Historical Musings #31: Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction! This month I thought it would be interesting to look at one of the most basic questions people often ask about historical fiction – and to which there seems to be no right or wrong answer. That is, how long ago does a book need to be set for it to be considered ‘historical fiction’?

There is no definitive set of criteria to say what is historical fiction and what isn’t, although it seems quite obvious to me that for a book to be described as historical it needs to be set not just in our past, but also in the author’s past. I sometimes see books like Pride and Prejudice mentioned on lists of historical fiction and, in my opinion, those books don’t belong on that sort of list as they were contemporary at the time when they were written. Other people must disagree, so there is clearly some confusion over what ‘historical’ means and how it should be defined.

To use Charles Dickens as an example, Oliver Twist was written in the 1830s and set in the 1830s, whereas A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859 and set in the previous century, during the French Revolution. From the perspective of the modern day reader, both of these books may feel historical, but there is a difference: in one Dickens is writing about his own time period, while in the other he is writing about a much earlier period he has not actually experienced for himself. Of the two, only A Tale of Two Cities is historical fiction.

So, back to the question of how far into the past a book has to be set before you can call it historical fiction. If a novel set in the 1990s is published today, would you say it’s historical? I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that, as it feels much too recent…but what if it is set in the 1980s…1970s…1960s? What if the author is younger than I am and is writing about a period within my own lifetime but not theirs? What should we use as the cut-off point?

Here are some definitions from other sources:

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction:

Reflecting the subtitle ‘Sixty Years Since’ of Scott’s most famous work Waverley, the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years ago.

The Historical Novel Society:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

What do you think? How ‘historical’ does historical fiction need to be?

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Books added to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker
* Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell
* A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
* The Governor’s Ladies by Deryn Lake
* Munich by Robert Harris

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

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Historical Musings #30: Exploring Australia

In a comment on my last Historical Musings post – on the subject of nautical fiction – Yvonne mentioned that books set in Australia often feature a sea voyage, which is understandable as transportation (the relocation of prisoners) played such a big part in Australian history. I hadn’t read any of the books Yvonne referred to – and this made me think of how few historical fiction novels set in Australia I have actually read!

I have searched through my blog archives and it seems that the only Australian historical novels I have reviewed are The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally, about two sisters from the Macleay Valley who serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War, and The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife living on a remote island off the coast of Australia in the 1920s. There’s also The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, but that book is only partially set in Australia and not entirely historical either, although it does include some wonderful 19th century ghost stories!

Thinking of books that I read in the years before I started blogging, the only ones that come to mind are Colleen McCullough’s family saga, The Thorn Birds, and All the Rivers Run by Nancy Cato (of which I can remember nothing other than that I enjoyed it at the time). I obviously need to read more Australian novels! I found an interesting list at Goodreads but I’ve only heard of a few of those books…so where should I start?

Can you recommend any good historical fiction set in Australia?

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New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
* The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick
* The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn
* The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
* Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer
* The Last Hours by Minette Walters
* The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley
* The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

Historical Musings #29: All at sea

After last month’s post in which I discussed my feelings about battle scenes in historical fiction, this month’s is on a similar topic: scenes set at sea – which may or may not include sea battles! With air travel being a relatively recent invention, it’s obvious that travel by ship or boat is going to play a significant role in many historical fiction novels. This is something I have often struggled with, but that is starting to change, thanks largely to my decision to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. This is the beginning of my review from February 2013 of the first book in the series, Master and Commander:

I do not usually like books set at sea. However hard I try, I just can’t seem to keep track of the nautical terms and as soon as I see words like ‘mainsail’, ‘fo’c’sle’ or ‘bosun’ my brain just seems to switch off. As a fan of historical fiction, I have been unable to avoid this entirely – after all, until the 20th century the only way to cross the sea was by ship and many historical fiction novels do involve a sea voyage or two – but the thought of reading a book where seafaring forms a major part of the plot is always quite daunting for me.

Four years later, and I am now in the middle of the sixth book, The Fortune of War. Although I still can’t claim to understand all of the naval terms or to follow everything that is happening in the sea battles, I feel that I can understand and follow as much as I need to!

Some other historical novels I’ve read with strong nautical elements:

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

She Rises by Kate Worsley

The Time of Terror by Seth Hunter

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Some of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels also feature passages set at sea, as do Diana Gabaldon’s – as well as The Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull, which I read a few months ago and loved, and the book I have just finished reading, Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye. In books like these though, the sea travel arises naturally from the story, as a way of getting the characters from one point to another, rather than the author sitting down to specifically write a nautical novel. As I said in last month’s post on battles, if I have already formed a connection with the characters and care about what happens to them, I will be interested in reading about any situation they find themselves in, even if it’s something I might otherwise find boring or challenging.

How do you feel about historical fiction set at sea? Do you have any good ship-based books to recommend?

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New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* Circe by Madeline Miller – I’ve been waiting for another book from Madeline Miller since reading The Song of Achilles in 2012. This won’t be published until 2018 (I got a copy from NetGalley) but it’s the story of the witch from the Odyssey and sounds intriguing!
* The Tudor Heritage by Lynda M Andrews – This is a reissue of a book about the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign, originally published in 1977.
* The King’s Bed by Margaret Campbell Barnes – I’ve read a few other books by Margaret Campbell Barnes so couldn’t resist this one about an illegitimate son of Richard III.
* The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements – Having enjoyed Katherine Clements’ previous two novels I was delighted to receive this 17th century gothic ghost story from NetGalley too.

* And one non-fiction book: Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir – I know very little about most of the medieval queens featured in this book, so I’m expecting to learn a lot!

Have you added any new historical fiction (or non-fiction) to your shelves recently?

Historical Musings #28: Battle scenes – love them or hate them?

It’s an unfortunate fact that war and conflict have played important roles in shaping the history of just about every country in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that they also have a big part to play in many historical fiction novels. From Viking invasions to medieval sieges to the trench warfare of World War I, it can be difficult to avoid battle scenes of one sort or another when reading books set in the past.

I wouldn’t necessarily complain about books containing too many battle scenes – obviously, as I’ve said, the impact of war throughout history is something which can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, and it would be hard to write about certain time periods without covering at least some of the military history of that period. However, I don’t always find battle scenes particularly interesting to read and often find myself becoming confused, no matter how hard I try to concentrate and follow what is happening. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions: I will sometimes comment in a review that “I even enjoyed the battles”, which is high praise from me! I remember being completely gripped by Sharon Penman’s portrayal of the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in The Sunne in Splendour – and while I much preferred the peace sections of War and Peace, I found that some of the most powerful and memorable moments occurred in the war chapters.

In general, though, it’s fair to say that I am not really a big fan of battle scenes, which is why I tend not to be drawn to authors like Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden very often. It’s not just the battles themselves that I sometimes struggle to engage with – it’s everything else that goes with them: discussing military tactics, planning campaigns, learning to use weapons etc. Again, there are exceptions and some authors still succeed in holding my attention with these scenes, but I would usually prefer them to be just one aspect of a novel rather than the main focus.

Sword fighting is a different matter. I love a good fictional duel! Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche has some great duel scenes – and there’s one in The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett which has to be one of the most tense and exciting scenes I’ve ever read, partly because by the time the scene appears in the novel we are so emotionally invested in the two participants that it would be impossible not to be on the edge of our seats. And actually, I think that is why, in terms of larger-scale combat scenes, some of them work for me and some don’t – it’s all down to the emotional connection. If I can be made to feel that I’m there on the battlefield with a character I already care about and want desperately to survive, then I’m probably going to enjoy reading that scene.

Then, of course, there are sea battles – but I think that’s a topic for another post!

How do you feel about battle scenes in historical fiction? Do you love them or hate them? Which authors do you think write the best battle scenes?

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New to my historical fiction shelves this month:

* Widdershins by Helen Steadman – I can’t wait to read this new novel about the 1650 Newcastle witch trials.
* Glendower Country by Martha Rofheart – The kindle version was free on Amazon last week and as I’ve enjoyed some of Martha Rofheart’s other books I couldn’t resist this one, set in Wales. (Also published as Cry God for Glendower.)
* The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – This one sounds fascinating so I was pleased to receive a review copy from NetGalley, but the publication date is not until January 2018 so you’ll have to wait a while to hear my thoughts on it!
* Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault – I’ve been interested in reading Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy for a while and was lucky enough to find a copy of the first book in my favourite bookshop, Barter Books, yesterday.
* The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas – Another one from Barter Books. I have read and loved two other books by Elizabeth Loupas, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.

Have you added any interesting historical fiction to your shelves lately?

Historical Musings #27: A new list…

I have almost reached the end of my Classics Club list – a list of 100 books I put together in 2012 and have been slowly working through for the last five years. I was officially supposed to finish in March this year but didn’t quite manage it – although I’m not too worried about that, as I think taking my time to enjoy the rest of the books on my list is more important than rushing to meet a self-imposed deadline. Over the five years, I have discovered lots of great authors and have tried different types of books that never really appealed to me before, such as classic science fiction and plays. However, you won’t be surprised to hear that I also read a lot of classic historical fiction!

The books I have read for the Classics Club which can also be considered historical fiction include:

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (and its sequels)
Mary Anne, Frenchman’s Creek and The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier
Romola by George Eliot
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
Scaramouche, Bellarion, The Sea-Hawk and Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott
Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

And a few others, including my current read, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. When I finish The Leopard, the only books remaining on my Classics Club list will be my long-anticipated re-reads of two of my favourite books, Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo. I have already started thinking ahead to creating a second list to begin later in the year – and I would like your help!

Can you recommend some classic historical fiction for my next list?

I know I asked a similar question a while ago, but that related to classics by women only. I received some interesting suggestions at the time, particularly these four:

The World is Not Enough by Zoe Oldenbourg
The Fortunes of Garin by Mary Johnston
Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

I have also been considering these:

Claudius the God by Robert Graves
The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse
The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
The Fifth Queen trilogy by Ford Madox Ford
Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger
Something else by Rafael Sabatini
Something else by Sir Walter Scott

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Do you have any more suggestions for me?

To decide whether a book is ‘historical fiction’, I use as a guideline the Walter Scott Prize definition: the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years before the book was written. Defining a ‘classic’ is more difficult, so I’ll leave that up to you to decide!

Historical Musings #26: Judging a book by its cover…

There was a recent Top Ten Tuesday topic on book covers which I would have liked to have participated in but already had another post scheduled for the same day. Better late than never, though, so for this month’s Historical Musings post I thought it would be fun to look at some of the various types of covers which tend to be used for historical fiction novels. There are only seven on my list rather than ten, but you will probably be able to think of more.

The ‘faceless woman in a pretty dress’ cover

Example: The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper

I didn’t have to look very hard to find some of these covers on my shelves! This design has become very popular in recent years and although there are some variations – sometimes we can see part of the face and sometimes we can see only the back of the head – the overall effect is the same. I have read that a lot of publishers like to use these covers because obscuring the woman’s face creates mystery and avoids the problem of readers complaining that her appearance doesn’t correspond to the author’s descriptions. However, this type of cover is usually associated with light, romance-focused historical fiction and, depending on reading tastes, might put some people off; there are exceptions, of course, so it’s not always fair to judge. As a separate issue, there’s the question of whether the dress is appropriate to the time period – I won’t go into that here, but you may be interested in this list of anachronistic covers on Goodreads.

The ‘swords and shields’ cover

Example: Insurrection by Robyn Young

These have the opposite effect to the previous type of cover, I suppose. When I see a cover with a shield, sword, helmet, flag or something similar, I expect the story to be action-packed with lots of battle scenes, not much romance and probably a male protagonist rather than female. Again, there are exceptions, but in general these novels have a very different feel from the headless women novels and will often appeal to different readers (although there are plenty of examples of both that I’ve enjoyed).

The distant lands cover

Example: The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

Many historical fiction novels have a strong sense of place as well as of time, and sometimes the publisher will choose to use that as the selling point for the book. One of my favourite historical fiction novels, The Far Pavilions, wouldn’t have worked if it had been set anywhere other than India and Afghanistan, hence the picture and the quote on the cover of my edition – “A Gone With the Wind of the North-West Frontier”.

The tie-in cover

Example: North and South by John Jakes

These are my least favourite types of cover, particularly if I haven’t already watched the adaptation in question. I prefer to form my own visual impression of the characters as I read, rather than have somebody else’s interpretation already in my head before I start, and I like other readers to be given that opportunity too. (I did love both the book and mini-series versions of John Jakes’ North and South trilogy, though, and must read/watch them again one day!) Tie-in covers are not specific to historical fiction, of course, and occur across all genres; although I don’t like them, I can understand the reasons behind their use. Here’s an interesting article from the Guardian.

The illustrated cover

Example: Cashelmara by Susan Howatch

This could overlap with some of the other sorts of cover listed above, but I thought I would still include it (and it gives me a chance to mention another book which is on my must-reread-soon list, along with some of Susan Howatch’s others). Do you prefer books with old-fashioned illustrations on the cover rather than the stock photographs and images that are more popular these days? What about covers with portraits or reproductions of famous paintings (like Girl With a Pearl Earring)?

The ‘what were they thinking?’ cover

Example: Lion of Alnwick by Carol Wensby-Scott

Not too much to say about this one, other than that whoever designs the covers sometimes doesn’t get it quite right. I thought Lion of Alnwick was a good book which deserved a much nicer cover!

The simple but striking cover

Example: The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

Sometimes a publisher will avoid all of the above options and go with something basic and neutral. This makes it difficult to judge the book by the cover and to decide at a glance whether it’s something you want to read or not, but the advantage is that it’s not immediately off-putting to readers. (If you’re wondering, I’m reading The Winter Isles now, so haven’t posted my thoughts yet!)

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What do you think of the covers pictured above? Would they make you more or less likely to pick up the book?

Historical Musings #25: Ancient Greece

Historical Musings As discussed in a previous Historical Musings post, despite my love of historical fiction I have never really felt drawn to novels set in the ancient world. I’m not sure why this should be, but I have certainly read very few books set in Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt or other ancient cultures, and feel much more comfortable with settings from the medieval period onwards. Since that previous post, when I specifically asked for suggestions of Roman novels to try, I have read Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy (which I loved and can’t recommend highly enough), Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, and my current read, I, Claudius by Robert Graves, so I think I’m over my aversion to Ancient Rome! Now I need some help with Ancient Greece…

Thinking about books I’ve already read that are set in Ancient Greece, there are some but not many. I have read Homer’s Odyssey (in a translation by TE Lawrence), though not the Iliad yet – it’s debatable whether you would consider those to be historical fiction, I suppose, but they’re obviously a good starting point for exploring Greek history and myth.

Based, like the Iliad, on the Trojan War, there’s The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which tells the story from the perspective of Patroclus, and Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston, this time retelling events through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is also one of the main characters – the other is Chryseis – in Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful, which I read last year and enjoyed. I’ve recently received a review copy of the next book in the series, For the Winner, a book about Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.

The books I’ve mentioned so far are all inspired by Greek mythology, some of them including appearances by gods or other mythological beings. Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart is a bit different, concentrating on the life of Sappho, the Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos.

Finally, I must mention Mary Renault, a beloved author of many readers when it comes to historical novels set in Ancient Greece. So far I have only read The King Must Die, the first of her two novels telling the story of Theseus in a way which gives plausible explanations for elements of the Theseus myth. I enjoyed it, but didn’t fall in love with it the way I’d hoped to, and still need to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

What are your favourite books set in Ancient Greece? Have you read any that I’ve mentioned here?