Monday 28 March 2011

The Ever-After Bird by Ann Rinaldi

Here's a book review I wrote for the Historical Novel Society:
During a panel discussion on children's books at an HNS Conference a few years ago, my suspicions were confirmed that the term “young adult” is now a pseudonym for “anything goes” in children’s literature, sometimes a concern for parents of precocious readers.  You might wish to peruse this book to check its appropriateness for your younger reader, but be warned: you may well find yourself settling down to read it from start to finish. 

This is a coming of age story, set mainly in the 1850s South.  After the death of her abusive, abolitionist father, thirteen year-old CeCe finds herself under the wardship of her Uncle, a doctor and ornithologist.  In the company of his African American assistant, Earline, who masquerades as a slave, Uncle Alex takes CeCe on an expedition to Georgia in search of the rare scarlet ibis – and to help slaves begin the journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad, an activity CeCe wants no part of.  However, as they travel across Georgia’s plantations, CeCe’s experiences force her to reevaluate her perceptions  - not only of slavery, but of relationships between one human being and another.

  As a teacher as well as a parent, I was impressed with the sensitivity and appropriateness of Rinaldi’s approach to her subject.  She juxtaposes CeCe’s gradual understanding of the horrors of slavery with her discovery of the tenderness that can exist in a father-daughter relationship.  The recurring imagery of birds as symbols of freedom, while conventional, also works well at this level; even young readers will appreciate the irony of Uncle Alex’s caging and shooting birds while pointing slaves to freedom.  Although several minor Southern characters are somewhat stereotyped, the main characters are complex and challenge the typical racial and moral images of this era.  A book at once compelling and tender, highly recommended for mature younger readers to adults.

The Ever-After Bird is published by Harcourt (2007).

Tuesday 22 March 2011

What can ‘neglected classics’ do for your writing?

In relaunching my blog from my web journal format, I knew that one of my focuses would be neglected classics.  Partly this is because I’m an English lit nerd, and partly because I love history.  But neglected classics have real value for the historical novelist, opening a window into areas history books may overlook.  Books that were popular in their day but little read now have often fallen out of popularity because they reflect the tastes, ideas, references, language etc. of a very particular time. – just what you want for an authentic feel to your novel.

Here’s a couple of ideas to get you thinking:

  • Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (made more popular by the spin-off tv series) is a thinly disguised autobiography of her life growing up in an English village at the end of the nineteenth century.  Even though I considered I had a pretty good idea of English rural life in that period, she opened my eyes to attitudes and facts I hadn’t considered, from the idea of the older women that ‘good’ wives kept to their homes, to the ways in which some younger couples were already beginning to use family planning methods.
  • E. Nesbit’s voluminous output, including her children’s books, provide a detailed picture of middle class late Victorian and early Edwardian life, from popular  slang (brekkers, anyone?) right down to the colours of the forms that various tradesmen use. 

Finding neglected classics
Here are a few ideas – please share your own!
  • Follow leads in the ‘standard’ classics: what is the hero or heroine reading?  I used Northanger Abbey as the starting point for my foray into popular gothic novels – Jane Austen makes fun of Catherine’s addiction to The Monk by Henry Lewis and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, for example.  The heroine of Udolpho, in turn, I discovered, fortifies her character through a regimen of ‘good’ reading, and so the trail goes on...
  • Check out the advertisements and previews in those musty, second hand books on your shelves.
  • Check local history societies or the shops of stately/historic homes, National Trust shops etc. for local autobiographies.  Again, you’ll get insights into everyday life.  An example that sticks in my mind is A Kingston Lacy Childhood, the recollections of Viola Bankes, of the upper class Bankes family of Dorset.  When Viola’s father died, she was told for years that he was working abroad, and only found out the truth through the mistake of a servant!
  • If you’re fortunate enough to live near a major, older library, peruse their older catalogues for the period you’re writing in (this brings back memories of many happy hours in Cambridge libraries).
The advantage for writers now is that so many of these books have been digitized, and although I’ve found the quality of the scanning to vary, there are thousands of free books out there to download onto your computer or e-reader.  Try sites such as Barnes and Noble, Google Books, Bartleby, and Project Gutenberg.

I hope these few reason have convinced you that neglected books should be on your real/virtual bookshelf, or at least on your reading list as you work on your novel.  You may find some gems that deserve attention, plus you’ll have built up reading lists for your own characters!

Sunday 13 March 2011

The historical novel: a case for Sir Walter Scott and Ivanhoe

The candidate for the first historical novel may be debatable.  However, the case for the first popular English historical novelist is a little tighter.  Sir Walter Scott began a trend for the historical novel with Waverley (published 1814), and most enduringly with Ivanhoe (1819). 
His predecessor Daniel Defoe makes a good case for himself, of course, with novels such as Roxana and Journal of the Plague Year.  Yet the eighteenth century novel can be a difficult beast with its often peripatetic plots, frank to the point of lewdness yet curiously impersonal.  Most people, excepting serious students of English, are now trained to read in the style developed by the Romantics.  And that, in fact, is one of the reasons for Scott’s success, that he combined Romanticism with his fascination for legends and antiquities.  In his day, he was said to be the most widely read novelist in the world, and his influence on the genre of historical fiction was global, reaching writers of historical fiction from France (Alexandre Dumas) and Russia (Aleksandr Pushkin) to America (James Fenimore Cooper).
But at its heart, Ivanhoe is just a ripping good yarn.  Scott wrote at an impressive pace, churning out two novels a year, plus other writings, seldom stopping to edit himself (careful readers will catch inconsistencies of detail).  His characters are painted in broad, stereotypical brushstrokes, part of a style that he himself described as “the Big Bow-wow strain.”  Yet this is why they stick in our mind: the blond Saxon princess pitted against the beautiful dark-haired Jewess for Ivanhoe’s affections; the true knight who faces the corrupted crusader; Robin Hood and his men, as merry as you could wish. 
Scott’s very shortcomings become his triumph.  He was a pen and ink man, churning out historical novels to support the upkeep of his own piece of history, the estate of Abbotsford.  And whatever critics feel about the quality of some of his work, his efforts almost singlehandedly rehabilitated the reputation and pride of a Scotland still suffering from the consequences of the failed Jacobite rebellions.  In light of his passion for and influence on the genre, it is perhaps ironic that few of his novels are read today.
One final reason that I really like Ivanhoe is the teacher in me.  The story manages to capture the imagination of students, and those ‘broad strokes’ I mentioned above help them to feel confident as they practice skills of analysis.  In fact (and this whole post really wasn’t a plug!) I wrote a curriculum guide for the Center for Learning that pairs Ivanhoe and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, exploring among other things themes of chivalry and the influence of the medieval romance on the modern novel.
Scott’s most popular novels (today) include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and Kenilworth; further reading on Scott’s life and writings include Sir Walter Scott by John Lauber (Twayne 1989) and Sir Walter  Scott: Wizard of the North by Pearle Henriksen Schultz (Vanguard 1969).
(By the way, if you are interested in the origins and influence of other historical novelists, you might check out the blog of the Ron Empress, whose work has been inspired by the fourteenth century Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms.)

Blog award

Anne Whitfield, author and wonderful moderator of my online critique group, has given me a "One Lovely Blog" award.  Part of the award is to pass it on, so I'd like to nominate writers Vicky English, who blogs on writing and Arthurian topics, and Victoria Dixon, who maintains a blog for readers and writers of Asian historical fiction.  Thank you, Anne!

Monday 7 March 2011

Medieval help desk

I think this technically makes it within the parameters of my blog description - it's historical 'fiction' and it speaks to those of us who love to write but find our muse at the mercy of Microsoft.  Enjoy!

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Neglected classics: East Lynne by Mrs Henry (Ellen) Wood

I think this book would have to come under the heading of “guilty pleasures” for me; the Victorian sensationalist novel I could not put down.  I’ll try to give a taste without ruining the plot.
When Lady Isabel’s dissolute father dies (an early death, of course), she is shocked to find her comfortable world crumbling under the weight of his debts.  A young lawyer, Archibald Carlyle, comes to her rescue with an offer of marriage.  Alas, the path of conventional motherhood and the vocation of being the ‘angel in the home’ is not enough for the bored, neglected Isabel, and she falls for the charms of the caddish aristocrat Francis Levison.  Thus begins a satisfyingly intricate plot fueled by passion, crime, ‘ghosts’, hidden identities, and of course fitting moral retribution for all sins committed. 
This was a bestseller of its day and spawned several stage versions that, between them, kept the story in the theatre for decades.  East Lynne offered many a Victorian lady, stuck in her own respectable marriage, a chance to enter forbidden worlds.  It also offered Mrs. Henry Vane, through her ‘respectable’ married name, an opportunity to explore issues ladies should not discuss, let alone write about.  And, now it’s a classic, you too can enjoy the melodrama while assuming the literary moral high ground!