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Historical Fiction


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#1 Ari

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Posted 01 June 2004 - 07:15 PM

With the summer reading season upon us, I thought it might be fun to discuss our favorite novels set in days gone by.

The idea was suggested by the book I'm currently reading, the first in a trilogy of novels about the Empress Josephine by Sandra Gulland. It's not as rich in characters, ideas, or historical detail as I'd hoped, but it's an enjoyable trip to late 18th century France none the less.

One author whose books I've enjoyed is Judith Merkle Riley. Her novel A Vision of Light was absolutely riveting, despite my lack of interest in the Middle Ages. I also like the first two books in Diana Gabaldon's time-travel series, although I have no interest in reading the others (Scotland is not my thing :P ). I understand she has a new, non-series book set in the 18th century, which might be more my style.

A big favorite of mine is Georgette Heyer, who wrote high-spirited, historically meticulous comedies set mainly in the English Regency period. She is often labelled (libelled?) a "romance novelist" (horrors!), but her work is far superior to the stuff that's churned out today.

And then there's a cross-genre, the historical mystery. Two of my favorites there are Bruce Alexander (18th century London) and the late Kate Ross (Regency period). But "historical" can mean anything that's not the absolute present, so I'd include Stuart Kaminsky, who writes a series about Toby Peters, struggling Jewish gumshoe in 1940s Hollywood, who is regularly employed by local luminaries such as Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, the Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and even Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein.

Who are your favorite authors?

#2 Kate B

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Posted 01 June 2004 - 10:58 PM

I would strongly recommend 'The Other Boleyn Girl' by Philippa Gregory. Set in Henry Viii's court, it is about Anne Boleyn's sister. It has a fabulous amount of historical detail, but more importantly, it is really thrilling and very hard to put down!

#3 perky

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Posted 02 June 2004 - 05:20 AM

Ari I couldn't agree with you more about Georgette Heyer. She's deservedly the Grande Dame of Regency Fiction. Another great is Barbara Metzger. She writes the most wonderfully quirky and appealing characters. Her writing style is how champagne tastes, bubbly, sparkling and addictive!
Regency England is definately my favorite historical period for reading.

#4 Treefrog

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Posted 02 June 2004 - 07:23 PM

I enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl, which I heard about on this board!

My favorite historical fiction is Stephen O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series (the basis for the recent movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which has the curious property of merging titles from two different books in the series). It helps to know a bit about sailing, but even so, it's best to just let the nautical stuff wash over you. What's really wonderful are the characters and their relationships, not to mention the meticulous historical accuracy.

There are two companion volumes that are helpful. One (whose name I cannot recall) gives synopses of each book (there are about 18). This is helpful if you set the series aside for a while, as each book picks up pretty much where the last one ends. The companion volume also gives additional historical, political, and geographical background.

The second volume is A Sea of Words, which is a massive glossary of the many period and nautical terms that cannot be found in ordinary dictionaries. It offers context and discussion along with definitions.

#5 liebs

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Posted 02 June 2004 - 08:16 PM

Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo series and Cynthia Harrod Eagles The Morland Saga.

#6 K8smom

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Posted 02 June 2004 - 09:50 PM

liebs, thank you! Someone else who's read Dorothy Dunnett. I just reread the Niccolo series, and I'm on book 2 of the Lymond series - again. I've read and reread them several times, but they're so detailed that I can't remember anything but the most important points, which makes rereading them much more interesting, of course.

#7 vagansmom

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Posted 06 June 2004 - 07:25 AM

The great Russian novels: Tolstoy's War and Peace and [/I]Anna Karenina,Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago[I].

They are all works of fiction set in Russia at important periods in history. I've never found anything better.

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 13 June 2004 - 06:22 AM

I wasn't allowed to read historical fiction as a child -- my aunt insisted I read history instead. I had every Landmark Biography from the time I could read, and still remember them vividly.

HOWEVER, one series that, for reasons I could never fathom, was considered permissible was the Rogue Herries series by Hugh Walpole. There are four of them, and I loved them -- tracing one family that left London in the 18th century to move to the wild north, through several generations. (The family lived in the Lake District, which is portrayed in the book as bleak, mysterious, a land where it is always windy and rainy, and I didn't connect this with The Other Side of the Lakes -- i.e., Wordsworth and co -- for years.)

When I was about 12, I would sneak-read Norah Loft's the House at Old Vine series -- this time the story of a house built in the Middle Ages, and 800 years of occupants. It ended up as a tenement. I was quite sad. I took everything in this book as gospel English history (which is why my aunt didn't me reading it in the first place. She sweetly offered me Agnes Strickland's 8 volume "Lives of the Queens of England" instead.

One book, kept in the locked top of The Secretary in the living room (with the key in the lock, but I never turned it), right next to my aunt's nursing school textbooks was "Forever Amber," her idea of a "dirty novel." Historical, time of the English Civil War. When I finally read it, in my mid-20s, it was so tame....and not very good.

#9 Treefrog

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Posted 13 June 2004 - 07:53 AM

Ah, *children's* historical fiction. My absolute favorite is a coming-of-age story by Marchette Chute set in Elizabethan England. It follows a young lad of means who is being raised -- unhappily -- by his stern spinster aunts. He runs away to London, falls in with a company of actors -- among whom is the man he comes to idolize, Will Shakespeare -- and becomes something of a supernumerary in the company. All the while, he finds comfort and love as an adopted member in the family of one of the actors. When the season is over, and he has matured considerably, he faces a choice: continue with his new life in the city, or return to his roots, his obligations, and his natal family?

It is called "The Wonderful Winter".

#10 Alexandra

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Posted 13 June 2004 - 08:11 AM

A quick note -- I was unclear. I read them when I was a child, but neither the Walpole nor the Lofts series is children's literature.

#11 Mashinka

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Posted 14 June 2004 - 03:16 AM

Does anyone read Mary Renault's novels? Her books are mostly "ancient" historical, or set in mythical times. Her most famous titles are The King Must Die, based on the Theseus legends and The Fire from Heaven, which is about Alexander the Great.

My personal favourites though are The Last of the Wine, set in Athens during the Spartan/Athenian Wars and The Mask of Apollo, which is about actors in the early theatre. Both books have as characters the real celebrities of the time such as Socrates and Alcibiades. Her books are extremely well researched and well written and above all are highly evocative of the place and time they depict. I've also noticed that they are very popular holiday reads for tourists in Greece.

#12 Jacqueline

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Posted 05 July 2004 - 09:48 PM

Just got a letter from dd's AP European History teacher for next year (10th grade) with summer reading requirements. In addition to The Prince by Machiavelli, they are asked to read "one historical novel written by a European author between 1450 and 2000." I was thinking "Tale of Two Cities" or "Les Miserables" but wondered if anyone cares to weigh in, knowing dd has three weeks more of her SI away from home(and then drivers' ed when she gets back) and would probably not want to tackle something gigantic at this point?????

Thanks!
Jacqueline

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 05 July 2004 - 09:56 PM

"Tale of Two Cities" is shorter!!! (I loved that one when I was in high school.)

#14 Treefrog

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Posted 06 July 2004 - 05:36 AM

MUCH shorter! As someone who adored TOTC, and tried to get through Les Mis several times (and failed each time), I'd vote for Dickens.

Don't worry about length, though -- she might as well get used to the HORRENDOUS reading load in that course. :wink: :green: :)

When my daughter gets back from her SI next week I'll run this by her; she just finished AP Euro.

Here's an interesting question, though: what counts as "historical fiction" in this case? Must it be historical from the author's perspective, or just from ours? Must it deal with a significant historical event/period, or may it portray ordinary lives in ordinary times?

#15 Jacqueline

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Posted 06 July 2004 - 01:07 PM

Alexandra and Treefrog,

Thanks for your replies! You raise very good questions, Treefrog. After all, "historical fiction" could be considered a bit of an oxymoron! For this exercise, I'm just going to assume it means a story in which the characters' lives and the "plot" are impacted in some way by actual historical events -- no matter how accurately (or not) the author portrays them.

But the idea of broadening the category to include "ordinary people with ordinary lives" is fun -- "Bridget Jones' Diary" would have to count!


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