BBC Historical Drama: Part 1

Part 1 – Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell

Lately, I've been reading a lot of historical fiction based in England. With images from those books/novels in mind, I started checking out different historical dramas, the best of which I've seen are from BBC. Step into the 1800s and get involved of the lives of Louis and his wife, Emily Trevelyan, Augustus Melmotte and Margaret Hale.

He Knew He was Right is an adaptation of an Anthony Trollope novel that follows the breakdown of a marriage of a newly married young couple, due to the husband’s jealousy and insecurity.

The Way We Live Now is a Trollope narrative that centers on Augustus Melmotte, an Austrian Jewish financier and his attempts to become a proper English Gentleman, among various subplots and subterfuge.

The library also has a copy of Anthony Trollope’s The Barchester Chronicles. A lawsuit aimed at church reform forces a decent clergyman into a moral crisis. Alan Rickman co-stars in this seven episode series.

The miniseries Wives & Daughters boasts misguided stepmothers, romantic betrayals, and secret marriages to keep you entertained and is based off of written works by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Cranford, which was adapted from a Gaskell novel, stars two of Britain’s paramount actresses, Judi Dench, and Imelda Staunton. In this film, the women of Cranford deal with the changing events that come with “progression.”

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South is by far my favorite BBC Miniseries. It follows the life of Margaret Hale, a middle class woman who is forced to move to a working class city when her father leaves his post at the church for lack of religious conviction. Having grown up in the country and also living in high society London with her wealthier aunt and cousin, “the North” represents a new challenge for Margaret. Around them are class struggles between the workers and mill owners and ideological struggles between the industrial North and the agrarian South. In Milton, Margaret clashes with her father’s new friend Mr. Thornton, when she sees him treat one of his mill workers harshly. Romantic entanglement follows.

An Instance of the Fingerpost

An Instance of the Fingerpost

“We are all capable of the most monstrous evil when convinced that we are right and it was an age when the madness of conviction held all tightly in its grasp.”

At nearly 700 pages, reading An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears, takes some commitment, but it is well worth the journey. Pears weaves a complex, sprawling, convoluted tale of politics, passion, betrayal, faith and scientific zeal, and, of course, murder. Set in the turbulent era of Restoration England (1660s), with its attendant political, intellectual and religious strife, it captures all the uncertainty, suspicion and speculation of the time. It is, in the end, an exploration of the very nature of perception and truth.

The plot pivots around the question of who poisoned an Oxford fellow. Four narrators, with differing degrees of reliability, each take turns relaying their account of the event and all the intricate history which surrounds it. All four accounts are completely different, but are given as full and honest disclosures, and are believed to be true by each teller, even while each is laboring under his own hidden and heart-wrenching history. The web of secrets surrounding the murder becomes more tangled with each tale. An “instance of the fingerpost”, from a quote by Francis Bacon, is that piece of truth which suddenly, fully and finally sheds light on opposing and uncertain conclusions and decisively reveals the object of the quest for understanding. With the fourth narrator, the veils of misperception and deceit lift and we have the fingerpost promised in the title.

Written with finely-wrought, eloquent language and revealing all the danger, turmoil and devotion of the human heart, this is a story that does not disappoint.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #204

This spring, a pair of debut novelists from the Midwest offer fictional biographies of two beloved 19th century literary figures, and breathe romance into their lonely lives.

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O'Connor McNees draws on biographical information to imagine a young Louisa at Walpole N.H. in the summer of 1855, where she finds that her growing affection (which she tried to deny) for charming (and wealthy) Joseph Singer is eagerly returned. Their romance is cut short by the announcement of Joseph’s engagement to an heiress. Family tragedies, disappointment and a desire for independence take Louisa back to Boston where eventually her literary career blossoms.

Kelly O’Connor McNees is born and raised in Michigan. She now calls Chicago home. A most apropos quote from her website beautifully evokes her heroine's lament:

“Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns.”
~ Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael captures the emotional life of Charlotte Bronte during the last decade of her life, and shortly after the publication of Jane Eyre. Remaining lonely in spite of her literary celebrity, Charlotte Bronte endures unrequited love, first for her French professor and later for her publisher, while caring for her aging father. When his brash curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, reveals his long-time secret love for her, Charlotte must decide between a marriage lacking the passion displayed in her novels or a single life.

“Gael makes a valiant attempt to blend fact with fiction as she transports readers to 19th-century England”, capturing the passions, hopes, dreams, and sorrows of literature’s most famous sisters. The author was raised in the Midwest. She has lived abroad for more than fifteen years, primarily in Paris, where she worked as a screenwriter. She now makes her home in Florence, Italy.

For further reading, may we suggest:

Louisa May Alcott : the woman behind Little Women by journalist Harriet Reisen - an account of the life of LMA in context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. (Reisen also wrote the script for the PBS documentary on Alcott).

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler, - a beautifully imagined tale of the Bronte sisters and the writing of Jane Eyre.

A Trio of Outstanding Historical Mysteries by Rennie Airth

River of Darkness 3

Detective John Madden survived the trenches of World War I and returns to Scotland Yard after the war with dark forces pulling at him. Having lost his young wife and baby daughter in the influenza epidemic, he is broken and alone. But he has a gift for reading the criminal mind and when a serial killer is loose in the villages of Sussex, Madden immerses himself in the pursuit of the crazed killer. River of Darkness is a superb police procedural, with strong, well-realized characters. Not a whodunnit – the identity of the killer is known to the reader early on – the book probes the nature of violence and the effect of war on the human psyche and the culture of England. Along the way, Madden finds another chance for love with the village doctor, Helen. This book is absolutely captivating, and you will be so glad there are more.

The second Madden story, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, is set eleven years later, in 1932, when another killer is targeting young teens in the rural communities of Surrey. Madden, with a new family, has left the force, become a farmer and healed the memories of his tortured past. But his great talent for discerning the complex patterns and motivations of the killer’s activity, and Madden’s proximity to the murdered children, make him indispensible in resolving the case, and his old friend, Chief Inspector Sinclair, draws him into the investigation.

In 1944, the third of the series, Dead of Winter, rounds out the trilogy, this time with a series of seemingly unrelated murders in London, beginning with the Polish ”land girl” who had been working on Madden’s farm. Again, Madden and Sinclair join forces. All three books capture with piercing detail the psychology of serial murder, as well as the life and times of England between the Wars and the very close friendships between Madden and his old comrades in the Yard. Airth has hinted that this might be the last of the series, but he has certainly left the door wide open for another. We can only hope.

Teen Stuff: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

In the summer of 1906, at a posh resort in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York, the body of twenty year old Grace Brown was discovered beneath a capsized boat. Her boating companion, Chester Gillette, had mysteriously disappeared. What happened next became transfixed in America's consciousness, as Gillette was put on trial for the murder of his clandestine lover, who was pregnant with his child at the time of death. The trial is famous for its readings of Grace's love letters to Chester, which were then sold in booklet form after the trial. Gillette was convicted of murder despite his persistent pleas of innocence and the fact that the evidence used against him was purely circumstantial. He was executed in the electric chair in 1908.

In Jennifer Donnelly's historical fiction reimagining of these events, A Northern Light, sixteen year old Mattie Gokey is an aspring writer who works at Big Moose Lake lodge, where the murder takes place. She is entrusted by Grace Brown to take her letters and burn them, just before Grace heads out on her doomed canoe trip. In this startlingly realistic narrative, the novel confronts issues of gender, racial, and class prejudice with a detailed backdrop of American life at the turn of the 20th century.

Also check out Theodore Dreiser's classic novel, An American Tragedy, and the brilliant 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, for other renderings of this murderous affair.

Fabulous Fiction First #197

Cathy Marie Buchanan's debut The Day the Falls Stood Still beautifully evokes life around Niagara Falls in the early 20th century, and the beginnings of hydroelectric power.

Set in the waning days of WWI, as a child of privilege, 17 year-old Bess Heath is not prepared for the disgrace and crumblng family finances when her father loses his job. She tries to hold the family together while her sister slips into depression, and her mother withdraws from society. Against her family's wishes, Bess rejects the courtship of a wealthy young man and finds comfort in the love of Tom Cole, a river man with a mysterious connection to the falls.

Based loosely on the history of Niagara river man William "Red" Hill, the narrative incorporates mock newspaper articles and vintage photographs, detailed depictions of domestic life, local lore, and fascinating natural history.

Historical fiction fans who liked Kathleen Cambor's lyrical and imaginative depiction of the lives that were lived, lost, and irreparably changed by the tragedy of the Johnstown (PA) flood in In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, will find much to like here.

January's Sparrow by Michigan author Patricia Polacco

Join us for a Black History Month program at the Pittsfield Branch on Wednesday, February 24 from 2 - 3 p.m. We will feature Patricia Polacco's new book, January's Sparrow, which tells the story of a slave family's journey through the Underground Railroad from Kentucky to Michigan. Then weave a paper kente cloth using the bright colors of the historical fabrics. This is for children grades K - 5.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #195

While friendship stories are commonplace in women's fiction, one that depicts 4 slave women set in the mid -1850s is still a rarity.

Wench* traces the friendship between Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu at an Ohio resort where Southern men bring their slave women. Over the course of three summers, these women came together to bare their souls, contemplate their future and support each other through sorrows and occasional joy.

First-time novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez draws on research about the resort that eventually became the first black college Wilberforce University for the setting while she explores the complexities of relationships between these women and their white owners.

"Compelling and unsentimental", "heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez's ability to bring the unfortunate past to life". ~Publishers Weekly. A good readalike for Cane River by Lalita Tademy.

For further reading on women in slavery, we suggest: Ar'n't I a Woman? : Female slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White and Labor of love, Labor of Sorrow : Black women, work, and the family from slavery to the present by Jacqueline Jones.

* = Starred review

For Lovers of Historical Fiction

Alchemists Daughter

If you are a lover of historical fiction, as I am, and need ideas for great reading, there are three excellent resources readily available.

Behind our Fiction/Media desk, on the first floor of the downtown library, on the wooden reference stand, is the primo reference, Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. This has excellent reviews, some of them starred, in many sub-genres of the historical novel, including literary, romance, Christian, fantasy and mystery. At 800 pages, there are many years worth of reading here!

In our Research database is an excellent fiction resource called Novelist. This site is worth exploring for the many ways it assists readers in choosing their next great novel. In the historical fiction category, there are 32 bibliographies of suggested reading on such subjects as: Artful Reads, Dear Diary, The Great Depression, Royal Reads, Troubled Times and World War I.

And, finally, check out the website of the Historical Novel Society, which specializes in celebrating everything about historical literature. You can find information on their two magazines, the next historical fiction conference, soon-to-be-published historical novels and, for great annotated lists of preferred reading, look at the editor’s choice reviews here.

Some of my enduring favorites are: Poison by Kathryn Harrison; The Last Jew by Noah Gordon; Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks; and The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon.

Booklist's Top 10 First Novels and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #188

Of Booklist's Top 10 First Novels 2009, 5 of them were blogged here. (Dream House, A Fortunate Age, The Invisible Mountain, Miles from Nowhere, and Precious). Quite a number of them are sitting on the shelves. Perhaps you would give them a second glance now.

And I happened to have just finished a 6th on the list - Grace Hammer : A Novel of the Victorian Underworld by Sara Stockbridge – a gripping and captivating debut novel set amidst the squalor of London’s East End where Grace makes a comfortable living managing her brood of pickpockets. Out of the blue, her checkered past is about to catch up with her. A magnificent ruby necklace might spell her doom. “Fast-paced, racy”, with plenty of intrigue, local color and masterfully realized characters.

Clearly, those folks at Booklist know how to pick them! Highly recommended by my good friend Jen Baker who knows her historical thrillers.

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