New College of the Humanities

Historical Fiction

Jay Margrave’s The Nine Lives of Kit Marlowe (Goldenford, £8.99) follows the ‘mercurial’ playwright after he fakes his own death by stabbing in Deptford to escape his enemies. Kit becomes Christabel as Marlowe becomes a woman and, together with his friend Tom Priedeux, travels the Continent from the Netherlands to Italy, having various japes and scrapes, and undertaking some shady missions on behalf of European Protestantism (a more scurrilous, amusing and thoughtful version of this kind of thing can be found in Thomas Nashe’s 1594 drama The Unfortunate Traveller).

All the while Marlowe is writing plays sent home to be performed as Protestant propaganda under Shakespeare’s name. He meets John Dee, Galileo and various characters who will turn up in his creations (Dromio, Shylock, a magical character named ‘Orepsorp’, a gentleman from Verona). The book is pretty light, if not at times trite, and the comprehension of the drama of both Shakespeare and Marlowe is not sophisticated (women are good, cross-dressing is interesting, power is bad, Jews are OK).

It needs to be pointed out forcefully that Marlowe did not write Shakespeare’s plays (for a witty, readable and unarguable rebuttal of the various conspiracy theories see James Shapiro’s 2010 study Contested Will). Any contribution to the myth of Marlowe is welcome, however, and the jolly fun that is had here reflects the continuing fascination of this complex and challenging figure.  

Staying in early modern Europe The Ground is Burning (Faber, £12.99) by Samuel Black is nothing if not ambitious in its recounting of the various encounters between Cesare Borgia, Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci. It is accomplished, if static – the writing is quite underwhelming and the book lacks bite and purpose even in its most dramatic moments. In some ways this is intentional – Black shifts viewpoint and narrator relentlessly in an attempt to tell his story in a multiple, complex fashion. The coldness of the vision of the past is partly, too, a way of showing the development of a new way of behaving and thinking as a human that is becoming articulated through the deeds and work of the three principal characters. Black shows the historical otherness (to us) of a different agency and the beginnings of an introspective self-identification that we might recognise as ‘early modern’.

In contrast, Michael Byrne’s no-nonsense, no-frills, no-brain thriller The Genesis Plague (Simon & Schuster, £7.99) sets out to achieve for biblical history what The Da Vinci Code undertook – to show the public just how they have been misled and how the past might still live and affect (and infect) the present. It presents us with a biblical plague that attacks men with Arabic DNA, found in Lilith’s tomb and deployed in Iraq by a vengeful American Christian evangelist. The story is compelling but really quite silly – excellent fun for the beach but, in comparison to its forebears by Dan Brown, Steve Berry or Michael Cordy, it is significantly lacking in historical weight or narrative thrills.

The reissue of Johnny Red (Titan Books, £14.99), however, makes Byrne’s war adventuring look tame. Based on the true story of a British wartime fighter pilot who found his way to a Russian airbase, Johnny Red is a classic from the pages of Battle comic of the 1970s. It presents a pretty one-dimensional account of the war in Russia (shifty authorities, heroic and honourable pilots, vengeful petty officers) but it is undeniably exciting and brilliantly drawn. It is a nostalgic reissue but also shows a dynamism in British historical comic writing that has been hitherto missed and which should be celebrated. Far more complex than Boy’s Own versions of warfare, Johnny Red deals openly and thoughtfully with the grimness of war and particularly the horrors of the siege of Leningrad.

An unexpected gem is Margaret Leroy’s The Collaborator (Mira, £7.99), an account of a relationship between a German soldier and a lonely and despair-ing woman, Vivienne de la Mare, in occupied Guernsey in 1940. Leroy uses the isolation of the island to explore the tensions in historical fiction between the domestic and the wider ‘historical’ narrative, while always pointing to the importance of what is happening emotionally. The war is played out in a macro and a micro fashion in Vivienne’s lovelife, giving real emotional punch to the story. The focus on the relationship between her and her German lover Gunther offers insights into the fracturing horror of combat while remaining on the sidelines. Yet concentrating on the self and the family and ignoring the explosion and viciousness of wartime is what romantic historical fiction generally does. Vivienne and (by extension) the novel implicitly disavow that fracturing horror, or withdraw from it, and so Leroy uses her protagonist to reflect more widely upon the moral and ethical choices inherent in writing such work. Vivienne cuts herself off from the outside, preferring to consider only what happens in her house (and her bedroom, a sanctuary itself within the house). Yet the novel demonstrates that to attempt to step outside of history, is a dereliction of duty, even if doing one’s duty is heart-breaking and emotionally illogical.

Kate Quinn’s Daughters of Rome (Headline, £12.99) puts women at the centre of her story – relatively uncommon in writing about Rome – but also includes Nero, war, spying, chariots and a dazzling array of characters. It is an engaging and easy read. Peter Ransley’s Plague Child (Harper Press, £12.99) is a breathless dash through the complexities of the English Civil Wars. Part of a projected trilogy, the novel has an engaging hero in Tom Neave, a child found in a plague pit.

David Rose’s Vault: An Anti-Novel (Salt Publishing, £8.99) is a curious book that combines cycling, spying, vigilante actions in postwar Europe and a debate about Britain’s nuclear development after the Windscale accident of 1957. There are some lovely touches: the account of cycling – training, racing, the feel and heft of being in the saddle – is especially good. Rose alternates a noirish spy story about an independent, loner figure (McKuen) with the recollections of the man on whom the story is based (the two accounts do not tally well). This formal innovation does not really seem to have much purpose but it is a diverting literary game. Vault is published by Salt Press, an admirable independent publisher that is worthy of your time (as are, within a very healthy UK contemporary independent publishing scene, Comma Press, Nightjar Press and Persephone Books, which specialises in publishing forgotten novels and short stories by important female writers from Cicely Hamilton to Diana Athill).

Speaking of important and neglected women writers brings us neatly to the much-loved but often unrewarded Beryl Bainbridge, who died after a short illness last year. Bainbridge famously never won the Man Booker prize despite being shortlisted five times. The Man Booker this year honoured her writing by arranging a ‘Best of Beryl Booker’ popular vote in April won by her 1998 novel of the Crimean War, Master Georgie. Bainbridge’s sharp, astringent novels are excellent historical fictions, particularly Master Georgie, Every Man For Himself (about the Titanic, 1996) and Birthday Boys (about Scott’s failure in Antarctica, 1991). If they have not already done so, readers should seek her out.

Similarly being feted posthumously this year is David Foster Wallace, whose ‘new’ novel The Pale King (Hamish Hamilton, £20) is set in an IRS office during the 1980s. Wallace’s editor and widow put the book together from notes, drafts and computer files. Foster Wallace was a master of the long, rambling, digressive (and usually very funny) sentence and his novels wind around themselves while expressing quite unsettling things about grief, sadness and alienation. He repays attention, although he is not an easy read.

Another great American writer being lauded this year is Philip Roth, who was awarded the International Booker Award in May. Roth has been in the running for the past years for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is obsessed with the ways in which the past impels and impacts upon the present and throughout his career he has dwelt on historical periods as a means of conceptualising modern American identity. His later period has been incredibly prolific and rich, from key works such as the counterfactual history The Plot Against America (2004) to the elegiac Nemesis (2010). If you were to read just one work by him, however, then it should be his raging, spiralling, bleak masterwork of alienation and emotional disarticulation, American Pastoral (1997), which is by turns compelling and unreadable, emotionally raw and precisely wrought.

Jerome de Groot is the author of The Historical Novel (Routledge, 2009).

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