Ricardian Fiction: A (Reading) Trip Down Memory Lane

I’ve been reading Steve Donoghue’s series on Tudor fiction at Open Letters with pleasure and nostalgia. I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction in recent years, but there was a time when I read and reread everything by Jean Plaidy, especially the Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots ones, as well as everything by Margaret Campbell Barnes. I purged most of these books from my collection at some point in my evolution into a professional critic–no doubt in a fit of pseudo-sophistication. I have often regretted it since, a little because I have occasionally thought of rereading them, and a lot because much of the history they represent is actually my own. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out recently that some of their titles are back in print–in fact, my very favourite, My Lady of Cleves, is just coming out this September. I’d guess that Philippa Gregory‘s success with similar material must be part of the impetus for these reissues. If nothing else, my youthful devotion to these books made me quite an expert on the British royal succession (very useful, it turns out, when explaining the back story for a novel such as Waverley.)

Anyway, reading about all this Tudor fiction also brought to mind my collection of novels about Richard III, most of which I have kept. These too are historical not just in their subjects but as objects, relics of my personal history, which involves a stint as a member of the Richard III Society of Canada (they still exist and they have a website!). Yes, it started because I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time; I was in 6th grade. It ended up launching my career as a teacher, as my Richard III obsession got me an invitation to do a guest lecture in my older sister’s History 12 class a few years later (she must have loved that). Some years after that, I won a prize at UBC for the best first-year history essay with an analysis of Richard III’s reign from a Machiavellian perspective. Also, I still choose Richard III whenever I have an opportunity to teach a Shakespeare play. That way all the time I spent studying that genealogy (in which nearly everyone is named Edward or Henry) doesn’t go to waste. The reproduction of his portrait that my grandmother had framed for me long ago now hangs in my office. Anyone who has seen it there and thought “what on earth?” now has an explanation, if not an excuse.

Here’s the list of other Ricardian fiction I’ve got, only lightly annotated because it has been, well, decades since I read most of these.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951). Of course. In case anyone who is still reading at this point doesn’t know about this novel, it’s a mystery novel of sorts: Tey’s detective, hospitalized and bored, is presented with a selection of portraits of famous criminals, including Richard III. Convinced that the face does not match the story, he begins a research project that leads him to the conclusion that Richard has been misunderstood and misrepresented. Obviously, in 6th grade I found it thoroughly compelling. My judgment was not singular; right there on the cover, the New York Times is quoted calling it “one of the best mysteries of all time.”

Barbara Willard, The Sprig of Broom (1971). This is what today would be called a Young Adult book, part of Willard’s great Mantlemass series that begins with The Lark and the Laurel.

Marian Palmer, The White Boar (1968). I remember finding this novel, which focuses on two of Richard’s men, Philip and Francis Lovell, wholly engrossing and believable. I think it would bear up well in a rereading because it avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre, namely excessive sentimentality and intrusively artificial archaic language. In about 1983, during a brief fling with journalism, I was taking a night school course on interviewing and in need of a subject. Noticing that the author bio on the book jacket said that Marian Palmer lived in “Vancouver, Canada” (the phrasing proves the book was published in the U.S.), I tracked her down and interviewed her. She was extremely gracious and seemed genuinely pleased that I liked her novel so much.

Rosemary Hawley Jarman, We Speak No Treason (1971). Another great favourite during my youthful obsession. This novel would, I’m sure, have been one of my earliest experiences with multiple narrators: the maiden, the fool, the man of keen sight. Each of its parts has an epigraph from a contemporary ballad–I still like that touch. Like much historical fiction today, its closest cousin is the romance novel, not the realist novel, which differentiates it from its major 19th-century predecessors. I don’t think there’s anything in Scott like this, for instance:

Next to the Earl of Warwick he stood, but apart from him. He was solitary, young, and slender, of less than medium stature. His face had the fragile pallor of one who has fought sickness for a long time, yet in its high fine bones there was strength , and in the thin lips, resolution. His hair was dark, which made him paler still. He was alone with his thoughts. Ceaselessly he toyed with the hilt of his dagger, or twisted the ring on one finger as if he wearied of indolence and longed for action. Then he turned; I saw his eyes. Dark depths of eyes, which in one moment of changing light carried the gleam of something dangerous, and in the next, utter melancholy. And kindness too . . . compassion. They were like no other eyes in the world. Like stone I stood, and loved.

It’s interesting how Jarman, like Tey, starts with a close reading of the portrait, trying to motivate its details.
Rhoda Edwards, Fortune’s Wheel and The Broken Sword. The first one I never thought that much of, but I was very fond of The Broken Sword and excited when I found a copy at a library discard sale (obviously it wasn’t popular with many besides me). It’s another multiple narrator one, but this time it presumes to go right inside the experience of the central historical personages; much of it is from the perspective of Richard’s queen, Anne Neville.

Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour (1982). Penman has gone on from this blockbuster success (one of the few on my list that is still in print) to write a number of other historical novels, also apparently very popular, but I never cherished this as much as some of my others. The “Sunne” in the title is indicative of a much more laboured style that tries too hard to feel or sound like the olden days, especially in the dialogue: “‘Well, you’re bedraggled enough, in truth! But be you hurt?'” Well, even the greats falter when trying to capture the idiom of a previous time–though George Eliot’s worst moments in Romola (in many ways a marvellous novel) are also the result of trying to translate Italian idiom into English.

Juliet Dymoke, The Sun in Splendour (1980); Valerie Annand, Crown of Roses (1989). The thing about collecting things is you can’t be choosy. But neither of these seems worth special remark, at least in my recollection of them. I also used to have Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Dynasty I: The Founding but I can’t seem to find it. And finally, I have one more mystery, Elizabeth Peters’s The Murders of Richard III (1974).

Now, that might seem like quite enough, but the fascinating thing about historical fiction is that those of us who read it apparently don’t tire of variations on a theme. (Surely this illustrates the historiographical principle that the ‘facts’ don’t really tell us anything until shaped into a narrative, and there is never just one narrative to be told. Readers of genre fiction never needed Hayden White to point this out to them.) Peering around on Amazon I see that my collection is missing at least these more recent contributions (and no doubt more that have already lapsed into oblivion): Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown (2006) and Sandra Worth, The Rose of York (2003, just one in a whole War of the Roses trilogy). Do you know of others I have missed? If I read them, I promise to write them up! All I really need is an excuse and I can reread the whole batch. Is there an article in here somewhere?

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