What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, October 10, 2011

As Promised, Some Great Historical Novels

Well, after venting my spleen at the poor excuse for a historical novel penned by Philippa Gregory in the form of The Lady of the Rivers, I promised you some better options. Some you might be familiar with; others may well be unknown to you and need to be hunted down. But in each and every case, these are books that I continue to re-read with great pleasure, sometimes over the course of decades.
  • Katherine by Anya Seton: I was about to write that this is the grandaddy of historical novels, when I caught myself. In fact, Katherine Swynford, first mistress and later wife to John of Gaunt, is the ancestress of today's English monarchs, and Anya Seton does a fab job of fictionalizing her story, from a forced marriage to a boorish knight to her liaison with the man who became de facto ruler of England after the death of his father and older brother. Dense, detailed; a compelling read.
  • A Rose for Virtue by Norah Lofts: Another forced marriage at the heart of this novel, that of Napoleon's stepdaughter, Hortense, to his brother, Louis. It's the story of Hortense's life from the Terror of the French Revolution, up to the end of the Napoleonic era. Publishers are reprinting some of Lofts's novels, so keep an eye open for this one.
  • Brothers of Gwynned by Edith Pargeter: aka Ellis Peters -- you may have read her Brother Cadfael novels, or Sharon Penman's Welsh trilogy -- this covers the same territory, but from a single point of view. I know it's heresy, but I think I prefer this version to Penman's, if only because of the writing. Also recommended: A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, which tells the tale of Hotspur and the young Henry V.
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil by Reay Tannahill: A favorite since the day it was published, 20 plus years ago. Set against the tumult of early 15th century Scotland, the story of a young woman who must carve out a place for herself amidst treachery and heartbreak. Highly recommended. Also suggested: Fatal Majesty, a novel based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the best fictionalized version of her story I've yet read.
  • The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George: Like some of these novels, this one is a real chunkster -- could be used as a doorstop if needed. Will Somers, the king's fool, finds and annotates the king's diary before sending it to his illegitimate daughter. Very readable; by far the best of this author's books.
  • Last Love by Thomas Costain: I literally read the covers off this one. Costain wrote many of his bestsellers back in the 50s, or even earlier. (The Black Rose was made into a Hollywood studio movie.) This tells the very fictional story of a young Englishwoman on St. Helena who gets to know Napoleon during his final exile. Also recommended: Below the Salt, a tale of time travel and medieval skulduggery involving the niece of the evil King John.
  • The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan: A newer but little-known book, that focuses on artistic genius Hans Memling, his works and his times. Morgan places his main character in London at the time of the Princes in the Tower -- and a sequel is promised for early 2012, which I'll be eager to buy. A favorite book of mine in 2010.
  • A Catch of Consequence by Diana Norman: For those fed up with the endless processions of Tudor queens, this first novel in a trilogy focuses on the adventures of Makepeace Hedley, whose life is turned upside down when she fishes an English nobleman out of Boston Harbor, in the years leading up to the French Revolution. My favorite is this, and the third in the series, which focuses on her daughter's adventures in revolutionary Paris (The Sparks Fly Upwards). Ignore the cutesy covers; these are tough, feisty heroines.
  • The King's Daughter by Christie Dickason: It's hard to find great historical fiction set in Stuart England, but here's one that revolves around Elizabeth, daughter of James I, who fights her father's paranoia and suspicion of even his elder children. A sequel of sorts is due soon.
  • Nefertiti by Michelle Moran: If you're tired of all this Western European stuff, try this novel and its sequel, The Heretic Queen. Both are thumping good reads, set in ancient Egypt. I'm less enamored of Cleopatra's Daughter, although her novel about Madame Tussaud is also good.
  • In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse: a fabulous novel; one of only a handful by this Dutch writer to be translated into English. The story of Charles d'Orleans, captured in battle and imprisoned in England for many years.
  • The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster: The first in a trilogy revolving around the Jacobite cause. 
  • Ross Poldark by Winston Graham: The first of a long series of books that follow the Poldark family through wars and other kinds of strife, from the 1780s up until 1815. Ross returns from America to find the woman he loved married to his cousin; he struggles to get tin mines open and navigate the social and political upheavals of the era.
  • The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan: First of two good books about the powerful woman who becomes wife to Moghul emperor Jahangir. Fascinating look at Moghul India. Shadow Princess, the third volume, is less compelling.
The best novels set in Renaissance Italy and in France that I've read are all written in French or translated into French from Italian... I'm racking my brain to think of novels set in Russia, China, Japan and even the United States to go on this list, but so far am coming up dry. I've read Kathleen Kent's novels, but they leave me cold; I've already raved about March by Geraldine Brooks. So I'll just have to keep my eyes open and update this list when I can!

I also noticed the shortage of novels by male writers or focusing on male characters. I'm not a big fan of the Bernard Cornwell style of novel, but I've found some very good historical mysteries that would fall into this category, so perhaps I'll draw up another list with some of those authors, like Rory Clements, James Forrester and Adrian Goldsworthy. So stay tuned...

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