Category: Historical Fiction (page 1 of 2)

The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sequels

When I saw that one of my favorite LibriVox readers recorded The Scarlet Pimpernel and two of its sequels, I decided to listen to them. The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t great literature, but it’s fun, and I’ve been in the mood for light reading.


Read by Karen Savage

Read by Karen Savage

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy

“Armed with only his wits and his cunning, one man recklessly defies the French revolutionaries and rescues scores of innocent men, women, and children from the deadly guillotine. His friends and foes know him only as the Scarlet Pimpernel. But the ruthless French agent Chauvelin is sworn to discover his identity and to hunt him down.”


Read by Karen Savage

Read by Karen Savage

The Elusive Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy

“In this thrilling sequel, the terrorist Chauvelin devises a vile plot to eliminate the Pimpernel . . . once and for all.”


Read by Karen Savage

Read by Karen Savage

El Dorado, by Baroness Orczy

“The still-raging French Revolution continues to claim lives, and the shadow of the guillotine draws ever nearer to the young Dauphin, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. No one dares to attempt to liberate the little prince—no one, that is, but the . . . Scarlet Pimpernel.”

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)

“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”


Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so.  Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.  Continue reading

The Ladies’ Paradise

The Ladies' Paradise

The Ladies’ Paradise

The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), by Émile Zola (French classic)

“The novel tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her younger brothers and begins working as a saleswoman at the department store Au Bonheur des Dames. Zola describes the inner workings of the store from the employees’ perspective, including the 13-hour workdays, the substandard food and the bare lodgings for the female staff. Many of the conflicts in the novel spring from each employee’s struggle for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff.

“Denise’s story is played against the career of Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of all the neighborhood shops.”


I found The Ladies’ Paradise to be interesting on several levels and incredibly thought-provoking. My thoughts went down a couple of different lines while reading this novel, both figurative and literal, and I’ll try to capture some of both lines in this post. The figurative one gave me a glimpse of Babylon that was unsurprisingly—yet disturbingly—modern. In this description of The Ladies’ Paradise from Chapter 9, Zola compares the department store to a church or temple:

Madame Desforges was at last reaching the first storey, when a still greater surging of the crowd forced her to stop once more. She had now, beneath her, the departments on the ground-floor, with the press of customers she had just passed through. It was a new spectacle, a sea of heads fore-shortened, concealing the bodices, swarming with a busy agitation. The white price tickets now appeared but so many thin lines, the promontory of flannels cut through the gallery like a narrow wall; whilst the carpets and the embroidered silks which decked the balustrades hung at her feet like processional banners suspended from the gallery of a church. In the distance, she could perceive the angles of the lateral galleries, as from the top of a steeple one perceives the corners of the neighbouring streets, with the black spots of the passers-by moving about. But what surprised her above all, in the fatigue of her eyes blinded by the brilliant pell-mell of colours, was, when she lowered her lids, to feel the crowd more than ever, by its dull noise like the rising tide, and by the human warmth that it exhaled. A fine dust rose from the floor, laden with the odour of woman, the odour of her linen and her bust, of her skirts and her hair, an invading, penetrating odour, which seemed to be the incense of this temple raised for the worship of her body.

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Shirley

Shirley

Shirley

Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë (English classic)

“Written at a time of social unrest, [Shirley] is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline. She suffers misery and frustration, and Shirley has her own ideas about the man she will choose to marry.”


I really wanted to like this book and began it with that intention, and by the time I finished it, I did like it—I just didn’t love it. I think the reason was because it never completely captivated me. Brontë begins the novel by describing many minor characters in detail, and I had difficulty understanding which characters the story would follow, which made it all seem rather pointless to me in the beginning. As the novel and its underlying themes unfold, it does become just as much about a community of people as it does the lead characters, which gives at least some purpose for the detailed descriptions of the secondary characters. Structurally, this novel begins with a community in turmoil and ends as that community begins to come out of the turmoil. This struggle is mirrored on an individual level with several of the characters, in particular Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore. This observation from Chapter 20 puts into words what I believe is the overall theme of the novel:

Most people have had a period or periods in their lives when they have felt thus forsaken—when, having long hoped against hope, and still seen the day of fruition deferred, their hearts have truly sickened within them. This is a terrible hour, but it is often that darkest point which precedes the rise of day—that turn of the year when the icy January wind carries over the waste at once the dirge of departing winter and the prophecy of coming spring. The perishing birds, however, cannot thus understand the blast before which they shiver; and as little can the suffering soul recognize, in the climax of its affliction, the dawn of its deliverance. Yet, let whoever grieves still cling fast to love and faith in God. God will never deceive, never finally desert him. “Whom He loveth, He chasteneth.” These words are true, and should not be forgotten.

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Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons, trans. by C. Garnett

Fathers and Sons, trans. by C. Garnett

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev (Russian classic)

“At the novel’s center stands Evgeny Bazarov, medical student, doctor’s son, and self-proclaimed nihilist. Bazarov rejects all authority, all so-called truths that are based on faith rather than science and experience. His ideas bring him into conflict with his best friend, recent graduate Arkady Kirsanov, with Arkady’s family, with his own parents, and eventually with his emotions, when he falls helplessly in love with the beautiful Madame Odintsova.”


In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev writes about a society undergoing profound changes, one much like ours. For that reason, the novel feels very modern and pertinent to me. Like nineteenth-century Russia, we too have members of the older generation declaring that their ways are correct, and we have members of the younger generation trying to destroy the old institutions, and we have those of both generations working to reform the old institutions, and we have members of both generations who, in accepting or rejecting particular ideals, invite the scorn of others. In all of this conflict, much—if not most—of what is published is meant to support one point of view and undermine all others.

One of the most interesting things about Fathers and Sons is that it doesn’t support the older generation and undermine the younger or vice versa. It shows the nobility and the foolishness of both and, more importantly, acknowledges a source of truth and happiness that transcends the prejudices and concerns of all generations of mortals. As Arkady’s father ponders the differences between the generations, he demonstrates that he is more concerned about acting in accordance with the ultimate source of truth than he is about gratifying his pride and being “right”:

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Kenilworth

Kenilworth

Kenilworth

Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott (Scottish classic)

“In the court of Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is favoured above all the noblemen of England. It is rumoured that the Queen may chose him for her husband, but Leicester has secretly married the beautiful Amy Robsart. Fearing ruin if this were known, he keeps his lovely young wife a virtual prisoner in an old country house. Meanwhile Leicester’s manservant Varney has sinister designs on Amy, and enlists an alchemist to help him further his evil ambitions. Brilliantly recreating the splendour and pageantry of Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare, Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth herself among its characters, Kenilworth (1821) is a compelling depiction of intrigue, power struggles and superstition in a bygone age.”


The tension between possessing a title of nobility and being noble in mind and heart lies at the center of Kenilworth. From the beginning of the novel, Scott portrays the former suitor of Amy Robsart, the gentleman Tressilian, as possessing nobility of mind and heart. We first meet Tressilian at an inn, where he is seeking information about the whereabouts of Amy on behalf of her father. His features have a “meditative and tranquil cast,” and he is  “dressed with plainness and decency, yet bearing an air of ease which almost amounted to dignity, and which seemed to infer that his habit was rather beneath his rank.” While he is at the inn, the proprietor makes this observation about Tressilian to his nephew Michael Lambourne, who ends up in the employ of the story’s villain, Richard Varney:

But how brave thou be’st, lad! To look on thee now, and compare thee with Master Tressilian here, in his sad-coloured riding-suit, who would not say that thou wert the real gentleman and he the tapster’s boy?”

“Troth, uncle,” replied Lambourne, “no one would say so but one of your country-breeding, that knows no better. I will say, and I care not who hears me, there is something about the real gentry that few men come up to that are not born and bred to the mystery. I wot not where the trick lies; but although I can enter an ordinary with as much audacity, rebuke the waiters and drawers as loudly, drink as deep a health, swear as round an oath, and fling my gold as freely about as any of the jingling spurs and white feathers that are around me, yet, hang me if I can ever catch the true grace of it, though I have practised an hundred times. The man of the house sets me lowest at the board, and carves to me the last; and the drawer says, ‘Coming, friend,’ without any more reverence or regardful addition. But, hang it, let it pass; care killed a cat. I have gentry enough to pass the trick on Tony Fire-the-Faggot, and that will do for the matter in hand.” (Chapter 3)

Lambourne has had enough experience in the world to recognize that  Tressilian is an authentic gentleman and that he is not. Lambourne also knows that while he could never deceive a true gentleman into accepting him as an equal, he can fake it just enough persuade Tony Foster, an old friend of his, to give him a glimpse of the mysterious woman who, according to rumor, is residing at Cumnor Place, the country house Foster manages. Continue reading

The Secret Garden and The House of the Seven Gables

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Children’s classic)

“Born in India, the unattractive and willful Mary Lennox has remained in the care of servants for as long as she can remember. But the girl’s life changes when her mother and father die and she travels to Yorkshire to live with her uncle. Dark, dreary Misselthwaite Manor seems full of mysteries, including a very special garden, locked tight for 10 years. With the help of Dickon, a local boy, Mary intends to uncover its secrets.”

The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (American classic)

“Built over an unquiet grave, the House of the Seven Gables carries a dying man’s curse that blights the lives of its residents for over two centuries. Now Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, an iron-hearted hypocrite and intellectual heir to the mansion’s unscrupulous founder, is attempting to railroad a pair of his elderly relatives out of the house. Only two young people stand in his way–a visiting country cousin and an enigmatic boarder skilled in mesmerism.”


The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables

As soon as I learned that The Secret Garden would be on my book group’s schedule for 2015, I thought it would be nice to re-read The House of the Seven Gables also and comment on both novels. On the surface, these books appear quite different, but I knew they were similar in at least one respect—both stories show gardening as being an activity that nourishes both the body and spirit. By the time I was finished reading the books, I realized that they are even more similar than I had remembered; they both address the healing of emotionally diseased individuals and families in old manor houses that symbolically take on the sickly qualities of the families that inhabit them. One of the characters in The House of the Seven Gables describes this relationship between the families and their generational homes:

“The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold variety, gather about the hearths, and pollute the life of households. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old home, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.” (Chapter 17)

The family illness in The Secret Garden has lasted a decade; in The House of the Seven Gables, it has lingered for two centuries. Both stories prescribe a similar remedy—receiving loving help from healthy outsiders, adopting wholesome thoughts, engaging in hard but nourishing work, and opening oneself to both physical and spiritual sunshine in abundance. Notice how similar these two passages are in the way they describe both physical and spiritual light: Continue reading

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens (British classic)

“A body is found in the Thames and identified as that of John Harmon, a young man recently returned to London to receive his inheritance. Were he alive, his father’s will would require him to marry Bella Wilfer, a beautiful, mercenary girl whom he had never met. Instead, the money passes to the working-class Boffins, and the effects spread into various corners of London society.”


Our Mutual Friend details corruption and falsity in those “various corners of London society” to such a degree that a glimpse of Zion didn’t come easily to me as I read it. In this Babylon-like society, the altruistic mingle with the mercenaries, and distinguishing between them isn’t always simple. One thing that Dickens does well in this novel is show how these types exist at all levels of society and that it is possible for a person to change—sometimes for the better and, just as often, for the worse.

As I was thinking about this novel after I finished it, I became aware of profound themes that illuminated the novel for me in ways that surprised and awed me. I almost want to re-read it again right away so that I can delve more deeply into those themes. The twists and turns of this story are half the fun of it, and I don’t want to spoil that fun for those who haven’t read it by saying too much. For that reason, I will try to tread carefully. Continue reading

Villette

Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (British classic)

Villette

Villette

“With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster, and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor, Paul Emmanuel. Charlotte Brontë’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.”


I read Villette by Charlotte Brontë for the first time about twenty years ago. During that first reading, I became caught up in the raw emotion and love story of this great work. I thought it was a very stark novel, and I said as much when one of the members of my book group told the rest of us in the autumn of 2014 that she had recently finished reading it. She disagreed with my opinion and declared that it was a happy book. Of course, this disagreement fascinated the other members of the group, and we put it on our list for 2015. I just finished re-reading it and still think it is stark and that it ends in tragedy. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was the only one out of the five in attendance at our meeting who felt that way. We had a spirited discussion about the matter, and I couldn’t persuade them to my point of view, and they couldn’t persuade me to theirs. Continue reading

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot (British classic)

“Crushed by a loveless marriage to the cruel and arrogant Grandcourt, Gwendolen Harleth seeks salvation in the deeply spiritual and altruistic Daniel Deronda. But Deronda, profoundly affected by the discovery of his Jewish ancestry, is ultimately too committed to his own cultural awakening to save Gwendolen from despair.”


Daniel Deronda is one of several books on my list that was written to give readers a vision of Zion as a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine. (For others, see the Evangelical historical novels by Bodie and Brock Thoene.) One of the things unique about this particular novel is that George Eliot published it to promote Zionism before the term Zionism even existed. Here is an example of what I mean from the character Mordecai, who becomes Daniel’s mentor:

What is needed is the leaven—what is needed is the seed of fire. The heritage of Israel is beating in the pulses of millions; it lives in their veins as a power without understanding, like the morning exultation of herds; it is the inborn half of memory, moving as in a dream among writings on the walls, which it sees dimly but cannot divide into speech. Let the torch of visible community be lit! Let the reason of Israel disclose itself in a great outward deed, and let there be another great migration, another choosing of Israel to be a nationality whose members may still stretch to the ends of the earth, even as the sons of England and Germany, whom enterprise carries afar, but who still have a national hearth and a tribunal of national opinion. (Part 6, Chapter 42)

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