I’m not sure how it happened, but in the last couple of years I seem to have circled back to my fictional roots. Way back in my reading past, I was swept away by historical fiction. It probably started with watching PBS/BBC historical dramas on TV with my family. The wonderful Derek Jacobi in ‘I Claudius,’ the historical context of ‘The Forsyte Saga’ and ‘The Eight Wives of Henry the Eighth’ sent me to bookshelves.
Eventually I shook the historical fiction habit and wound up majoring in history in college. Real history—with its ambiguities and mystifying motives—all but erased my yen to read historical mysteries, romances and dramas. I read a lot of contemporary mysteries and that was also my science fiction/fantasy phase.
I’d gotten caught up in trying to parse out what really happened. The search for truth in history is often a fool’s errand. History is the narrative of victors—and they often lie. I spent a great deal of time examining the first draft of history—first person accounts and newspaper reports. Although these are called the “first draft of history” it’s a sloppy first draft. You can see why dystopian speculative fiction, wizards & witches, and outer space would be happy medicine. Eventually the malaise of history passed. And my focus became MYSTERY fiction. And that was my genre for years and years. Yes, I read literary fiction and non-fiction, too, but years went by with few trips back in time.
Then, when I was loading up my Kindle before I traveled in July of 2014, I impulsively put a few novels with historical settings in my library. One was set in Salem during the witch trials, one was in ancient Egypt and the third was ‘I Am Livia’ by Phyllis T. Smith. Livia Drusilla—the wicked grandmother in ‘I Claudius’— did it. I was swept away by the first person/self-serving story of love, conquest and ambition. I’m back to reading historical fiction.
I’ve circled back to where I was as a curious kid. What was the best historical novel I read in 2015? ‘The White Queen’ by Philippa Gregory. It’s a great book—wonderful story, vivid settings and beautiful writing. And her notes at the end of the book about the various choices she made about how to use the sketchy historical record satisfied my history student side.
There’s nothing like having my historical cake and eating it, too.