Following are some reviews I did for the August issue of the Historical Novels Reviews. First, though, I’d like to mention that there are some nonfiction books I’m chomping at the bit to read! First is Arlene Okerlund’s biography of Elizabeth of York, who to my knowledge has been the subject of only one previous biography, that by Nancy Lenz Harvey. Harvey applied novelistic techniques to her biography, which focused mainly on Elizabeth’s life before her marriage to Henry VII, so I’m looking forward to a more scholarly treatment of this queen. It’s on its way to me already.
Second, Christopher Wilkins has a biography of Edward Woodville, The Last Knight Errant, coming out in December! That will be on my Christmas list if the cats walking over the keyboard don’t accidentally put it in my Amazon shopping cart before that. (Silly cats.)
Not medieval, but as a long-time Dickensian (and here you thought I was only a Despenserian and a Woodvillian), I’m excited about Michael Slater’s new biography of Charles Dickens. Oh, and there’s also Leandra de Lisle’s biography of Lady Jane Grey and her sisters, which I read for the November Historical Novels Review and thought was excellent.
Anyway, now it’s review time:
Daughters of the Doge
Edward Charles, Pan, 2008, $13.95, pb, 374pp, 9780230531239
In this novel, the sequel to In the Shadow of Lady Jane, young Richard Stocker is still mourning his friend Lady Jane Grey when he accepts an invitation to accompany Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, to Venice. A Protestant in a country ruled by the Catholic “Bloody” Mary, Richard is eager to take the excuse to leave England for a time and to consider whether he wants to devote his life to the practice of medicine. Richard soon finds, however, that he has not left intrigue behind in England. And when the vain Courtenay decides that he must have his portrait done at an inexpensive price, Richard’s dogged quests through Venice’s art studios will lead him to convents and courtesans—and to a new love as well.
Earnest and resourceful, Richard, the narrator, is a likeable hero, whose coming-of-age story is all the more appealing for being set in the atmospheric location of sixteenth-century Venice. Charles neatly integrates historical characters, including Courtenay, Francis Walsingham, Titian, and courtesan Veronica Franco, into Richard’s adventures, and he employs a broad variety of Venetian settings, from slums to convents to art studios. The story of an innocent abroad who gains experience and a fresh start, Daughters of the Doge is an engaging tale.
Girl in a Blue Dress
Gaynor Arnold, Crown, 2009, $25.95, hb, 432pp, 9780307462268
All of Victorian London is mourning the death of famous author Alfred Gibson, but one woman has not been invited to the funeral: his widow, Dorothea, who has lived in virtual seclusion since being cast out of her husband’s life years before. Shut off from most of her family after the separation, Dorothea has accepted her position with a quiet dignity that borders on passivity, but as she mourns her brilliant husband and reflects on their lives together and apart, she will slowly muster the courage to re-enter the world, to face those from whom she has been long estranged, and even to encounter the woman who Dorothea believes stole her husband from her.
Girl in a Blue Dress is based heavily on the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens, but Arnold, by turning Catherine Dickens into Dorothea Gibson, gives herself the freedom to stray from the historical record, though the personalities of the main characters remain very close to their real-life counterparts. Dorothea, the narrator, commands our respect and sympathy but has enough inner strength to avoid being pitiful, and the rest of the characters are vividly drawn as well. In her portrait of Alfred Gibson, Arnold does justice to Dickens’s own charisma and complexity; we deplore his behavior toward Dorothea while feeling the same attraction for him that his wife does. Gibson even gamely tackles the task of supplying Gibson’s literary oeuvre with Dickens-like prose and characters.
First published in the UK in 2008, Girl in a Blue Dress was long-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s easy to see why: this is a richly satisfying debut novel.
Emily’s Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters
Denise Giardina, Norton, 2009, $24.95/C$27.50, hb, 320pp, 9780393069150
William Weightman, the personable young curate who assisted the Reverend Patrick Brontë at Haworth Parsonage for several years, is best known for sending Valentines to the three Brontë sisters and for possibly being the object of Anne Brontë’s affections. In this novel, however, it is the fiercely independent, unconventional Emily Brontë who finds herself falling in love with Weightman, who possesses not only charm and good looks but a social conscience and a kind heart.
Meticulously researched and written in a clean, crisp prose style, Emily’s Ghost encompasses not only the splendor of the Yorkshire moors but the hardships of daily life in the poor parish of Haworth, where, as one character notes forebodingly, few people live past their thirties. The inhabitants of the Bronte parsonage, human and animal alike, each possess distinct personalities. Giardina manages the difficult feat of making Weightman a genuinely good man without making him colorless; Emily is strongly individualistic without becoming tiresomely eccentric; Charlotte exasperates the reader but never entirely forfeits our sympathy; and Branwell’s better qualities are not lost amid his dissipation.
Without departing from known facts or engaging in bodice ripping, Giardina gives us a compelling and moving love story between people we come to care about deeply. Even those who have not read the works of the Brontë sisters should enjoy this novel thoroughly.