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.

The Walter Scott Prize 2020 Shortlist

Following the announcement of the 2020 longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction earlier this month, the shortlist has been revealed today. As you may know, I am currently working my way through all of the shortlisted titles for this prize since it began in 2010 (you can see my progress here), so I will be trying to read all of the books below eventually. There are six books on this year’s list and here they are:


Picture provided by the Walter Scott Prize


The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey

“1950: late summer season on Cape Cod. Michael, a ten-year-old boy, is spending the summer with Richie and his glamorous but troubled mother. Left to their own devices, the boys meet a couple living nearby – the artists Jo and Edward Hopper – and an unlikely friendship is forged.

She, volatile, passionate and often irrational, suffers bouts of obsessive sexual jealousy. He, withdrawn and unwell, depressed by his inability to work, becomes besotted by Richie’s frail and beautiful Aunt Katherine who has not long to live – an infatuation he shares with young Michael.

A novel of loneliness and regret, the legacy of World War II and the ever-changing concept of the American Dream.”


The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

“As the First World War shatters families, destroys friendships and kills lovers, a young Palestinian dreamer sets out to find himself.

Midhat Kamal picks his way across a fractured world, from the shifting politics of the Middle East to the dinner tables of Montpellier and a newly tumultuous Paris. He discovers that everything is fragile: love turns to loss, friends become enemies and everyone is looking for a place to belong.

Isabella Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence from the British Mandate, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War. An intensely human story amidst a global conflict, The Parisian is historical fiction with a remarkable contemporary voice.”


To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

“England, 1348. A gentlewoman is fleeing an odious arranged marriage, a Scottish proctor is returning home to Avignon and a handsome young ploughman in search of adventure is on his way to volunteer with a company of archers. All come together on the road to Calais.

Coming in their direction from across the Channel is the Black Death, the plague that will wipe out half of the population of Northern Europe. As the journey unfolds, overshadowed by the archers’ past misdeeds and clerical warnings of the imminent end of the world, the wayfarers must confront the nature of their loves and desires.

A tremendous feat of language and empathy, it summons a medieval world that is at once uncannily plausible, utterly alien and eerily reflective of our own. James Meek’s extraordinary To Calais, In Ordinary Time is a novel about love, class, faith, loss, gender and desire—set against one of the biggest cataclysms of human history.”


Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

“1878: The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together, a life that will be full of drama, transformation, passionate and painful devotion to art and to one another. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation, outspoken and generous of heart; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.

Fresh from life in Dublin as a clerk, Bram may seem the least colourful of the trio but he is wrestling with dark demons in a new city, in a new marriage, and with his own literary aspirations. As he walks the London streets at night, streets haunted by the Ripper and the gossip which swirls around his friend Oscar Wilde, he finds new inspiration. But the Chief is determined that nothing will get in the way of his manager’s devotion to the Lyceum and to himself. And both men are enchanted by the beauty and boldness of the elusive Ellen.

This exceptional novel explores the complexities of love that stands dangerously outside social convention, the restlessness of creativity, and the experiences that led to Dracula, the most iconic supernatural tale of all time.”


The Redeemed by Tim Pears

“It is 1916. The world has gone to war, and young Leo Sercombe, hauling coal aboard the HMS Queen Mary, is a long way from home. The wild, unchanging West Country roads of his boyhood seem very far away from life aboard a battlecruiser, a universe of well-oiled steel, of smoke and spray and sweat, where death seems never more than a heartbeat away.

Skimming through those West Country roads on her motorcycle, Lottie Prideaux defies the expectations of her class and sex as she covertly studies to be a vet. But the steady rhythms of Lottie’s practice, her comings and goings between her neighbours and their animals, will be blown apart by a violent act of betrayal, and a devastating loss.

In a world torn asunder by war, everything dances in flux: how can the old ways life survive, and how can the future be imagined, in the face of such unimaginable change? How can Leo, lost and wandering in the strange and brave new world, ever hope to find his way home?

The final instalment in Tim Pears’s exquisite West Country Trilogy, The Redeemed is a timeless, stirring and exquisitely wrought story of love, loss and destiny fulfilled, and a bittersweet elegy to a lost world.”


A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland

“In the Eastern Cape, Stephen (Malusi) Mzamane, a young Anglican priest, must journey to his mother’s rural home to inform her of his elder brother’s death.

First educated at the Native College in Grahamstown, Stephen was sent to England in 1869 for training at the Missionary College in Canterbury. But on his return to South Africa, relegated to a dilapidated mission near Fort Beaufort, he had to confront not only the prejudices of a colonial society but the discrimination within the Church itself.

Conflicted between his loyalties to the amaNgqika people, for whom his brother fought, and the colonial cause he as Reverend Mzamane is expected to uphold, Stephen’s journey to his mother’s home proves decisive in resolving the contradictions that tear at his heart.”


* All blurbs taken from Goodreads.


What do you think? Have you read any of these? I have read one of them – To Calais, in Ordinary Time – and although it wasn’t really for me, I am not at all surprised to see it on the shortlist and won’t be surprised if it goes on to win the overall prize. I’m pleased to see Shadowplay and The Narrow Land on there too, as they are probably the books that appealed to me most from the longlist.

The winner is usually announced at the Borders Book Festival in June but with the current situation this year’s festival has been postponed, so we will have to wait and see how and when the 2020 announcement takes place!

The Walter Scott Prize 2020 Longlist

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will know that I have been slowly working through all of the books shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. I have discovered some great books and authors over the last few years thanks to this prize. You can see the progress I’ve made with this here – and I know there are other bloggers working on similar projects too.

The longlist for the 2020 prize has been announced today and includes lots of intriguing titles. I’m not planning on trying to read the entire longlist – I’m waiting until the shortlist is announced – but I would still like to read as many of these as I can.

Here are the twelve books on this year’s longlist:

The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Atlantic)
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (Jonathan Cape)
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee (OneWorld)
To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek (Canongate)
The Offing by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury)
The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan (Serpent’s Tail)
Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)
The Redeemed by Tim Pears (Bloomsbury)
A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland (Penguin South Africa)
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (Doubleday)
This is Happiness by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)
The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood (Picador)

I have only read two of these so far: I enjoyed Once Upon a River and although To Calais, in Ordinary Time wasn’t really my sort of book, I did predict in my review that it would be nominated for awards and I’ve been proved right! I already have Shadowplay on my TBR, as well as the first book in the Tim Pears trilogy of which The Redeemed is the final part, but I know very little or nothing about most of the others.

Have you read any of the books on this year’s longlist? Which ones do you think will be shortlisted? We’ll find out in April.

Walter Scott Prize shortlist of ‘favourite historical novels of all time’ revealed!

The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction have revealed their shortlist of ten ‘favourite historical novels of all time’ as nominated by readers throughout the month of November. I’m pleased that one of my nominations (The Game of Kings) has made it onto the list, along with a lot of other books I’ve read, although I’m surprised by some of the titles as they are not necessarily books I would have expected to see shortlisted. Have a look at the list below and see what you think.

You can vote for the winner here on the Walter Scott Prize website. The poll closes on the 16th December and the winner will be announced in January.

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Waverley by Walter Scott
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


Have you read any of these? Which do you think should win? What is your favourite historical novel of all time?

The Walter Scott Prize 2019 Shortlist

Following last month’s announcement of the 2019 longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the shortlist was revealed yesterday. As you probably know by now, I am currently working my way through all of the shortlisted titles for this prize since it began in 2010 (you can see my progress here). There are six books on this year’s list and here they are:


A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

Irene Bobs loves fast driving. Her husband is the best car salesman in rural south eastern Australia. Together with Willie, their lanky navigator, they embark upon the Redex Trial, a brutal race around the continent, over roads no car will ever quite survive.

A Long Way from Home is Peter Carey’s late style masterpiece; a thrilling high speed story that starts in one way, then takes you to another place altogether. Set in the 1950s in the embers of the British Empire, painting a picture of Queen and subject, black, white and those in-between, this brilliantly vivid novel illustrates how the possession of an ancient culture spirals through history – and the love made and hurt caused along the way.


After The Party by Cressida Connolly

It is the summer of 1938 and Phyllis Forrester has returned to England after years abroad. Moving into her sister’s grand country house, she soon finds herself entangled in a new world of idealistic beliefs and seemingly innocent friendships. Fevered talk of another war infiltrates their small, privileged circle, giving way to a thrilling solution: a great and charismatic leader, who will restore England to its former glory.

At a party hosted by her new friends, Phyllis lets down her guard for a single moment, with devastating consequences. Years later, Phyllis, alone and embittered, recounts the dramatic events which led to her imprisonment and changed the course of her life forever.


The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (See my review here)

15th century Oakham, in Somerset; a tiny village cut off by a big river with no bridge. When a man is swept away by the river in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, an explanation has to be found: accident, suicide or murder? The village priest, John Reve, is privy to many secrets in his role as confessor. But will he be able to unravel what happened to the victim, Thomas Newman, the wealthiest, most capable and industrious man in the village? And what will happen if he can’t?

Moving back in time towards the moment of Thomas Newman’s death, the story is related by Reve – an extraordinary creation, a patient shepherd to his wayward flock, and a man with secrets of his own to keep. Through his eyes, and his indelible voice, Harvey creates a medieval world entirely tangible in its immediacy.


Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (See my review here)

One rain-swept February night in 1809, an unconscious man is carried into a house in Somerset. He is Captain John Lacroix, home from Britain’s disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain.

Gradually Lacroix recovers his health, but not his peace of mind – he cannot talk about the war or face the memory of what happened in a village on the gruelling retreat to Corunna. After the command comes to return to his regiment, he sets out instead for the Hebrides, with the vague intent of reviving his musical interests and collecting local folksongs. Lacroix sails north incognito, unaware that he has far worse to fear than being dragged back to the army: a vicious English corporal and a Spanish officer are on his trail, with orders to kill. The haven he finds on a remote island with a family of free-thinkers and the sister he falls for are not safe, at all.


Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel.


The Long Take by Robin Robertson

Walker, a young Canadian recently demobilised after war and his active service in the Normandy landings and subsequent European operations. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and unable to face a return to his family home in rural Nova Scotia, he goes in search of freedom, change, anonymity and repair. We follow Walker through a sequence of poems as he moves through post-war American cities of New York, Los Angles and San Francisco.


What do you think?

I’m pleased I’ve already read two of the books from this year’s shortlist – it gives me a chance of actually reading the other four before the winner is announced in June. I enjoyed the Andrew Miller and would be happy to see it win and although The Western Wind wasn’t really my sort of book I think it will be a strong contender too. I’m looking forward to reading Warlight but I’m not sure about the other three, especially The Long Take which is written in verse. I’m a bit nervous about reading that one!

Have you read any of these books? Which one do you think deserves to win the prize?

The Walter Scott Prize 2019 Longlist – and the Academy Recommends

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will know that I have been slowly (very slowly) working through all of the books shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. I am always looking for quality historical fiction and I find that the books nominated for this particular prize are of a consistently high standard. You can see the progress I’ve made with this here – and I know there are other bloggers working on similar projects too.

The longlist for the 2019 prize has been announced today and includes lots of intriguing titles. I’m not planning on trying to read the entire longlist – I’m waiting until the shortlist is announced – but I would still like to read as many of these as I can.

Here are the twelve books on this year’s longlist:

Little by Edward Carey (Gallic Books)
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (Faber)
After The Party by Cressida Connolly (Viking)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry (riverrun)
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (Sceptre)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)
The Wanderers by Tim Pears (Bloomsbury)
The Long Take by Robin Robertson (Picador)
All The Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy (Maclehose Press)
Tombland by C J Sansom (Mantle)

The only one of these I’ve read so far is Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, which I enjoyed, but I have Tombland and The Western Wind on my TBR and was already interested in reading Washington Black as well. I also have a copy of The Horseman, which is the first book in Tim Pears’ West Country Trilogy; I will need to read that one before I can read The Wanderers.

Have you read any of the books on this year’s longlist? Which ones do you think deserve to be shortlisted?

Academy Recommends

In addition, the Walter Scott Prize Academy has also announced its annual list of twenty recommended historical fiction novels published in the last year (these books are separate from the longlist and have not been nominated for the prize).

Love Is Blind by William Boyd (Viking)
The Prince Of Mirrors by Alan Robert Clark (Fairlight Books)
The Making Of Martin Sparrow by Peter Cochrane (Viking Australia)
So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernieres (Harvill Secker)
All Among The Barley by Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury)
The Hundred Wells Of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah (Cassava Republic)
Only Killers And Thieves by Paul Howarth (Pushkin Press)
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly (Unbound)
The Black Earth by Philip Kazan (Allison & Busby)
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson (Two Roads)
Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo (Doubleday)
As The Women Lay Dreaming by Donald S Murray (Saraband)
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubaga Makumbi (Oneworld)
The Angel’s Mark by S J Perry (Corvus)
A View Of The Empire At Sunset by Caryl Phillips (Vintage)
Painter To The King by Amy Sackville (Granta)
A Treachery Of Spies by Manda Scott (Bantam Press)
The Tristan Chord by Glenn Skwerer (Unbound)
Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson (Corsair)
The Madonna Of The Mountains by Elise Valmorbida (Faber)

Again, I have read one of these books and enjoyed it – The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson. I’ve heard of a few of the others, but most of them are new to me. I have a lot of investigating to do!

You can find out more about the books and the Academy here. What do you think of their choices?

After the Sunday Papers #17

“She had read novels while other people perused the Sunday papers” ~ Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Doctor’s Wife

With several pieces of bookish news to share with you today, I decided it was time to bring back, after a four year absence, my After the Sunday Papers posts, which were always very useful when I had a few book-related things to mention but didn’t need to devote a whole separate post to each of them. I’m not intending to make this a weekly feature again (not that it ever really was) but I will put a post together as and when I feel that I have something to talk about.

First of all, I want to congratulate author Benjamin Myers on winning this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, which was awarded at the Borders Book Festival last night. As some of you will know, I am currently attempting to work my way through all of the shortlisted titles since 2010, so I have a particular interest in following this prize.

The six books on the 2018 shortlist were:

Jennifer Egan – Manhattan Beach
Jane Harris – Sugar Money [My review]
Paul Lynch – Grace
Patrick McGrath – The Wardrobe Mistress
Rachel Malik – Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves
Benjamin Myers – The Gallows Pole

I haven’t read The Gallows Pole yet (in fact I haven’t made much progress at all with this year’s list, as you can see) but I’m looking forward to reading it and finding out why it impressed the judges so much.

This is what the book is about:

From his remote moorland home David Hartley assembles a gang of weavers and land workers to embark upon a criminal enterprise that will capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history.They are the Cragg Vale Coiners and their business is clipping – the forging of coins, a treasonous offence punishable by death.

Have you read it? Do you think it is a deserving winner?


Last week also saw the launch of this year’s Reader Survey hosted by M.K. Tod, Heather Burch and Patricia Sands. This annual survey used to be specific to historical fiction, but this year it has been expanded to cover all genres. The results, when they are made available, are always interesting to see, so I definitely think it’s worth participating in this survey.

This is what the survey hosts have to say about it:

What do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? How do readers share their book experiences?

ANNOUNCING A 2018 READER SURVEY designed to solicit input on these topics and others.

Please take the survey and share the link https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/68HL6F2 
with friends and family via email or your favourite social media. Robust participation across age groups, genders, and countries will make this year’s survey – the 4th – even more significant.