Eight (more) Great Historical Novels!

What better way to end the week than with yet another lavish, happy list of book-recommendations? Our sub-genre is once again that of my beloved historical novels, those perfect embodiments of Horace’s famous split mission of delighting and entertaining, so let’s get right down to brass tacks, shall we?

When Knighthood was in Flower by “Edwin Caskoden” (1898)

Charles Major wrote this book in 1898 under the pen-name Edwin Caskoden, and it sold like hotcakes. Month after month, year after year, customers would walk into bookstores from Boston to Boise and ask for “the knighthood book” – and long-suffering clerks knew exactly what they were talking about. Major was a hard-working Midwestern lawyer when the book first came out, but it was such a huge best-seller that he was soon able to retire to writing full-time – although none of his subsequent books managed to recapture the fire and fun of this, his debut. It’s the story of the love that grows suddenly and unstoppably between Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, and Charles Brandon, the King’s best friend, and in its perfectly-tuned sunlit descriptions, it was the most irresistible piece of historical fiction to appear since Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. Given the Tudor-mania that’s recently been sweeping the reading public, I’m amazed nobody’s reprinted this with a trendy cover. If an enterprising publisher were to dig deep enough, they could find a glowing blurb from none other than Theodore Roosevelt

The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci by Dmitri Merezhkovsky (1902)

The 1963 Washington Square Press edition of Merezhkovsky’s monumental best-seller greatly expands the truncated version authorized by the Merezhkovsky in 1901. Despite its limitations (translators and audiences today would likely find them unacceptable), that 1901 translation done by Herbert Trench sold millions of copies around the world – month after month, year after year, customers would come into bookstores from Boston to Brest and ask for “The book about Leonardo” – and long-suffering book clerks knew there could be no other (despite the presence throughout the decades of some very good actual biographies of Leonardo). And with good reason: even in the 1963 translation by Morris Gurin and Helen Gourin (which improves on Trench but is still mighty damn creaky), the glow and pageant of the Renaissance lives again – and the central port of Leonardo is so perfectly researched and rendered that it’s small wonder half the used bookstores in in the world accidentally shelve this thing under Biography.

 

The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr (1951)

Carr wrote dozens of novels, perhaps hundreds, under his own name and many others. He was a quintessential hack, churning out perfectly (and sometimes not so perfectly) plotted mystery yarns at a rate that makes Anthony Trollope look like a slug-a-bed. Carr never took days off from writing, never revised a single word he wrote (a word of his fiction, that is – like many hacks, he could be meticulous about his nonfiction)(his 1963 book The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey is very much worth your time), and never agonized over the woof and weave of his plots’ deeper meanings. Instead, he just kept at it, even when afflicted with a stroke. In this tangled and immensely rewarding pot-boiler, Carr’s intrepid Professor Fenton makes a deal with the Devil that sends him back in time to Restoration London in order to solve a murder. Carr takes great pleasure in summoning all the gaudy details of that oft-fictionalized period, capping everything with his signature puzzles and sudden revelations.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (1819)

It’s almost a sin to mention the words “historical fiction” without mentioning “Sir Walter Scott” in the same sentence. His book Waverley, first published anonymously in 1814, changed the genre of historical fiction completely – indeed, it would be fair to say it created what we now know as the historical novel. It and all Scott’s subsequent novels (none more so than Ivanhoe) exerted an influence on virtually every literate person in the Western hemisphere, and the strength of that influence can never be fully mapped and has thus, to my mind, never been given its proper due. Partly this is due to the uncomfortable fact that Scott is an atrocious writer of English prose – this famous story of the virtuous Saxon knight Ivanhoe, the various villains of King John’s court, the sweet young Jewess Rebecca, and Robin Hood himself is a great galloping inelegant thing, full of purple passages and cardboard characters. And yet, Scott wrote with that particular magic that’s only vouchsafed to hacks, and his millions of readers over the centuries (long may their line continue!) have willingly surrendered to the spell.

The Lord of the Two Lands by Judith Tarr (1993)

Alexander the Great is a tough choice for a fantasy writer, because his life reads more grippingly – and less believably – than most fantasy novels. Tarr takes the story of the young man who conquered most of the Western world before he was thirty and weaves into it a second narrative, a sinuous story of ancient Egypt and the many temptations it could offer somebody of Alexander’s messianic tendencies. The temple priests of Amon send Meriamon, the artistic, insightful daughter of the Pharaoh, to the sweeps of Persia to find this rumored phenomenon, this unbeatable Macedonian warlord and convince him to turn south and come to Egypt, where a godlike destiny beyond his imagination awaits. Tarr creates an Alexander to remember, but even more she creates an ancient Egypt steeped in magic and the pretense of magic – what results is like a turbo-charged variation on the theme of Marc Antony and Cleopatra – a meeting not only of religions but of living gods. A well-made new trade paperback of this wonderful book would be a good idea.

Katherine by Anya Seton (1954)

Publishers have recently been very good at keeping the great, under-appreciated Anya Seton in print, and it’s understandable why: in her taut narrative tempos, effective but not cumbersome ‘period’ dialogue, and powerful female characters, she’s an obvious precursor to that Attila the Hun of contemporary historical fiction, Philippa Gregory (a fact to which Gregory herself pays ample and becoming tribute). Katherine is easily Seton’s best book, the gripping story of Katherine Swynford, the smart, sharp long-time mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt (and the sister-in-law of that rising man about court, Geoffrey Chaucer). Historians look at Katherine Swynford mainly as the fons et origo of the Wars of the Roses, but no reader of this novel can ever do that – for us, history’s Katherine is forever Seton’s Katherine, inquisitive, passionate, self-assured yet self-doubting, and thoroughly, three-dimensionally human. And unlike some of her later disciples in the genre, Seton manages to impart something of that complex humanity to almost all of her characters.

Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell (1959)

This immensely popular historical novel about the life of Saint Luke was a best-seller for years, reprinted innumerable times, and month after month, year after year, in bookstores from Boston to Buenos Aires, customers would come in wanting “that Gospel book” – and long-suffering book clerks would know exactly what they meant. The author was prolific, and yet a great many of the novels are resoundingly good, and Dear and Glorious Physician (one of three of her books derived from the New Testament, the other two being Great Lion of God about Saint Paul and the vividly excellent I, Judas co-written with Jess Stearn) is one of her best. Her Lucanus is an early scientific sceptic, a rational young man who resists the Good News even while he’s interviewing healed people and talking with Mary, the mother of Jesus. There’s plenty of action and character here, but it’s the lavishly detailed depiction of the grudging stages by which a deep-thinking man acquires an unthinking faith that’s the most memorable thing about the book.

My Lord John by Georgette Heyer (1975)

At this point, need I say it? Month after month, year after year, in bookstores from Boston to Burundi, customers would come in looking for “her last book” and long-suffering book clerks would know exactly what they meant: My Lord John, the big, intensely ambitious historical novel by Georgette Heyer, published posthumously by her husband from the vast sea of notes and plot outlines and written drafts she left behind. Heyer was a monumental best-seller in her day, famous both for her fizzy murder mysteries (picture the novels of Agatha Christie, only well-written) and for her extremely lucrative Regency romances, which fell as the gentle rain from Heaven onto book shop front tables every Christmas and parted customers from their money as gently as a single raindrop. My Lord John – even in this truncated version (I often wonder if some enterprising Heyer archivist someday will give us a much, much longer version of this book – I’d clear my calendar to read it) – is a much weightier matter, the story of John, the nice-guy brother of King Henry V (and, coincidentally, the grandson of the aforementioned Katherine Swynford). The sweep and quiet swagger of this achievement will make just about any reader wish Heyer’s public had been a bit less demanding for more of those damn Regencies, so that she might have had the time to do this epic justice.

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (2009)

I’m well aware that this surprisingly gripping novel of Elizabeth Woodville has been, um, very enthusiastically reviewed elsewhere, but I could hardly let this little round-up of historical fiction conclude without hauling in the very Philippa Gregory we’ve been hinting at and alluding to, now could I? Gregory of course made her name with The Other Boleyn Girl (bringing us full circle to those damn Tudors!) and its companion Tudor novels, but in this book and its mirror image The Red Queen, she explores the equally-fascinating (though far less popular) period of the aforementioned Wars of the Roses. The idiot ur-realityTV star Woodville is at the heart of that period, the wife of Edward IV and the mother of the famous Princes in the Tower, and The White Queen brandishes the same machinery that brought Gregory mega-success: short, fast chapters, naked first-person narration, and just the right seasoning of book club-friendly anachronisms. This book’s portrayal of Richard III will, incidentally, both intrigue and in part infuriate any remaining adherents that wretched character might still have in this day and age.

And there you have it! Not only eight meaty historical novels to tempt you, but also, I can’t help but notice as I look back on the list, a handy little illustration of that hoary old concept, the Wheel of Fortune: just look at how many of these authors are now entirely unknown despite once having their names on the lips of bookstore customers from Boston to Byzantium and back. Gregory had better salt something away for the proverbial rainy day.

3 Comments to Eight (more) Great Historical Novels!

  1. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    November 3, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    You just had to link to that, didn’t you?

  2. Greg's Gravatar Greg
    November 3, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    And it’s the only link Steve has put into a blog post in 5 years. Go figure.

  3. PatD's Gravatar PatD
    November 5, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Steve. More for the queue.

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