As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I always love the real history behind the stories and often read ‘around’ the novels I’ve enjoyed. No surprise then, that this post from Bookbub was right up my street:
If you click on the photo, you can read the article and see 9 well-known historical novels paired with a non-fiction counterpart. You’ll see The Paris Wife on there, a book I really enjoyed a few years ago. It’s paired with Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I did read that after finishing The Paris Wife, as well as The Sun Also Rises and as I’d never read Hemingway before, I’m happy to say I got an extra benefit from picking up Paula McLain’s novel.
Of course this got me thinking about my own book pairings. I have a shelf of research books for each novel so choosing just one is not easy, but if I had to do it, here’s how I’d pair each of my 3 books to date:
Find out more about Charlatan here, and The Affair of the Poisons here.
And about The Road to Newgate here and The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey here.
And finally take a look at The Girl Puzzle here and Nellie Bly, Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist here.
I’m SO tempted now to post a photo of the main non-fiction source for my current work in progress…. but I’m holding that back, at least for now 😉
Sometimes in book-related Facebook groups I’ve seen posts with many comments about whether people read one book at a time or multiple books. I’ve always thought I was in the former category – always having a book on the go, but only one book at a time. Not right now though. It’s partly COVID-19, but also partly format/content related. Here’s the books I’m juggling this week:
I have to tell you, I am loving this book! The story is told by different characters – a teenager, Lily, who doesn’t speak because of a past trauma; Flo, her best friend; and Grace who is (so far anyway) the villain of the piece.
A teenage girl is murdered. The question is why?
This is a real page-turner, slickly written and fast-moving. I love books where you get thrown in with the characters and their back-stories and motivations get slowly revealed as you follow the action.
I’m also reading (on a much more relaxed schedule!) 18 Tiny Deaths: the Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics. I first came across Lee a few years ago when my mum and I took a trip to D.C. to go to an exhibition of “The Nutshells of Unexplained Death.” The nutshells are dollhouse models of crime scenes. This might not be everyone’s idea of a mother/daughter outing, but if you know me and my mum at all, you will not be surprised. Mum has always made dollhouses and we both love crime! The 18 houses or dioramas we saw were built by Lee and her assistant when she was in her sixties. They were used to educate detectives on crime scene and are quite incredible in their detail and realism. This book – highly readable and well researched, tells Frances Glessner Lee’s whole story and for anyone who, like me, likes to learn about amazing women from the past, it is just excellent!
So far so good with the book juggling. But then I’m also listening Far From the Madding Crowd on audio loan from my local library. Here’s where I admit that despite doing English at university, I have managed to live my life without reading any book by Thomas Hardy or even watching any tv/movie adaptation.
It’s going to take me a while to get through it. Audio book time is reserved for gardening and dog walking and it’s very warm here so dog walks are on the wane and sweaty gardening is only happening in short stints. But I am enjoying it so far. Farmer Gale is rather charmingly naive and Bathsheba Everdene (ooh – Hunger Games connection?)’s rejection of his proposal had me chuckling.
These are 3 very different kettles of fish/book and I think that’s the only reason I can have them all on the same go at the same time. What’s your experience of book juggling? Does it work for you?
I was a big fan of Lisa Wingate’s last book, Before We Were Yours – about the scandalous adoption agency run by Georgia Tann in the 1940s – and jumped at the chance to review her new book for the Historical Novel Society.
So this is not a review – because that’s for the HNS magazine – but instead its a taster of some of the history behind the story in The Book of Lost Friends.
This is a dual timeline novel, set in Augustine, Louisiana in 1875 and 1987. The earlier story concerns a young woman, born into slavery, called Hannie Gossett. Hannie is eighteen in 1875, but when she was six her family were sent to Texas for the duration of the Civil War. Enter a scurrilous nephew of Hannie’s owners who sells off the slaves as they travel, separating Hannie from her eight siblings and mother. Now eighteen, Hannie is free, but still tied to the Gossett family, trying to earn a portion of land. All of her family members are still missing.
Here’s the real-life Lost Friends advertisement, written by a woman called Caroline Flowers, that inspired Wingate’s story about Hannie. It’s chilling to read and think about people being treated like objects in this way, not to mention the longing and uncertainty they endured not knowing what had happened to their relatives.
One way these individuals tried to find answers was by advertising. The Lost Friends database, where Wingate found and was inspired by this and other stories, is a project run by The Historic New Orleans Collection – a website to lose yourself in for a few hours if ever there was one.
Within that, The Lost Friends database is an easily searchable record of nearly 2500 advertisements placed in the Southwestern Christian Advocate (a methodist newspaper published in New Orleans and distributed to preachers, post-offices and thousands of individual subscribers) between 1879 and 1900.
Many advertisements are much shorter than Caroline Flowers’, but all have the same polite and restrained sense of yearning for answers. And of course they are not lost friends being sought here, but real, flesh and blood, lost families. Written by sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles – each one is a real human story of loss and suffering. Here’s just one that caught my eye with the poignant lines, “I left two or three other sisters behind, but I can not think of their names. I was small when I left…”
I’m still reading The Book of Lost Friends so I don’t know how Hannie’s fictional journey to find her lost family will turn out. But I’m now interested in reading this book:
In it, Heather Andrea Williams “follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion.”
I’m reading The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel right now and one of my favorite characters across the trilogy is the painter Hans, the younger Holbein. Throughout the books, Hans is busy painting portraits and I thought it would be fun to bring together the paintings referenced in the novels.
One of my favourite parts of Wolf Hall is when Thomas Cromwell gets to look at his own portrait, as painted by his good friend Hans. Perhaps he might have felt a bit better about it if he had looked at Hans’ self-portrait too. As it is, Cromwell has to content with himself with his son, Gregory’s casual surprise that his father hasn’t always known he has the face of a murderer.
By book 3, Gregory is old enough to be married and his busy father pairs him up with no less than Queen Jane’s sister, Elizabeth. Here they are:
Which takes me to other royal women. Here’s a Holbein sketch believed to be Anne Boleyn and his portrait of Henry’s fourth wife (for all of six months) Anne of Cleves. Now I am only on p579, but I’m pretty sure this portrait will rate a mention before the story is complete.
Anne of Cleves
And what about Henry, the ‘mirror and the light’ I believe (or at least the mirror anyway… Cromwell might be the light. Again, I’ve not finished the book yet.) Here he is in all his familiar glory…
Holbein’s time spent painting this next picture (or as it was then, mural, on the walls of Whitehall) also comes up in The Mirror and the Light. Even though the original (as well as the portrait of Henry above) was destroyed by a fire in Whitehall in 1698, thankfully there was a strong tradition of copying famous and well-loved images. Here then is a copy of Holbein’s mural of Henry and Jane, imagined with Henry’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
But where I started all this today, was with a description in the novel of Holbein painting of someone who is barely a character at all. Meeting the new French ambassador, Marillac, Cromwell mentions a previous ambassador, Dinteville, now disgraced. He “thinks of the ambassador, muffled in his furs, splendid as Hans painted him: the broken lute string, the skull badge he retained in his cap.” Here he is on the left:
With under 200 pages to go, I wonder how much more I will hear or see of Hans Holbein? If anything comes up, I’ll be sure to come back and update this post!
….. and I’m back! I flew through the last chapters and have a couple more Holbein portraits to add for the record. First here’s Christina of Denmark (also somewhat confusingly to my mind, the Duchess of Milan) who Henry seems to favour in looks over Anne of Cleves. Not sure I’m seeing what he was seeing but you can make your own mind up…
Christina of Denmark
Anne of Cleves
And lastly here’s Henry’s son Edward, whose painting gets a mention when it is presented to the King as a gift. Yet another incredible painting!
Okay. New week, new plan. Every Monday I’m going to post something about a book I want to read/want to recommend/have on my mind.
And so I’m kicking off with a new piece I have up on the Historical Novel Society website, based on a Q&A I was lucky enough to do with historical novelist Stacey Halls. I’ve read both Hall’s books now and am a definite fan. There are so many great books about these days, but I’d put her very high on my list of go-to authors. The Lost Orphan (The Foundling in the UK) is one of my favourite books so far this year.
Forced to abandon your child into public care with only a token and a number to trace them again by, what token might you choose?
You can read my write up by clicking here:But here is the full set of my questions and Stacy’s answers:
What was the original spark for the novel?
I get my story ideas from places, and this one came to me when I visited the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London. I wasn’t looking for a story idea – in fact I’d just finished the first draft of The Familiars the week before – but I was so moved by the museum and the concept of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 1730s for babies at risk of abandonment. I was particularly moved by the tokens left by mothers who hoped one day to claim their children – they were like secret deposits that only the mothers knew about, and would describe to prove their identity if they ever found themselves in a position to claim their son or daughter however many months or years down the line. They are all worthless objects like scraps of fabric, coins, playing cards, made priceless because of their significance; they were the only things connecting the mothers with their children. The idea came to me to write about a woman who has saved enough to buy her baby back, as a fee was payable for the care the child had received at the hospital – only to be told her daughter has already been claimed.
You have two very different narrators, both flawed in some ways. How did they come to be and how do they help you explore themes of motherhood, nature v nurture etc?
I’m not a writer who dreams up a character and feels compelled to write a story about him or her – all my characters develop from my story idea, or rather I create them to fit into the story. The problem is then they do take on a life of their own – I feel as though all my characters, particularly my main ones, have their own souls, and don’t always do what I want them to, and they often surprise me. I knew that the two narrators in The Foundling – Bess and Alexandra – had to be very different, each providing different things for their daughters. Bess is straightforward and Alexandra complicated, exhibiting characteristics we would now associate with mental health disorders including OCD, PTSD and agoraphobia. Saying that, she was the easier one for me to write; I felt as though she was channeling me and I was just a medium for her voice. I’ve never written anyone quite like her before.
Historical fiction is sometimes criticized for a lack of diversity in its characters but you have people of colour and immigrants feature in this story. Was that a conscious decision, a natural result of your research, or a bit of both?
A bit of both. I wanted the London in the book to reflect the London I live in now, and the city in the Georgian period was just as diverse as it is now. It was a few decades before mass immigration, but I think there’s a preconception that London was white until 1945, and that’s just not the case.
This is such a vivid picture of mid 18th century London. Did you have any research highlights?
Loads! London has taken on many personalities in its lifetime but the Georgian city was particularly rich, with new wealth from the empire and overseas trading. The book might have been set 250 years ago but there’s so much that we would recognise: the theatre, gin, magazines, hot chocolate, shopping. But as well as that, it was also a place of crushing poverty that led directly to high mortality – in London, 75% of children died before their fifth birthday. It was also much smaller then, with a population of about 750,000 at the turn of the 18th century – it’s ten times that size now – and its boundary was much smaller. Where the Foundling Hospital was located in Bloomsbury was the very edge of the city, with countryside beyond, and Lambeth (where I live) was completely rural.
The book is called The Lost Orphan in the US and The Foundling in the UK. Do you have a view on that, or a preference of one over the other?
The Foundling was the working title of the novel while I was writing it, and was changed for the American market because I think the word foundling is less known there.
You have jumped period from The Familiars – early 17th century – to mid 18th. What’s next?
My third novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, which feels like a huge leap forwards in terms of modernity – they had cars and phones then, so it feels almost contemporary to me!
Reading this book and chatting with Stacey made me really want to visit the Foundling Museum in London. I love these tokens and the part they play in the novel.
Thanks for joining me for my first Monday Bookishness post! Have you read The Lost Orphan/The Foundling? What did you think? Any views on the different titles and cover styles? I’m leaning toward the American version on this one…