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26 March 2009 @ 06:52 pm
in other news, oops.  
I wound up wandering into the bookstore the other day. Well, it wasn't precisely wandering, as I wanted to buy a belated birthday present for a friend, and a ticket to an upcoming bookstore event. But somehow I came out with, in addition to those two items, a copy of John Guy's new book on Thomas and Margaret More. Sigh.

Because that's really what I needed, another distraction from grading. But I have wanted to read it for a little while now, and it was on display in a prominent spot... I read the first bit, when I got it home, and it looks very enjoyable. It's funny, because I recently bought a used copy of a novel about Meg Giggs, More's adopted daughter. The novel is Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett:

and I probably bought it (for a bus trip) because, yes, it's famous-people-fiction--which I don't really like--but at least she isn't terribly well-known (I certainly don't know much about her), and so possibly this wouldn't irk me. And I like the idea of fiction written around historical objects... But I think what I really wanted, without knowing it, was something much more along the lines of John Guy's book. And I really couldn't get into the novel, despite reading the first two chapters; the tone is so modern that it's presenting a barrier to me. I'm sort of weird about this in historical novels; I can overlook it if the characters grab me hard enough, but something about Meg seems flat to me, so far. Perhaps I'll come back to it at some point. After I read John Guy, maybe.

I also finally finished reading My Just Desire, the recent biography of Bess Throckmorton, since I'd recommended it to someone else on the strength of the first hundred pages and thought that now was as good a time as any to finish. So I've been thinking about the many lacunae present in that biography, and how hard it must be (partly because the author draws our attention to these moments) to write a biography about a woman who was so close to the center of events, and yet, because she was a woman, is effaced from the record in a lot of ways. Both Guy's book and this biography are marketed as books that restore the women in them to their rightful places in the historical record. I can see why fiction would appeal, in those circumstances: to be able to fill in the gaps with something more than supposition. This doesn't mean I'll be any fonder of famous-person-fiction (I still think I'll prefer the biography, even though, yes, I am aware that historical narratives are constructed as well), but I see why one might be drawn to it. Still, I'd like to be able to read about lives, even imagined ones, that aren't in the record at all--the people who don't get biographies written about them. And if I could avoid having to deal with a mystery plot while I'm at it, bonus. (This may be why I like YA historical fiction so much. There are certainly YA novels about Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey and even Anne Hathaway--and it's telling that while I have checked out several of these, I've never made it through one*--but you also have novels about boys in theatre companies and girls who want to be booksellers. Real historical figures are on the outskirts of those novels; they make cameos, but they're not the focus.)

If anyone has any suggestions for novels with famous people that I should read, though, I'm all ears. I've been thinking, too, for various reasons, about how little historical fiction I've actually read (probably because of the famous person problem), even though I like the idea of it tremendously. (My mother's new life plan for me, to help me avoid grading, is as follows: "You should get a job and teach for a few years, until you write your period novel. And then it'll get turned into a movie." Ha.)

*I always feel like I'm waiting for The Moment That Turns Them Into Historical Personages, instead of getting a proper story. This may not be the fault of the books themselves, I realize--but it's tricky to avoid when the ends are already determined. I already know that the only reason I'm being told a story about Anne Hathaway is that she married Shakespeare, so even if the goal is to bring her to life in some way, I still can't help feeling that I'd rather read a novel about some other sixteenth-century woman, one whose interest for us isn't already predetermined in this way.
La Reine Noire: Studious Veronicalareinenoire on March 26th, 2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
So I've been thinking about the many lacunae present in that biography, and how hard it must be (partly because the author draws our attention to these moments) to write a biography about a woman who was so close to the center of events, and yet, because she was a woman, is effaced from the record in a lot of ways.

I may have mentioned at some point that my supervisor wrote My Just Desire, and you just answered a question that's been plaguing me for some time -- why on earth she was interested in my dissertation topic. But that really explains it, seeing as my dissertation is about women's (invisible) narratives.

I have the same problem with historical novels, although I have managed to find a small cache of really good ones. Have you ever read Dorothy Dunnett? Her novels are dense, challenging, and utterly brilliant.
tempestsarekind: viola readingtempestsarekind on March 26th, 2009 11:47 pm (UTC)
Yes, you've mentioned that; I was thinking of it as I finished the book, actually. :) That question of invisible narratives is definitely foregrounded in the biography: both as a problem, for the writer of biographies of women, and as a corrective for that invisibility, in terms of how we traditionally look at the "important" figures of history, and how we determine who those are.

I haven't read Dorothy Dunnett yet--mainly because I can't figure out where to start! (This is another weird problem I have; I'm easily overwhelmed by books in a series.)

La Reine Noire: Studious Veronicalareinenoire on March 27th, 2009 12:02 am (UTC)
It's a difficult question to tackle -- so much of history itself is a form of narrative, at least in the way we know and read it.

Well, my suggestion would be to see how you like the first book and decide where to go from there. The first books stand on their own quite well, although the later ones are more intertwined by necessity. The first in the Lymond Chronicles is A Game of Kings, and is set during the Seymour Protectorate under Edward VI. The first in the House of Niccolò series is Niccolò Rising, and it's set mainly in Burgundy, beginning in 1460. The first few chapters are difficult because she doesn't coddle her reader in the least, but I quickly became addicted.
tempestsarekind: a broad rivertempestsarekind on March 27th, 2009 12:22 am (UTC)
Yes--and now I'm interested in what the difference is between that overt narrative of a novel and the more concealed sense of narrative in a biography. Because we tend to try to separate them out these days: a biography can be thought too "fanciful" or too "speculative." At the same time, though, it's quite the compliment for a biography to "read like a novel," provided that it's factual enough. And you'd know better than I--are early modern historians worried about this issue?

I think I got confused by the fact that there are two separate Dunnett series, and I was always mixing up the books when I saw them in bookstores! Perhaps I'll add the first book in each series to my (never-ending) book list...

Edited at 2009-03-27 12:23 am (UTC)
La Reine Noire: Studious Veronicalareinenoire on March 27th, 2009 01:15 am (UTC)
And you'd know better than I--are early modern historians worried about this issue?

If you mean historians writing in the early modern period, then, no, they're not worried about this at all, at least those before a certain point. They want to create narratives, they want to make sense of cause and effect, and they want to do it the same way Tacitus did, so they'll constantly bend their sources to fit the narrative they're trying to create.

Where this changes is toward the end of the Elizabethan period. This is not to say that prior historians aren't aware of how they're playing with narratives -- a lot of the time, they're doing some fairly sophisticated things with those narratives -- but with the rise of the antiquarian movement in the late sixteenth century, the focus begins to move away from narrative toward lists of facts, more or less. Things that can be confirmed.

Perhaps I'll add the first book in each series to my (never-ending) book list...

I highly recommend them. They are incredibly rewarding and absolutely addictive. I need to run to the library and get my hands on the last two Lymond books, as the end of the fourth one is Evil Incarnate.
tempestsarekind: facepalmtempestsarekind on March 27th, 2009 03:05 am (UTC)
Yes, that's what I meant--lack of clarity, bah. But that's really interesting! I know nothing about the antiquarian movement, except that...there was one, but I can see how that could affect the way historians started thinking about how to construct their histories.

And I'll have to keep that in mind about the Dunnett books--I *hate* it when a book ends on an evil cliffhanger and I don't have the next book near to hand!
La Reine Noire: Studious Veronicalareinenoire on March 27th, 2009 11:56 am (UTC)
Yeah, the antiquarians are an odd bunch, though not quite as much fun to read in my opinion. I apparently like my histories to include occasional prophecies of doom and invented speeches. ;) You do get some really interesting interrogations of how history is written at about the middle of the sixteenth century -- my favourites turn up in the Mirror for Magistrates, where all the ghosts keep bitching about how the historians have their own agendas and aren't telling the truth.

Dunnett is very, very good at cliffhangers, although the first books in both series are not quite as evil as some of the later ones, when you really become invested in the characters.
tempestsarekind: peddlers of bombasttempestsarekind on March 27th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
Well, who doesn't love a good prophecy of doom? :) And that's yet another reminder that I really need to read the rest of the Mirror for Magistrates; I read the Richard II bit, since I'm trying to cobble something together on that play for my advisor, and I hadn't realized before how *weird* that text is.
La Reine Noire: Studious Veronicalareinenoire on March 27th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
Oh, it is a weird text -- but such a fun text too. I'm convinced Baldwin et al were smoking something very, very special.
tempestsarekind: viola giggletempestsarekind on March 27th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC)
Well, clearly garden-variety ale wouldn't do it, since *everyone* was on that. :) I wish I could remember where I'd read the theory that many of the Elizabethan Daft Plans could have been due to ergotism... all I know is that it wasn't the same place where someone proposed that the Salem Witch Trials were also due to ergotism.
starhud5: North and Southstarhud5 on March 29th, 2009 01:53 pm (UTC)
I can't walk into a bookstore without coming out with something new. Books are impossible to resist!
tempestsarekind: freema reading is sexytempestsarekind on March 29th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)
Oh, they definitely are. Which wouldn't be so bad if I had a) money; and b) expandable shelves!