Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the Tudor dynasty, and Catherine Parr as the surviving wife of Henry VIII always fascinated me, how do you follow up marrying one of the greatest tyrants in history? Falling in love with and marrying an equally questionable man (see the rumours around Thomas Seymour’s relationship with his stepdaughter on Katherine Parr’s watch) before dying shortly after giving birth to your sole child. Tragic. And what happened to Mary Seymour, the baby who survived? She disappears from history. And that’s where Nicola Cornick’s latest novel The Phantom Tree comes in.

“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

Part timeslip, part romance, part mystery, part ghost story The Phantom Tree follows the dual narrative of Mary Seymour in Tudor England, and Alison Bannister in (mostly) modern England. Alison, trapped in the 21st century, desperately searches for clues left as to the whereabouts of her lost son by her sometime enemy, Mary, who in turn struggles to carve a life for herself in a land where her mysterious visions have lead to accusations of witchcraft while still making time to fall recklessly in “love”.

I appreciate that this sounds like a jumble sale of genres, but for me it worked. Especially the witchcraft element of the story and the way that this played out with the mysterious Darrell, though I have to admit a part of me found the story of the lost child really challenging. When the novel had finished, I thought that it was really nicely handled, but I think that this might be a challenging read for anyone who has been separated from a baby.

The feminist slant on life in Tudor England was very welcome, and I thought that the character progression of Alison throughout the novel was really well handled. I wasn’t wholly sold on Mary’s transition from a wise imp of a child to a would be Juliet surrendering much of her integrity to the first good-looking man who pays attention to her, but hey, we all did silly things as teenagers and the story had gained enough momentum to carry me through- though I would have liked to see more time and attention giving to the riddle of Alison’s sewing box.

Something that I found really interesting was the use of historical and fictional characters, in as much as I wondered why the author had decided to create a fictional version of the historical Wild William Darrell in Will Fenner. I assume it was because of the misdeeds of the characters associated with the family in the book- one of which was clearly forewarned in the earlier part of the novel and one of which really took me by surprise- and concerns about how their descendants might react to the artistic license taken with the story, or perhaps out of respect to the memory of the individuals in question. Either way, very interesting, and I’d love to pick the authors brains about it.

In summary, it’s an interesting read, and another instance of Nicola Cornick putting her own spin on history to create an enjoyable yarn. It would make a great summer read…summer, it is coming.

I’ve written this post as a part of Midas’ The Phantom Tree Blog Tour. Please visit some of the other blogs involved to see what their reviewers thought.

The Phantom Tree Blog Tour FINAL

 

 

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

A bit of a bookworm fail here, I fancied watching the Outlander series (the concept was similar to A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, one of my favourite books as a child, which sees a girl experience a similar phenomenon arriving back in the time of the Babington Plot) but couldn’t stretch to an Amazon Prime subscription…it hadn’t occurred to me that they were originally a series of books. At least, not until I came across a review of the series from Dewette Decimal Reads. So I loaded up the pushchair and took a trip to my local library to source a copy.

Outlander is the first novel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series and tells the story of Claire Randall, a young nurse taking a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank in 1946 when she steps through a circle of standing stones and finds herself back in 1743, face to face with her husband’s ancestor- Black Jack Randall, an English redcoat, who is very unlike the man she knows and loves. Attempting to escape from him, she falls into the hands of a group of Highlanders, who take her back to their clan’s castle believing her to be a spy. Attempting to gain their trust and find an opportunity to escape and return to Frank, Claire puts her medical skills to use in the castle where she increasingly finds herself drawn to a handsome young Highlander called Jamie Fraser. And wouldn’t you know it, it isn’t too long before she finds their fates very much entwined…

In the main part, I really enjoyed Outlander as a rollicking historical adventure complete with kidnappings, fights and witchcraft. The characterisation really added colour to the novel; an independent, headstrong 20th century woman finds herself confronting a very traditional, 18th century, conservative Catholic masculinity. The conflict arising as a result of the mores of the two ages created a credible dynamic between the characters of Jamie and Claire, and really allowed Gabaldon to bring 18th century Scotland to life.

I’ve already finished Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in the series, and am trying to get hold of the third novel, Voyager, from the library… someone seems to be reading the series at the same time as me!

One thing I would say about the novel for anyone thinking of reading it, although the premise is similar to young adult fiction such as Uttley’s and A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively (which the UK title of Outlander, Cross Stitch, seems to have been a nod to) this is not a novel which is suitable for children as it contains exceptionally graphic sexual violence. I wouldn’t consider myself to be especially delicate about violence in fiction, but this really is very graphic and I do think it is necessary to warn about it.

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

When Holly Ansell is woken in the early hours of the morning by a phone call telling her that her older brother Ben has gone missing, her only clues to his disappearance are the diary of a nineteenth century courtesan and a mirror reputed to be a lost treasure from the court of the Winter Queen. As Holly clings these clues, she doesn’t realise that her quest to solve the mystery of his disappearance will draw her into a four hundred year old love story involving the Winter Queen, ghosts and a cursed pearl…

Fusing thriller and romance, Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows is rooted in the historical romance of the Winter Queen and William Craven, but draws in elements of fantasy, evolving to create an alternate history centred on Ashdown Park in which refrains of the original love story echo down through history in a narrative split between the court of the Winter Queen in the seventeenth century, and Ashdown Park in the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

One of the things that I most enjoy about historical fiction is learning about the lives of historical figures, and in this respect the book doesn’t disappoint. Although aspects of the novel are fantastical, the historical details about Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen are factual, and the novel serves to illustrate the profoundly interesting and important life this relatively overlooked Queen had. (For example,even though like most British students, I had studied the gunpowder plot at school, I hadn’t realised that the plotters were ultimately aiming to place Elizabeth on the throne as a puppet queen. I was very drawn to this section of the narrative, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of the novel that Cornick manages the transition between the time periods successfully without losing the reader’s interest.

In many ways, the star of the novel is the location. Some readers may find the author’s decision to create an alternate history for Ashdown Park or Ashdown House problematic, given that the novel is to some extent a historical fiction, but provided you aren’t familiar with the house itself I don’t think that it is problematic to suspend your disbelief, especially given that the novel features a magic mirror!

As a fusion of genres, the novel is a little bit more Philippa Gregory than Dan Brown, in that the emphasis is strongly on the romance and less so on the thriller, but it’s definitely an enjoyable read and I am already planning a trip to Ashdown House to check out the setting- even if the lavender garden doesn’t exist as described in the book.

An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears

an instance of the fingerpost iain pears“God forbid that I should ever suffer the shame of publishing a book for money, or of having one of my family so demean themselves. How can one tell who might read it? No worthy book has ever been written for gain, I think.”

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears

Set in 1663, twelve years after the end of the English Civil War, An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a bitingly clever murder mystery set in the streets and colleges of restoration Oxford. Narrated by four narrators, the reader is left to piece together the true course of events from highly unreliable narratives before discovering “the truth” in a final narrative which leaves you, despite your better judgement, unable to question the credibility of the self-proclaimed “objective” narrator.

This is simultaneously the most intelligent and most enjoyable novel that I’ve read in a very long time. It’s clearly been immaculately researched, but at no point do you feel as though you’re having a lecture on life in post-Civil War Oxford. What particularly impressed me was the way that historical characters are seamlessly woven with fictional players (in reality, most of the characters are historical characters, though the events of the novel are fictional) and familiar figures from history like John Locke and Robert Boyle drift in and out of the novel as minor players, their genius and personalities noted as incidentals in the more pressing stories the characters are telling.

I admit, that part of my fondness for this novel was the Oxford setting. The descriptions of areas that are now fairly gentrified within the city centre as filthy, run down hovels was amusing, but I especially enjoyed the description of a religious meeting in a warehouse on the quay at Abingdon (a hotbed of radicalism, apparently). I’m almost certain I know where the building the author describes must be.

If you’ve ever spent any significant time in Oxford, or are planning a little sightseeing, this is a wonderful read and one which will truly stand the test of time.

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory has some fairly outspoken critics, usually historians, who complain about the historical accuracy of her work. I’m not one of those, as I think her novels are usually very well written, fairly well researched, and don’t really see the problem with bringing a little imagination to the realm of history. Lots of archaeology programmes seem to be based around the art of educated guessing, so why shouldn’t fiction get to do the same? It’s not like if people who wanted a historian’s take on history wouldn’t buy an academic book by David Starkey, or a serious academic who spends their time doing proper research rather than shouting down women on TV…

Despite all that, I have to say I was truly disappointed in The White Princess, the final story in her The Cousins’ War series. Firstly, it covers a lot of the material that she’s written about in her previous Tudor and Plantagenet books, somewhat inevitably, but at times it’s a little frustrating. Even more frustrating is that it seems to assume that you’ve read all of her other books, so for someone who hasn’t read The Kingmaker’s Daughter, it was a little odd to leap straight into the story with Princess Elizabeth reminiscing about her sex life with her uncle Richard… it just made me feel like Gregory was being forced to walk a fine line between fitting the series format and not rehashing an excessive amount of content. There was huge potential to make this the story of Perkin Warbeck, and that really was a compelling part of the story, but to do so it really needed to be told from the perspective of another character and I assume that didn’t fit the publisher’s plans for the format of the series.

My biggest problem with the books though (and something of a trigger warning here) is that Elizabeth is raped by Henry VII to ensure that she is fertile before he marries her, leading to Arthur being born eight months into their marriage. I accept that rape happened, happens and, particularly in this time, women were treated like chattel and therefore it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise, but what I find particularly troubling is the way this assault is followed up in the rest of the novel. Elizabeth ultimately finds herself falling for her rapist, who then forgets about her and turns his attention to someone else because (it is implied) she should have been a more welcoming wife when she had the chance. That is a really worrying presentation of rape, regardless of when a book is set.

The Venetian Contract- Marina Fiorato

In 1576 a ship sails from Constantinople to Venice carrying both life and death in its hold.

Death comes in the form of a dying man, a victim of the Bubonic Plague, sent by the Sultan to spread the disease through the city and bring his enemies to their knees. Life comes in the form of a talented young doctor, Feyra, a stowaway, running from the Sultan’s advances and carrying an important message for the Doge of Venice. But Feyra has few allies in the plague ridden city, and time is running out…

 

Taking real historic details as a starting point, Marina Fiorato has created an enjoyable story which, though clearly very well researched and brimming with historic detail, feels natural and engaging. Those with a passing interest in history will be pleased with the detailed reconstruction of plague struck Venice, with its saints and quacks, while those reading for adventure and romance will not be disappointed.

The characterisation is decent, there being enough complexity to prevent Feyra becoming the stock plucky yet virtuous maiden, and enough warmth to prevent Annibale becoming a Renaissance Mr Darcy in a bird mask. The relationships which develop between characters are for the main part credible, if a little oversimplified, though the author uses a subjective narrative to understate or overstate the bonds between characters to great effect at times.

The novel relates some very dramatic moment- births, deaths and destruction- without seeping into hysterical melodrama.  And though there were occasions when the novel felt a little awkwardly paced, or when characters felt a little more like plot devices than characters (Columbina Cason) I was impressed with the way the author managed the pace and scope of the novel.

Looking at the cover with its beautiful woman in a low-cut corseted dress against the backdrop of Venice, you could be forgiven for thinking that this would be something of a bodice ripper and dismiss it as a result. Don’t. The cover is beautiful in its own way but really doesn’t do the story justice.

On the whole this is an enjoyable read, which is suitable for young adults but which has enough flair to impress an adult reader as well.

If you’ve read this and liked this try Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders or Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.

 

 

Gioconda- Lucille Turner

Lucille Turner’s debut novel Gioconda imagines the untold story of Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance Man, from his upbringing as the bastard child of a notary, through his training as an artist, fleshing out the facts of history to explain why the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, was never delivered to the family who commissioned it and was instead inherited by one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils upon his death.

The novel is fluidly written, with few historical markers making it hard for the reader to judge at exactly which point in history the narrative occurs which aids the author in condensing the events of what is potentially a fifty year period into a relatively short novel, and allows the reader to focus on the polymath’s genius rather than on incident. For me, that’s where the difficulty of this beautifully written novel lies, the author seems to be trying to force a love story out of a true story which is already brilliant. For me, the intrigue in this novel was learning about Leonardo’s dissections and studies which were considered heretical and very dangerous- his relationship with Lisa seemed almost incidental. His character was too focussed on his work and too rational to make the desire to paint Lisa convincing, or the ending of the novel, which links back to the opening chapter, satisfactory. The Leonardo of the opening chapter and the Leonardo of the rest of the book seemed like two very different characters.

Gioconda is a good read, but not a great read. The strength of the novel lies in colourful descriptions of da Vinci’s artistic and scientific works. So while Turner’s attempts to convince me of a relationship between Leonardo and Lisa may not have been wholly successful, I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for a really nice edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

The Great Lover- Jill Dawson

April 23rd 1982, a sixty-seven year old Tahitian woman writes a letter to a stranger hoping for information about the father she never knew, the famous poet, Rupert Brooke. This letter is passed to ninety year old Nell Golightly, a former chambermaid at The Orchard Tea Gardens where Rupert used to lodge. Through the eyes of seventeen year old Nell and Rupert we see a friendship of equals develop.

The Great Lover is the first book by Jill Dawson that I have read, but I was very impressed by her writing. I often find that writer’s struggle to bring a historical character to life, relying too much on accounts of the person while they were alive without bringing elements of their own imagination to the story that bring the character to life, which results in a flat, stereotype. This was not the case here. Dawson’s Brooke is by turns complex and childish; self-assured but vulnerable; brilliant yet flawed. Her creations are just as life like, my especial favourite being the intelligent and strong willed Nell Golightly, who defies the reader’s expectations by being strongly opposed to the women’s suffrage movement- she feels that women should have equality as women, and not so they can act as moral compasses for men.

A lovely novel which tells the story of one of England’s most famous poets sympathetically, without the vulgarity which is resorted to in novels such as The Children’s Book, I especially liked the imagined insight that the reader was given into Brooke’s poetic inspiration. This would make the perfect weekend or beach read- especially for the scenes set in exotic Tahiti.

The Children’s Book- A. S. Byatt

Open at your Own Risk

Most readers will probably have heard of The Children’s Book, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I picked this book up a few times in bookshops before I bought it, I’m not going to lie, it was the cover which attracted me (not that I judge a book just by its cover but it was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in recent years) but was put off by my experiences of reading Byatt at university.

I read Elementals as a part of a contemporary fiction module, and I hated the fussy prose she used in her short stories. The Children’s Book is better initially, as Byatt’s writing style is better suited to the novel form. I say initially, because like the rule that says a task will expand to fit the time you allocated to it, Byatt’s writing seems to expand to fill the page allocation rather than in order to tell the story. It would have been vastly improved by an editor getting busy with a red pen and cutting vast swathes of text out.

The story is an ambitious work, following a group of people associated with the Fabian Society and the Arts and Crafts movement from the “golden days” of the later 18th century to the aftermath of the First World War. There is no strong plot line, more an attempt to explore the social mores of the time, in the style of a non-satirical Vanity Fair. However, it lacks the dynamic and punch of Vanity Fair as Byatt strangles the exploration of action and character with her elongated prose and history text book summaries.

The novel began and ended very well, they were interesting and emotionally engaging. There are a large number of characters, but the bonds between them are intelligible and sustained. Towards the middle however, Byatt (and consequently the reader) loses the plot, bringing in an army of unnecessary minor characters who add nothing to the plot, name checking historical figures who have nothing to do with the action- to contextualize or appear learned I can’t decide- and sticking in chunks of half written fairytales which take the reader along a path to nowhere. This is to say nothing of a strange fascination with the sexual desires of teenage boys. Many of the characters are vain, selfish and irritating, which would be fine, but this left me with no interest in the story. I couldn’t empathise with them. I didn’t care. It’s a miracle I finished the book, but I’m glad I did. Some of the description of the war was quite moving.

I wonder what the author was hoping to achieve when she wrote this book. I would be vaguely interested to know. Did she want to tell a story about parents who fancied themselves Bohemian and damaged their children through their self indulgence? Did she want to write a history of a period in history? It’s not clear and I think that this is the problem with the book. I have a keen interest in history and still found the constant references to figures and events annoying- a well written story doesn’t need this historical name dropping. If I want to read a factual account I will pick up a history book, if I pick up a novel I want to be entertained. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn from a novel, but I most certainly don’t want to feel like I’m in a history lecture or watching one of those dramatisations we watched in school history lessons showing us how the plague was passed from ships to the common man and the lord as well. I felt that Byatt was simpering to herself about how she was bettering me. Irritating.

The book probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. There are some very good moments. The trouble is, you feel like you’re experiencing the book as things happened. Living through the wheat and chaff of twenty years of history, wondering whether the time you’re investing is possible worth it. If you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining story, don’t pick this book. If you manage to finish it, you’ll feel quite worthy, but next time I think I’ll just try War and Peace.

My Two Pennies Worth

Doubtless anyone who reads the news will have heard about the recent outcry about the censorship of racist language in the latest version of Huckleberry Finn from New South books, in which the n- word has been replaced with “slave” and “injun” with a more standardised spelling, which they doubtless feel will be less shocking to parents on the boards of schools which they feel shy away from studying the text because of the racist language.

My two pennies worth? Aside from the fact that it is a satirical novel which criticises slavery (a pretty decent reason in itself not to censor) what is this sanitized version of history teaching children? I’m sure there are things in the past we would all like to airbrush away, unpleasant things we would like to sweep under the carpet, but I don’t think an oppressive period in history should be one of them.

When I was teaching I taught Of Mice and Men to my GCSE groups, and rather than shying away from the racism, sexism and prejudice against disability that are used in class, we tackled it head on. For example, which vocabulary did the students feel was appropriate to use? Why did they think that the author had used it? This gave rise to meaningful discussions which lead to the student deciding that Steinbeck’s portrayal of Crooks did not make him a racist, but reflected the attitudes towards black people in the era the novel was written. We discussed the Jim Crow laws. The students learned about the Ku Klux clan. We listened to Billie Holliday singing Strange Fruit and the students learned more about the historical period than they otherwise would have by avoiding the use of the n word.

I think it is more useful to teach young people and readers in general to open their minds to what they are reading and allow them to feel comfortable in challenging the attitudes and values presented in the text.