My 3 Favourite Historical Novels, by Jane Johnson
In a recent interview I was asked to name my favourite historical novel of all time. That’s such a hard question to answer when you’re put on the spot. Could you answer that without hesitation? I couldn’t – books were queuing in my head to be first out of my mouth.
So I decided for this post to pick my three favourite historical novels. It’s not an easy task, and the choice might be different next week. I’m not claiming these are the best ever written or of outstanding literary value, but those that have been most influential on me as a reader and as a writer. Here goes:
Avalon by Anya Seton
Anya Seton was an American author of historical romances, or as she preferred to call them ‘biographical novels’, and my favourite, Avalon, was published in 1965. I borrowed it from the library when I was about 15. It seemed really steamy to me then: I read the more thrilling parts of it over and over again. I haven’t revisited it, but I remember certain scenes very clearly even now. Merewyn is a young woman growing up in 10th century Cornwall, a wild and savage place, but she is carried off first to France and then farther afield by Viking raiders. The epic action ranges far and wide: to the eastern shores of America, Iceland and Greenland.
It is vivid, epic, gritty and romantic all at once, and probably played no small part (quite unconsciously) in inspiring parts of The Salt Road. Curiously, Mariata shares with Merewyn noble ancestry at which others scoff: Merewyn traces her roots back to 5th century King Arthur, Mariata to the 4th century founder of the Tuareg peoples, Tin Hinan. Both ancestors are semi-mythical. Both women make epic journeys away from the familiar, though my Mariata makes hers of her own volition and on her own. Romance, raids, rape, violence and contrasting cultures feature in both novels. Looking back on my early, formative reading it’s clear that for a writer everything we read mulches down into our imaginative store to be drawn on subliminally in later life.
Be that as it may, Avalon is not only one of my favourites but I find is also hailed by Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir and Kate Mosse – which is rather disconcerting, since I thought it was my secret book.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier
I grew up in the Cornish town of Fowey, where du Maurier also lived and I played out many of my first fictions in the form of little plays and dramatised stories on the beach in front of the cottage she rented before moving to the grand house at Menabilly, reputed to be the setting for her best-known novel, Rebecca. Frenchman’s Creek is often dismissed as her most lightweight novel: even du Maurier felt it was ‘frivolous’. I think those critics are wrong.
Jaded noblewoman Lady Dona St Columb, bored with the dissolute Restoration court, returns to her neglected Cornish estate at Navron, only to find it is being used as a base by dashing French pirate, Captain Jean-Benoit Aubery, who has long been terrorising the Cornish coast. Of course, they fall madly, dangerously, in love. On the face of it, it’s a classic historical romance, but trust me, du Maurier is never that crass.
Again, this is a novel I read in my teens, and so therefore it hit the mark hard. Apart from influencing me as a writer, I rather suspect it has had a hand in shaping my entire concept of romance. It was another Cornish pirate story – Barbary raiders abducting people from Penzance – that formed the basis of my first historical novel The Tenth Gift and carried me to Morocco for the research that ended with my marrying my own ‘Berber pirate’…
The Persian Boy by Mary Renault
For me, Mary Renault will always be the Queen of historical fiction. She is simply the best writer there has ever been in the field, though her star has fallen a little nowadays, for fiction always moves in waves of fashion, and detailed, immersive, meticulously researched writing is less in vogue in this more shallow modern age, it seems to me. But if you are not swayed by fashion, I urge you to read her: no one, but no one, writes such persuasively authentic historical work. She is best known for her Theseus novels, but for me there is nothing to beat The Persian Boy: a sumptuous, tender portrait of Bagoas, captured as a boy by his family’s enemies sold to the great king Darius, castrated and trained up as a courtesan in the Persian court. When Alexander the Great defeats the Persians, Bagoas finds himself working for this charismatic, golden young conqueror, and much against his will and his training falls profoundly in love with him. Powerful, delicate, tempestuously emotional, it’s a gorgeously personal portrait of Alexander, and the best possible way to learn the history of the time, since Renault was an extraordinary scholar and still the best writer of battle scenes I’ve ever read.
I took – I hope – a lot of pointers from her in the portrayal of my own eunuch protagonist, Nus-Nus, treading his fine and dangerous line between the poisonous pitfalls of the 17th century Moroccan court of Sultan Moulay Ismail in The Sultan’s Wife: a novel also entirely based on factual history but using a fictional central character through which to vector the view of famous figures such as the Bloody Sultan himself and King Charles II.
I’d love to know what your all-time favourite historical novels are, and why:
Jane Johnson’s author website: www.janejohnsonbooks.com
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