Posts Tagged ‘historical’

Okay, so I’d never heard of Georgette Heyer before getting lots of phone calls at MWF from people buying tickets to the eventually sold out session about Heyer and regency romances, the genre she apparently coined. If I lean towards any type of genre fiction, it’s fantasy, and the historical histrionic romance had totally passed me by. But I had this sitting in my bookshelf at home, so I gave it a crack.

This charmingly soft-lit cover is pretty indicative of what this book (and I’m guessing the genre) is like–exotic girl with hyaline eye-whites involves herself in terribly exciting and dangerous things, like running away from home and murder mysteries. Young Eustacie de Vauban is to be married off to Sir Tristram Shield, who is as pragmatic and impatient as she is romantic and silly. A mystery to do with inheritance, wrongful conviction and stacks of privilege and wealth plays out between several cliched characters, though the action is light-hearted enough.

I’m not really one for dates and times, but I’m given to understand that The Talisman Ring is set some time between 1749-1830. That’s a good long time, but it’s hard to detect much similarity between this Sussex tale and stories told by Jane Austen about a similar period and milieu. Heyer’s book is in tone like a Shakespearian comedy without the sting, with its nescient heroines, fun complications and neat conclusions. Plenty of historical detail, dramatic acting, kissing and clever schemes make The Talisman Ring rather like one of the plays Austen’s heroines wouldn’t approve of — diverting and more than a little frivolous. There’s certainly none of the considered intimacy of Austen’s books, nor any of the eroticism. But it’s nevertheless a rollicking one-day read which would do to flick the swashbuckling switch in anyone.

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I must confess to very little knowledge of the triumphs and vagaries of the Roman empire. I know the names of the gods, and their Greek predecessors; I know a couple of humdrum Latin words, but nothing that would impress the boys behind the bike shed. Yet if it were possible for the life of each emperor in those fifteen centuries to be beheld through the passionate and tender words of Marguerite Yourcenar, I would amortize the debt of my ignorance most gladly. Her Hadrian’s intelligence and ceremony seethe throughout Memoirs of Hadrian‘s sinuous grace, which also owes a debt to Yourcenar’s friend Grace Frick’s translation. It is not easy to do justice to the fullness, the coherency of a life; the discrete clues of history are not always amenable to an embrace that is two thousand years behind.

A background in classics is not necessary for the enjoyment of the fineness of Yourcenar’s (a pseudonym, an approximate anagram of her actual surname, Crayencour) portrait of Rome’s 14th emperor. Rich is the tapestry placed before our eyes, dripping are the names and places from the pen of the emperor, but not an otiose or jarring word is to be seen. Such treatment is evidence of the great respect possessed by the author for her subject. However wild the religious experiments, however ceaseless the conflicts of the expanding Empire, however lavish the commonplaces of Principate life, Hadrian as expressed here is a clear-headed sophisticate who resists excesses of pride and display of power. But like many of literature’s and history’s best beloved, he cannot resist excesses of love or guilt. Therein lies the heart of this story, which for the first hundred pages is elegant and systematic and useful, but static; a great amount of pain brings experience into minute focus, and the narrative thereafter vibrates with the humanity of pain.

A ten year labour of research and writing was necessary for the work to come about, a labour which, as detailed in an appendix of the author’s notes, lacked no dramatic moments of self-doubt and derailing. Such endurance and toil paid off, and with interest. Yourcenar’s grasp on the politics, the geography and the personages of the early years AD would be oppressive if it were not so radically germane to the novel’s success to capture the feel, the heat of that burgeoning period of progress. The possible scale of one man’s life was so different then (and the possible scale of a woman’s life, one might say, was not so different). Hadrian has, in place of avocations, cities; wars, instead of simple mistakes; but also philosophy in place of leisure; the ecstatic and divine, the mysterious rather than the mundane; and to magnify all this, perpetuity.

It might be difficult in theory to trust a man like Hadrian, trained to speak with persuasion and act with cunning. His legacy, as presented in Memoirs of Hadrian, is nevertheless to be honoured, and unreservedly. The life of one who can assess the gifts and grit of mankind with so little self-pity and so much lucidity has much to offer. The words of one speaking from a time when man stood alone strike a plangent note for the notice even of an audience at the opposite extremes of time and space.



when peter, a family friend who lavishes his book-attention on me rather than his non bookish daughters, recommended sharon penman’s the reckoning, i feigned a polite interest and thanked him. he’s a great man for bestsellers and thanks to him i’ve read some things i would never usually have touched, such as michael crichton’s state of fear which i read last year. it was actually a great read, and i love having something plot-driven and sensational to read on the train or in study breaks.

i understand that the reckoning has also been a ripper sales-wise; whether or not this true, i can’t say this book or the author were ever on my radar before peter introduced us.


i took this home tucked underneath richard dawkins’ the god delusion and david mitchell’s cloud atlas with the intention of reading it only very distantly in the future. but, being in the middle of reading no logo and the man who mistook his wife for a hat, i had a yen for some fiction. despite my lack of affinity for history generally, a quick peek between the covers revealed simply written prose, which was extraordinarily appealing in the midst of my mind-crush.

the reckoning is indeed simply written. however, the plot, which penman assures her readers is almost entirely based on true historical facts, is not so simple. i felt myself admiring her restraint as well as the depth of research which lends rich complexity to characters and events. perfectly paced, episodes of domestic peace and festivity are interspersed among periods of high intrigue and stress. with this in mind, i forgave her for punctuating the dialogue with phrases attempting to set the historical tone, which, during the first hundred pages, is intensely annoying. thankfully, by the middle of the book, characters drop atavistic phrases such as ‘for certes’ far less.

for a book based on 11th century turmoil between england and wales, little of the narrative is substantially focused on representing war itself. rather, penman suggests the effects of bloodshed and struggle upon the tangle of royal european families, and does it masterfully. both deed and word lend weight to characters such as llewellyn ap gruffydd, the prince of wales, and edward, the english king under delusion of his own righteousness. there are many characters on either side of the battle for whom the reader is able to feel sympathy, although a couple come dangerously close to ringing in medieval stereotypes. having said that, there are true horrors countenanced, by the welsh people particularly.

against my initial reaction to the subject matter and genre, i really liked this. it was great for train travel. short, diverse chapterettes enabled me to digest it in dramatic episodes, sneak a chunk in between class, and come back to it as if just departed.

oh! and, if anyone knows how to properly pronounce ‘llewellyn’, please let me know.