Monday 6 February 2017

The Books That Make History Girls -- and other kinds of girls

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.

 Sophia Bennett loved The Children of the New Forest, as did Hilary Freeman: ‘I remember being on the side of the Cavaliers, but I think that's just because I liked their hairstyles.’

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. 

 Laura Wilkins loved anything by Mary Renault, ‘though The King Must Die is the more YA suitable one. She's still one of my most beloved reads. They're all set in Ancient Greece and are so beautifully written, as well as being fairly tragic and sexy.’ This takes me back to where I started: my own reading. There’s a wonderful scene in Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term where Nicola Marlow gets into trouble for reading Renault’s The Mask Of Apollo, which the school authorities deemed unsuitable for the fourth form. And of course, in The Cricket Term, Forest references the events in the Marlows' past which inspired her own historical novels, The Player's Boy and The Players and the Rebels. 

I'd love other History Girls and readers of this blog to share the historical novels they grew up with. 


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Great food for thought post!
I didn't read historical fiction when in the junior school bracket of 5-11. My bag was either horses, Just William or fantasy and folk tales. My first forays into the historical world were contemporary to their own period. At around 11 or 12 I devoured the Iliad, Aeneid and Odyssey. Also Last of the Mohicans and Thackery's Vanity Fair. The historical novel heart hammer first hit with a slight fantasy crossover in Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave when I was around 13 and then Blood Brother by Elliott Arnold about Apache chief Cochise. As a teen I devoured historical fiction in all forms with a leaning toward adventure/romance, but I was a slow starter in the childhood stakes!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Lots of old, and abiding, loves in that list of books! But can I add Hester Burton's wonderfully written, and illustrated, books? And Barbara Willard, again wonderfully illustrated ... as were/are the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Bring back quality illustrations for historical novels so that we can see what things looked like!

Susan Price said...

At Primary age, Henry Treece's Viking Trilogy - and lots of other books by Treece and Rosemary Sutcliffe.
As a teen, I read my way through my mother's Georgette Heyers and my father's favourite, 'Northwest Passage.'
I think my absolute favourites were my mother's Norah Lofts books: the Old House trilogy, Jassy, Hester Roon, The Devil in Clevely.

Efrogwraig said...

Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliffe - everyone raves about Eagle of the 9th I think Simon was the best. And Hilda Lewis's The Gentle Falcon about the overthrow of Richard II.

AnnP said...

Jean Plaidy was the writer who first inspired my love of history and historical novels. Before that, like you, I loved the Chalet School books. When I was young though the paperbacks hadn't been published. I always went to that shelf first when I went to the library and I saved up birthday money to buy them - three presents of half crowns were needed as the books were usually 7/6.

Ann Turnbull said...

The first historical novel I remember reading was The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson - not his best work, but I was riveted by the drama and romance when I was about 9. I loved the Twins series by Lucy Fitch Perkins. Later I read and re-read Kidnapped. Ditto She by Rider Haggard (hardly history, but it had that long-ago feeling.) Later still, Jean Plaidy, Mary Renault, everything by Naomi Mitchison who seems to be quite forgotten now, Howard Fast, and in my later teens Howard Spring. But the one that made the most impression on me at about 14 was Sinuhe the Egyptian by Mika Waltari (a dire film was made of this, but fortunately I didn't see it back then.) Then there were the ones I missed as a child but discovered as an adult, the most loved being all the Barbara Willard novels.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Treece and Trease. The Gentle Falcon. A lot of other historicals whose names I've forgotten now..Yes, A Traveller in Time, and later on Mary Renault, Margaret Irwin. I also read Little Women, all the Katie books by Susan Coolidge, Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, Thomas Mann's magnificent story of a Luebeck merchant's family, Buddenbrooks, and the Jewish German author Else Ury's Nesthaekchen series (she was murdered in Auschwitz, but my mother kept the collection of all her books). Heidi. Does Orlando count as historical? I adored it, though as a child, there was much I didn't understand. Basically, I read historical whenever I could, and then went on to read actual history, and was outraged when historical novelists turned out to have deceived me. Though sometimes I found, later, that they hadn't. There really was a third Seymour brother between the Lord Protector and the Lord Admiral (the one who was executed for messing with Elizabeth Tudor when she was young. Margaret Irwin put her in Young Bess, but the historians I read just didn't think he was important enough to mention, which means I learned an important lesson about trusting historical sources (be wary).

Mefinx said...

She is rarely mentioned now but I read a good few Norah Lofts novels and loved them - particularly The Town House, The House At Old Vine and The House At Sunset, which chronicled a large house from the 14th to the 20th Centuries. I also remember Hester Burton and Sheena Porter's wonderful novels for what we'd now call the YA demographic - "Time of Trial" and "Nordy Bank" particularly, with their VIctor Ambrus illustrations.