Historical Fiction Round-up March 2011

In television criticism there is a phrase ‘jumping the shark’, used when a series gets too excessive, bereft of inspiration, or just plain silly. The heft of authenticity that gave the television series such authority is lost and writers take refuge in placing characters in ever more preposterous situations (the phrase comes from the Fonz in Happy Days literally leaping over a shark whilst waterskiing). Putting hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake on the Mary Rose as it sinks into the Solent seems to me to be the moment that C.J. Sansom’s excellent sequence of books about his spiky central character threatens to hurdle that large fish. Previous outings (Sovereign and Revelation) had set the bar high – the novels are taut and thoughtful, well written and compelling. Heartstone (Mantle, £18.99) by comparison is flabby, often tedious and would benefit from some judicious editing at 630 pages (although I concede that the previous books were equally long).

Heartstone takes Shardlake and his trusty clerk Jack Barak to Portsmouth during the preparations to repel the French invasion of 1545. There are various intrigues, plots and simmering tensions, which Sansom navigates with his characteristic authority, but the crimes feel laboured and the explication often pointless. One of the virtues of historical crime fiction, that Sansom demonstrates exceptionally well, is the deployment of what seem to be contemporary ‘noirish’horrors – madness, sexual deviance, corruption, serial killing – within a particular past context. Heartstone has many of these, including the literal dredging of a body up from the past, yet the novel is still lacking in punch and feels a bit tired, or at least in need of revivification.

If you’re after novels of court intrigue and conspiracy you might choose either James Forrester’s zingy Sacred Treason (Headline Review, £12.99) with hammy turns by Francis Walsingham and Sir William Cecil (‘men who made Elizabeth great and all-seeing, all-powerful and favoured by God’); or Philippa Gregory’s The Red Queen (Simon & Schuster, £18.99), a cold-eyed retelling of the life of Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry Tudor). Both are juicy and preposterously sensational. As ever there is a lot of warfare about. Robyn Young follows her Brethren trilogy with the first in another series. Insurrection (Hodder & Stoughton, £17.99), shifting the focus north to Scotland and the knotty politics of the 13th-century Wars of Independence. In particular Young’s novel outlines the rise and various military and political vacillations of a young Robert Bruce. The material is fascinating but, as with Brethren, much of the book is one-dimensional and the supernatural elements (Scottish witchcraft, English Merlinolatory) feel laboured. There are many shouting councils, confusing alliances and machinations; to this is added static dialogue and stiff, unyielding prose.

Adrian Goldsworthy’s True Soldier Gentlemen (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) draws some good contrasts between English Regency society and the Peninsular War sustaining it. The novel is quite leaden, with the awkwardness of the title telling you all you need to know about the prose.

Another Historical Fiction round up, another new take on the works of Jane Austen, who appears to be continually ripe for creative reanimation, and this batch is no exception, as Goldsworthy introduces Lieutenant Wickham and his wife Lydia, sauntering in from the pages of Pride and Prejudice to no great effect.

In contrast to these tales of plotting and violence Ann Featherstone’s The Newgate Jig (John Murray, £19.99) is a diverting and enjoyable romp through the Victorian theatre with suitably creepy villains and an eccentric cast ranging from child actors to performing dogs. Featherstone evokes the idiom and the atmosphere of London’s seedy but honest theatreland and her feel for the time is paramount – the narrative, while important, is superseded by the characterisation and fascination with entertaining detail. It is a fun and fresh take on a relatively well-trodden period, enhanced by Featherstone’s expertise in the field of 19th-century theatrical history. Similarly unusual and engaging is Jean Teulé’s Monsieur de Montespan (translated by Alison Anderson, Gallic Press, £7.99), which tells the story of ‘the most famous cuckold in French history’ (and a man who sought his wife returned to him from the arms of Louis XIV) and which is satisfyingly excessive and bawdy.

The best historical novel I have read recently, though, is Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering (Penguin Classics, £9.99) first published in 1815. If you’ve a gap in your reading you could do worse than return to the master.

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