I am a random reader. I read history books and I read novels, but I had been rather sniffy about historical novels, until one rain-sodden week spent in a dripping chalet in Devon, when I inadvertently read Katherine, by Anya Seton and developed an unsettling crush on John of Gaunt.
The man whose futile pursuit of land and power caused the deaths of thousands of his own soldiers, who introduced the Poll Tax, and who probably had his rival in love assassinated, became the focus of a mild obsession. I felt compelled to search for a reliable likeness of the man, but his tomb effigy had been destroyed when the Great Fire of London swept through St Paul’s Cathedral in 1666.
And then I discovered a portrait, painted for Sir Edward Hoby of Queensborough Castle in Kent, in 1593. It shows a tall, dark, handsome warrior, making smouldering eye contact across the centuries, an armour-clad, unreconstructed Mr Darcy. The seductive characterisation of John in Anya Seton’s novel seemed to be confirmed: the Duke of Lancasterwas clearly misunderstood. After all, a man who was patron to Geoffrey Chaucer, champion of John Wyclif, a loyal support to his insufferable nephew, Richard II and - here is the clincher in historical novel terms - overthrew social convention to marry Katherine Swynford, his long term partner/mistress and mother of his children, could not be all bad.
I knew the painting dated from almost 200 years after John of Gaunt’s death, I knew it, but I was graciously prepared to overlook it. Reader, I believed in him. And then I read some actual history books.
This sobering experience may speak volumes about my own willing suspension of historical analysis, but reading that first historical novel did ignite the 14th century for me, (a modern historian by training and inclination) and led to serious academic research that might not have happened otherwise. Which is why this penultimate blog ends with a personal, and entirely subjective, assessment of the best and worst historical novels I’ve read in the last twelve months:
Best by a mile is Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which I read it in three deeply satisfying days, having wrested it from the grip of my eldest daughter. She’s a rower, but I carry more ballast. I’m afraid I saw Cromwell as an enforcer, an apparatchik, a Beria, the brutal successor to the flawed, but likeable Thomas Wolsey. In convincing contrast, Hilary Mantel creates a character of flesh and blood, dancing a perilous saltarella between the puffed doublets of his capricious king and venomous rival, the Duke of Norfolk. And she depicts Thomas More as a hypocritical prig, which is a gratifying bonus.
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyana is a book so oblique in its trajectory that it took several readings of the opening pages just to place the voices that narrate the story. They belong to African American jazzmen and a mixed race ‘mischling’, the product of a liaison between a German girl and a French colonial soldier from Cameroon, who are trapped in occupied France in 1940. It’s an unexpected, extraordinary insight into the Third Reich and the subversive swing bands which brought ‘degenerate black music’ to the clubs and dance joints of Hamburg and Berlin.
Then there is The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo; described as an ‘historical novel-in-verse’, this story of immigrants, newly arrived in third century Roman-occupied London, is shocking, moving and utterly different. It evokes the obscene wealth and seedy underbelly of Londinium and the casual exploitation and violence that characterise the short lives of an eleven year old trophy wife and her transvestite best friend.
And finally to The Somnambulist by Essie Fox, or Six Hours Of My Life I Will Never Get Back, as I prefer to call it, an historical novel so laden with anachronisms it makes your teeth ache. I have a friend who says that a novel is a work of the imagination and that historical accuracy doesn’t matter. Well, it matters to me. I urge you to avoid this book; it damages those parts of your historical soul that other historical novels cannot reach.
And the best book I read last year? And the year before that and the year before that? If No One Speaks of Remarkable Things, by Jon McGregor. Not strictly speaking an historical novel, just the most luscious piece of writing ever.
If you agree/disagree/profoundly disagree with the above, I’d be interested to hear from you. If you can recommend any historical novels worth reading in the coming twelve months, I’d appreciate that even more. Please post a reply below and I’ll prime my Kindle.