The New Year is filled with “Best of…” lists. We thought we would try something g along those lines but with our own Hoydens twist. Several of us have chosen a favorite historically set book we read in 2007. These are books we read in the past year, but they weren’t necessarily first published in 2007--in fact, we’ve included both historical novels and books written in the past that were contemporary when first published.From Amanda Elyot - March by Geraldine Brooks
, Geraldine Brooks’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is not merely the best historical novel I read in 2007, but perhaps one of the best ever written. Her premise is a grabber: a “what if” that imagines what Mr. March, the father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
, and devoted husband of Marmee, is doing while he is serving in the Union army during the early years of the American Civil War.
So, she begins with a story we already know and love and opens up the life of the one character who remains largely unknown in the source material. From there, she shows us a society and a nation that is torn at the seams and deeply frayed, seen though the eyes of an idealist who becomes more and more conflicted as the great conflict rages on. The narrative weaves back and forth between March’s rosier past and his present circumstances; and the last third of the story is told primarily from the first-person POV of Marmee who (as we remember from Little Women) receives a telegram that her wounded husband is in a hospital in Washington DC and has gone down there to be with him.
While her premise itself is a hook, Brooks’s wordsmithing is glorious; her soaring prose is reason enough to read the novel. Her tone and style feel like they are placed squarely and accurately in 1860s America, while remaining totally accessible to contemporary readers. And her imagery transports us to a distant place and time, never shying away from the ugliness and horrors of war and slavery.
And if all this isn’t reason enough to read March
, Brooks crashed big-time through the paper wall of received wisdom in the publishing business (this was a big topic of discussion during the Historical Novel Society convention in Albany last June). Confounding all the supposed experts, who claim that you’ll never get a novel published that is (a) set in America; (b) set in the 19th century (in post-Regency years, even though we of course didn’t have a Regency); and (c) features a male protagonist, the heartrending and yet uplifting March
became a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize winner. From Pam Rosenthal - Villette by Charlotte Bronte
In 1842, two unsophisticated, unfashionably dressed young Englishwomen journeyed to Brussels, Belgium to study French and teach English at a school for young ladies, the Pensionnat Heger.
The purpose of the adventure was for Charlotte and Emily Bronte to improve their French, in order to equip them to open a school back in England. The teaching they did at the Pensionnat helped pay their fees.
Charlotte was twenty-six, Emily twenty-four. Shy and quaint, austere and stiff-neckedly Protestant, these daughters of a Yorkshire parson were completely out of their element in a sophisticated, continental, Catholic capital with its courts and cathedrals. Emily's stay was brief and miserable. After accompanying her sister home, Charlotte returned to the Pensionnat for an extra year of study.
They never opened their school. It's well known that after Charlotte's return to Haworth Parsonage the Brontes wrote some of the greatest of the Victorian novels. Charlotte gave the romance tradition the poor, proud governess Jane Eyre, the tortured Mr. Rochester, and the madwoman in the attic. Emily made us the less assimilable (but imo even more wonderful) gift of the angry, tragic lovers Heathcliff and Cathy, their fierce unquiet spirits still walking the moors at Wuthering Heights.
But it's less well known that during her year away from home, Charlotte fell unhappily and unrequitedly in love with her professor at the Pensionnat Heger, and that Villette
-- her final, less well-known, but greatest, novel -- draws upon all the pain and passion of that experience of love and foreignness, distilling it into a wonderful, terrible, near-hallucinatory novelistic aloneness. Charlotte's "cold" outsider heroine Lucy Snowe cherishes within herself a burning matrix of self-contradictory desires -- for love, for power, for independence -- that still can shock a twenty-first century reader.
I'm not kidding about the shock -- when my book group read Villette
a few months ago (even back-to-back with the uncompromising Wuthering Heights
) we found ourselves awestruck by its egotism and eroticism, its furious insights into desire and gender. No wonder this book has never quite made it into "the tradition" -- or any tradition. All the more reason to read it.From Lauren Willig - The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
My pick for 2007 is George MacDonald Fraser's glorious spoof on swashbucklers, The Pyrates
. It's a rollicking romp through seventeenth century high seas that sends up all our favorite stereotypes, from Charles II (complete with wig and spaniels), to the strong-jawed hero and the requisite bearded pirate who bursts out with "Arr" and "avast me lubbers" at the least provocation. It's one of those books that, while it makes no pretense at historical verisimilitude, makes you feel terribly clever for getting the historical in-jokes, such as the practice of the heroine, Lady Vanity, of classifying Society bucks as N.S.A.V., N.S.I.S.C., and N.S.A. (Not Safe at Vauxhall, Not Safe in Sedan Chairs, Not Safe Anywhere). As MacDonald Fraser himself says in his introduction, it's history not as it was, but as it ought to have been-- and a jolly good time it is!From Mary Blayney - The Vanishing Viscountess by Diane GastonThe Vanishing Viscountess
is the latest book from Diane Gaston, one of
the most gifted historical-romance story tellers working today.
Diane's road to publication is legendary. Her first book features a
prostitute as a heroine and it took more than one trip to the Golden
Hearts for an editor to see what a treasure they had in The Mysterious
and Diane's writing. A RITA win came next for Diane for her
book, A Reputable Rake
. This woman has a career ahead of her and some
impressive books behind her.The Vanishing Viscountess
starts off with action, a sinking ship.
Diane finds a convincing way to put Marlena and the hero, Tanner,
together in a bedroom while still strangers and to keep them together
as they become friends and lovers.
Tanner escorts Marlena through England without the benefits of his
title and wealth, giving the author's version of a story many writers
are tempted to try. Diane succeeds beautifully. In the course of their
adventure their flaws both save and threaten them. While not exactly
edgy the author comes close as she presents the darker side of the
Regency, which is her specialty. Possibly because of her long career
in social work, Diane has the ability to draw flawed but appealing
characters that stay with you long after the end.
In the interest of full disclosure: Diane is a good friend of mine.
But loyalty and honesty are not at odds here. This is a wonderful book
that I encourage all to read.From Tracy Grant - The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
I have a confession to make. Though Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady
is one of those books I’ve always meant to read, I didn’t actually read it until this year. And the reason I finally read it relates to my own writing. When my publisher wanted a new title for the reissue of Daughter of the Game
, one of the things I liked about Secrets of a Lady
(the title we finally settled on) was the echo of the title of the Henry James novel, which I thought gave the title a lovely nineteenth century-novel feel. It then occurred to me that perhaps it would be a good idea if I read The Portrait of a Lady
. (I had visions of being at a book event and being asked if I’d been thinking of The Portrait of a Lady
when I came up with my title and having to confess that yes I had but that I’d never actually read The Portrait of a Lady
So one evening I made a cup of tea and curled up in an armchair with The Portrait of a Lady
. The theme is one Henry James returned to frequently, from a fascinating variety of angles—a young American heiress abroad, confronting the mysterious complexities and intricate historical layers of England and the Continent. The opening pages immediately pull one into the world of an English country estate that is now owned by American expatriates. The opening scene, afternoon tea on an expanse of green lawn, is still vivid in my memory. But I read the early part of the book at a leisurely pace. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, but I didn’t feel compelled to race through the story. Yet, the more I learned about the characters, the more intriguing—and in some ways elusive—they became. Then in the midst of the book the story takes a time jump. After that time jump, the characters’ circumstances and attitudes have altered (this is particularly true of Isabel Archer, the heroine). I found myself turning the pages as compulsively as I would in a tautly written mystery. Looking for clues and answers, not to “who done it” but to who these characters were beneath all the layers James so brilliantly builds up. As a writer it was a fascinating lesson. And as a reader, it was an enthralling reading experience.Now it's your turn. What was your favorite historically set read of 2007? Do let us know, and we can all start working on our reading lists for 2008!
Labels: Amanda Elyot, Charlotte Bronte, George MacDonald Fraser, Geraldine Brooks, Henry James, Historical Fiction, Lauren Willig, Pam Rosenthal, Tracy Grant