples. Another method he uses is to have the characters conveniently taking sightseeing tours of famous buildings and landmarks, such as the Palace of Versailles or the Père Lachaise cemetery. But although this kind of name-dropping can be annoying in other historical fiction novels, I actually don’t mind it in Rutherfurd’s books and I know he does it because it enables him to show us as many of the city’s famous figures and important events as he possibly can. Sometimes, though, it’s the smaller details and snippets of information that I enjoy the most – a description of a beautiful mille-fleur tapestry or a mention of the famous book shop, Shakespeare and Company.

I know these aren’t the sort of books that would appeal to everyone, though, as you do need to be genuinely interested in learning about the history of the locations each book covers and you also have to be prepared for the fact that most of his books are around 800-1000 pages long. I think of Rutherfurd’s books as interesting, entertaining history lessons. The quality of his writing is nothing very special and his characters are often very thinly drawn, but when you reach the end of one of his novels you feel that you’ve really learned a lot and have gained a good understanding of the place you’ve been reading about.

While this book was not without its flaws, I did love Paris. It’s not his best book by any means, and I definitely prefer the more linear structure of Sarum, Russka and the others, but this book was still a big improvement on his last one, New York. One problem I had noted with New York was that Rutherfurd seemed to run out of ideas towards the end, making the last few chapters very weak. This was not the case at all with Paris – in fact, the final chapter, on World War Two and the French Resistance was one of my favourites. It has definitely been worth the time and effort it took to read this book – and it has left me wanting to visit Paris again soon. I’m not officially taking part in Paris in July (I read this book in June) but Paris would have been a perfect choice!

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

This historical fiction novel by Edward Rutherfurd looks at the fascinating story of New York City from its early years as a 17th century Dutch trading post through to the present day. Along the way we learn about some of the important events that have shaped the New York we know today, from wars, blizzards and stock market crashes to the 9/11 tragedy. Some real historical figures make brief appearances – including Peter Stuyvesant, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and a few others – but the story is told through the lives of a fictional family, the Masters, who we follow down the generations.

I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of Edward Rutherfurd, having read all of his previous books (London, Sarum, The Forest, Dublin, Ireland Awakening and Russka). Each of Rutherfurd’s novels tells the story of a city or country over a period of hundreds of years and follows the lives of some of the families who lived there. His novels are all written in the same format and although they certainly won’t appeal to everybody I do think that if you read one of his books and enjoy it, there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy at least some of his others.

This one, New York, is slightly different to the previous books in that it covers a much shorter period of time (from the 1600s to the present day, in comparison to Sarum, for example, which begins in the ice age and ends in the present day). This means that where in the previous novels it was sometimes necessary to skip forward by a few centuries, missing out several generations, New York is told as a more continuous narrative.

Another difference is that while Rutherfurd’s other books have told the stories of five or six main families, this one concentrates on one in particular: the Master family. I’m not sure I liked the way Rutherfurd chose to follow the Masters throughout the entire book. They were a family of merchants and bankers so their lives revolved around money, banking and the stock exchange, things I don’t find very interesting to read about. The book would have worked better for me if instead of spending so much time with the money-obsessed Masters, there had been more focus on some of the other families we meet: the Caruso family, who were Italian immigrants, the Jewish Adler family, the Irish O’Donnells, and the descendants of Quash the slave.

I also felt that the book was too uneven. I appreciate that when writing a novel like this one it must be very difficult to decide what to include and not to include, but I thought there were some parts that felt very rushed while others dragged on for too long. Also, I found the characters in the earlier chapters more engaging and well-developed. It almost seemed that the author himself had started to lose interest when he reached the 20th century and was making less effort to think of compelling storylines and characters for the later sections of the book.

I don’t want to sound too negative though, because I did think this was a good book and I learned a lot from it. I’m British, have never been to New York (though I would love to) and have never had the opportunity to study its history, so a lot of things mentioned in the novel were new to me. I knew little or nothing about some of the historical events such as the Draft Riots of 1863 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, for example. I expect that if you’re a New Yorker you’ll take different things away from this book than I did (and maybe you’ll notice historical inaccuracies that I wasn’t aware of) but hopefully you’ll still be able to learn something new.

But although I did enjoy New York, it’s not one of Rutherfurd’s best novels in my opinion, for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. If you’re new to his books, Sarum (English history with a focus on the city of Salisbury and nearby Stonehenge) would be my personal recommendation as a good place to start, though it really depends on your own areas of interest. If you’d like to try some Russian history, I can also highly recommend Russka, and the two books about Ireland are excellent too. Oh, and one final thing I should say is that Rutherfurd’s novels are very long. This one has over 1,000 pages, though it hasn’t taken me as long to read it as I was expecting. I don’t see how the story of New York could possibly be told in any less than 1,000 pages, so I hope the length won’t put you off!

Have you read any of Edward Rutherfurd’s books? Which ones have you enjoyed?