Reflecting on the pile of books at my reading chair—and listening to others discuss what they are reading lately, I thought I would discuss what reading historical fiction, in particular, has done to enrich my life.
Yes, it has improved me, as the Victorians would say. Improved me in so very many ways that to attempt to list them might require a longer post than we have space for here! But I thought it instructive to try. And to ask you for your list, as well.
Aside from the vocabulary words reading imbues you with, what about the simple pleasures of travel? Travel to concepts you might never have otherwise pondered. Life under a dictator. Sailing from your home to a wild and settled colony. Nursing wounded on a battlefield.
Then, too, reading allows you to travel to lands you might never visit…or might take years to afford to enjoy. I remember as a young girl walking across the streetcar tracks in Dundalk, Maryland to the small local library. There, I took out picture books of England, Mexico, Hong Kong and ever so many other places. I yearned to go to those places---and amazingly, I have gone to many. Later, travel formed another idea in my mind. That of marrying my passion to travel with my passion to write. As a teenager, I told my parents that I wanted to become a foreign correspondent and work in Moscow!
One of the most fabulous novels I read as a young adult was The Egyptian by Mika Waltari. This is a sweeping tale of that land under the rule of pharaoh Aknaton, he of the one god concept. This led me to take numerous courses in undergrad and grad school about ancient Egypt. Recently, when someone stated that they would like to be returned to that time and place, I recommended this book. They wrote back that they had enjoyed it. (And recently, drawn as I am to that land, I read with glee Stacy Shiff’s biography, Cleopatra, a superb work of historical research and divine prose. Closely related to that subject, a book I am in the midst of is Steven Saylor’s Empire about the Roman empire.)
As a child, I read and re–read a series by Elswyth Thane, Williamsburg, which stamped in my mind early colonial and Revolutionary Period American history. Living in the area of the first 13 colonies as a young girl, I recall driving my parents mad with pleas to take me to tour Washington, Philadelphia and the battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. This passion extended even to my adult life when I took my own children to re-enactments of the battles of Yorktown and Bunker Hill. I recall vividly one reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, standing with one of my sons watching Pickett’s charge as tears rolled down our cheeks while hundreds of men fell in the endless barrage. And I owe that memorable day more than twenty years ago, to Thane. Close on her heels is another memorable author of the American experience, Celeste de Blasis, and her Wild Swan trilogy.
I read Gone with the Wind many times, and watched the movie almost as many. My daughter (who now has a mad passion for fiction about the Tudors, the Borgias or the French kings) bought me the DVD of Mitchell’s classic a few years ago. I play it and smile at what we now share—a love of historical figures whose lives have outlived their years on earth and brought us much to ponder and debate. Other writers who have affected what I want to see, how I want to be toward others include and certainly are not limited to Bernard Cornwell, (Sharpe, Saxon), Thomas Flanagan (Irish), Anthony Trollope, (all), Phillipa Gregory (Wildacre), Elizabeth Chadwick (Marshall), and Sharon Kay Penman (Welsh trilogy).
In less specific terms, I can recount the enormous number of historical romances and historical fiction wherein the lives of extraordinary women, real and not, have influenced how I think about my own life. As a result of reading about life on wagon trains, in a castle, caught in wartime bombings, I value more dearly peace, civility, running water, food inspection, dentistry, free education, my car and social media! (Yes, even that!)
The beauty of the prose, the accuracy of the historical research (a thing to be noted and treasured!) are those elements that inspire me to write my own works. And to strive to do them as well on both counts as those authors’ whose work I value.
In this all too brief journey through my reading of historical novels, I will now reveal that, while I became a freelance journalist, I never did become a foreign correspondent. Nor have I yet gotten to Moscow.
But I have been so many places where fiction took me first. And when I do visit those places where I have been courtesy of the minds’ eyes of other authors, I have this feeling that all those characters, real and imagined, stand there with me, admiring, laughing, enjoying that all of us live together here and now in (relative) peace and happy literary harmony.
Do come and comment and tell us what historical fiction has taught you about yourself and your world.