It’s a damn lonely business, writing a novel, and that loneliness only increases the longer the novel is – this (and the ironclad guarantee of poverty) is the best-known deterrent to the writing life. But there’s one kind of novel that’s even lonelier than all the rest, one kind where the length is virtually required, the subject matter is virtually certain to be obscure, and the attendant research is even more crushingly isolating than the act of writing itself. Underneath their brittle bon vivant mannerisms, all novelists are wretched outcasts from normal human society (because you can’t 100 percent enjoy something if you’re watching yourself enjoy it)(and because the very idea of attempting to write a novel is pretty much inherently delusional, like deciding one morning that you were going to lay out a gridwork in your back yard and actually count every blade of grass in it … anyone hearing the plan would first ask ‘why’ and then immediately ask ‘what the hell is wrong with you for even thinking it?’), but can there be a more wretched wretch than the writer of an 800-page historical novel? Their research has made them incomprehensible to their fellow novelists, most of whom are content to do coke, stare at their navels, and write about that. But they’re also incomprehensible to the actual historians of their period, who, being historians, have never even considered making their learning accessible to the public. It’s no wonder Margaret Mitchell was as crazy as a March hare.
There are exceptions, of course. Writers of Tudor historical novels are enjoying a vogue right now – a vogue that’s lasted 400 years and shows no signs of ending. They can get invited to parties, and they’ve had enough predecessors so that the burden of their necessary research is comparatively light. And certainly the same holds true for writers of Roman historical novels – hell, you can buy a kit at Walco that’ll let you slap one of those together in about a week, with no muss, no agony, and a decent shot at attaching Willem Dafoe to the finished product. These kinds of products are exceptions because, due to unpredictable quirks of the American educational system (and thanks to all those predecessors), most Americans believe they know something about the time periods involved, and the familiar is always more acceptable (this also applies to novels set in the Old West, naturally).
But oh, the poor writer of the fat historical novel set in some less-paddled historical backwater! These books appear in their serried legions, some burn brightly for a season, most fade into obscurity almost instantly, and all the work, care, and bitter isolation that went into creating them goes for nothing at all. You can find these fat old novels moldering in boxes at flea markets and on the shelves of the more lowbrow used bookstores, but without a knowing heads-up to distinguish the good ones from the dross, what reader can’t be forgiven for ignoring them all, life being short and reading time even shorter?
So here’s a dozen good ones! To emphasize just how many of these worthy items are published and then forgotten every year, we’ll concentrate this time around only one books from one decade, the best damn decade of the 20th century, the glorious ’80s. If you should happen to spot one of these titles cobwebbing away somewhere and the time period at all interests you, spend the $1 and buy the book! In each case, I can guarantee you three things: 1) the research is sound and pleasantly presented, 2) the atmosphere of the work will work on you, carrying you away, at least temporarily, from your debit-card world, and 3) like so many books mentioned here at Stevereads, none of these books actually deserves the obscurity to which merciless bookstore economics and lack of library shelf-space have consigned them.
So! In no particular order, first up is Malcolm Bosse’s 1983 novel The War Lord, a panoramic view of dramatization of 1927 China, with bloodthirsty warlords ramping the country from end to end. Bosse’s story has a huge cast, although we see a great deal of the action through the viewpoint of feckless everyman missionary (from Connecticut!) Philip Embree (most of these books sport at least one feckless everyman – it’s a characteristic of the breed), not that this is a necessarily a bad thing. Bosse’s prose can be very gripping, aided by his decision to tell the whole story in the immediate present tense:
Next morning the monsoon intensifies. Thunder squalls alternate with steady downpours that either lash the countryside brutally or monotonously hammer water into every depression of the land. Gray silt spreads like mush across the leachy soil and oozes into every hollow of it, making eroded meadows as smooth as butter. Tang drives the men without rest and for good reason: another few days of such flooding will mire the horses belly-deep in the muck of Shansi, like flies caught in amber.
Real historical figures like Chiang Kai-Shek mingle freely with Bosse’s avatars, and the many reviewers who liked the book all agreed that it would cost you time to read – not just because of how big it is, but because it would absorb you – and the same holds true today.
Next is John Barchilon’s 1984 novel The Crown Prince, which has as its central character a happy (though not quite feckless) young man named Paul Wittgenstein, a piano prodigy in Vienna on the eve of the First World War. He’s a happy young man, sure of his own talent and vigorously attracted to – and attractive to – the opposite sex (indeed, the book’s most interesting character is his lover Countess Marlene von Hess), but his world is shattered when he loses his right arm in the war (Barchilon archly assures his readers that while his book is based on authentic characters, it’s not meant to be an authorized biography)(hee), and he has to figure out all over again how to live – and perhaps embrace his talent again. The book is very good at portraying its cast of historical figures (Ravel is a standout there), and its musical passages are among the best ever written on the virtuosity of performance.
Rosalind Laker’s 1989 To Dance with Kings is next, a gay and playful fat novel about a lovely and lusty peasant girl in 17th century Versailles who manages to sleep, laugh, intrigue, and yes, dance her way into the world of nobles and kings at the Royal Court. The book follows the tempestuous lives and love affairs of three generations of these women, and Laker – a practiced hand at the meatier, brainier historical romances have have all but vanished from bookstore shelves these days (although not entirely! I’m happy to report that To Dance with Kings is now available at your local Barnes & Noble in a very pretty trade paperback) – keeps things simmering with her opulently borderline-purple prose, so joyous to read in long stretches:
“Did you set a spy on my in your absence?”
“No!” He leapt out of the chair with such abruptness that it toppled and fell backwards. “I was told in my father’s house by someone who came to me there from the highest motives.”
Putting her fingers to her temples, she rocked in her anguish. There was only one person who would have gone running to him. Hadn’t Susanne warned that she would take up cudgels on his behalf? “It’s true that I spent a night away from my bed when you were away and Stefane brought me home. But nothing is as it must have appeared. I had met him shortly before in the Court Royale when he was going for a morning ride.”
“In the Court Royale? Where had you been there?”
“Lost in the corridors of Versailles. After I had spurned the King!”
For a far more somber turn we have Jessie Ford’s The Burning Woman from 1985, the story of 1687 Venetian foundling Cathryn Godwyne and Father Vittorio, whose mutual love of the glorious music that fills the city eventually leads them to love of each other (although Cathryn will in the course of the novel come to love another far more disastrously). The book is essentially the story of Cathryn’s awakening – as an independent person and as a sexual being – and it’s also got a bit of the feminist political tract about it (you’d expect nothing less, what with it sporting both an acknowledgment to Erica Jong and a good deal of her poetry at the beginning of chapters), since Cathryn is eventually accused of being a witch and put on trial in one of the book’s most harrowing scenes. It can be preachy, yes, but it can also be powerful stuff.
A Pride of Royals is next, Justin Scott’s hyperactive 1983 novel, a two-fisted non-stop action-packed blockbuster of a novel set in … well, the whole world just on the brink of the First World War. With unapologetic gusto, Scott puts the welfare of that entire world in the hands of one man: American naval officer Kenneth Ash, who’s a crack shot, a dab hand with mechanics, a gifted linguist, a fiery lover, and a “secret courier for presidents and kings.” He takes on a mission on behalf of the British and the Americans to whisk Czar Nicholas out of Russia, and along the way he must face hostile borders, bloodthirsty assassins, and, of course, uppity women:
“I have a drop or two of French blood on my mother’s side,” Ash said. “It left me with a taste for claret and an eye for beauty.”
Lady Exeter turned to her butler. “Graham, bring this gentleman a whiskey. And please tell His Lordship that I am growing impatient.”
“Have I offended you?” Ash asked her when the butler had left.
“I imagine you can’t help yourself, but I find your proprietary attitude toward women not overly flattering – one feels like a candidate for a very large club with an undiscriminating membership committee.”
“I’m sorry – “
“Good God, you meant it … forgive me, a friend was killed in France today. I’m in no mood to entertain. I was against the war in the beginning and now I find myself praying for total victory … Where the hell are the Americans?”
They sat in stiff silence until the whiskey came.
A Pride of Royals is one of the best-researched books in our present dozen and certainly the one with the fastest pace, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.
Next is 1979’s Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo, and if A Pride of Royals is the highest octane offering on our list this time around, Sacajawea is the most absorbing book here, an enormous novel telling the story of Lewis and Clark’s fabled young Shoshoni guide and interpreter. She’s been the subject of many novels (including one published recently with the single worst title any book has ever had, in any age, in any language), but this one beats them all hands-down for its engrossing portraits of all involved – especially stalwart Lewis and pathetic Charbonneau – but it’s her well-researched glimpses into the American Indian world (a world whose destruction came at the end of the road Lewis and Clark paved) that form the book’s many highlights:
“Are you something special to these white men that they cannot powwow without a woman sitting among them?” asked Willow Bud. Again the squaws tittered.
Sacajawea folded the precious robe over her arm and tried to explain. “It is not because I am a squaw and they are braves. It is because I can speak the Shoshoni tongue and the white men cannot. I can speak for you to them.”
The women slowly nodded. “Ai, ai, we understand that.” And with a clucking noise made with their teeth and tongue they showed that they approved of this and she should go at once.
Willow Bud followed at a distance, then, getting up the courage, asked, “May I care for him?” She held her arms out for Pomp.
Sacajawea handed the sleeping baby to her girlhood friend, kissing him first.
“What is that?” asked Willow Bud, making a smacking noise with her lips.
“It is a sign for love,” Sacajawea crossed her arms over her breast in the manner of a woman greeting her man when he returns from a hunt or war. “See?” And then Sacajawea kissed the startled Willow Bud on her cheek.
That slim glint of humor flickers throughout Sacajawea, but it’s entirely absent from Larry Collins’ Fall From Grace, written in 1985. Instead, this is an intelligent and somber espionage story, as you’d expect from one-half of the century’s finest reporting team – and if you’d also expect lots of snappy dialogue and a penchant for pith, you’d find lots of that here too. The book is chock-full of spies and counter-spies and spy-masters, and one of them at one point says, “There’s a fundamental rule to apply when you are appraising a double-agent situation: Who is getting more out of him, you or the other side? If the answer is you, keep him going. If it’s them, kill him.” - and virtually every character talks like that; it becomes a very naughty delight. The plot revolves around all sorts of feverish backstabbings in the days leading up to Operation Overlord (which, we’re amusingly told, was originally going to be called “Operation Mothball” because, in true British fashion, that was ‘the only name left’ – an enraged Winston Churchill renames it), and things culminate in one of the most satisfying triple-crosses ever put on paper. Collins, needless to say, packs his novel with accurately-researched historical data, and that keeps things moving briskly even when his newsman’s ear for human drama (i.e. tone deaf) momentarily lets things flag a little.
We follow this one with The Court of the Lion, written in 1989 by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri. It’s a whopping thousand-page novel about the 8th Century T’ang dynasty (yep, we’re back in China), and despite its length and requisite enormous cast, it’s a nimble dance of a book, as smart and funny and sharp as any historical fiction you’ll ever read (Cooney and Altieri also collaborated on a much slimmer – and almost equally good – historical novel called Deception, also well worth your time to hunt down and read). The story centers on the revered emperor Hsuan-tsung, a strong and mostly good man surrounded by scheming viziers, power-mad generals, obsequious eunuchs, and beautiful courtesans, and our authors pepper their narrative with the fabled poetry of the era, extracts from the fabled philosophy of the era, and their own easy natural feel for the flow of a scene:
Love. It brings them back from the edge of death, from what I have heard. It makes them whole again. Songs and poetry were rife with testimonials to its healing power. But the Emperor seems to be beyond its reach; he has no interest at all in any of the harem women – says his “old man” is as limp as a drowned snake. Who, then? What woman is going to come and work this miracle and wake him up before it is too late? Kao Li-shih was interrupted by Lu Pei quietly opening the door and entering the room. In the moment that his eyes met the apprentice’s, inspiration hit.
“Grand Verity,” he said aloud.
“Pardon me?” said Lu Pei politely as he shut the door behind him.
“That is her name.”
“It has been two years. I had nearly forgotten!” Kao Li-shih leaned forward as the apprentice lifted his eyebrows appreciatively. “Lu Pei, we are going to try to wake the dead.”
I can’t recommend The Court of the Lion enthusiastically enough – it’s got everything a great big fat historical novel should have, in even greater helpings than most of these dozen books are lucky enough to have.
We follow it with Emily Hanlon’s 1988 Petersburg, a tightly-woven family novel set in Russia on the eve of the revolution that toppled the Czar. The plot turns around the family of self-made businessman Alexei Kalinin, whose various children and their various friends and lovers manage to find themselves at the center of all the action in that sprawling, troubled land. The author writes, “Historical fiction, I discovered, is a rather amazing mix of reality and fiction, so much so that I soon found myself slipping around corners into turn-of-the-century Russia, hardly feeling the time warp. Imagination was reality for so long; yet, oddly, now that I read what I have written, like a traveler recalling a trip, scenes have become remembrances of the people I met along the way.” And judging from Petersburg, this familiar mixing certainly happened to Hanlon – you’ll put down her book feeling like you’ve actually met the Kalinin family.
Then we have Judith Merkle Riley’s A Vision of Light from 1989, which tells the life story of Margaret Ashbury as she makes her way through the pitfalls and glories of 14th century England. She marries a couple of times, she gets accused of witchcraft (she fares rather better with it than poor Cathryn), loves two very different men, and in the process shows Riley’s readers the time and its beliefs more congenially and thoroughly than half a dozen textbooks could have done. Riley has a distinct knack for making the archeological and sociological data of the period come alive – when she describes a humble cottage’s single room in winter, you feel the description, as you do her evocations of clerical life. There’s a love story woven throughout the proceedings, but it’s almost touching how thoroughly it gets shoved into the background by Riley’s boisterous portrait of her chosen age.
Such things achieve a better balance – but only slightly better – in Graham Masterson’s 1984 novel Maiden Voyage, which tells the story of the maiden 1924 launch of the luxury liner Arcadia, which Masterson populates with the usual assortment of characters from all walks – and classes – of life. There’s the main character, Catriona Keys, who life goes through seven or eight upheavals during the voyage across the ocean to New York, and there’s the brutal George Welterman (if the Arcadia had gone the way of the Titanic, he’d have been first in line for a very poetic-justice style drowning; this book climaxes instead in fire), and a haughty countess (I’m pretty sure she’s meant to be that weird anti-anatomical alien creature on the paperback’s cover, but it could just be a space monster), and even, in the best tradition of Herman Melville, a confidence man:
Mark looked up at him for a moment or two, and then pointed a finger at him. “I know you, don’t I?” he said.
Maurice shrugged. “No reason why you should.”
“I’ve seen you before, I’m sure of it. Did you ever travel on the Melusine, of the American TransAtlantic line?”
“I know the Melusine,” said Maurice ambiguously.
“Well, I think I know you,” replied Mark. “You’re a gambling man, aren’t you? One of our professional passengers, to put it politely.”
“You’re not obliged to bet with me, Mr. Beeney,” said Maurice affably.
“I’m sure I saw you aboard the Melusine the last time I sailed on her to Rio de Janeiro,” Mark told him. “A great many of our passengers lost a great deal of money on the gaming tables on that trip; and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if most of it as lost on your account.”
“You know how it is,” Maurice smiled. “Memory sometimes plays odd tricks on you.”
“Not half so odd as some of the tricks that you play, I’ll bet.”
By the time Maiden Voyage reaches Coney Island, you’ll be rooting for Catriona – and, most winningly of all, for the ship’s captain, whose quiet personal drama very nearly steals the show and entirely commands it in the climactic final scenes. You’ll find this book in the library of virtually every cruise ship in the world, but you don’t need to sink the $10,000 and risk the food poisoning to enjoy it yourself – a library card should get the job done.
Last but not least (since we’re not, remember, ranking these dozen books), Noel Barber’s 1983 novel A Farewell to France, a leisurely and lavishly detailed World War Two narrative starring two war-tossed young lovers, the heir to the fabulous Chateau Douzy champagne vineyards, and his fiery Italian heiress girlfriend. The novel opens in 1931, when the sleepy paradise of their French valley is hardly troubled by the sight of German tanks filing along the road at the edge of the horizon. But the war grows closer and closer, and Barber does a very good job of intertwining that approach with the deepening of our young lovers’ feelings for each other. By the time you’re 200 pages in, you’re thoroughly invested in all the characters (her Nazis start off curiously indifferent, but they work themselves up to some fine moments of evil as things heat up) – and thoroughly steeped in the feel and nuance of the German occupation of France. That occupation is also a much-storied subject, but A Farewell to France manages it with singular and memorable intensity.
But then, all of these dozen titles are richly memorable, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg! There are roughly a dozen more big fat historical novels from the 1980s that could just as easily be assembled and praised (I’m sure I’ve given more than one of you a copy of Flanagan’s Run, for instance)(it would have been on this list, but a certain basset hound got in the way)(sigh), and the same thing is true for every decade (although all the others must limp along without Ronnie Reagan in the Oval Office). Somewhere out there right now, there are dozens of hopeful writers scribbling away, stack of note cards by their legal pads, laboring to get every detail of weather and topography just right for 10th century Byzantium, or 15th century Provencal, or 2nd century Britain, and plenty of those writers, if you asked them, would tell you that yes, they know that all the great parts of any novel – including any historical novel – aren’t connected with accurate meteorology or metallurgy. But these same writers, toiling on the next crop of big fat historical novels, would immediately add that it’s still important to get all those details right anyway.
And we shouldn’t complain! They’re doing a lot of work on our behalf, after all.