Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

This is my third in my classic french literature reading – I have read Dangerous Liaisons and Madame Bovary. Once again, I was surprised by its modern feel.

Here is the blurb …

Guy de Maupassant’s scandalous tale of an opportunistic young man corrupted by the allure of power, “Bel-Ami” is translated with an introduction by Douglas Parmee in “Penguin Classics”. Young, attractive and very ambitious, George Duroy, known to his admirers as Bel-Ami, is offered a job as a journalist on La Vie francaise and soon makes a great success of his new career. But he also comes face to face with the realities of the corrupt society in which he lives – the sleazy colleagues, the manipulative mistresses and wily financiers – and swiftly learns to become an arch-seducer, blackmailer and social climber in a world where love is only a means to an end. Written when Maupassant was at the height of his powers, “Bel-Ami” is a novel of great frankness and cynicism, but it is also infused with the sheer joy of life – depicting the scenes and characters of Paris in the belle epoque with wit, sensitivity and humanity. Douglas Parmee’s translation captures all the vigour and vitality of Maupassant’s novel. His introduction explores the similarities between Bel-Ami and Maupassant himself and demonstrates the skill with which the author depicts his large cast of characters and the French society of the Third Republic.

This is an interesting novel as the main character – Georges Duroy – is vile; selfish and self-centred, he uses others (but mostly women) to improve his social and financial position. This is interesting as it is unusual (at that time – first published in 1885) to have such an unsympathetic character at the heart of a novel (the hero so to speak). What does de Maupassant mean bu it? At this time most novels (English at least) had a didactic purpose – to make us (the readers) better people. Is he showing us the world as it is (or was)?

This novel also highlights how linked (and therefore biased) journalism and politics were – and the manipulation of policy to enrich a few men.

One aspect of this novel that I love is the contemporary social detail – the metro is being built, France has soldiers in Algeria, etc.

If you are interested in 19th century France (or Paris), then I highly recommend this novel. It’s gritty (and a bit grubby) and shows are darker side of life.

Here is another review …

http://insidebooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/book-review-bel-ami-guy-de-maupassant.html

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Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

This was the second French classic for my historical fiction group and once again I was surprised by how easy it was to read – much easier than an equivalent piece of English literature.

Madame Bovary is the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.

When the novel was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, public prosecutors attacked the novel for obscenity. The resulting trial in January 1857 made the story notorious. After Flaubert’s acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller in April 1857 when it was published in two volumes. A seminal work of literary realism, the novel is now considered Flaubert’s masterpiece, and one of the most influential literary works in history.

It was incredibly modern – concerned about consumerism and the role of women. I must admit that I didn’t find Emma at all sympathetic – melodramatic, selfish and self-centred, but she was stuck in a small rural community with no friends, married to a man with whom she had nothing in common. Her life lacked purpose, interest and romance, so of course she had to create drama and excitement.

Here is an article from the NY Times…

and here is the First Tuesday book club talking about Madame Bovary

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s3165716.htm

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At the Edge of the Orchard

At the Edge of the Orchard – Tracy Chevalier

I like Tracy Chevalier novels – my favourite is the The Lady and the Unicorn. This one was selected by another book club member – we also read Remarkable Creatures last year.

Here’s the blurb …

From internationally bestselling author Tracy Chevalier, a riveting drama of a pioneer family on the American frontier

1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.

1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.

Chevalier tells a fierce, beautifully crafted story in At the Edge of the Orchard, her most graceful and richly imagined work yet.

As always, the level of historical detail in this novel is extraordinary – I do like to learn while being entertained at the same time. This one is about trees – apples (spitters and eaters) and the huge trees – redwoods and sequoias – in California.  I loved all of the detail about planting, grafting and tending the trees, about collecting specimens and transporting them over oceans to try to grow in a new continent (apples to the americas and the redwoods back to England).

I had little to no sympathy for any of the characters – violent, drunks (sometimes both) and damaged. I am sure it was a sign of the times – living was hard, etc. but it makes for unpleasant reading.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/06/at-the-edge-of-the-orchard-tracy-chevalier-review-stephanie-merritt

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/at-the-edge-of-the-orchard-review-tracy-chevaliers-engrossing-family-drama-20160331-gnv0c8.html

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City of Crows – Chris Womersley

City of Crows – Chris Womersley

I read a review of this in The West newspaper (of course I can’t find it now ) and went of that day to buy it – I was the person saying ‘the book with the crow on the cover’ – surprisingly I did manage to find it. And then I heard that Chris Womersley was coming to the Writers Festival, so I moved it to the top of the tbr pile.

Here is the blurb …

A woman’s heart contains all things. Her heart is tender and loving, but it has other elements. It contains fire and intrigue and mighty storms. Shipwreck and all that has ever happened in the world. Murder, if need be… 1673. Desperate to save herself and her only surviving child Nicolas from an outbreak of plague, Charlotte Picot flees her tiny village in the French countryside. But when Nicolas is abducted by a troop of slavers, Charlotte resorts to witchcraft and summons assistance in the shape of a malevolent man. She and her companion travel to Paris where they become further entwined in the underground of sorcerers and poisoners – and where each is forced to reassess their ideas of good and evil. Before Charlotte is finished she will wander hell’s halls, trade with a witch and accept a demon’s fealty. Meanwhile, a notorious criminal is unexpectedly released from the prison galleys where he has served a brutal sentence for sacrilege..

What’s not to like about this novel? 17th Century France, witches, sorcery, plague and hidden treasure. Clearly there has been a lot of research done, but it is unobtrusive – just a fabulous world created. The two main characters are well-developed and I found myself flipping between like and loathing Lesage. Charlotte, although unsophisticated, creates more complicated feelings. Even now, several weeks after finishing it, I am not sure that I like or approve her actions.

I went to one of Mr Womersley’s sessions at the writers festival and he was great – witty, chatty, happy to engage with the audience. He was interviewed by Amanda Curtin who was also fabulous.

If you like historical fiction, then this book is for you.

More reviews …

https://www.readings.com.au/review/city-of-crows-by-chris-womersley

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/city-of-crows-chris-womersley-depicts-pariss-murky-past/news-story/7582cc0837ab6563c00b07eaa5a49bfe

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Golden Hill – Frances Spufford

Golden Hill – Francis Spufford

I read somewhere (sorry I forgot where!) that this was  fabulous historical fiction, so of course I had to read it. It was suprisingly hard to find and in the end I bought it from the Kindle store.

Here is the blurb …

New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746

One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat pitches up at a counting-house door in Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion simmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge amount, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he can be planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money.

Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him.

As fast as a heist movie, as stuffed with incident as a whole shelf of conventional fiction, Golden Hill is both a novel about the 18th century, and itself a book cranked back to the novel’s 18th century beginnings, when anything could happen on the page, and usually did, and a hero was not a hero unless he ran the frequent risk of being hanged.

This is Fielding’s Tom Jones recast on Broadway – when Broadway was a tree-lined avenue two hundred yards long, with a fort at one end flying the Union Jack and a common at the other, grazed by cows.

Rich in language and historical perception, yet compulsively readable, Golden Hill has a plot that twists every chapter, and a puzzle at its heart that won’t let go till the last paragraph of the last page.

Set a generation before the American Revolution, it paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later self: but subtly shadowed by the great city to come, and already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love – and find a world of trouble.

I enjoyed this novel, it was fun and well-written. I was fascinated by early New York – only 1000 people and the dutch influence. It was a rolicking ride – a bit like a short Fielding novel (and that has to be a good thing), action, romance, a duel and a secret purpose.

I think it is very accomplished and if I was more literary I would have more to write.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/01/golden-hill-by-francis-spufford-review

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/03/golden-hill-a-crackerjack-novel-of-old-manhattan

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Passion – Jude Morgan

Passion – Jude Morgan

As this one was lent to me, I felt compelled to read it quickly rather than letting it languish in the TBR pile. It is long – 663 pages – and slowed my reading. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it – there was just a lot of it.

Here’s the blurb …

They were the Romantic generation, famous and infamous, and in their short, extraordinary lives, they left a legacy of glamorous and often shocking legend. In PASSION the interwoven lives and vivid personalities of Byron, Shelley and Keats are explored through the eyes of the women who knew and loved them – scandalously, intensely and sometimes tragically.

From the salons of the Whig nobles and the penury and vitality of Grub Street, to the beauty and corruption of Venice and the carrion field of Waterloo, PASSION presents the Romantic generation in a new and dramatic light – actors in a stormy history that unleashed the energies of the modern world.

What I liked most about this novel was learning about the lives of the women involved with these men: Caroline Lamb, Annabella Milbanke, Augusta Leigh (Byron’s half-sister), Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Brawne.

I notices some sentences taken directly from Austen

Annabella Milbanke, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Replace Annabella Milbanke with Emma Woodhouse and you have the opening paragraph of Emma. There are probably other (contemporary) authors also used, but I am not clever enough to notice them.

If you are interested in the romantic poets, then I think this book will interest you.

Another review…

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/nov/13/featuresreviews.guardianreview22

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