Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Historical Survey . . .

A hasty grouping of history novels so that I could move some books back onto the shelves:

The best of the bunch, Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies.

Another very satisfying historical novel is Eva Stachniak's The Winter Palace which suggests that Catherine the Great was no less prone to mad combinations of power and lust and whim than was Henry VIII. It's not as clear that she had as trusted and worthy an advisor-strategist to guide her, though. But it's very clear that in both courts, one needed to move cautiously and be careful to whom one said what.

I have mixed feelings about Susan Vreeland's The Passion of Artemisia which I ordered after being smitten by the work of Italian Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, having seen a gorgeous exhibition of her work at Paris' Musée Maillol this past spring. The novelist sketches out the historic and cultural climate convincingly, especially in the gripping and horrifying scenes involving the trial Artemisia endured when her father brought charges against her rapist, his friend and fellow painter. I felt cheated, however,  when I realized how drastically she had played with basic facts. In a conversation in the book's last pages, Vreeland says, "In order to avoid the narrative sprawl that would limit space for development of important characters, I had to eliminate Artemisia's brothers, sons, and many of the people for whom she painted in order to reveal her relationships with her father, husband, and daughter more deeply." This sounds reasonable, and perhaps I'm quibbling rather churlishly, but to realize at the end of the novel that I had (arguably) grasped some ultimate fictional truth at the cost of mis-learning facts made me a bit cranky. Especially since the resultant narrative rather sanitizes Artemisia -- what of the bold love affair that resulted in the passionate letters displayed at the Maillol exhibition?

And finally, a quick reference to the historical fantasy Shadows of Night, the second in Deborah Harkness' projected trilogy, the first of which was the very satisfying Discovery of Witches. I found this one much less so, and for me, it's because it bears the strain of too much history. Harkness is an academic who specializes in the history of science, and although she writes well and conjures admirably the Elizabethan England her characters escape to, I wasn't captured by imagining scientists, artists, and writers of the day as cohorts of vampires. More appealing were the depictions of women's healing knowledge and the denigration of that knowledge in the wake of the witch trials. But the characters who intrigued me in the first novel weren't much developed here, many of them scarcely appearing at all, and the interaction with such luminaries as Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh failed to convince. Yes, I learned a bit more about Elizabethan science and learning, but I wasn't entertained and engaged by character and narrative as I'd hoped.

But now I've recorded four more 2012 books and can make a bit more room to the left of my monitor.  That's progress, no?

And you, have you read any good treatments of history recently, fictionalised or not?


  1. Have just allowed myself some time visiting favourite blogs and to catch up with what you have been reading. I haven't read the latest Hilary Mantel but I can strongly recommend one of her earlier historical novels, A Place of Greater Safety. If you haven't read it you must - not least because it is set in France, at the time of the Revolution and tells the story of those extraordinary times from the perspective of the Revolution's leading male protagonists: Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre. The women of the Revolution feature strongly too.

    It may be considered heresy to say so (given the huge success of Wolf Hall and its sequel) but, for me, iA Place of Greater Safety remains Mantel's finest historical novel - and a book I will happily return to again and again.

  2. So pleased to see you visiting and commenting here. I did, in fact, read A Place of Greater Safety a couple of years ago at your recommendation. It's everything you say, and I find my impressions of its characters (as you say, women get ample play in strong roles) is still quite distinct.
    I especially enjoyed reading it AND Dickens' Tale of Two Cities around the same time as we traveled from London to Paris.