Since becoming a History Girl I have thought a lot about what made me so interested in history, and have indulged readers’ patience with memories of school, family and ephemera. But as in so much else the real culprit was of course – reading!
As a very young reader I often didn’t know the difference between historical and contemporary fiction. Not because I was stupid but because, as a child reader in the seventies, I was usually reading books published much earlier, whenever they were set. I didn’t think to check publication dates; I accepted that book-land was a strange foreign space. When characters pressed button A to make a phone call, or did School Cert or Matric, I thought this might just be how things were in England. I didn’t know if it was the story or the book that was old-fashioned. I didn’t care; I just loved the stories.
I adored the Chalet School, with their bright Armada dust wrappers, and it was only when I found a 1920s hardback that I realised how old the early stories actually were. Later, I got wiser, and devoured Flambards and Little House on the Prairie understanding that they looked back at an earlier era; and knew that Little Women wasn’t just about the 1860s, but actually written then.
I wouldn’t have grown up to write historical fiction if I hadn’t loved reading it, and I asked some other writers and bookish folk about their own memories of reading historical fiction. Which led, as these things often do, to healthy debate.
I loved Carrie’s War – it was so spooky, but Keren David remembers hating it. ‘I think it was because there was vomiting,’ Keren says. ‘I couldn't even read about vomiting at that age.’ (I, who once got into trouble at school for describing her plague victims too graphically, had no such scruples.) Bryony Pearce, like me, loved it, and cites it as one of the books, along with Eagle Of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe ‘that inspired me so much as a young teen.’
Emma Pass and Eve Ainsworth loved that other evacuation classic, Goodnight Mister Tom, though everyone who mentioned that book recalled how traumatic it was. ‘Goodnight Mr Tom upset me so much I couldn't sleep for weeks. I would never recommend that book to a child - it's SO upsetting,’ Ruth Warburton says.
World War Two has been the setting for many children’s classics. Rae Earl and Emma Pass remember Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners. ‘When I was in Year 6, I remember my teacher, Miss Burnett, reading it out loud to us - a chapter every day,’ Emma says. ‘I was utterly captivated; the story brought WW2 to life for me in a way nothing else had up to that point.’ Hilary Freeman loved The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. This was a favourite of mine too: the scene I always remember is the little school the children established in the ruins. I was a great player-of-schools and reader of school stories, and this captivated me more than the adventurous parts of the story. I have to admit, when writing my 1916-set Name Upon Name, the school scenes were the ones I found easiest.
Jo Nadin loved Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier: ‘I read it far too young probably - hocked it off my grandma's bookshelf in Cornwall one wet winter - but became obsessed by the idea of being a lonely but daring aristocrat in a remote Cornish mansion, falling in love with a French pirate.’
Keren David’s favourite was Masha by Mara Kay. ‘The story of a 19th century Russian girl sent to boarding school in St Petersburg for nine years. Every detail and character felt real. Later I found out how accurate it was down to the characters. It gave me an enduring love of Russian history and when I visited Moscow two years ago I saw so much that brought Masha and her world to life. Still my favourite book.’ It’s Luisa Plaja’s favourite too.
Eve Harvey mentions Katherine by Anya Seton. ‘My favourite book of all time, which I reread at least once a year because I will never tire of it. Utterly epic and totally swoonworthy!’ Leila Rasheed also liked Anya Seton, especially Derwentwater but thinks her favourite historical novel growing up was ‘the ghostly and gorgeous A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley.’
Rhian Ivory’s ‘favourite when younger was Jean Plaidy. The Lady in the Tower was probably the first historical fiction title I ever read and I reread it until it fell apart and had to be mended with tape. This was the start of my obsessive relationship with Anne Boleyn, which led me to study C16th History so I have Jean Plaidy to thank for that.’ Keren David and Emma Pass also loved Plaidy.
I'd love other History Girls and readers of this blog to share the historical novels they grew up with.