I am a history geek – for some reason unknown to me, when it comes to history, my brain registers and stores a multitude of little details presented to it, unlike, say, names of trees or car brands. I regularly astonish people by knowing historical facts that are way out. Yet I hardly ever open a book of historical fiction, even less often a book of reference. I have learnt what I know about history from reading romances.
For every wallpaper historicals out there, there is a novel that is meticulously researched, and manages to imbue historical facts with so much life by linking them to the lives of characters I am intrigued by, that those facts just stick to my memory like a burr.
Although the era I probably know most about, for obvious reasons, is Regency England, here are some other examples where one book or a series provided loads of information, and in some cases even got me to look up some more in reference books or on the internet.
Medieval jousting and the Magna Carta: Roberta Gellis’s Alinor and Joanna (volumes 2 and 3 in the Roselynde Chroncles). Alinor features a long and detailed description of a two-day tournament, with rules and equipment and traditions. The hero, Ian, knows the tournament is a trap laid for him, and fights for his life. So getting through every step, out-thinking his enemies at every turn, is a matter of survival for him, and I am on tenterhooks every times I read about it, even though I know by now how matters turn out.
Joanna is set over the course of several years and depicts the last years in the reign of King John. The novel describes the frustrations of the English baron at John’s rule, the strain on their loyalties and beliefs, and the very real harm John’s power struggle with the pope caused the English population, both rich and poor. The barons’ attempts to curtail the king’s power culminate in the signing of the Magna Carta. I have read the document in translations, but the articles I remember best are those whose importance have been highlighted in Joanna, by linking them to the experiences of the people of that time.
Salerno: Ariana Franklins’s (aka Diana Norman) Mistress of the Art of Death series and more specifically the first volume, from which the series takes its name. The fact that I am so fascinated by Salerno brilliantly illustrates Franklin’s remarkable talent as a writer, for the novel is never set there. Instead, we only get some flashbacks to the heroine Adelia’s past, and that was enough to hook me. Salerno, in southern Italy, was a highly influential and highly advanced medical school in the Middle Ages. Arabic medical texts were translated there, and through them came the knowledge of Greek medical texts which had been lost in Europe, but transmitted in the Arabian countries. In Salerno, a multicultural society of Christians, Jews and Muslims (in alphabetic order) studied together, enlarging their knowledge through exchange. There were women practioners and teachers. Reading about it, in all honesty I first thought this was a utopia Ariana Franklin had invented. Not so. The place really existed, and I am glad I came across it in my reading.
The House of Special Purpose: Ariana Franklin, again, this time with City of Shadows, a stand-alone novel set in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. Among the characters is Anna Anderson, a real-life woman who claimed she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. In the novel, there is a description of the execution of the Czar’s family, which took place at the House of Special Purpose, so intense and heartbreaking that it had me in tears. This has since lead me to another historical novel, John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose.
And so it goes on. I learnt about the court of Mary Tudor from Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle, fifth volume in the Lymond Chronicles, and about Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari from Leaves from the Valley by Joanna Trollope, about Charleston during the Revolutionary War from Gwen Bristow’s Celia Garth, and about about the Boxer Uprising in China from Madeleine Brent’s Moonraker’s Bride by Madeleine Brent aka Peter O’Donnell.
What fascinating historic events were you pointed out to by romances? Which historical romances have provided you with insight, or in-depth information about specific events? When people wonder how you come to know all this, do you tell them it’s from romances?