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Historical Fiction

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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".

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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.

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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?????



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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?

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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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My DD (15) adores Jane Austen and they are shorter. Or how about Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre? Or Three Museketeers or the Count of Monte Cristo? Camile by Dumas fils.

I loved Les Miserable but it is at least 1,000 pages. I also love Balzac's novels, mayeb Cousin Bette?

This summer, DD is reading In the Name of the Rose byt Umberto Ecco, set in the middle ages but written in the 80s.

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Liebs, My daughter just finished that Eco book this past spring and loved it. Sounds like your kiddo and mine have similar tastes in books.

My own vote, Jacqueline, is probably for TOTC as well although if she were just a tad older, I'd likely recommend "Good King Harry" by Denise Giardina. It's about King Henry V. It's pretty graphic, in warfare descriptions and sexuality so I'm not so sure about a 15 year old reading it. My kiddo's 19 and just finished the book last week. So far everyone I know who's ever read it (I've given it to them all) has loved GKH. It's my 24 year old son's favorite book, one of my favorite's as well as my husband's, and now that daughter and her boyfriend have both read it, they feel the same way. My book club group also felt the same way.

This book is a great one for launching discussions about ethics, with many parallels to today's present world. It's also a darn good love story (had my gruff son with tears in his eyes).

Methinks "Les Miserable" is miserable to wade through. I did it once and have to say that I like the movie very much!

Another great historical novel that's also fairly short is "Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler. I read it in high school and it set me off on a quest to read all the great Russian writers. Come to think of it, "Dr. Zhivago" by Pasternak is yet another one that's worth the read by a high school kid. As is so often the case, the book is so much more multi-faceted than the film.

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Does Historical Fiction have to be about Europe in ages past?

Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a gorgeous book. Just because it's about the Big Trail doesn't make it any less respectable IMO.

I'm hoping to reread it later this summer, and write a piece about it, since there's a Dutch translation coming.

Balzac's Cousine Bette is a wonderful book; I wouldn't call it a historical novel, thoug. In that case Portnoy's Complaint would be one, too, since Roth wasn't living with his parents anymore when he wrote the book.

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American historical fiction -- interesting topic. Would you count "Gone with the Wind?" "The Last of the Mohigans" and "The Red Badge of Courage". Scads of World War II novels, many of which made the careers of the writers. (But Herman's point is a good one -- novels which were contemporary when they were written may seem like historical novels 100 years later, but I'm not sure they go in that category.)

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American historical fiction: When I was in high school I ran across Elswyth Thane's series of "Williamsburg novels," set between the Revolutionary War and WWII -- the emphasis is more on the personal relationships rather than historical events, but the characters are involved enough in their world to make those times clear. The one set in the Civil War was particularly good at that (although it is in the "we were always good to our Negro servants" tradition).

A caveat -- if someone looks for these you need to find early editions (1950's) -- I found a reprint from the 1960's that had excised all mention of drinking and alcohol. The edits were very clumsily done, and there is no mention on the title page that the work was expurgated. Very curious.

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Guest Lady Fairy

I absolutely adored Diana Gabaldon's series "Outlander" and have read all 5 books so far---anxiously awaiting the next! For the person who was wondering about Diana's other historical book (which is also excellent btw) I believe you are referring to the one called "Lord John Grey and the Private Matter". Very well, written, and depending on how far you went on the series, you will have encountered Lord John Grey in his dealings with Jamie Fraser. Lord John Grey now has his own story to tell in this one. There will also be other books in this series about Lord John Grey---yippee! :wub:

I have not read "The Other Boleyn Girl" as of yet, although it has been on my list for some time--I am most pleased to hear so many have enjoyed it! I have just finished reading Six Wives-the Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey--which I loved. I highly reccommend it.

Lady Fairy

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I don't know if this would be interesting to you, but I love them. I am right in the middle of the Horatio Hornblower series by CS Forrester. They are the story of a young naval officer for the British Navy during the Napoleanic wars. It shows him moving up the ranks from Midshipman to Admiral. They are all about the battles, but there is a little romance in there too. They are really fast reads, too.

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I think it has to be historical from the author’s perspective. I like Mary Renault, who’s just as good as Mashinka says, and Gore Vidal – Burr and Julian are two of my favorite books, and 1876 is very good, too. I also enjoyed Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, about the Hamilton-Nelson affair.

Forever Amber is a very bad book, but I enjoyed it anyway. There’s a certain basic credibility in the story – the heroine has great beauty, great ambition, a sort of low animal cunning, and absolute ruthlessness – she doesn’t shirk from murder – and as it happens those qualities are just what she needs to get ahead in that time and place (the Restoration -- Charles II has just come back, and Amber spends most of the book plotting her way into his bed). Kathleen Winsor is not much of a writer, and she lards her dialogue with expressions that might be from the 17th century (“Odsfish!”) and others that are definitely not. The sex scenes were a big deal in its day, but no longer.

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