Historical Musings #16: Exploring Europe

Historical Musings I think it’s safe to say that, if you live in the UK, the subject of Europe will have been very much in your thoughts over the last few weeks. Now, don’t worry – I have always made an effort to keep politics away from my blog, so I’m not planning to discuss the EU referendum here or to ask whether you voted Remain or Leave. However, when I sat down to choose a topic for this month’s Historical Musings post, the first thing that came to mind was Europe…and specifically, how little I’ve read about the histories of certain European countries.

Obviously, I have read a large number of historical fiction novels covering various periods of British history and quite a lot set in France and Italy. Looking back through my blog archives, I can see that I’ve read several historical novels set in Spain (including The Last Queen by CW Gortner, the story of Juana of Castile, and By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan, set in a Jewish community in 15th century Granada) and have also been introduced to Dutch history through books like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Alexandre Dumas’ The Black Tulip.

The Wild Girl German history has featured less often in my reading – apart from books about the Second World War, I can only really think of The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth (the story of Dortchen Wild and her relationship with the Brothers Grimm) and The Beggar King by Oliver Pötzsch (a mystery set in 17th century Bavaria). My recent read of Kristin Lavransdatter, which I wrote about last week, is the first time I’ve read about medieval Norway, and the only other book I can think of which touched on Norwegian history was Lucinda Riley’s The Storm Sister.

Far to Go I’ve read one novel set in 18th century Portugal (The Devil on her Tongue by Linda Holeman), one in 1930s and 40s Hungary (The Invisible Bridge) and one in the former Czechoslovakia (Far to Go by Alison Pick). Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo series have introduced me to the histories of several other European countries, including Cyprus (Race of Scorpions), Iceland (To Lie with Lions) and Malta (The Disorderly Knights). These novels, though – excellent as they are – only cover a brief time period and I’m very aware that I still have a lot to learn.

This month, then, I’m looking for some suggestions. I would love to hear about any historical fiction you’ve read set in any of the European countries I’ve already mentioned and also in any I haven’t – for example, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Baltic states, Austria, Greece (other than ancient history and mythology), Bulgaria, Romania/the Balkans, Poland, Switzerland to name just a few. I’ve read contemporary fiction set in some of these countries but know little to nothing of their histories and that’s something I would like to change.

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23 thoughts on “Historical Musings #16: Exploring Europe”

  1. OK, it’s a WW2 book, but the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning captures that pre-war and early war period in Romania and Greece very well. Sienkewicz’s Teutonic Knights is a swashbuckling saga of Polish and European history and so are Romanian writer Mihail Sadoveanu’s books (however, I’m not sure they have been translated into English). Richard Harvell’s The Bells is an unusual novel about a Swiss opera singer (a castrato, which was forbidden in Switzerland at the time).
    I haven’t read it yet myself but the Transylvanian trilogy by Miklos Banffy sounds like a must read.

    1. I was just going to recommend The Balkan Trilogy! I read it last year and loved it, and I have The Levant Trilogy (the follow-up) in the TBR pile.

    2. Thanks for those recommendations. I’ve thought about reading the Balkan Trilogy before but never got round to it, so I’ll have to move it higher up the list! I hadn’t heard of the other books you’ve mentioned, but I’ve looked them up and they all sound very intriguing.

  2. Most of my historical reading is WWII Europe or Victorian England, but a few that aren’t include Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach (movie adaptation soon to be released) and The Coffee Trader by David Liss, both set in the Netherlands in the 1600s; the Poldark series, set in Cornwall, England in the late 1700s through 1800s (it’s a 12 book series); Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (Paris in the late 1800s); and Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross (Rome in the Dark Ages); and the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (Scotland/France/U.S. in the mid 1700s).

    1. I love the Outlander series and enjoyed the first Poldark novel (I do want to read the others at some point) but the rest of the books you mention are new to me. I’ll definitely look out for all of those!

  3. What a wonderful topic and I am already getting ideas from the books you have mentioned and those in the comments. I am going to ponder this and see if I can come up with more suggestions. Just off the top of my head, I can say The System of the World trilogy by Neal Stephenson. Also Poland by James Michener, Independent People by Halldor Laxness (Iceland) and a book I have been meaning to read for years, The Thrall’s Tale by Judith Lindbergh (10th century Greenland including a prophetess of the Norse god Odin!)

    1. I read one of Neal Stephenson’s books, Quicksilver, a few years ago and don’t know if I would have the patience to read another, but I do remember learning a huge amount about 17th century Europe. Independent People sounds interesting, and quite similar to Kristin Lavransdatter!

  4. Sadly I don’t think I can recommend much as it would appear you’ve already read far more historical fiction from around Europe than me. Most of my historical reading has been UK based with a sprinkling of books fully and partially set in France, Spain, Germany and Austria. However I have read Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad, which is split between USA and Russia during WWII, and The Mirrored World, set in 18th century Russia – I particularly loved The Madonnas of Leningrad.

  5. Russka by Edward Rutherfurd about the history of Russia as a nation, The Firebird by Susanna Kearley, The Kitchen House and Rasputin’s Daughter by Robert Alexander. By Tracy Chevalier there is also The Lady and the Unicorn (the Netherlands), Pompeii by Robert Harris, The Shadow of the Wind trilogy by Carlos Ruiz Safon set in Barcelona, The Sultam’s Harem by Colin Falconer (Turkey in Sultan Suleiman’s court), Garden of Eden by Jeffrey Deaver (Germany’s WWII), Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell (Mozart and Austria).

    1. Thanks for those suggestions. I have read Russka (I love all of Edward Rutherfurd’s books), The Firebird and the first Shadow of the Wind book, but I haven’t read any of the others you’ve listed. I’m particularly interested in reading The Lady and the Unicorn and Pompeii as I’ve enjoyed other books by those two authors. They all sound interesting, though!

  6. Black Lamb & Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, although it isn’t historical fiction. From Amazon: “Part travelogue, part history, part love letter on a thousand-page scale, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a genre-bending masterwork written in elegant prose. But what makes it so unlikely to be confused with any other book of history, politics, or culture–with, in fact, any other book–is its unashamed depth of feeling: think The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire crossed with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. West visited Yugoslavia for the first time in 1936. What she saw there affected her so much that she had to return–partly, she writes, because it most resembled “the country I have always seen between sleeping and waking,” and partly because “it was like picking up a strand of wool that would lead me out of a labyrinth in which, to my surprise, I had found myself immured.” Black Lamb is the chronicle of her travels, but above all it is West following that strand of wool: through countless historical digressions; through winding narratives of battles, slavery, and assassinations; through Shakespeare and Augustine and into the very heart of human frailty. ”

    Well worth reading.

    Patrica Wright’s JOURNEY INTO FIRE which I haven’t reread in a long time but remember fondly, is set in Russia before, during and after the Soviet revolution through in to WWII. Follows the son of a high ranking family who goes Soviet.

    1. Thank you, Elaine. I’ve made a note of both of those titles. I read The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West a few years ago and have been meaning to look for more of her books. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon sounds very different, but definitely something I would be interested in reading.

  7. I have actually read a book set in 19th century Estonia and Russia by an Estonian author. It is called “Professor Martens’ Departure” by Jaan Kross. I suspect it might be difficult to find. I borrowed it from my local library, and I don’t remember seeing it in bookshops. It is a very good book though.

  8. Here are a few I’ve read, all set in wars I’m afraid:
    C J Sansom’s Winter in Madrid set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the first two years of the Second World War, an absolutely gripping novel that had me in tears.
    Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett set in Russia, pre and during the First World War and the Revolution.
    A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, the French Revolution
    The Glass Room by Simon Mawer – I read that very recently, set in what is now the Czech Republic both pre and during the 2nd World War
    Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. Set in 1941-2 a novel of the personal lives of the ordinary people of France under the German occupation of their country.

    1. Thanks for that great list of recommendations, Margaret. The only one I’ve read is Midnight in St Petersburg, but I’m interested in reading all of the others. I’m particularly looking forward to reading Winter in Madrid and A Place of Greater Safety, as I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by both CJ Sansom and Hilary Mantel.

  9. Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence – the Court of Christian IV of Denmark (1629-30). Never read a boring book by RT

    1. I haven’t read anything by Rose Tremain yet but I do have a copy of Restoration which I’m hoping to read soon. I’ll definitely think about reading Music and Silence too. Thanks!

  10. Cath’s mention of Rose Tremain has reminded me of “Merivel” which is also by Rose Tremain. This is a sequel to her earlier novel “Restoration”. “Merivel” is mostly set in Britain and France in the 17th century, but a small part of it is also set in Switzerland.

    1. I downloaded With Fire and Sword by Sienkiewicz to my Kindle a while ago but haven’t read it yet. I haven’t come across the James Conroyd Martin trilogy so will have to investigate!

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