Tag Archives: historical fiction

“Mr. Audubon’s Lucy” (by Lucy Kennedy, 1957) and “Audubon – A Biography” (by John Chancellor, 1978)

I’m such a sucker for romance! I picked up “Mr. Audubon’s Lucy” from the used book shelf at the Northwood Cape May Bird Observatory, a New Jersey Audubon Society Center located in Cape May Point (NJ). It is a fictionalized account of the courtship and first three decades of the marriage of Lucy and John James Audubon, told from the viewpoint of Lucy Bakewell Audubon. It covers events from 1800 to about 1830.

Lucy Audubon was a well educated English girl brought to Pennsylvania by her family. Audubon was a young Frenchman of uncertain origins, wealthy but spottily educated. Like Alexander Hamilton, he was born in the Caribbean. Audubon’s father returned to France a little before the Haitian revolution, which began in 1791.

At the time of their marriage, Lucy and Audubon intended to travel west and engage in trade. Kennedy describes in detail their journey, including river travel much earlier than described by Mark Twain. Wonderful to read!

Audubon was a wanderer and a dreamer and left Lucy and their two sons on their own for years at a time. In his biography, Chancellor asks whether she recognized and wanted to support Audubon’s unique genius, or if she was simply foolish. At this remove, we can only speculate. I am unreservedly impressed by Lucy’s success in supporting herself and her sons by teaching in wealthy households.

Chancellor’s biography of Audubon is a delight, because he provides extensive documentation, much of it visual – paintings by Audubon and others, letters and lists, photos of artifacts, woodcut prints…

Both these books are highly suitable for nature lovers and history buffs. Enjoy!

Advertisements

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan AND Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

This book reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows, published in 2009. Each novel consists of a series of letters, diary entries and notices. Ryan’s novel seemed less “spontaneous” than Guernsey. Would anyone really write such wildly uninhibited letters?? But both novels, each dealing with British civilian life during World War II, make good reading.

The church choir in the village of Chilbury is deactivated when too few men are left in town to sing tenor and bass. The Ladies Choir’ takes its place, at first tentatively and then with vigor. Chilbury is located next to a city named Litchfield Park, possibly meant to resemble Bletchley Park, where Britain’s crucially important code breakers were headquartered.

Yes, there’s a spy among the characters. He turns out NOT to be a villain. Ryan creates interesting villains. One is predictable, a military man (a brigadier) who bullies his family and neighbors. But another is a midwife! (See my blog entry of May 24, 2018 about midwives in fiction.) The brigadier and the midwife enter into a nefarious scheme to insure a male heir for the brigadier. Other plots unfold. Many important characters are children and adolescents. Ryan depicts the impact of war on their young lives very realistically.

Ryan’s plotting is uninhibited – she throws in complications fast and furious. I couldn’t stop reading! One of my favorite characters was Kitty, the third child of the brigadier. At 13, she’s full of energy and curiosity, headlong and rambunctious and confused by the War and it’s impacts. She reaches out to other children and also to adults as she struggles to cope. There are enough interesting characters in this book to make me hope for a sequel. After all, the Battle of Britain has barely started!

What’s this got to do with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night”? I attended a discussion of the play recently. Remember the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated after a shipwreck? Viola disguises herself as a man, and is mistaken for her brother, who she fears is dead. Love at first sight strikes several characters, and giddy confusions ensues. Our discussion leader pointed out that “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle, namely “What You Will”. Our starting discussion question was “Is love something you WILL, or is it something that happens to you?” Great question! We talked for over an hour. Do you choose to love? Does reason play any role in love? No, we didn’t reach a conclusion.

In The Chilbury Ladies Choir, Jennifer Ryan depicts characters to whom love “happened”. They weren’t “looking for love”, but were taken by surprise. There are two couples, one young but sophisticated, the other older and burdened with sorrows. For each of these four people, love is a dangerous path.

The person who recommended this book to me said it was about music. This aspect was handled lightly and deftly, with occasional references to hymns and choral performances. Two other themes are change and leadership.

This book rises well above the “chick lit” or “beach reading” category. I’d classify it as high quality historical fiction. The echoes of World War I are important. Read and enjoy, but remember, war is hell.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

 

This book is a treat. It’s romantic without being sentimental. As England recovers from World War II, a young woman accidentally begins corresponding with a resident of the island of Guernsey, a part of Britain that fell under Nazi control during the War. She travels to meet her pen pal and finds the island beautiful and the people charming.

If you have ever belonged to a book group, you will love this novel! The “literary society” of the title emerges accidentally, when residents are caught out after an occupation curfew. They don’t stop reading and meeting when the War ends.

The island of Guernsey suffered cruelly under wartime conditions. Residents and occupiers alike were on the verge of starvation when the war ended. Winston Churchill refused to send humanitarian aid because he was afraid it would fall into enemy hands. My misgivings about Churchill grow stronger.

Enjoy this book!

“Facing Enemies” by Mary Ann Trail

The Napoleonic Wars seem to attract imaginative attention, being fictionalized by everyone from Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey and Maturin series, 20 volumes) to Suzanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, see my blog entry of February 2, 2018). The site Goodreads offers a list of 135 novels set in that era, but the number of authors involved is much fewer. What makes the Napoleonic era so compelling? Anyone have a theory?

Mary Ann Trail’s recently published second book, Facing Enemies, is set in 1803. It begins in Dublin, but most of the action takes place in France.

And there’s plenty of action! This book is engaging and fast paced. The characters are well drawn, and the bad guys are REALLY bad. I had no trouble dashing through this book during a busy week. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. I hope there’s a sequel pending! Some of the characters are too good to leave behind.

“The Agincourt Bride” and “The Tudor Bride” by Joanna Hickson

Nothing matches historical fiction for escape value! I particularly enjoyed these books because they were set in France. Maybe I’ve maxed out on English historical fiction.

I’ve decided historical fiction is part of the “fan fiction” genre (which I don’t actually read). People write “fan fiction” because they don’t want to let go of the character, settings and situations in their favorite fiction. I certainly sympathize with the inclination! Who isn’t frustrated about the delay in publication of more volumes of Game of Thrones?

A close friend of mine wrote a version of Homer’s Illiad. It’s a way of merging with the work and the author, a profoundly respectful assertion of co-ownership.

Will I ever take a stab at “fan fiction”? I doubt it. Historical fiction? Also unlikely… I like to write, but have stayed with non-fiction. Check out the works of Joanna Hickson if you need an agreeable dose of historical fiction.

“The Flame Bearer” by Bernard Cornwell

Copyright 2016, 280 pages.

Historical fiction is great! You can be distracted from your worries and at the same time be (gently) reminded that there have been difficult times before. “The Flame Bearer” takes place in Britain around 900 AD, before its (still uneasy) consolidation into a single, country with a commons language. Now I understand the Roman wall (built to keep out the wild Scots) a bit better. Christianity was fighting it out with paganism. Some characters were hedging their bets, praying to both sets of gods and waiting to see which rewarded them.

“The Flame Bearer” is written in the first person, from the perspective of a displaced warlord named Uhtred. Wait, wasn’t I just writing about a REAL warlord? Yes, see my blog entry of January 15, 2017, about Dostum, a contemporary Afghan warlord and politician. One thousand years have passed, and the descriptive term “warlord” still has meaning. What would these two men have in common? Both fought on horseback. Each relied on a cadre of loyal followers. Each was motivated by family and tribal loyalty. Each lived in a time of rapid change, and worried about betrayal. Each carried responsibilities well beyond the range of military concerns. Each “appealed” for divine intervention in battle. (Read Williams “The Last Warlord” for details on that aspect of his campaign.)

Differences? Uhtred dismounted for hand to hand combat and was an expert in deploying a shield wall. Dostum advanced from horseback to trucks and tanks, and faced a pace of technological change Uhtred would not have believed. Uhtred lived in a pre-modern world. Dostum is “modern”, with some traditional personality traits. (He’s also in the news lately. I’ll refrain from trying to comment here.)

What can we say about warfare based on these two “warlord” portraits? Each had available some mechanism for negotiation, temporary truce or surrender. Uhtred approached his enemies with a lowered sword, carrying a green branch. Dostum suffered the loss of soldiers when a surrender attempt went bad. War is seldom “total”. In each case there was some concept of protecting prisoners and non-combatants, but that was often violated. Do meaningful “rules of war exist”?

Cornwell has written scores of books, “The Flame Bearer” being #10 in his “Saxon Tales”. He admits in his “Historical Note” that the book contains little actual history. Maybe it’s more of an adventure novel. Cornwell obviously enjoys writing about battles and the psychological complications of fighting. The plot is revenge and redemption, with lots of BLOOD.

Another of Cornwell’s series follows a character named Richard Sharpe from 1799 to 1821, in 20 novels. What is Cornwell trying to do, outwrite Patrick O’Brian? I suppose I should not judge based on one book, but I don’t think his work equals the stature of O’Brian’s. (Yes, I’ve read the awe inspiring Aubrey-Maturin series.)

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels work because they convey the arc of history, the sweep of the Napoleonic Wars. He invented his charmingly quirky protagonists, but the battles (I understand) are ALL taken from the naval records of the times. And sometimes they are surprising! I wonder if Richard Sharpe is as interesting as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

But Cornwell is good, and I’ll undoubtedly read more of his books. I think they would be excellent in audio format, for long car trips. Pre-modern Britain is more interesting than Route 95.

“Ride With Me” by Thomas R. Costain

When did historical fiction become such an active and popular genre? This book was published in 1944. The author, Thomas Costain, died in 1965 at the age of 80. Looking at a list of his books, I think read two others, “The Silver Chalice” and “Below the Salt”, when I was in high school.

“Ride With Me” uses a fictional newspaper writer to tell the story of an historical figure, Robert Thomas Wilson, a flamboyant, often disruptive British military officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

I tried, briefly, to find out a bit about the Napoleonic Wars. Some subjects simply can’t be reduced to a Wikipedia article! I was rapidly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the novel had enough of it’s own narrative drive for my ignorance not to matter.

This novel is a romance with some military history thrown in. Francis Ellery, the misfit eldest son of an aristocratic family, falls in love with a glamorous, passionate ex-patriot French woman living in London. Over the years, he rescues her from a variety of dangers, then is finally rewarded with love and marriage.

This is very high quality historical fiction, with wonderful atmosphere and period details, and if you get tired of what contemporary authors are writing, I suggest you try Costain as an alternative.