I’m at the Scattered Authors retreat this week, in lovely Charney Manor in Oxfordshire, a History Girl’s paradise. On Monday night I took part in a very enjoyable bookish version of Desert Island Discs, where castaways had to choose three books – a ‘classic’, a contemporary book and a ‘wild card’. It struck me, when it came time to think about my monthly post, that my choices all said a great deal about my love of history, though when I chose the books it was with no conscious awareness of that. So here they are for you, with some historical musings, and with thanks to Mary Hoffman (fellow panellist) for the idea!
1. Classic Children’s Book – Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild, 1936.
I love Ballet Shoes for its mix of grit and romance, for its three very different heroines, for the nuanced adult characters and the 1930s London setting. I first read it as a child in the 1970s, and knew immediately, when I read about the Fossils’ having to ‘save the penny and walk’, that I was in ‘the olden days’. At that age I wouldn’t have known exactly when in the olden days, because I don’t think I would have had the nous to check the date of first publication, but it didn’t matter. It was a world of nursery teas, omnibuses and genteel poverty. A world where your frock needed to match your knickers. Later I knew that this was the 1930s, and understood how shortly that inter-war period was to come to an end.
Ballet Shoes, of course, is not a historical novel – Noel Streatfeild was writing about her contemporary world, which was forty years in the past when I first read it, and eighty years ago now. My second choice was very different:
2. Contemporary Book – A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson, 2014
This is one of the best novels I have ever read, and is broadly historical – broad in that sense that its story encompasses about a century. It is, I suppose, a kind of family saga, except that suggests something much more conventional. A God in Ruins is structurally unconventional, moving backwards and forwards in time, and there is a conceit at its heart which I would not dream of spoiling for you which asks questions about the very nature of history and existence. Once again, as always, I loved the small material details, but unlike Noel Streatfeild, Kate Atkinson is looking back, particularly to the years around the Second World War.
Which leads neatly to my third choice:
3. Wild Card – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr, 197X
This is a very different kind of novel. It is historical – Judith Kerr was writing in the seventies about the thirties, but it is also based firmly on her own personal history. As in Ballet Shoes, we are in difficult circumstances, but here too the children are largely protected by heroic adults, in this case their parents. Once again, material things matter and help to bring the world to life – Anna having the right kind of pinafore for her French school, buying a pencil, travelling to Switzerland by train.
I thought I had chosen these books randomly. And, yes, on a different day I might have chosen three others. Only now do I see the links between them: they all write about a similar period, in very different ways. Between them I think they contain everything I love as a reader of fiction set in the past, and everything I strive for as a writer of historical fiction.
So – what would your Desert Island books be, and what might they say about you as a History Girl?