I wonder now which was the first historical novel I ever read, The Children of the New Forest? The Eagle of the Ninth? The Silver Sword or maybe A Moor of Spain. They all meld into one period of my life. These would have been those I could read to myself. What of those which were undoubtedly read to me, how young was I when someone first read Gulliver’s Travels to me, I seem to have memories of that tale stretching way back. Or Treasure Island? I remember listening to the Black Arrow on the small radio set high on the walls of the fourth form at my primary school, I would have been ten years then.
Many books I considered historical when a child of course were no such thing. I had assumed, because they were written in the past, whereas in reality they had been contempoary to the author. Kipling wrote of a time and place that was a reality to him in the same way as Austen did. The Black Arrow by R.L.Stevenson was certainly an historical novel as it was written in 1813 and set in the time of the War of the Roses, an exciting blood thirsty time if ever there was:) but a book written in 1813 does seem to a child to be historical already. Lines blur often in reading:)
That we were listening to the Black Arrow at Primary School, seems to indicate the powers to be considered it more historical than romance! There is more line blurring there.
I like my historical tales to inform me, the action is important but action on it’s own is never enough. Romance? well that never has been my thing. No, historical must fill me with a feeling I have walked the dusty/smelly streets, know the why? what and how? of a time long passed.Know that people were the same as us just wrapped in different coloured banners. Historical must cause a heart pounding fear/pleasure/excitment as I read. Historical must leave me battered by the experience.
A Moor of Spain by Richard Parker set in the time of Christopher Columbus and written in 1953, this was my first introduction to the Inquisition and showed me a startling fact of history. The Moors had at one time a great deal of control over Spain, I never would have known. It led me to explore a little more of Spain’s history as well as that of North Africa. The beauty of books ? those diverse side paths they can lead you down.
The Children of the New Forest also served up to us on the school radio, set this time during the English Civil War but printed in 1847. From that one I discovered much; that the Civil War was not just about plumed hats and round helmets, that Cromwellian were not always the enemy. Learnt in fact that history is many sided. It was an interesting discovery and one which appealed to my sense of fair play. Look at both sides of an argument/dispute/is a lesson well learnt.
I mustn’t forget the Eagle of the Ninth that wonderful adventure in Roman Britain written by R.Sutcliffe and published in 1954.The Romans, beloved of our primary school teachers. Such misty times, especially in the 50s, much more is known now of life around Hadrian’s Wall and of the remains of Roman rule. Because of this book I developed an interest in ‘really long ago times’ and I have followed with interest the discoveries being unearthed from the ground. Marvelling as I do, how history refuses sometimes to remain buried.
The Silver Sword also is deemed historical, being published 10 years after the Second World War, but how far from the period being written about does an historical novel need to be set – The Silver Sword never felt like an historical story to me, the war and it’s horrors were everyday fare, as more was discovered of the atrocities of war, in the years following, the more it felt like everyday life. – this was a contemporary story for me. On that critrea as soon as any book is published it becomes after all historical. Lines blurring again.
One of my favourite historical authors was Stanley Weyman, and on a recent re-read 60 years later I found he stood up reasonable well. Again with this sense of blurring, was he romance or historical adventure or. . . I read him for the adventure and history, be it Elizabethean history or 16th & 17th century French. The romance part was barely there for me. There was much to learn from his pages of the grander sweep of history than was ever found in the dry history of school text books.
I read Gone with the Wind very early, because it was one of my mother’s favourite books. Scarcely veiled rape scenes passed me by on the first reading but my entire view of the American Civil War was first introduced and then fixed by this book. Scarlett was my kind of girl, she did – whatever she had to – from spoilt brat to woman in control. With forces of such universal power against her – I say, didn’t she do well? The descriptions of hospitals full of the wounded the burning of Atlanta , birthing dying – oh Life I guess – the romance was neither here nor there for me. Not the lovey dovey stupidity of Ashley or the looser attitude of Brett – why didn’t the one move on and the other give her a good hiding.No, but the romance (old fashioned definition here) of the whole the grand sweep of history – great.
Another firm favourite were the Hornblower books. Set during the Napoleonic wars and set, what’s more on the sea. Discovered by me because they were my father’s favourite books (he of the navy) action, history and life in olden times, what’s not to enjoy. The descriptions of life at sea, of the storms, battles, life below decks so good I was seasick reading them:(
I latched onto Pearl S Buck for years – staple reading for me from the late 50s onward. Not only set in days of yore but in such a different culture it was almost shocking. China was a closed book to most of us westerners, but within those closed covers lay a magical land of mystery, I knew that. Pearl Buck delivered.She delivered well. My only regret, that not more of them have been turned into audio books.
Then came the 60s and I discovered the historical writer who, for me, towered above all. Dorothy Dunnet.Who could not fall into her books and drown in the history of 15th and 16th century. Not now a history of my birth, or a particular neck of the woods, so much as a global view of history. The Lymond series, with it’s Scottish hero, ranges across Europe and the Mediterranean. The grand sweep encompasses Russia, the Ottoman Empire as well as England. We meet well know historical figures and watch events mentioned in our history books.
Dunnet combined nail biting action and drama with culture, poetry and comedy.Her books leaves the reader breathless and stunned and they have completely destroyed historical fiction for me. All seem to pall in her shadow. The Lymond series consist of six massive volumes and the Niccolo series eight. The Niccolo series covers a larger stage than the Lymond ones travelling as it does over the same ground but including Egypt, the Sinai Peninsular and West Africa, as well as Poland and Iceland.
History is never just the history of one country, every nation interlinked to others in strange and divers ways. Reading these grand sweeping global extravagances shows how one tiny event on a small rocky island can be influenced by and influence many greater worlds.
If you haven’t read her, enjoy a well researched historical novel and have the staying power for the work, please do try her.