Tag Archives: historical fiction

“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel

This enjoyable historical fiction novel introduced me to Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into slavery and purchased freedom for herself and her son. (Her son’s life history would also be worth a novel – he enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War by “passing” as white at a time when free African Americans were not accepted into the military. He died in combat.) Ms. Keckley became modiste (we would say “stylist”) and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln herself is an interesting historical figure, mostly because it isn’t clear whether she was sane.

Ms. Keckley was an extremely talented dressmaker, and had the sewing and business skills to support herself and send her son to America’s  first historically black college, Wilberforce College in Ohio.

This book gives insight into

  • The Civil War, especially as seen by residents of Washington DC.
  • The unpopularity and suffering of Abraham Lincoln, now often described as our greatest American president.
  • The evolving status of African Americans during the complex process of emancipation.

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ms. Keckley published an account of her experiences entitled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was simultaneously derided as too good (how could a “nigger” have written it?) and too bad (such a disgrace to write about one’s employers). Mrs. Lincoln eventually forgave her, but Ms. Keckley ended her life in straitened circumstances and seclusion.

The historical record of Ms. Keckley’s life in incomplete, so this fictional characterization necessarily contains considerable speculation. Keeping that in mind, I recommend it.

“Enchantress of Numbers” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace

This work of historical fiction is subtitled “A Novel of Ada Lovelace”. The long version of the protagonist’s name is Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. Her mother was Annabella Milbanke Byron, wife of the stunningly famous Romantic era poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. The marriage of Milbanke and Byron was short – Byron was unpredictable, promiscuous and moody. (That’s putting it mildly.) Byron left England, and Ada never had the opportunity to know her father.

Ada’s childhood was lonely, but she always had access to tutors and her intellectual life blossomed. She was passionately attracted to mathematics and science, and met many of the leading scholars of her age. Her name is often mentioned in connection with early “calculation machines” which preceded the invention of computers. She died at age 36, of uterine cancer.

It’s hard to read this book without applying contemporary standards of social judgement. Jennifer Chiaverini deserves high praise for staying within the cultural and social context experienced by Ada Lovelace.

Jennifer Chiaverini has published many books, including a series of TWENTY volumes called The Elm Creek Quilts Novels. I would rather start with her other six volumes of historical fiction. The only series of such magnitude I ever attempted was Patrick O’Brien’s wonderful Aubrey/Maturin saga.

Having now read a little about Lord Byron, I should read some of his poetry, which is considered the height of the Romantic era verse. Poetry is not my strong suit. I hope I can persist.

“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!

“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.