Tag Archives: historical fiction

Revisiting Arthur and George

MV5BMjA2OTg4NjQ4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzE3Mjk5NDE@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Julian Barnes’ novel used a famous early twentieth century case of a man sent to prison for mutilating animals as inspiration; the resulting historical novel – Arthur and George – was recently aired as a three-part series on the American Public Broadcasting channel (PBS).  Barnes fictionalized some of the story and PBS gave its own spin, but the historical basis in both was true and still shockingly relevant.

Although Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle shared many of his talents.  When George Edalji, the 27-year-old son of the vicar of Great Wyrley, wrote to Holmes asking for help, it was Doyle who took up his case and ultimately proved him innocent.

George’s father, a man of Parsee ancestry, married an Englishwoman, converted to Christianity, and ultimately became the Anglican minister of a small town in Staffordshire and the target of cruel prejudice. When George was 16 years old, the Edaljis began receiving threatening letters in the post, and other Staffordshire clergymen received abusive letters over Edalji’s forged signature. George shared in the family’s troubles, but eventually became a successful solicitor.

Following several incidents of animal mutilation throughout Great Wyrley, the police received anonymous letters accusing George Edalji of the crimes. The local Chief Constable decided – with no evidence – that George had written the mysterious correspondence himself and has now escalated to killing animals.  George Edalji was tried on 20th October, 1903, found guilty, and sentenced to seven years in jail; the verdict effectively destroyed his law career.  Released after three years, Edalji wrote his own version of the incident, which was published in the papers. He posted a clipping of the article to Arthur Conan Doyle, asking for his help to clear his name.

The novel and the televised series follow Doyle as he pursues the case, ultimately proving Georg’e innocence.  The real culprit was never prosecuted, but PBS satisfyingly kills him off, after revealing a surprise connection to George.

I reposted my review of Arthur and George.  Barnes’ version of the story has the notes and wording of the famous Man Booker winner, and the themes of intolerance and bigotry still ring true. In addition, the story is a great mystery thriller.  Have you read the book?

Review: Arthur and George

 

 

Queen Victoria

Without a time machine, historical inaccuracies about personal lives are hard to prove, and the practice of selecting only the best for posterity sometimes shades perception. Jane Austen’s sister conveniently burned the famous author’s diaries; Jacqueline Kennedy famously engineered the Camelot legacy through Theodore White; biographer Julia Baird notes “Victoria’s daughter Beatrice transcribed her mother’s journals and edited out everything that seemed to reflect poorly on her, then burned the originals.”

Until Julian Fellowes created the  movie “Young Victoria” in 2009, most readers thought of Queen Victoria as the short, heavy, frumpy monarch in black who made infrequent appearances.  Although history notes Victoria had nine children, her romantic inclinations and Albert’s courting of the young queen were usually overwhelmed by her later years.  Berated by the royal family for inserting inaccurate scenes to increase the drama – Prince Albert never really took a bullet for Victoria – Fellowes never blinked as he introduced a new look for Victoria and went on to create Downton Abbey the following year.

9781410495877_p0_v1_s192x300A new Masterpiece Theater series on the Public Broadcasting System promises more of the younger queen, and author Daisy Goodwin – creator and writer of the series – offers a glimpse with her new novel Victoria.  Goodwin begins the book with the sixteen year old hoping her uncle, the king, will live to her eighteenth birthday, so she can rule without a regent, most probably her estranged mother.  She gets her wish, becoming queen soon after she comes of age.

Goodwin elaborates on a few vague historical tidbits to provide drama and interest – embellishing the young queen’s infatuation with her prime minister and capitalizing on her accusation of Lady Flora Hastings as a catalyst in her waning popularity.

Though fictional, Goodwin manages to tear away the historical image of a prudish moralistic matron to reveal Victoria as human after all.  Descriptions of her early insecurities about her appearance, her fiercely independent determination, along with happy moments with her little dog and carefree rides on her horse – all transform an icon into flesh and blood.  Amazingly, knowing Victoria and Albert will eventually marry does not detract from the breathless anticipation as Goodwin concludes the novel with Victoria’s proposal.

Goodwin’s Victoria is an easy digestible history lesson, with added spice.  Like her novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter, Goodwin’s Victoria immerses the reader in the world of the heroine, and, if all the facts are not exactly correct – as Julian Fellowes says, “What does it matter?”

Related Articles:

 

To the Bright Edge of the World

9780316242851_p0_v5_s192x300    Eowan Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World had me remembering the startling blue of the icebergs and the crisp cold of the Alaskan air when I visited several years ago. Ivey’s story is based on the actual 1885 expedition of Colonel Allen Forrester, and references diaries and letters from the exploration of the newly acquired Alaskan Territory as the foundation for a compelling epistolary novel.

The real Forrester explored over a thousand miles of wilderness and become the first to chart the Copper River, leading an expedition as significant as Lewis and Clark’s.  The novel uses the imagined letters of Colonel Forrester to his wife, Sophie, as well as his formal accounting of his findings as he travels the unexplored Wolverine River area in Northern Alaska with a small crew.

Forced to remain behind because of her pregnancy, Sophie keeps her own journal and sends letters to her husband.  When she miscarries, Sophie, a former schoolteacher with a penchant for studying birds, purchases a camera, and embarks on her own expedition to capture pictures of nesting birds in the woods surrounding her home at Vancouver Barracks in Washington.

As Allen Forrester suffers starvation, disease, and bitter cold traveling through uncharted Territory, he also discovers the power of the local culture, and Ivey weaves old otherworldly legends into her tale, treating them with respect and awe.  The women with feathers growing out of their wrists, calmly washing clothes by the river full of geese; the old medicine man with the black hat who can fly and transform into a raven who steals Sophie’s hair comb; the monster in the river who almost kills one of Forrester’s men – all add flavor to the steady reporting of the mundane as well as the explorer’s  battle with the unforgiving elements of nature.

Ivey grounds the story in the present by creating a fictional descendant of Forrester, Walter, who is seeking a home for the artifacts and papers he has inherited.  Walter is getting old, and has started a correspondence with Josh, the museum curator in  Alaska, who has agreed to digitize the papers and establish an exhibit. Through Josh, Ivey offers pictures interspersed through the narrative, and updates on the current political and environmental turmoil.  Ivey muses on the power and beauty of Nature, and comments on the disconnect between preserving the culture of the past while moving on with demands of the present.

“How can we say this person is valued less or more, is better or worse, because they are a part of one culture or another, and why would we want to?”

To the Bright Edge of the World combines adventure, history, and romance with discovery – not only of forbidding new land but also of inner truths.  As a reward for both Allen and Sophie, as well as for the reader, Ivey projects a fictional continuation in the ending as the couple continues to explore – both plausible and satisfying.  A fellow reader suggested this book would be both engaging and uplifting – she was right.

 

 

 

The Truth According to Us

9780385342940If you loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, you probably are also a fan of Downton Abbey and maybe Jane Austen,  so when Annie Barrows, co-author of Guernsey wrote her first adult book alone, The Truth According to Us, the bar was set high in anticipation.

My first foray into the book left me lacking and I put it aside, until a friend encouraged me to try again – and glad I did.  The writing echoes some of the aspects I enjoyed in Guernsey with smatterings of letters between characters and the historical facts – this time about the a New Deal program called the Federal Writer’s Project before World War II.  The style is the same yet different; Annie Barrows wrote Guernsey with her Aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, she wrote The Truth According to Us alone.

The plot is not a page turner but easy to follow: 

“In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom. But once she secures a room in the home of the unconventional Romeyn family, she is drawn into their complex world and soon discovers that the truth of the town is entangled in the thorny past of the Romeyn dynasty.” Penguin Random House Publishers

But I am a sucker for child narrators – Flavia de Luce from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Jack from Room, Susie in The Lovely Bones, Rosie in The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake.  Eleven year old Willa’s voice, until she loses it, in The Truth According to Us reminds me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Willa’s perspectives shares the spotlight with Layla, a young fallen debutante who has been banished from the country club set to earn her own living in West Virginia and Jottie, the bright local woman who knows about “fierceness and devotion,” the town motto and the underlying theme of the story.  

It’s easy to be charmed with the romance, some adventure, a lot of soul-searching, and a good dose of humor.

Reviews:

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

9780544639683_p0_v3_s192x300After reading Laura Holson’s New York Times article (..Beefcake Sells…), describing the motivation behind the covers of romance novels, the cover of Antonia Hodgson’s latest book – The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins – didn’t seem right.  Noted, the book is historical fiction as Hodgson goes to great lengths to document in her afterword, but the hero, Tom, is clearly ripped and lusty.  His bare chest on the cover might attract more readers, and the ripping bodice shenanigans in this story rival those in Catherine Coulter’s Regency romances.

Tom Hawkins returns from his debut in The Devil in the Marshalsea (see my review below) with a few familiar characters introduced in Hodgson’s first swashbuckling romance thriller.  This story has Tom on his way to be hanged for killing his neighbor, Joseph Burden, a horrible bully who tortures his children and rapes his housekeeper, while he is posing as a member of the “Society for the Reformation of Manners,” an eighteenth century group set up as a watchdog for English morals.  Who really killed Joseph Burden becomes a subplot in a tale of intrigue involving Queen Caroline and her husband’s mistress, Henrietta Howard.

According to Hodgson’s research, Howard’s husband was blackmailing the king to keep his mistress a secret.  When the king refused to pay, Howard threatened the queen, and eventually, struck a bargain.  Hodgson uses this obscure historical fact to weave a story around our hero, the rakish Tom Hawkins.  Asked to perform a favor for James Fleet, the “captain of the most powerful gang of thieves in St Giles,” Hawkins finds himself involved with Queen Caroline, who hires him to dispose of the troublesome husband of her lady-in-waiting, Henrietta Howard.   Things do not go according to plan, and Hawkins is telling his tale in his cell before he goes to the gallows – hoping for a last minute pardon from the Queen.  

The adventure is fast and furious, with historically correct descriptions of court intrigue, cock-fighting, brothels, executions, and female gladiators.

Review: The Devil in the Marshalsea