Saturday 9 July 2016

The Best Historical Novel Ever Written?

by Caroline Lawrence

‘Be careful what you read; a book can change your life.’

That is how I often start my presentation when I talk to schoolchildren about my historical novels set in Ancient Rome.  

For some people, the inciting incident of their life – the moment that set them on their life’s journey – was an inspirational teacher. For others it might be a field trip to a place that inspired them. Or watching a documentary on TV. 

For me it was a book read on my gap year. 

Mary Renault’s historical novel The Last of the Wine didn’t just spark my interest in Classical Greece, it captured my imagination. It made me long with all my heart to travel back in a time machine to see if the ancient world really was like that. 

But I didn’t need a time machine. 

The book was a time machine. 

Because of this book, I majored in Classics at U.C. Berkeley.

Because of this book, I came to England to study Classical Archaeology and ended up making my life here. 

Because of this book, I have spent the past twenty years writing books set in the ancient world, trying to do for others what Mary Renault did for me.

s how this book changed my life. 

I have praised this masterpiece of historical fiction elsewhere, but as the History Girls have been asked to write about a favourite historical novel for our five year anniversary, I thought I would put down half a dozen short excerpts from it, just for the joy of sharing them. 

In the past I would have grabbed my battered copy and opened anywhere to find a passage of brilliance, but today I have been listening to the long-awaited audiobook. These are a few of the passages jumped out at me as I walked the streets of London. They illustrate the way Renault uses her scholarship, her imagination and the five senses to put you right in the world of fifth century Greece. 

The wind from the north blew our hair from our brows, and streamed our garments out behind us. The air was clear, keen and filled with light. It seemed to us that at our command the wind would have lifted us like eagles, that our home was the sky. We joined our hands; they were cold, so that in clasping them we felt the bone within the flesh. 

(Chapter 10)

On this he paused and drew his brows together, as if trying to recall what it was he had omitted. When his forehead wrinkled, the legs of the horse which was branded on it seemed to move. 

It had been a way of mine since childhood to throw back my head when I was angry. I did this now, and felt a strangeness; I was used to the weight of my hair and it had gone. It was as if a hand had been laid on me as if to say Remember you are a man. 

At home I had found laid out on my bed my man’s mantle which my mother had woven ready a long time back. It smelt of the sweet herbs she kept her dresses in. 

(chapter 16)

There is still a good way to climb on Acrocorinth after you have passed the walls. Being so high, the place is not so thronged as our own High City; it was quiet: so that one could hear the bees in the asphodel, the little clappers of the mountain goats and a shepherd piping.

At last voices approached; Sostratos stood in the doorway, speaking to someone over his shoulder. The ribbons tied on him made him look like a bull going to sacrifice. 

(chapter 17)

Reading passages like these inspire me to put myself in the world I’m creating: to go to that creative, meditative, inspirational place deep within, and let my subconscious tell me what is happening. 

This is the magic of writing historical fiction.

This is the closest I will ever get to time travel. 

Caroline Lawrence’s newest series is The Roman Quests, set in Roman Britain at the end of the first century A.D. 


Joan Lennon said...

Bravo! My first Mary Renault was The King Must Die and it had just that power for me too.

Ann Turnbull said...

And for me! I love them all. The King Must Die was the first one I read. And I've got an old, tanned copy of The Bull from the Sea on my shelves, and I daren't open it because I know if I read the opening paragraph I won't be able to stop...

Marjorie said...

I love her books! I think that 'the last of the wine' was the first I read.

Caroline Lawrence said...

I like them all, but I think she put so much more into The Last of the Wine, as often is the way with the first book of a new concept.

Anonymous said...

Caroline! My daughter is obsessed with the Roman Mysteries at the moment, and I am still obsessed with Mary Renault. It's because of her I wanted to write historical fiction. THe Last of the Wine is also my favourite - and I reread it every few years, or if I'm feeling low. I love them all, though. I reviewed a couple recently for Times books when they were re-issued, including The Charioteer, her Plato-infused WW1 book - very worth a read if you haven't)
The only one I haven't read is the third Alexander - I pick it up every few years, and am too distraught that her Alexander is dead, and Bagoas is destroyed, to carry on reading past the first chapter. All her books remind me of what it was like to read as a child - with a passionate absorption that speaks of the soul. (A bit like my eldest and Flavia et al!) Sorry, this is long, but Renault is so important to me, and I loved your post!

Anonymous said...

.... Sorry, meant to say - I have three editions of Last of the Wine - including the one you're holding!