Long dismissed as genre fiction, the historical novel has now established itself in the literary mainstream, thanks in part to heavyweight authors like two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel. For me, more than any other medium, historical fiction brings the past to life and makes it matter.
The best historical fiction does more than conjure up an exotic backdrop for a conventional storyline. To truly evoke the past, the characters' sensibilities and entire worldview must mirror the historical setting. Historical fiction should also challenge our preconceptions and reveal facets of history we never thought about before — what was it like to be a Bengali opium merchant in 19th century Canton, or a female physician in Renaissance Venice?
And, like all great literature, the best historical fiction must have something meaningful to say, some insight that is ultimately timeless. These six novels meet that test, helping show us how the past has shaped the world we live in today.
Bring Up The Bodies
Hillary Mantel made history this year when her Bring Up the Bodies became the first sequel to win the Man Booker Prize. Mantel's Wolf Hall — the opening volume of a planned trilogy — won the prize in 2009. Amazingly, Bodies is even stronger than its predecessor. Faster paced and more tautly written, Bring Up the Bodies revels in its distinctly unromantic view of the Tudor court. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's master secretary and spin artist, must once more carry out the monarch's dirty work. A commoner whose cunning and ruthless intelligence have made him the king's most trusted adviser, Cromwell is the ultimate self-made Renaissance man, as inspired by Machiavelli as he is by the Scriptures. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell plotted the execution of statesman, author and Catholic loyalist Thomas More. Now Cromwell must help fickle Henry rid himself of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. This leaves Cromwell in a hopeless double bind: His survival hinges on ensuring the queen's doom, yet his coldblooded machinations to bring this about plant the seeds of his own downfall. Although we know how Boleyn's story ends, Mantel keeps the reader on tenterhooks in this sinister tale of power politics played for the highest stakes.
The Book Of Madness And Cures
I was enthralled by this strikingly original and gorgeously written quest story. In Venice, anno 1590, we meet Gabriella Mondini, a physician trained by her father, who sponsored her entry in the otherwise all-male Physicians' Guild. As the novel opens, he's been missing for 10 years, having left on a journey and never returned. His letters home, meanwhile, reflect an increasingly troubled mind. Without his patronage, Gabriella can no longer remain in the guild or practice medicine. Following the clues in his letters, she embarks on an epic journey to find her lost father, an odyssey that takes her through the dark forests of Germany all the way to Edinburgh. Finally, she leaves Europe behind for the Atlas Mountains, in North Africa. The narrative is interspersed with Gabriella's entries into her magnum opus, The Book of Madness and Cures, detailing rare diseases such as the Plague of Black Tears. The book plunges the reader into the zeitgeist of an era when medical science rubbed shoulders with alchemy and astrology — and when any woman who claimed medical knowledge could be burned for witchcraft.
Jean Zimmerman's The Orphanmaster is a rip-roaring read, packed with action and dark suspense. Like The Book of Madness and Cures, it features a strong and unusual female protagonist. Blandine van Couvering is a rising young merchant in 1663 New Amsterdam, now southern Manhattan. Women in Dutch culture enjoyed great economic liberties (as Zimmerman knows well, having written a biography — Women of the House — of just one such New Amsterdam "she merchant") and Blandine is as much at home traveling to wilderness trading posts as she is drinking in the tavern across from her dwelling house. Her idyll is shattered when terror strikes her community. Orphans are disappearing. Later their corpses are found in bizarre ritualistic settings, suggesting the presence of the "witika," an evil spirit in Native American lore who possesses people and forces them to commit acts of cannibalism. An orphan herself, Blandine is determined to unmask the culprit. Joining her investigation is handsome English spy Edward Drummond. Hysteria mounts with the rising death toll. Soon Blandine stands accused of witchcraft. Meanwhile war looms as the British seek to wrest away the colony from the Netherlands. This crime-driven novel with its grisly scenes of child murder may be too gruesome for some readers, but I was captivated by Zimmerman's unforgettable evocation of New Amsterdam.
The Twelve Rooms Of The Nile
Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert both toured Egypt in 1850. Although there is no historical record of their meeting, they become unlikely soul mates in Enid Shomer's tender and marvelously imagined debut novel. As the book opens, both Nightingale and Flaubert are in their late 20s and consider themselves failures. Flaubert's friends have advised him to burn his most recent attempt at a novel. Nightingale longs to serve the world but doesn't know how and fears disgracing her family. Flaubert is debauched, a connoisseur of prostitutes, while Nightingale is sexually ignorant. Yet their ambition and their resolute singlehood draw them together. Flaubert sees a deep melancholy in Nightingale that he longs to comfort. The titular 12 rooms of the Nile refer to the epic underworld journey of the sun god Ra, who dies at dusk and must travel down an infernal river divided into 12 rooms, one for each hour of the night, before he rises again at dawn. Flaubert is Nightingale's guide as she braves her own searing passage through the darkness of her confusion and despair. Her old self dies and a new self rises, one that will triumph as the future "Lady with the Lamp" and founder of modern nursing.
Set in Washington state at the turn of the 20th century, this debut novel is a staggering achievement. William Talmadge is the orchardist whose solitary Eden is shattered by the arrival of two pregnant adolescent sisters, who have fled the brothel where they were held as prisoners. Still scarred by the memory of his own sister, who went missing when he was a teenager, Talmadge offers the girls refuge. But is his compassion enough to heal the unspeakable trauma they have endured? When their brothel keeper comes to drag them back, the elder girl makes an irrevocable choice, leaving Talmadge to look after her baby, Angelene, and her sister, Della. Talmadge is rooted in his orchard while restless Della leaves in search of independence. She works in rodeos, lumber camps and canning factories, yet as far as she travels, she cannot escape her demons. Caught in the middle, young Angelene holds the key to bringing both Talmadge and Della to the peace for which they so desperately yearn. Coplin's transcendent prose elevates tragedy to elegy in this hymn to the vanished Arcadia of the American West.
River of Smoke
River of Smoke was actually published in late 2011, but it was just too good not to mention in this roundup; consider it a holiday bonus. By turns tragic and savagely funny, this sequel to the mesmerizing Sea of Poppies proves that the war on drugs and the dark side of globalization are nothing new. In the 19th century, Western opium merchants made a killing enslaving the Chinese to this highly addictive drug. In 1838, China succeeded very briefly in banishing foreign opium traders from the port of Canton (now Guangzhou). River of Smoke captures the mounting pressures and foment in the foreign trading community that lead up to the Opium Wars. At the center of a dazzlingly multicultural cast of characters is the Parsee merchant Bahram Modi, who has sailed from Bengal with his biggest opium shipment ever only to find that the Chinese have closed their ports. As the crisis deepens, his existence becomes as surreal as an opium dream. Stuck in Fanqui Town, the enclave for foreign traders, he is trapped between haunting memories of his dead Chinese mistress and his increasingly fraught negotiations with British and American magnates who are willing to sacrifice everything, even the lives of their Chinese business partners, to go on selling opium — all in the name of free trade. If you haven't read Sea of Poppies, don't worry; River of Smoke works brilliantly as a stand-alone novel.
These six novels allow the past to shine in all its complicated glory. Voices long silenced sing in our ear, revealing their secrets and ensuring that history's treasures enrich and inform our present.
Mary Sharratt lives in Lancashire, England. The author of five historical novels, she also reviews and writes author profiles for Historical Novels Review. Her most recent book is Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen.