As I’m completing some reviews for the February Historical Novels Review (my, time flies), here are some from the November issue. (I was a busy girl!)
Rivals for the Crown
Kathleen Givens, Pocket Books, 2007, $14.00/C$16.99, pb, 432pp, 9781416509929
In 1290 London, childhood friends Isabel de Burke and Rachel of Anjou are abruptly parted when Edward I expels the Jews from England. As Rachel and her family make their way to Scotland, where they start life anew as innkeepers, Isabel becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Eleanor of Castile. When tension between England and Scotland mounts, Isabel and Rachel find themselves caught in the middle—and attracted to two handsome Highlanders, cousins Rory MacGannon and Kieran MacDonald.
Givens’ romantic historical is plotted deftly, with likeable main characters, plenty of intrigue and narrow escapes, and truly dastardly English villains in the Braveheart tradition, including the always reliably nasty Edward I (offstage) and his lecherous sidekick, Bishop Walter Langton. The book was marred for me, though, by the distinctly modern attitudes sometimes displayed by the sympathetic characters: for instance, in an age not noted for its religious tolerance, the only people opposed to the romance between Rachel and Kieran are Rachel’s father and Rachel’s Jewish fiancé (who as a butcher doesn’t stand a chance against a handsome Highlander). Readers who can suspend their disbelief more readily, however, will likely enjoy this book.
The Queen’s Handmaiden
Jennifer Ashley, Berkeley, 2007, $14.00/C$17.50, pb, 320pp, 9780425217320
Unwanted by her new stepfather, Eloise Rousell ends up in the care of her relation Kat Ashley, governess to Elizabeth Tudor. Growing up alongside her royal mistress, Eloise discovers that she has talents not only for dressmaking, but for intrigue—skills that Eloise will use to Elizabeth’s advantage as the future queen is threatened from all sides.
Spanning the period from Edward VI’s reign to the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, from scandal with Thomas Seymour to scandal with Robert Dudley, this is a diverting tale, narrated by the resourceful, loyal Eloise in an engaging, lively fashion. A love story involving Eloise, though not so prominent as to intrude upon the main story, adds a nice touch.
Perhaps because so many events were packed into a relatively short space, however, I found that this novel was somewhat lacking in depth and focus—it was difficult to get a sense as to some of the characters’ personalities and motivations. That being said, I found the characters here to be refreshingly true to their time, not the modern beings in fancy dress that have marred some Tudor fiction, and the novel to be well researched. I look forward to future forays into historical fiction by Ashley.
The King’s Pleasure
Norah Lofts, Torc, 2006, £6.99, pb, 334pp, 0752439464
Originally published in 1969, this reissued novel by one of the grande dames of twentieth-century historical fiction tells the familiar story of Katharine of Aragon, spanning her childhood in Spain to her death as the cast-off wife of Henry VIII. Katharine’s tale is told by a third-person narrator not only from Katherine’s own perspective, but from those of other players in the drama of Henry’s reign.
This is a novel that has held up remarkably well over time. Though it’s slow moving on occasion, its leisurely pace allows us to savor the impressive gallery of characters. Lofts gives us information about the backgrounds of even the minor ones, so that they become much more than mere props supporting the lead protagonists, but interesting people in their own right. Henry, always a challenge for historical novelists, is not a cardboard villain but a complex man of many qualities. Katharine is admirable but maddeningly stubborn, taking the hard path where the easier one might have been better for all concerned. The interactions between all of these people feel absolutely authentic and natural, as in the scene toward the end of the novel where two of Katharine’s attendants bicker as Katharine lies dying in the next room. And although the novel ends with Katharine’s death, Lofts occasionally provides us glimpses into the future, adding to the book’s richness.
This is a classic of the genre that should appeal both to those revisiting old favorites and to those just discovering the masters of the past.
Letters from Pemberley: The First Year
Jane Dawkins, Sourcebooks, 2007, $13.95/C$17.95/UK£7.99, pb, 213pp, 9781402209062
Having married Fitzwilliam Darcy and settled on his estate of Pemberley, a slightly homesick Elizabeth Bennet begins writing letters to her older sister, the newlywed Jane. With new acquaintances, Mr. Darcy’s plans to remodel Pemberley (a task he takes on with much more sensitivity than Mr. Rushworth), and Georgiana’s baffling onset of low spirits, Elizabeth finds herself with a great deal to write about.
Dawkins deliberately incorporates language, renamed characters, and situations from Austen’s life and novels into Elizabeth’s letters, providing some fun in recognition for sharp-eyed Janeites. Contemporary details, such as the fashions Elizabeth wears and the books she reads, are also worked in nicely. Otherwise, Letters is rather short in substance, Elizabeth settling into her roles as wife and mistress of Pemberley almost a little too easily. I found myself wishing at times that Mrs. Bennet would pay an extended visit just to stir up some trouble. All in all, though, Letters makes for a charming, quick read, especially for Jane Austen fans who need something to tide them over while waiting to re-read the originals.
Deeanne Gist, Bethany House, 2007, $13.99, pb, 332pp, 9780764202254
Outgoing, good-natured, and fond of elaborate hats and bicycle riding, Essie Spreckelmeyer is well-liked in her hometown but seriously short on suitors, an unwelcome state of affairs for a 30-year-old woman in 1890’s Corsicana, Texas. In her usual forthright manner, the unconventional Essie decides to remedy the situation by picking a likely husband. Having assessed each candidate’s good and bad points in writing, all that is left is to get her prospective spouse to agree to the arrangement.
Featuring a bust enhancer that doubles as a mouse catcher, a runaway snake, and Essie’s adventures on the new “wheeled feet” her friend the peddler brings to town, Courting Trouble is delightfully humorous at times. There’s a dark side to this novel too, however, as we see when a moment of recklessness threatens disaster for Essie and when Essie is on the verge of entering into a relationship that would stifle her individuality. Gist expertly blends these disparate elements and creates likeable yet flawed characters, resulting in a novel that’s both highly entertaining and thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to seeing the sequel.
Kerry Madden, Viking, 2007, $16.99/C$21.00, hb, 278pp, 9780670061532
In the spring of 1963, twelve-year-old Livy Two and her nine siblings eagerly await their father’s return to the home they share in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. But the Tom Weems who comes home from the hospital, where he has been recovering from a head injury received in a car accident, is not the man he used to be. He doesn’t know that JFK is President, and although he hears music in his head, he can’t remember that he himself is a musician—a gift he has passed down to Livy Two.
With Tom prone to wandering off, money getting tight, and Grandma Horace talking about moving the family off their beloved mountain to a nearby factory town, the Weems family is in need of all the help it can get. Livy tries to do her part, persuading her artistic but shy sister Louise (the “Louisiana” of the title) to draw portraits in nearby Waynesboro and barraging a Nashville music company with her songs.
The second book in a series of three, Louisiana’s Song is narrated by Livy, an endearing, indomitable heroine, whose narrative voice is conversational and folksy without ever sounding contrived or artificial. The novel teems with wonderful, vivid characters, from the Weems family members to the bookmobile lady to Mathew the Mennonite. Even the family dog, Uncle Hazard, has a personality all of his own. Don’t let the somewhat hackneyed title scare you off—Louisiana’s Song is an original. Lively, funny, and moving, it’s a novel that adults as well as young readers should enjoy.
The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder and the Making of a Great President
Julie M. Fenster, Palgrave, 2007, $24.95/C$31.00, hb, 256pp, 9781403976352
In 1856, Springfield, Illinois is abuzz. One of its citizens, a prosperous blacksmith named George Anderson, has been murdered—and the suspects are Anderson’s wife and his young nephew, believed to have been carrying on a love affair in Anderson’s own house. Eventually, another citizen of Springfield will become involved in the Anderson murder case—a prominent lawyer and rising politician named Abraham Lincoln.
The Case of Abraham Lincoln has two main strands, the murder case in Springfield and Lincoln’s career as a lawyer and a politician. The strands intersect only peripherally until near the end of the book, when Lincoln joins the Anderson defense and plays a crucial, though undramatic, role in achieving an acquittal for the suspects.
Despite the subtitle, readers expecting a juicy tale of murder and adultery will be disappointed. Fenster’s main interest is in the procedural aspects of the case and in the lawyers on both sides, not in the suspects, who took their secrets, if they had any, to the grave. Those wanting to know more about Lincoln as a lawyer and about his role in 1850’s American party politics, however, will find this a welcome addition to their shelves.
Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Philip McFarland, Grove, 2007, $26.00/C$32.50, hb, 320 pp, 9780802118455
As every American schoolchild knows, or ought to know, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the great anti-slavery novel. Few, including myself, know much more about her. Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe undertakes to fill this gap.
McFarland looks not only at Stowe, but at her “loves” of the title—chiefly her family members, including Stowe’s brother, the famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher, whose notorious adultery trial is given particular attention here. We also meet Stowe’s good friend Lady Byron, whose posthumous reputation Stowe championed, resulting in controversy both in the United States and in England. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the sensation it caused are examined in depth, but Stowe’s lesser known writings (one of which, Dred, garnered fulsome praise from George Eliot) are given their fair share of attention, as are her successful reading tours. In addition, McFarland examines Stowe’s views on such diverse issues as spiritualism and women’s rights, introducing us to people such as stockbroker, free-love advocate, and presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull (whom Stowe described succinctly as “this witch”).
As a portrait not only of a fascinating woman but of a vibrant period in American history, Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe is an illuminating read.