28 July, 2006

Five favourite historical novels

In response to a plea from Ali, who posted her own list of favourite historical novels and asked if anyone would like to join in. Here are five suggestions from me, in no particular order:

1. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier.
Set in Cornwall around 1800.
I like this for its capable, independent heroine, Mary Yellan, its suspenseful and adventurous plot featuring smugglers and wreckers, and the superbly described Cornish landscapes, from brooding Bodmin Moor to the softness of the south coast and the savage beauty of the north.

2. The Candlemas Road, by George MacDonald Fraser.
Set in Cumbria on the Anglo-Scottish border, 1590s.
This short novel brings the strange and violent world of the Border Reivers vividly to life. Read history books, such as George MacDonald Fraser’s masterly The Steel Bonnets, and you might - after much study - get some idea of the events that happened along the Anglo-Scottish border and in the Debateable Lands. But read The Candlemas Road and you will understand. Also memorable for its powerful characters: headstrong Lady Dacre, newly arrived from London and finding Border ways incomprehensible; Archie Waitabout, the irrepressible reiver with his pride and his unconventional but curiously compelling moral code; and the narrator, a good and bewildered Jesuit priest whose conventional faith is sorely shaken by the Border’s strange code of honour.

3. King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett.
Set in Scotland and Orkney, 11th century.
An unusual theory about the identity of the historical Macbeth, and a convincing portrayal of 11th-century Scotland with its dual Norse and Celtic heritage. Battles, intrigues, family rivalries, betrayals and fate, all told with a laconic wit reminiscent of the Norse sagas. The love story between Thorfinn/Macbeth and his wife Groa/Gruoch, which begins as a political marriage to secure the spoils of war and is forged into a relationship of enduring love and trust, is one of my favourites in fiction.

4. The Once and Future King, by TH White.
Retelling of the Arthur legend, set in a sort of fictional/fantasy High Middle Ages.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t historical fiction because there is absolutely no pretence of historical accuracy - if there was a ‘real King Arthur’ (would candidates please form an orderly queue?), he lived in the unrecorded history of the fifth or sixth century, not in the time of castles and tourneys and knights in shining armour. But that didn’t worry Geoffrey of Monmouth or Thomas Malory, and it didn’t worry TH White either. Rarely has the legend been told with such power. It starts with the sparkling adventures of young Arthur (Wart) being educated by Merlin and a variety of magical animals (my favourite is the badger), and then grows and darkens as Arthur grows into an adult and his father’s sins come to haunt him. This retelling is unusual in that it has little or nothing to do with the Saxons. Arthur’s enemies here are his closest friends and family, and it is their character flaws and his that conspire to destroy his kingdom. Which in my view makes for a much more compelling tale than an ethnic conflict. It is also unusual in that it is richly leavened with humour among all the drama and tragedy - the farce of Sir Grummore and Sir Palomides seducing the Questing Beast while dressed as an exotic pantomime horse and then having to psychoanalyse her out of her crush is worthy of PG Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett.

5. The Song of Troy, by Colleen McCullough.
Retelling of the Trojan War, Late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean.
One of the best treatments of the Trojan War I’ve read. It is told by multiple first-person narrators and recounts the Trojan War all the way from its semi-legendary roots and Helen’s marriage to Menelaos up to the final sack of Troy. Minor characters such as Briseis get to tell their own stories and the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon is given an ingenious interpretation, all in a convincing Late Bronze Age setting.

5a. Two series.
5a because it feels like cheating to include a whole series, but I can’t choose just one book from either. So, two of my favourite series. Sharon Penman’s Welsh trilogy (Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, The Reckoning), set in the last decades of independent Wales, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series covering the end of the Roman Republic. Both series are first-rate, with complex plots, a host of well-rounded main and secondary characters, authentic settings, a light touch with a little humour, and a profound respect for the underlying history.

Honourable Mention. Sea Witch, by Helen Hollick.
Honourable Mention because I haven’t finished reading it yet, but so far it’s shaping up to be a fun swashbuckler, part historical, part fantasy and part romance, featuring a sexy pirate captain (if you have a crush on Captain Jack Sparrow this summer, please take note), a Cornish witch, a vengeful brother and at least two love triangles, one of which involves the goddess of the sea. Published in May this year, so even if you’ve already read all the others I’ve mentioned, you likely haven’t read this one yet. Review forthcoming in due course.

Would anyone else like to play?


Susan Higginbotham said...

Interesting choices. Only ones I've read are Penman's, which made my list also. I've been meaning to try one of Helen Hollick's, though.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Very interesting list Carla. I've not read most of them although I have read the authors. George MacDonald Fraser is very hit and miss for me. Loved Mr American to bits and wall-banged Flashman (much to dh's disgust, he loves them) but haven't tried Candlemas Road. King Hereafter is on my TBR but I adore Dunnett. T.H. White I just didn't get. Have decided he's not for me. McCullough I still have to get around to reading beyond The Thorn Birds - which I loved. Penman I really enjoy. And Sea Witch - well you'll have seen my quote on the blurb. I'll say up front that Helen Hollick is a personal friend and that I got to see it at proof stage and help out in a minor way with some editorial tweaks, but in my opinion this is by far the best thing Helen has ever written. Her heart and soul are in it and you can tell. It's a terrific romp.
I'll post a list to my blog, but it won't be of my top five novels because I don't have a top 5. I have a collection of 10 out of 10 special favourites and I wouldn't like to put one above another because they all have their different appeal and meanings at certain times in my life. If I had created a top 5 when I was 20, it would be a very different top 5 to now - not just because of what I've read since then, but because of my own development path. So, when I get around to it, I'm going to join in by posting the novels that probably had the most influence on me as an aspiring writer!

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm... very interesting. I'm not too big on historical fiction, but one that I enjoyed is Adam of the Road.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'd have a problem to pick only 5. Maybe I'll do some sort of list on my blog, though.

One author that so will be on it is Rosemary Sutcliff. It's her fault that I write books about the Romans in Britain. :)

Carla said...

Well, I wouldn't claim these as my top 5 favourites of all time because I couldn't pick just 5 - note that I ended up cheating with 5a and the Hon Mention and the list actually runs to at least a dozen! I find I can't rank books in order or give them scores or marks out of 10 because they vary too much - not so much comparing apples and oranges as apples and chairs. So these are five that I really liked and that I thought of when I was writing the post.

Part of the fun of these things is discovering something new. I'm looking forward to everyone else's lists.

Locke - hello, and thanks for dropping by. I haven't heard of Adam of the Road, do you want to say a bit more about it?

Bernita said...

I'm so genre-blurred at the moment, not sure I'd recognize a historical if it fell off the shelf on my head.
Agree with Gabriele entirely about Sutcliff. She did write Eagle of the Ninth, didn't she?
I re-read that book every couple of years.
And Mary Stewart's Arthurian Trilogy, particularly The Hollow Hills and the Crystal Cave, if those count as a "historicals."
And the Brother Caedfel books.
And Georgette Heyer - The Conqueror and The Spanish Bride.

Carla said...

Susan - my favourite of Helen Hollick's straight historicals is Harold The King, about Harold Godwinsson and his mistress Edith Swan-neck, ending at the Battle of Hastings. I'll post a review of Sea Witch shortly, although with Elizabeth's comments you probably don't need to hear from me :-)

Elizabeth - why did you wall-bang (!) Flashman? I find a little of him goes a long way, but I haven't had such an extreme reaction. By the way, regarding Nigel Tranter, his output is patchy and some of his later books really aren't all that good, in my view. Which ones have you tried? The ones I like the best are the Bruce Trilogy, Macbeth the King (even though I was told on a list somewhere that it's heresy to like that if you also like Dorothy Dunnett's version), Margaret the Queen (about St Margaret, wife of Malcolm Canmore of Macbeth fame), and his novel about William Wallace (can't remember the title), which is a great deal better than the Mel Gibson version :-)

Bernita - yes, Rosemary Sutcliff wrote Eagle of the Ninth. Sometimes it seems as if that novel must have been responsible for turning more people on to historical fiction than any other! And yes, I'd count Arthuriana as 'historicals', unless they're so full of magic that they read more like fantasy. I must re-read Mary Stewart's trilogy.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I'll give Harold the King a try then.

I've got the Nigel Tranter Bruce trilogy on my shelf, but haven't yet worked up the energy for it.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I suppose I was exaggerating slightly, I didn't actually wall-bang Flashman, but I found I just couldn't stand the character and I found the footnotes tedious. This is strange, because I like Terry Pratchett's footnotes. Then again I found them a chore in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, so perhaps I'm not much of a fictional footnote sort of person. It is a long, long time since I tried and didn't like, so perhaps I ought to give him another chance. I think GMF is an excellent writer, it was just me the reader who wasn't in tune with his creation and didn't particularly want to travel with him.
Tranter. I can't remember the titles, but one was about King David, starting at the court of Henry 1. The history was innaccurate and the writing style verbose. Terribly in need of an edit. Then I started another one - can't remember at all and barely got past the first tortured long-winded, pompous paragraphs. I gave the Master of Grey trilogy a go and got three quarters through the first book before I gave up. I thought it was much better and had a touch of the Lymonds about it but not enough to bind me to the pages. Perhaps I been reading the wrong ones and perhaps I ought to try with the Bruce trilogy or Macbeth. Dunnett's King Hereafter is still on my TBR.

Carla said...

That doesn't sound too far off my view of Flashman; a little goes a long way :-) Radio 4 did a jolly good adaptation of one of the Flashman novels a year or so back in the Classic Serial slot and that worked very well, a great romp to do the mending to.

Nigel Tranter's writing style does veer towards the verbose, and sometimes it can be almost coy. I find it's not a problem for me if the plot is strong enough to carry it, but not all of the plots are. The novels I think work best are the ones with a strong military/political plot - of which Bruce is an example par excellence.

ali said...

Have found The Candlemass Road for 60p on Amazon :). I'm also looking out for the Welsh trilogy, which I think sounds very interesting.

I think Tranter's book on WIlliam Wallace is just called 'The Wallace'. Another one of his I'd recommend would be Children of the Mist, and Margaret the Queen is very good. But I agree that many of his are just not that good.

Carla said...

That's a bargain, Ali! Snap it up, and let me know what you think.

Sharon Penman's Welsh trilogy came up on everybody's list - see Sarah Johnson, Susan and Elizabeth Chadwick if you haven't already followed the links there. The only list that hasn't included the trilogy so far is Alianore, and she confined herself to Edward II novels so the Welsh trilogy was a generation too early. Now if that's not a vote of confidence I don't know what is! I think I've mentioned Here Be Dragsons to you before somewhere as an example of a language barrier. You shouldn't be short of stuff to read this summer!

Children of the Mist is about the MacGregors, isn't it? Rob Roy and all that? I've read the sequel, The Clansman but not the first book (this is what comes of having relatives who don't read historical fiction and pluck a random book off the bookshop shelf every Christmas:-))