Another dreary Monday which means only one thing – I remember that ‘Making Up For Monday‘, a weekly meme created by Tiffany at An Avid Reader, exists and I gladly riff off this week’s prompt which is:
What is your favourite book set in the past?
Taking a look at my favourites shelf on Goodreads will illustrate that most of the books I read tend to be set in the past for an obvious reason – they were written in the past. Therefore I’m not sure how many of them could actually count as ‘historical fiction’, since roughly speaking they depicted the time in which they were written, give or take a decade or so (i.e. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion by Jane Austen, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley). However, there are a couple of obvious themes I can spot from the other favourites on that shelf and they fall into the following categories: books “about” World War I and II; Shakespeare’s history plays; Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.
When it comes to the World Wars, literature is often a useful jumping off point to try to conceptualise such a significant historical moment. The poetry of WWI and II is frequently taught in schools, and I know we focused on figures like Sassoon and Owen during A Level studies, by reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and a poetry anthology which included the famous ‘Dulce et decorum est’ and so on. I’m not much of a historian, never have been, but I love learning about history through stories. If history textbooks were written as narratives, I’d have paid much more attention in school, to be honest; I’m terrible with facts and figures, I’m good with quotes and concepts. Because of this, I found both Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief equally heartbreaking for very different reasons.
The former is a look at WWI through the journey of Stephen Wraysford, an Englishman who stays with a family in Amiens and falls in love with Isabelle, the lady of the house, who is in an unhappy marriage. The two dangerously start a relationship whilst the world is on the brink of war, and obviously it all goes wrong from there. It’s about sex and love and violence and death in that way that the polar opposites of sex and death seem to be so entwined in literature. It’s beautiful, and the descriptions of WWI battlefields are so grotesquely chilling that it’s truly an unforgettable read.
Secondly, there is Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief which I feel needs no introduction but, essentially, we look at WWII as told by Death. It follows Liesel, a young German girl fostered by a couple who later hide a Jewish man in their basement. It’s about friendship and love and books and it’s one of those bittersweet reads that will make you weep, a lot, at the same time as adoring the prose. It’s beautifully written and it has a lovely message, summed up in its final line.
I’d always been a fan of Shakespeare, from reading Much Ado About Nothing in Year 9, 10, and 11 (what can I say, they stuck with it in my school) and loving it, to reading Romeo and Juliet and having some… interesting opinions about it (I hated it and told a Cambridge lit professor I did in an interview, whoops), to reading Macbeth and just being amazed at the crescendo of events in that particular infamous Scottish play. When I went to university I ended up discovering a deeper penchant for early modern, including a surprise interest in the likes of John Donne and early modern outlaws, but Shakespeare was always involved for me.
I particular enjoy some of Shakespeare’s “history plays” which have gone on to become some of my favourite “books” (shh I’m counting them) ever: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry V. After reading Richard III this year I think I’d even recommend that. Summed up by the phrase “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”, all of these examples seek to humanise and, conversely, fictionalise historical figures. Some of Shakespeare’s characterisations have become so enmeshed with the public perception of these figures that it’s difficult to conceptualise them without being influenced by Shakespeare’s play of the same name – looking at you, Richard III. If you don’t have the patience for reading plays I’d at least recommend watching the BBC’s wonderful The Hollow Crown miniseries which was wonderful, Richard II in particular is beautiful.
And finally, Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine must have a category to itself because I’m not even quite sure what it is. Equal parts historical, pulp, science fiction, it’s a mish-mash of different genres and I love it for it. I wrote this and this review to try to puzzle out why I enjoyed it so much but I think, in the end, I have to say I enjoyed it because it took a playful look at early modern society from a contemporary perspective, drawing the two together and unafraid to mix them together to create something truly unique. I think it’s safe to say you won’t find another historical novel quite like it, even if I am on the hunt for such a thing in the hope it exists! Eyre’s book left me with such a book hangover and I still haven’t been able to find anything else of a similar vein so please if you know of something similar, comment below because I feel like I need it in my life.
I think that very much covers most of the books I’ve adored that are set in that wide-ranging time known as The Past. Weirdly, I’d say I very rarely read contemporary unless it has some kind of fantasy element weaved into it (i.e. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys), but I’d greatly appreciate any more historical fiction recommendations.