||[May. 8th, 2017|03:56 pm]
Because one of the pleasures of being on holiday is packing a big pile of books (yes, even though I have a Kindle; now I pack a big pile of books and my Kindle) and feeling justified in spending lots of time reading them. Our recent trip was a four-book holiday - and there's a hidden theme: when is a historical novel not a historical novel?
- Started before we set off: Ellen Phethean is a client, a poet and a publisher. Ren and the Blue Hands is her first prose novel, a fantasy of the sort which results when your imagination is sparked by historical events, but you don't want to be tied down by those events or that time in history. The events in this case being the upheavals in the dye trade in the sixteenth century, relocated to a small island that's a bit Mediterranean, a bit Cornish. Lady Lilac has chosen the heroine, Ren, as her new maid; it's unprecedented for a girl from the Dye Sheds, her hands stained blue by the dye, to become a lady's maid at the Hall, but Lady Lilac wants to improve the lives of the dyers and thinks Ren can help her.
The emotional heart of the book is not the inevitable romance, but the relationship between the autocratic lady and the spirited but inexperienced girl. The key question is, what policy is really best for the people of the island, and who gets to make that decision? I didn't entirely believe in the life of a lady's maid on this fantasy island: a room of her own, and time on her hands, free to visit her mother when she chooses. A smaller but constant niggle is the matter of names. Every other character in the book is named for something natural: Lilac, Rose, Bark, Moss. Ren's brother is Vetch, which of course made me think of Vetch in A Wizard of Earthsea (where the plant-name is only a 'use name, and not the character's true, secret name - but I digress). Why is (W)Ren the only exception?
The no-man's-land between fantasy and historical fiction isn't the easy option it might appear: Ren and the Blue Hands makes a very creditable debut. It's the first of a trilogy, but stands alone (or would, if the publisher hadn't included the first chapter of the sequel, a practice for which I have an unreasonable dislike).
- Noel Streatfeild's Mothering Sunday was a charity shop find shortly before we set off, and I was curious to find out what an adult novel by this excellent children's author might be like. Technically ambitious but not ultimately satisfying, I think. It didn't help that I had inadvertently spoilered myself: there is a mystery about the behaviour of Anna, the mother of the adult children who plan a surprise visit en masse on Mothering Sunday, to sort it out; I decide whether I want to read a book by opening it at a random page halfway through, and realised at once what was going on (though I might well have guessed - it is very strongly clued). Each chapter takes one of the characters, first Anna then each of her five children, and tells us about them through the eyes of those close - or maybe not so close - to them (and then the two final chapters bring the family together). The large cast all come to life - this is Noel Streatfeild, after all - but I'd rather have known more about fewer of them. The narrative goes to a lot of trouble to maintain mysteries: what has gone wrong for this character? and the solutions can be a bit pat.
This is not a historical novel: it is set at the time it was written. But since it was published in 1950, this makes it a post-war novel, and very consciously so: there are servants, there is rationing, there is the War (and the after-effects of the previous war). Some of the things it has to say about mothers and children (what they owe them, how they affect them) may also be of its time, but I think I'd need a second reading to sort that out. Bear that in mind when we get to book four, though.
- George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman was warmly recommended by a fellow member of the pub quiz team. He praised it as being extremely funny, and I can't be relied on where humour is concerned, but once again a charity shop thrust a copy into my hands, I read a few pages and decided it was worth a try. The humour of Flashman's bad character - his self-interest, his gibbering cowardice, his caddish disregard of the conduct expected of a gentleman - all that, as I had expected, left me cold. But his cynically witty narrative voice is very readable, and his account of the retreat from Kabul is fascinating (and, discounting his own part in it, horribly plausible). I knew the basic idea, to recount the later adventures of Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays, but was surprised both at the extent to which that fanfic element is sustained and at how well it works as an independent piece of historical fiction.
I've read a 'Flashman' novel now; I don't feel any need to read another one. But if things turned out that way, I wouldn't say no.
- sartorias recommended Mrs Gaskell's Wives and Daughters so persuasively that I trotted off to Gutenberg and provided myself with the fourth book of my holiday reading. It's a delightful read, which pulls off the clever trick of being completely absorbing while never leaving you in any doubt that the two central characters will be united in the end - so that even though Mrs Gaskell died before writing the final chapter, there's no sense of stepping off a cliff: I knew how it would end, as I had known for most of the book, I was just sorry that I wouldn't get to see it.
sartorias comments that when a new edition is published for modern readers, it will be called Sex Lives of Wives and Daughters, because - no, read for yourself what she has to say, you won't regret it. I don't entirely agree: certainly the only way I could read about the marriage of Dr and Mrs Gibson was to assume that they have no sex life whatsoever - any other possibility does not bear thinking about. But I sympathise with the desire to revise that title. The widowed doctor marries hastily and unwisely, to protect his daughter Molly from the impropriety of growing up in the all-male household of himself and a pair of student trainees. His new wife brings with her, eventually and reluctantly, a daughter from her previous marriage, whom she has hitherto neglected. So, a wife, and two contrasting daughters. But equally important to the narrative is the Hamley household, from which an invalid wife is rapidly excised, leaving the squire and his two contrasting sons. Parents and Children would be an equally valid title - or Secrets, for in each household, one of the children has a secret, and the effects of those secrets, which are at once very similar and very different, echo through the book.
For a Victorian novel that's concerned with contrasting pairs, it's remarkably unjudgmental. Mrs Gaskell makes it clear, I think, that one line of conduct is Right and one Wrong, and if it comes to that, that one sibling is Good - but this doesn't make the other Bad. She is more interested in what causes people to do the wrong thing, and how those causes can be avoided. Cynthia, in particular, is a delightful and sympathetic character, and she is extracted from her scrapes (by no virtue of her own, other than the charm which makes others want to help her) and even allowed to marry an entirely eligible husband whom she seems to prefer to the much more attractive man she rejects.
And this, too, is a historical novel, published in the 1860s but set "five-and-forty years ago". Mrs Gaskell takes care to remind her readers that this was before the passing of the Reform Bill, before the coming of the railways, when the sending and receiving of letters was expensive enough to be regarded as an extravagance. This enables her to remove her hero from the action by sending him off to explore Africa, and - mild spoiler - found his career on doing so, so making an irrelevance of the inheritance which would have been the dtiving force of other Victorian plots. It's a long, steady read, and I was still deep in it when I returned home (and once I'd finished it, I was ready for more Mrs Gaskell, so that's not a bad thing).
This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.