Sunday, July 30, 2006

Picking five favorite historical novels is difficult

... but I couldn't resist making the attempt. Following the lists posted by Carla Nayland, Susan Higginbotham, and Elizabeth Chadwick, here's my contribution. This wasn't an easy decision. I rarely read any novels more than once, and in thinking of which five titles to include here, I decided to list those novels that stood up to multiple rereadings. You can call this my selection of "desert island novels," in a sense. It's quite an eclectic list, now that I think about it. These are in no particular order.

(1) Sharon Kay Penman's Welsh trilogy: Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning.
It comes as no surprise to me that Penman's novels have appeared on the lists of several other HF bloggers. For me, nobody brings the personalities and politics of royal medieval England and Wales to life quite as well as Penman. Of the three, Here Be Dragons is my favorite, since I particularly enjoy reading novels about royal women of whom little has been written, and I thought Penman did a superb job bringing the story of Joanna, bastard daughter of King John, and her husband Llywelyn Fawr to life. Excellent evocation of the historical setting, characterizations, and plotting; what more can be said?

(2) Alison McLeay, Passage Home (UK title, The Wayward Tide) / Sea Change (UK title, Sweet Exile).
These are my sentimental favorites - old-fashioned romantic epics in the best sense of the term. In The Wayward Tide (I prefer the British titles), Rachel Dean, a girl living with her dysfunctional family on the Newfoundland coast in 1827, develops an immediate bond with a restless wanderer named Adam Gaunt. She follows him first to Liverpool and then to the frontier West, learning the hard way that men can't be held against their will. Sweet Exile begins a generation later with Kate Summerbee, daughter of a Mississippi riverboat captain, whose life becomes intertwined with those of Adam Gaunt and his son Matthew. Few British authors write about America, but McLeay has the setting as well as Kate's warm, humorous Southern voice down pat. Both Rachel and Kate are survivors, strong-minded yet true to their time, and Adam Gaunt makes for an ideal romantic hero, humanly flawed yet larger than life. Plus, in the course of both novels, McLeay courageously pulls off plot-wise what few authors of romantic fiction would dare try. For me, these novels can't be beat for their sweep, emotional impact, and sheer entertainment. It's disappointing to me that McLeay's subsequent novels, while enjoyable, didn't live up to the promise of the first two.

(3) Barbara Vine, Anna's Book (UK title, Asta's Book).
This is a masterpiece of historical suspense, set in London in the earlier and later parts of the 20th century, as Ann Eastbrook tries to uncover the truth about the birth of her late aunt Swanny, and its relationship to the ghastly murder of a young woman decades earlier. In alternating sections, Ann's grandmother Anna Westerby, a Danish immigrant in 1905 London, meticulously records events from her day-to-day life in a series of journals. Not coincidentally, Ann discovers that the journal pages corresponding to the dates of Swanny's birth are missing. This is an excellent historical puzzle that details the struggles and prejudices faced by newly arrived immigrants in the early 20th century. As a character, Anna isn't likable at all, yet it's hard not to sympathize with her plight. The pieces of the mystery fit together perfectly; the novel's execution is nothing less than brilliant. Despite knowing the ending, I'm still able to read it over and over.

(4) Catherine Gavin, The Snow Mountain.
How inappropriate of me to choose a novel based on a premise that, as we know, historically did not happen. I should be ashamed of myself. The love story that Gavin creates for Russia's Grand Duchess Olga, the 23-year-old daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra who, along with her family, was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, is totally fictional. Still, it's a very moving tale, and I enjoy this novel for the way it gives insight into the personalities of four young women normally thought of as children, but who were really adults and young adults perfectly capable of knowing their own minds. Olga's romance with a Russian soldier who serves her family can't help but be overshadowed by the reader's knowledge of her tragic, unavoidable end.

(5) Morgan Llywelyn, The Wind from Hastings.
Llywelyn's first novel was the only one she set in Wales, and I don't think it's the best she's written; that honor belongs to 1916, in my humble opinion. Yet it's on my favorites list because it's one of the first historical novels I ever read - it was published in 1978 - and it does a wonderful job of portraying a well-known historical era, events leading up to the Battle of Hastings, from a different point of view. In keeping with the times, Edyth of Mercia has no say whatsoever in who she marries, and her true character reveals itself when she finally accepts her fate as wife and queen to Harold Godwineson, the murderer of her first husband, Griffith of Wales. Llywelyn wrote this novel in a deceptively simple style, and her novel is both moving and thought-provoking.

Numerous runners-up as follows, in alphabetical order.

Jane Alison, The Love-Artist
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Robert Goddard, Painting the Darkness
Hella Haasse, In a Dark Wood Wandering
Cecelia Holland, Railroad Schemes and Rakossy
Margaret Irwin, The Bride
Catherine Jinks, The Notary
Katherine Neville, The Eight
Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red
Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
Rebecca Ryman, Olivia and Jai
Nigel Tranter, The Master of Gray trilogy
Richard S. Wheeler, Second Lives
Janice Woods Windle, Hill Country


  1. Thanks for the list! I'll have to try out The Wind from Hastings and The Notary. What's The Bride about?

  2. The Bride is a biographical novel about Louise Hollandine, the artist daughter of the "Winter Queen" of Bohemia. As it happens, the story ties in nicely with Robin Jenkins' Lady Magdalen.

  3. Sarah:

    Excellent recommendations in there, thanks! I'd agree on Sharon Kay Penman--even on your picks for the best of hers--but I haven't even heard of the rest of your top 5. I see I have some catching up to do. :)

  4. Fascinating list. I shall look out for 'The Wind from Hastings' in particular. Interesting that Sharon Penman's novels, and the Wlesh trilogy in particular, come up time and time again. And yet a London literary agent warned me off looking to Sharon Penman as a role model because "she doesn't really sell". Very strange.

  5. That's an interesting comment, Carla. I don't think Penman's latest historical mystery (Prince of Darkness) was picked up by a UK publisher, but I thought her mainstream historicals all did well there.

  6. I thought so too. Unless it's a matter of degree and the agent was comparing with the sales of e.g. Philippa Gregory?

  7. The Wind From Hastings is really good - I second Sarah's reccie of it :-)

  8. Carla, you could be right, I don't think Penman sells as well as Gregory even in the US - but then, among historical novelists, there probably aren't many that do ...

  9. I think Penman hasn't sold in the UK recently because she hasn't kept up the momentum. You need to be on that treadmill and putting out novels as regular intervals which she just hasn't done. Plus her last two serious novels for me, at least, didn't have the grab and grip qualities of Sunne in Splendour or Here Be Dragons. Her mysteries were a bit wishy washy to begin with. Now they're not, they're superb, but the damage has been done. She really needs repackaging and polishing for her UK market where she has lost considerable ground. But if you're not producing the goods on the treadmill these days, then you'll get left out in the cold. It's deadline or else!

  10. Very interesting point about the importance of momentum, Elizabeth. When did it start to happen, do you think? The agent's comment to me was made some years ago, when I was shopping Ingeld's Daughter around. She compared my writing favourably with Sharon Penman's, at which I was naturally stunned and delighted in equal measure, and then told me that Penman's novels didn't sell.

  11. I'm also wondering if this is somewhat of a transatlantic difference, as there are a number of American historical novelists who aren't expected (by the American readership, anyway) to have a new book out more than once every few years. Penman is one of these - Margaret George comes to mind, too.

    OTOH, I loved Time and Chance, but it didn't make it onto my Top 5 list, like some of her others...

  12. Carla - what a great compliment on your novel, though! Which I still intend to get to soon, btw... once the pile of review books subsides a little.

  13. German writer Rebecca Gablè isn't expected to knock on out every year, either. We'll patiently wait 2-3 years. :)

    Penman was severely ill, according to her website, and therefore fell behind schedule. If readers - if not publishers - can't understand that, something is very wrong in the whole bookselling business. On days like that I think about self-publishing.

    And the verification is: suckuu

    Sorta fits. :)