Historical Novel Summer: From Tolstoy to Jean Plaidy to Gore Vidal & More

Sometimes I feel like indulging in a truly trashy historical novel summer.

Even writers of the most literary historical novels spin tales about sensational events and larger-than-life characters.

wolf hall bring up the bodies hmantelAnd why not?  There is nothing more fun than hanging out with historical characters.  Take the Tudors.  I love the Tudors.  A few years ago, after much protesting and resistance,  I finally read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  I was intrigued by her story of Thomas Cromwell, the Chief Minister/lackey of Henry VIII. And do I get Booker bonus points if  I read the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies?

murder most royal plaidy 51gFaxck1VLThen there is Jean Plaidy.  Yes, I like to go from the high to the middlebrow.  I have enjoyed Jean Plaidy’s  Tudor series, which consists of nine novels.  Jean Plaidy was a pseudonym of Eleanor Hibbert, who also wrote Gothic novels under the name Victoria Holt. As Plaidy, she penned historical novels about the Tudors, the Stuarts, Catherine De Medici, the French Revolution, and more.

Heyer the convenient marriage 0-373-83445-4On the other hand, I might prefer to devote myself to the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer.  They are witty, well-written, and well-plotted, and the heroines are spunky gals who live for more than marriage.  Some of them gamble and hang out with rakes.  And I do adore going out in public with a novel with a cover like the pink edition of The Convenient Marriage.  It gives everyone the wrong idea.  All right, I admit Sourcebooks has reissued Heyer’s books with more respectable covers.

Derby Day Taylor AmericanIf you like pseudo-Victorian novels, you will enjoy D. J. Taylor’s historical novel, Derby Day, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.  Set in Victorian England, this entertaining novel describes the double dealings and crimes revolving around a horse favored for the Epsom Derby. In the prequel,  Kept, Taylor peppers a traditional narrative with a fictional diary of George Eliot’s, the musings of a mad woman in an attic, the double-dealings of out-of-pocket Londoners who turn to crime,  and The Great Train Robbery.

war-and-peace-briggs-bigMy favorite historical novel is Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Forget the length:  War and Peace is a page-turner. The plot revolves around Russian life at the beginning of the 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia.  It has all the elements of the most entrancing fiction:  romance, elopement, gambling, parties, balls, aristocratic society in Moscow and Petersburg  fortunetelling, battles, and the fall of Moscow.

ross poldark graham 51NbqPxH4XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The  BBC remake of Poldark  will be shown on PBS  starting this  Sunday.  It is based on the first two books of Winston Graham’s Poldark series, Ross Poldark and Demelza..  The hero, Ross Poldark , a veteran of the Revolutionary War (on the Brisish side),  returns to Cornwall to find his father is dead and his girlfriend engaged to his cousin.  Though brooding and disappointed, he is dashing, passionate, radical, brave, and a proponent of social justice–every woman’s ideal.  And we all adore Demelza, the scruffy girl in boys’ clothes whom he saves from a fight at the market and many years later marries.  There is also much detail about the mining business and the lower classes.

Julian Gore Vidal 51WlI3fKjjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Gore Vidal’s Julian  is a stunning take on Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century emperor who tried to stop the spread of Christianity.

Augustus williams productimage-picture-augustus-436John Williams is best-known for Stoner, but he won the National Book Award for his brilliant novel, Augustus, about Julius Caesar’s heir , who became arguably the most powerful Roman emperor.  The novel is told in letters, despatches, and memoirs.

Kristin Lavransdatter 516HWD3P20L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Nobel Prize-winning Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavrandatter is one of my favorites, a trilogy about a woman in medieval Norway who, after a youthful passion, marries her rakish, charming, but careless lover and struggles to manage his neglected household  and raise her children as good Christians.

Have you ever seen a trashier cover?

Have you ever seen a trashier cover?

Sergeanne Golon’s best-selling Angelique series, recommended by a librarian friend long ago, cheered me up during a ghastly week in a cabin that had no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.  To quote Goodreads, this French series “begins in 1648 during a time of insurrection, terror and revolt in a divided France….[Angelique] is one of the most irresistible heroines in the history of fiction. Her stormy adventures have taken her from the gutters of Paris to the harems of Africa to the silken prison of a King. Angelique has loved, intrigued, hated and fought her way into the hearts of million of readers all over the world.”  Unfortunately, these old paperbacks are very expensive–and out of print–so I have no idea if they are as good as I thought they were.  (On a par with the Poldark books.)

9 thoughts on “Historical Novel Summer: From Tolstoy to Jean Plaidy to Gore Vidal & More

  1. I used to read many, many more historical books in my younger years, but not so much now. The modern ones don’t gel, somehow (I read a good piece on a blog about how the characters and language are out of keeping with the setting so often). But I will read War and Peace one day!

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  2. Thanks for reminding me how many good historical novels there are. I have enjoyed several you mention and am now reading my way through the Poldark series (4 down, 8 to go) and expecting to watch the remake on TV.

    If you want to go way back, then I recommend the books of Mary Renault about ancient Greece: The Last of the Wine, The King Must Die, and others.

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    • Mary Renault is wonderful. I read Fire from Heaven a few years ago and loved it. And yet I forgot to mention her! Thanks for the reminder.

      I hope to get to the Poldark books. They are so much fun! Winston Graham was a very good writer.

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  3. I thought ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ was an even better book than ‘Wolf Hall’ and I can’t wait for the third in the series to appear although I know that we are going to have to wait sometime for that because Mantel has been so involved in the adaptations for the stage and television.

    I didn’t watch the remake of Poldark because I had so much loved the earlier version. However, they were very well reviewed and became compulsive viewing for many so I think you’ll enjoy them.

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    • I have heard nothing but good about Bring Up the Bodies. I often wait to read a book because I have a certain resistance to popular books. I will look forward to this now! (( missed the costume drama, so it feels like an “old” book.)

      The first Poldark was perfection. I hope I’ll enjoy this one. These costume dramas bring the books to attentions, and I think that’s the best thing!

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  4. Most of those you’ve cited are far from trash: they are only said to be, stigmatized because historical novels used to be connected to women’s historical romance. No longer — but you do have to get a post-modern prize to be free of the stigma. Ross Poldark is a wonderful novel — as is Wolf Hall which I’m listening to a marvelous reading of in my car just now (by Simon Slater). Very hot here, Kathy.

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    • Oh, they are good! It’s just my way of joking. Even the Angelique books were quite good, as I remember. It is the covers…

      The Poldark books are masterpieces. I have reead Ross Poldard for the new TV series, which starts tomorrow. (I know you’ve already seen it.)

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