Living through literature

Back in February 2016 (I know – it seems like a bygone age) I wrote a blog post about my top 5 novels featuring real-life historical figures. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m having a conversation with my sister during which she asked me to recommend her some historical fiction, with the proviso that it mustn’t feature any characters who really existed. Even a cursory glance along my shelves made it pretty clear that was going to be a difficult task; I hadn’t really thought about it before, but a huge proportion of the historical fiction I read is based around real events or people. In the 4 years since I first counted down my favourites, I’ve read loads more fiction in the same vein, so I thought it was time for part two! So here are 5 more fantastic novels that reimagine 5 fascinating lives.

Kepler by John Banville

It took me a little while to get into this novel. At first I was a bit confounded by the writing style, but once I’d settled into it I became completely hooked. Kepler isn’t always the most unequivocally loveable of characters, but you nevertheless get completely caught up in his all-consuming quest to chart the movements of the planets and reconcile them within a universal geometry. The recreation of the Renaissance world, with its religious divides and capricious power figures who can make or break you according to the direction of the wind, is second to none.

Longing by J D Landis

Many people will be familiar with the name Robert Schumann but fewer will have heard of his wife. Clara Wieck was a superb pianist who was perhaps better known in her own lifetime than she is now; this book charts the life of the great composer and the woman who helped bring his work to the world. It’s a delicately balanced combination of the exquisitely beautiful and the achingly sad as the love story progresses hand in hand with Schumann’s increasingly severe mental illness. It’s dense, emotionally rich and will completely take you over.

Z by Therese Anne Fowler

I picked this up not because I was a particular fan of either of the Fitzgerald’s work but simply because I fancied the glamorous Jazz Age setting. As it turns out, there’s very little that was truly glamorous about the Fitzgeralds’ story: the wild parties, fashionable hotels and encounters with high society are exotic and intoxicating, but ultimately a veil that barely conceals the bleak reality of two people who are being ravaged by the combined effects of alcohol, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. I knew next to nothing about their lives before reading this novel, but it spurred me on to seek out some factual writing on the subject; it seems their story was truly as sad as is painted here.

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

Another musical tale now: that of Shostakovich’s famous Seventh Symphony. The author herself admits in the brief introduction that although the protagonists were real people she has used a lot of creative license, especially around Shostakovich’s motivation for writing the symphony; however, for me that didn’t detract in any way from the novel. It captures all too acutely the agony and desperation of the citizens living in the besieged city of Leningrad during the Second World War, and the sense of powerlessness in the face of destitution, starvation and death. I haven’t met anyone else who’s read it sadly, but I really think this book deserves to be better known than it currently is.

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

I’ve saved the best for last in this top 5; honestly, I was so blown away by this book I’ve struggled to find enough superlatives to do it justice. It tells the story of Diego Velazquez’s life as court painter to Philip IV of Spain in the seventeenth century, yet it goes far beyond a mere fictionalised biography. It’s about the ability of art to capture the truth behind the façade, and the relationship between rulers and the painters who present their faces to the world. It’s about the invisible being made visible, about life being captured for eternity by brush strokes on canvas and what that means for the painter, the painted and those who come after them. If you only read one historical novel this year, I implore you to make it this one.

Thanks for reading. This is a genre I really love, so if you have any of your own real-life historical fiction must-reads that you think I should try, do leave a comment!

Related posts:

Past Masters: Sarah Dunant

Passion by Jude Morgan – review

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak – review

To be continued…

Next week sees the release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”, which revisits some of the characters from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in their adulthood and explores how the ideologies to which they were exposed in their youth have affected them later in life.  When I first heard about this book I was intrigued, not because I’d always wondered what happened to Jem and Scout after the events of the original story had concluded, but because I hadn’t.  The question that came into my head moments later was, which books have left me wondering about how their characters’ futures panned out after the final page?  My instinct was that there would undoubtedly be some, yet the more I considered it the more I realised that for me the vast majority of novels are done and dusted with that last full stop; I may well mull over what I’ve read and how it affected me, but I don’t really think beyond the scenario the author has chosen to give me.  Does that mean I’m severely lacking in imagination, I wondered?  Or is it simply that most novels don’t invite us to question the finality of their conclusion?  Take “Pride and Prejudice” – clearly Elizabeth and Darcy are going to have many more challenges and emotional upheavals together after they become man and wife, but are we really meant to care about those?  The point of the novel is how a love that at first seems unlikely eventually blossoms between them, and once that story has reached its natural end I almost don’t want to know any more.  I can’t imagine Jane Austen wanting us to know any more either; ultimately it’s the author’s choice when to bring the curtain down on their creations.

There are times when a sequel genuinely expands your view of the characters in a previous novel.  When I finished Rose Tremain’s “Restoration” I may not have given any thought to what could have happened next, but when I read the follow-up, “Merivel”, I really felt it gave me an insight into elements of the protagonist that I hadn’t seen before.  On the other hand, every idea eventually reaches the point where to stretch it further would diminish its impact.  “The Meaning of Night” by Michael Cox is one of my all-time favourite novels and as such the prospect of a sequel seemed too good to be true.  Yet it turned out to be an enormous disappointment – not because of the quality of the writing but because it pushed its main characters and their behaviour beyond the limits of both sympathy and credibility.  The ending to the first book was the perfect conclusion to that particular story and I couldn’t help feeling it had been somehow undermined by what the author chose to do next.

I will probably read “Go Set a Watchman” – now that the possibility of finding out about Scout’s adult life has been dangled in front of me I pretty much have to!  I’d love to know if there are any books you wish had been continued; I’m sure there are many of you out there who are far more curious than me…

“Portrait of an Unknown Woman” by Vanora Bennett – review

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know that I’m mad keen on historical fiction.  Any era will do, I’m not fussy; as long as it’s sometime pre-twentieth century and there’s a sumptuous dress on the cover I’m probably going to be happy.  A few years ago, however, I went through a phase of gravitating towards novels set in the Tudor period, to the extent that I ended up feeling I’d overindulged myself and consequently burned out my interest in that era.  “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” is the first time I’ve returned to the Tudors in quite a long while, and to my relief I felt completely refreshed, as if I was discovering my love of the period all over again.

The book that ignited my love affair with historical novels was “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory, and if you enjoyed her books I can pretty much guarantee you’ll love this.  Vanora Bennett has quite a similar writing style and way of approaching her subject, wearing her meticulous research lightly but still delving beyond familiar representations of the period to shed new light on characters about whom, if we know a bit of history, we have perhaps already made assumptions.  The novel centres on the family of Thomas More, civil servant and later Lord Chancellor at the court of Henry VIII, and Hans Holbein, the ambitious German artist hoping to advance his career by painting the rich and powerful of Tudor England.  Much of the story is told my Meg, a young woman taken in by More as a child following the death of her parents and raised as one of his own.  It starts as a love story, with Meg looking out across the Thames from the Mores’ Chelsea home, awaiting the arrival of John Clement, her one-time tutor and the man with whom she has fallen completely and utterly in love.  And in a sense a love story it remains – but not in the way I expected when the novel began.  This isn’t about spending three hundred pages wondering whether the would-be couple are finally going to get together; this is about what happens to our feelings when the first flush of a seemingly perfect romance turns out not to lead anywhere near the places we’d anticipated.  Almost everyone in this novel – the lovers included – has secrets, some kept out of pure motives, others concealed out of fear, jealousy or desire for control.  As more and more truths are gradually revealed the relationships between the characters become increasingly complex; just as we’ve decided where our sympathies lie, the rug is pulled out from under our feet.

Of course, all these relationships are played out during one of the most turbulent periods in English history: the lead up to the monarchy’s break with the Church of Rome.  The brutal religious politics of the day cannot help but exert their influence on the emotional lives of characters whose marriages, friendships and family ties are already under strain from the various grievances, resentments and suspicions that affect us all even in the most stable of times.  Sinister events – imprisonments, tortures, executions – that are merely hinted at in the novel’s early chapters become increasingly exposed as the book goes on.  At first Meg is unaware of the extent to which her father is involved in Henry’s reign of terror; we learn the truth along with her as she gradually uncovers the accumulating horrors being committed in the name of God.  It is Hans Holbein who is perhaps the novel’s one true sage.  He may not have the broad education of the precocious More children, but the author presents him as one of the only characters who has their eyes open to the truth from the start.  Holbein has seen enough of the Reformation in Europe to realise that religious extremes, whichever way they lean, cause nothing but cruelty and chaos.  When he paints the commissioned portrait of Sir Thomas More’s family he resolves not to produce the flattering representation that most patrons would expect, but rather to capture the veracity of each individual: their coldness, weariness or naivety.  You could say this is a novel about learning to live with the truth, and coping with life when neither the world nor the people in it are what we hoped they would be.

This is definitely going to join my list of favourite historical novels.  Just as the story throws up a succession of surprises for its characters, so the book surprised me somewhat right up until the end; even the conclusion is not as you might imagine.  It’s a perfectly balanced blend of romance, history and drama – one I’d recommend without a doubt.