Big Fat Historical Novels – Ten Tomes to Tempt!

It’s autumn in New England, and you know what that means: fall foliage, Tom Brady swiveling his butt to bring the Patriots victories, and a slight, almost imperceptible lessening of the choke-hold in which murderously hot, drowningly humid weather has held the entire region since the second week of June. Nothing extravagant, mind you – Boston is still a tropical latitude, so the windows will be open and the ceiling fans whirring for the next eight or nine weeks – but enough of a lessening so that the idea of curling up on the couch with a big, luscious historical novel isn’t utterly repulsive.

Ah, but which big, luscious historical novels, you ask? Granted, it’s not as popular a genre as it once was – the Western reading public has fatally weakened its powers of concentration and penetration by spending the last decade reading books written for children and bragging about that fact (I’ll never forget the first time an adult told me she was reading Harry Potter and the Plagiarized Plot-Device – she blathered for fifteen minutes about ‘finding the kid inside’ again, until my pained, sickened expression gave her pause)(to this day, I know full-grown adults who’ll proudly cite Harry chapter and verse and equally proudly admit they’ve never read Pride & Prejudice). If you write an 800-page historical novel these days and try to sell it, chances are the first thing a publisher is going to tell you is to cut it to 250, make a series out of it, and put in some vampires. Authors still persevere, but it’s rare.

Fortunately, the world will always have Annie’s Book Stop, and so readers will always have access to the glorious behemoths of yesteryear! Without further ado, here are ten such behemoths that are well worth your $2!

Duchess of Milan by Michael Ennis – The first impression given by this fat pulpy 1992 novel is that it’s a bodice-ripper of dubious historical veracity. But like most first impressions, that one is only half-right: this is actually a bodice-ripper of impeccable historical veracity. Ennis doesn’t indulge in the later vice of such books by appending a bibliography, but it’s clear on every page of this book – an intrigue-packed Renaissance tale of the rivalry between Isabella d’Este (who plays a major part in my own Renaissance epic, 1515!) and Isabella of Aragon – that he’s done lots and lots of conscientious research … and then added to it the spice of passages like this, spoken in a moment of characteristic braggadocio by a member of the haughty Este family:

I intend to embalm Rodrigo Borgia’s corpse and bring it back to Naples. I want to stand him up in my bedroom and make him watch while his daughter sucks my cazzo.

Hee. Safe to say you won’t find that kind of thing in most bodice-rippers. The salt and snarl of the Renaissance lives in this unpretentious book as it so often doesn’t in more scholarly tomes (The Agony and the Ecstasy comes to mind).

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – There’s no denying it: this book (so ably dissected by the incomparable Rohan Maitzen this month at Open Letters) comes with baggage. Not only sociological baggage – it’s about a petty, scheming young Southerner in the mid-19th century, after all, and it wears its pro-Confederacy pro-Klan sympathies on its sleeve – but also pop culture baggage, since virtually everybody who comes to the novel now (it’s unlikely it will ever go out of print as long as there are physical printing presses anywhere in the world – an almost unique achievement for a historical novel of any length, much less one so long as this) will come to it from the idiotic movie adaptation (Ben Hur used to have this same problem, until it was entirely forgotten). Such readers won’t be able to help themselves: they’ll populate every scene with the hammy over-actors they saw on film, which defeats the purpose of reading the book, although not the effect of reading the book, since it, too, is full of hammy over-actors. But it’s Mitchell’s weird prose that’s the main draw here – it’s bad, yes, but it’s hypnotically bad … you keep turning pages as in a fever, because the prose has no wasted energy in it, as in the scene where dimwittedly selfish Scarlett O’Hara wanders the house at night alone, hungrily scrounging some corn bread from the deserted kitchen:

When she had finished it, a measure of strength came back to her and with the strength came again the pricking of fear. She could hear a humming of noise far down the street, but what it portended she did not know. She could distinguish nothing but a volume of sound that rose and fell. She strained forward trying to hear and soon she found her muscles aching from the tension. More than anything in the world she yearned to hear the sound of hooves and see Rhett’s careless, self-confident eyes laughing at her fears. Rhett would take them away, somewhere. She didn’t know where. She didn’t care.

Scarlett’s lean abandon to be rescued is perfectly done, as is that deceptively subtle conveying of the vague disturbance at the end of the street – and the whole book is like that, a sweet, sinful, articulated nightmare that doesn’t want to let you go.

The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough – this fat 1990 novel of ancient Rome in the time of Marius is the first installment in McCullough’s mind-bendingly profuse ancient Rome series … something like ten novels (depending on whether or not you count Antony and Cleopatra), all exhaustively researched, all exhaustively end-noted, all illustrated by the author, each one topping 900 pages – a publishing feat almost without equal or even parallel in the annals of historical fiction. And the real miracle is that so much of that great gray wall of prose is actually pretty good. Don’t get me wrong: not nearly enough of it is pretty good – nothing on Earth could justify the editor-free length of these books, not even a $10 bill pasted to every 100th page – but pretty good, good enough to re-read when the mood strikes you. McCullough is a plodder to beat all plodders – if her inexorable narrative brings her to a Roman town on market day, she describes that town and that market in grinding detail rather than say ‘it was market day’ and let us do the rest. Same thing with the wasting illness of Julius Caesar’s father, which is here given a diagnosis, a prognosis, and a presentation:

Gaius Julius Caesar was dying. Everyone in the house knew it, including Gaius Julius Caesar, though not a word had been spoken. The illness had started with difficulty in swallowing, an insidious thing which crept onward, so slowly at first that it was hard to tell whether there was actually a worsening. Then his voice had begun to croak, and after that the pain started, not unbearable at first. It had now become constant, and Gaius Julius Caesar could no longer swallow solid food.

There are readers of big fat historical novels who love this kind of immersion – McCullough clearly knows this, and she provides it in tome after tome, until it seemed like the Ides of March would never come. But The First Man in Rome itself gives readers a very welcome fictional treatment of Marius, who’s too often overlooked in the cavalcade of more household names his reforms and revolutions made possible. And each tome likewise has a central gem of a surprise, buried in a vast oyster of prose.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – We’ve touched on this 1985 masterpiece before at Stevereads, but something about the first touch of those chilly 70 degree afternoons automatically suggests it again. This is of course McMurtry’s epic story of a cattle-drive to Montana undertaken by two stalwart old Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call. McCrae is all loquacious sentimentality, and Call is all repressed stoicism, and yet the two men are best friends, and it’s their dynamic that propels the book for most of its enormous length. But McMurtry is also fantastic in all the little details and flourishes that must fill a novel of this length, and in his portrayal of Clara, the strong-willed woman from McCrae’s past, he poured all that he knew of how to write resonant female characters (unfortunately, nothing afterwards remained for any of the book’s other female characters, one of whom – a cowardly simpleton with no self-esteem and no powers of judgement – follows the drive for its entire length and makes you wish on every page that a longhorn would spike her good and proper). We see Clara vividly in McCrae’s memories long before we meet her:

“It weren’t that simple,” Augustus said, looking at the creek and the little grove of trees and remembering all the happiness he had had there. He turned old Malaria and they rode on toward Austin, though the memory of Clara was as fresh in his mind as if it were her, not Woodrow Call, who rode beside him. She had had her vanities, mainly clothes. He used to tease her by saying he had never seen her in the same dress twice, but Clara just laughed. When his second wife died and he was free to propose, he did one day, on a picnic to they place they called her orchard, and she refused instantly, without losing a trace of her merriment.

“Why not?” he asked.

“I’m used to my own ways,” she said. “You might try to make me do something I wouldn’t want to do.”

“Don’t I indulge your every whim?” he asked.

“Yes, but that’s because you haven’t got me,” Clara said. “I bet you’d change fast if I ever let you get the upper hand.”

But she had never let him get the upper hand, though it seemed to him she had surrendered it without a fight to a dumb horse trader from Kentucky.

And the meeting is every bit as good as foreshadowed – it’s as bittersweet to read the first time as it is the tenth.

The Journeyer by Gary Jennings – Another great big volume I’ve praised here before (and handed to as many of you as I can – copies available upon request!), this sprawling 1984 novel stars “Mister Millions” himself, Marco Polo, who always insisted he’d seen and done far more in the exotic East than he’d ever described in his famous book. Gary Jennings takes him at his word and follows him half-way around the world, from the bustling streets of Venice to the far reaches of fabled Kithai and the service of the mighty Kubilai Khan. Like his main character, Jennings is a master storyteller, and Journeyer abounds in wonders – and with a winking kind of humor at its own excesses, as in this interview young Marco and his uncles are having with the Shah of Baghdad, an interview that gets interrupted by a certain rather oblivious storyteller of its own:

“The Arabs,” said my uncle, “build their ocean-going ships in exactly the same slipshod way they build their ramshackle river boats, which Your Majesty sees here at Baghdad. All tied and fish-glued together, not a bit of metal in the construction. And deckloads of horses or goats dropping their merda into the passenger cabins below. Maybe an Arab is ignorant enough to venture to sea in such a squalid and rickety cockleshell, but we are not.”

“You are perhaps wise not to do so,” said Shahryar Zahd, coming into the room at that moment, although we were a gathering of men. “I will tell you a tale …”

She told several, and all of them concerned a certain Sinbad the Sailor, who had suffered a series of unlikely adventures …

Marco too has a series of unlikely adventures, from using his Western knowledge to pull off an impressive military victory to using psychedelic drugs to experience childbirth (the passage is terrifically graphic; if it doesn’t put men off giving birth, nothing will), and all of it told with such obvious enjoyment that you’ll wish Jennings had given us more.

From Here to Eternity by James Jones – This 1951 novel is flatly, inexpertly written (it’s yet another volume that should never have won the National Book Award) and shows innumerable signs of both the author’s “literary” pretensions and his at times embarrassing lack of narrative control. Take this scene between Private Prewitt and the native girl he’s frequenting in 1941 Hawaii where our tale is laid:

“All the soldiers want to screw them,” Violet said.

“Well, they go out with civilians, too. Thats what they want. Whats wrong with that?”’

“Nothings wrong with it,” she said. “But a wahine girl must be careful. A respectable Nisei girl doesn’t go with soldiers.”

“Neither does a respectable white girl,” Prew said, “or any other kind of girl. But they’re no different than the goddam Pfcs. They all want the same goddam thing.”

“I know it,” Violet said. “Don’t get mad. It’s just the way the people look at the soldiers.”

“Then whynt your folks run me off? Or do something? Or say something? If they don’t like it.”

Violet was surprised. “But they would never do that.”

“But hell. All the neighbors see me comin here all the time.”

“Yes, but they would never mention it either.”

Prewitt looked over at her lying on her back in the dappled sunlight, and the short tight legs of her shorts.

Those ‘that is’ and ‘what is’ constructions ostentatiously lacking their apostrophes are intentional, Joycean touches that just look ridiculous, and that repetition of ‘short’ in the final line is painfully obviously unintentional, the product of fast typing and no revision. But there’s a blunt, feral vitality to the converging story lines in this book that grip you and don’t let go. That vitality runs through all Jones’ books and makes them very much worth reading, although in every case you wish he’d cut the manuscript in half and actually read his own prose. The National Book Award actually spoils the reception of this book – in reality, it’s just an in-the-trenches potboiler like the others on our list and deserves to be enjoyed in exactly the same way.

The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye – How not to include this 1978 doorstop of a Raj novel? Its marvelous inventiveness, its occasional eloquence, and even its heeping length (1189 pages, in the purple version bought by gazillions of readers in the book’s heyday) make it pretty much the perfect book to read on those lazy late-October evenings under the spinning ceiling-fan as the murderous heat of the day slowly fades. This is the epic Moses-in-the-bullrushes story of young Ash, an orphaned English boy who grows up in the far distant kingdom of Gulkote scarcely aware of his heritage until circumstances bring him back to England for a rude introduction to the society of his own people. From there he’s sent back to India where he has fantastic adventures, exercises his superior mental, physical, and moral abilities at every turn, and finds romance in a story line so lush if it doesn’t cause your heart to go all mushy – even just a little – you should have your heart checked by a certified physician.

Along the way, Kaye – as indefatigable a researcher as McCullough, although she wouldn’t dream of being so artless about it – gives us innumerable Herodotean little facts to store away (in fairness to Kaye, her facts almost always rebound back upon her sprawling story at some point), like this little digression about the most common poison lurking under all those conveniently pungent spices in Indian food:

Now datura is a plant that grows wild in many parts of India, though more especially in the south. Its white, lily-like flowers are sweetly scented and very beautiful. But its seed, which is round and green, is known as ‘the apple of death,’ for it is exceedingly poisonous – and being easily obtained it has been used for centuries as a handy method of getting rid of unwanted husbands, wives, or elderly relatives. It is one of the commonest of all poisons, and can be ground into powder and mixed with almost any food (though bread is the usual choice) and death follows quickly or slowly, depending on the size of the dose and the amount that has been eaten.

Shogun by James Clavell – another behemoth from the ’70s (they knew how to write ‘em, back then), this one had an even greater heyday than The Far Pavilions – or indeed virtually any other book on our list, with the obvious exception of Gone with the Wind. It’s the story of the hard, pragmatic English soldier-of-fortune Blackthorne, who’s washed up by a shipwreck on the shores of 17th century Japan in the age of the great Shogunate warlords (the shipwreck was inevitable, I think: who names a warship Erasmus?). Blackthorne has to adapt to the strange customs of this new world (hardly any meat to eat, and frequent bathing!), and the best part of that adaptation – the part Clavell was smart enough to see was essential – is Blackthorne’s relentless honesty with himself: unlike his doomed shipmates, he’s too stubborn to allow even his prejudices to blind him to what he’s actually seeing, as in an early exciting scene where one of his captors surprises him by trying to rescue one of his shipmates from the surf:

In spite of Blackthorne’s hatred he had begun to admire Yabu’s courage. Half a dozen times waves had almost engulfed him. Twice Rodrigues was lost but each time Yabu dragged him back, and held his head out of the grasping sea, long after Blackthorne knew that he himself would have given up. Where do you get the courage, Yabu? Are you just devil-born? All of you?

To climb down in the first place had taken courage. At first Blackthorne had thought that Yabu acted out of bravado. But soon he had seen that the man was pitting his skill against the cliff and almost winning. Then he had broken his fall as deftly as any tumbler. And he had given up with dignity.

Christ Jesus, I admire that bastard, and detest him.

I myself think that ‘I admire the bastard but detest him’ line is carried on just a bit too persistently in Shogun – it verges on being patronizing (and hoo-boy, one look at the author photo Clavell chose for his dust-jackets confirms that yah, he just might have had a pinch of that in him). But even so, it’s just a small touch in a big novel that’s never anything less than exhilarating and that contains a deceptive amount of research.

Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen – I’ve been championing this dense and yet light-footed 1986 pageant of the very beginning of Georgian rule in England ever since it was published and I found it tucked away in the Romance section of my local bookstore. Not for accuracy’s sake – it is a romance, full of plot-twists and yearning hearts and some very odd yet convincing pairings – but for fairness’ sake, since this is one romance that would appeal to a huge audience if it were given a chance. Koen tells a hugely intricate story dominated at its start by one priceless character, Alice, the Duchess of Tamworth, and populated by enough scheming relatives, lovelorn maidens, and ruthless aristocrats to keep P. G. Wodehouse busy for half a novel. George I has just taken the throne of England, Jacobite sympathizers are everywhere, and everywhere, trying desperately to grow in this weed-choked warren, is love, which the author venerates even while she’s piling obstacles in its path. The characters you’ll root for in this big book will come by your sympathies honestly, because Koen spares no satire at their expense. Indeed, her playful, dextrous prose is full of daggers, and her period details are almost always flawless:

He walked toward the alcove. It was a show simply to watch him. A big, hulking man, he always wore very high heels on his shoes so that he towered over the men around him. Added to his height was a tiptoeing, swiveling, mincing kind of walk that was amazing to see, as if an effeminate bear were walking carefully, but sociably, through thorns.

Like I said, in its early days you could only find Through a Glass Darkly in the Romance section, and that was a shame. Lately, in its pretty new trade paperback reprint, it’s managed to shift its way to the Fiction section where it belongs – and I hope it continues to find new readers there.

Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge – Our last book this time around is the incredible story of ancient Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled as Pharaoh some three thousand years ago and gets her story told in vivid, straightforward, sometimes powerful prose by Canada’s Pauline Gedge in this bestselling 1977 novel. Gedge has a great story to tell, and she rises to the challenge – her Hatshepsut is an entirely believable human creation, savvy and yet quick-tempered in just the proportions you’d need in order to survive as a woman for two decades in a job zealously guarded for men. The book’s action scenes can be a bit vague, but there’s ample compensation in the many scenes involving Hatshepsut’s tempestuous relationships with her own family, especially her headstrong heir presumptive:

Before the winter was over, Hatshepsut betrothed Thothmes to a glowing Neferura and then immediately sent him and his troops north on maneuvers. But she had made it quite clear to him that this was not marriage, only a promise.

He had sneered a little, standing before her in the throne room, his arms folded across his chest. “You have committed yourself, Majesty,” he had said. “You may send me here and there on errands and expeditions, but sooner or later you must take Neferura to the temple and give her to me, for I am no longer a boy.”

“I hase eyes!” she retorted. “Oh, Thothmes, why do you prickle all over when we have dealings with each other? Did I not promise you this throne one day?”

“Yes, but now I do not believe that you ever intend to give it to me. When I was a child I was in awe of you. But not I am becoming a man, and still you shut me out of the audience chamber – my own chamber, the place where I as Pharaoh am entitled to sit. I think you intend the throne for Neferura.”

“You are stupid if you really believe these things and yet shout your doubts all over the palace. What is to stop me from getting rid of you? Then Neferura could indeed wear the Double Crown and marry some general to give Egypt heirs.”

In conveying the grit and pragmatism that lurked behind the stunning opulence of the Egyptian ruling class, Child of the Morning can rival anything written by the perennially under-estimated Allen Drury, which is praise indeed.

And there you have it! Ten tomes to tempt you on torrid October nights! As some of you will no doubt recall, we took a similar tour a year ago – but I’m sure you’ve all finished those earlier tomes already! And we’ll have to do it again soon, since there are EVER so many more such tomes out there, waiting for your attention!

4 Comments to Big Fat Historical Novels – Ten Tomes to Tempt!

  1. October 6, 2010 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    As someone who has written a big-fat-with-a-twist, I really enjoyed this list. GWTW is such a puzzle: awful racism, some weird sexism, but still, that vibrant, self-willed heroine….

  2. bitoa's Gravatar bitoa
    October 9, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    These reviews are great ! Will you ever put out a book of your review collections?

  3. September 28, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Just wanted to reply and say nice page, great to read from people with knowledge of this.

  4. May 22, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Your page here is exactly what I was looking for to find a book to read next weekend, a 3 day one! THANKS!! I’ve only read 3 of these books so I WILL USE your advice!

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