Guest Post: Another Side to the Story

This week I bring the second Historical January guest, Bryony from Re: Read Pages.

Another Side to the Story

Historical fiction is my go-to genre when I want a good read. A good historical fiction can take you to a place far away but familiar or make the past feel more immediate as you immerse yourself in a different time. The details – language, clothing, social customs –that make historical fiction great are difficult to pull off. Doubly so if an author decides to build off of an established, and often beloved, story or character. This literary sub-genre is one of my favourites.

My first brush with historical adaptation came with the reading of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. First published in 1966, the novel is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and tells the story of the madwoman in the attic, Rochester’s first wife. Rhys gives depth and life to a character that was otherwise just a stumbling block to true love. Brontë is only one of many authors whose works have inspired adaptation.

Understandably, one of the writers frequently hit up for adaptation is Shakespeare. With his memorable characters, layered plotlines, and unforgettable language, Shakespeare provides a strong, well-known foundation on which other writers can build.

Over the holiday, in addition to some great meals, I devoured the novel Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen. As the title indicates, Leveen’s novel takes place in the story of Romeo and Juliet (no pressure) and tells the story Angelica, the bawdy Nurse in the famous tragedy.

18773488Angelica enters the service of Juliet’s house as a wet-nurse after losing her own daughter, stillborn, the same night as Juliet enters the world. The first part of the novel covers the first three years of Juliet’s life and shows the bond forged between woman and child as well as revealing Angelica’s history and love-filled marriage to the kind Pietro.

Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy and so, too, Leveen’s story carries tragedy and by the second part of the novel, Angelica, in one form or another, is left with only Juliet to love and to be loved by. This fierce and desperate love is tested as Romeo enters the story.

Juliet’s Nurse hits all the sweet spots: interesting original story, good use of source material, and wonderfully integrated historical detail. One example of all three of these achievements is Leveen’s use of the plague throughout the novel. The famous line, “A plague a both your houses!,” said by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet after being stabbed by Tybalt, is given full weight in Juliet’s Nurse.

In the first half of the story, it is revealed that Angelica and Pietro lost six sons to the plague years before Juliet (and their surprise last daughter) was born. At one point Leveen writes a beautiful passage about the emotional experience of living, while others do not, through the plague. The full passage is heart-wrenching, but here is a small excerpt:

“I still catch sight of Donato or Enzo or any of my boys, out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes I see them at the age they were when death snatched them, and sometimes as the age they’d be now, every one of them grown tall. Sometimes they’re some age in between, so I’m not certain from the fleeting features which son I saw, those beautiful last faces blending one into another.”

In passages such as the one quoted above, Leveen’s writing and storytelling shines. She makes good use of the snippets of information Shakespeare provided about the Nurse, who, in the play, has the third-largest number of lines behind only the title characters. Seeing Juliet’s life from the one closest to her provides an interesting companion read to the famous play and is a wonderful addition to the genre of historical adaptation.

If you want try more authors who have tackled this genre, you can check out Geraldine Brooks (March), Jo Baker (Longbourn) or John Updike (Gertrude and Claudius). And please come visit my blog, re: read pages, to discuss historical fiction, writing, and more. Happy reading!

***** About the Blogger *****

 ~ Bryony Lewicki ~

~ Re: Read Pages ~

I can’t remember not having at least one book on the go, whether being read to by my mother when I was little or picking out books on my own as I got older. Reading is part of my lifestyle. Books come with me wherever I go.

Writing is something I do hidden away. I have non-fiction published but fiction, the stuff from my own imagination, that has stayed firmly in my own head.

I studied journalism and English literature with a side of creative writing and film studies. I am currently writing a novel set in 15th century Italy about a young girl who wanted to join a convent rather than get married but gets caught up with Borgia family (the real life papal family) after meeting Lucrezia Borgia, the pope’s daughter.

Guest Post: What Makes a Successful Historical Fiction Novel?

I am excited today to bring the first guest on the blog for January’s feature focusing on historical fiction. Today, blogger Melissa Beck from The Book Binder’s Daughter is taking over!

What makes a successful historical fiction novel?

One of my favorite genres to review on my blog is historical fiction.  I started reading historical fiction several years back when I picked up Phillipa Gregory’s novels about Henry VIII and the Tudors Dynasty.

What, exactly, constitutes an historical fiction novel?   For me it is really any book that puts the reader in the mindset of a previous period of time and era.  Some books are obviously historical fiction, like those set in 19th century Britain, or during World War II.  But what about a book that is set in the 1980’s or 1990’s?  Would that be considered historical fiction as well?  I would answer yes to this question because during those two decades there were no cell phones with texting, no computers with internet, or e-mail.  Without all of these advancements, especially in technology, we are indeed reminded of a different era in time.

What makes an historical fiction novel a great read?  Like any other book, an historical fiction novel should have interesting characters with which one can sympathize, no matter what the setting.  The plot should also be interesting and contain themes that will keep the reader thinking long after the last page is finished.   An historical fiction novel will stand out, in my mind, if it makes the reader want to know more about the time period in which it is set.

21894404For example, this summer was the anniversary of the centenary of World War I, so I decided to read and review a series of historical fiction books set during The Great War.  I chose 6 novels, all with different settings that also highlighted various countries that were involved in the conflict.  I learned a great deal about World War I and I kept researching various aspects of the war which these books brought up.

One of the best I read was The End of Innocence by Allegra Jordan.  It focused on a group of Harvard students from different countries who were called to fight when war broke out.  Even though these young men were friends and classmates at school, when they were called to fight for their respective countries they became enemies on the battlefield.  History books tend to focus on dates and numbers and facts; but this novel gave me a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices that these soldiers, these human beings, made when going off to war.

I have to end my post with a mention of the best historical fiction novels I have ever read.  It is actually a series of two books written by Stuart Shotwell:  Edumund Persuader and Tomazina’s Folly.  They are both set in England in the early 19th century.  These books are the perfect storm of historical fiction greatness with memorable characters, engaging plots and interesting themes.  They explore topics such as love, marriage, redemption, forgiveness, and pride just to name a few.  They will not only make you appreciate the setting of 19th century England, but they will also make you become more contemplative about your own life in the 21st century.  I invite you to stop by my blog and read the full reviews of these books as well as the plethora of other great historical fiction novels I have reviewed.

***** About the Blogger *****

 ~ Melissa Beck ~

~ The Book Binder’s Daughter ~

profile-picture2-e1403752257961I am a High School Latin/Ancient Greek/History teacher, avid reader, N.Y. Giants fan, and Rush (as in Canadian Prog. rock) fan. Some might say that my reading choices are rather eclectic.  I enjoy reading a wide range of books from Classics to historical fiction, to history and travel writing.  I especially like to support small press and indie authors.

I read serious literary fiction with well-developed characters, mellifluous prose and an interesting plot.  The philosophy behind my blog is threefold; I spread the word about books through my reviews to readers who are likeminded, I give away books to my readers to spread around the enjoyment of good books. Lastly I believe it is important to help authors connect a bit more with their readers through interviews and guest posts.

The best way for me to enjoy a good book is with a cup of Chinese black tea, steeped with the correct temperature of hot water and for just the right amount of time and finished off with a splash of raw milk.

My father was a book binder for 44 years, so yes, I actually am the “Book Binder’s Daughter.”

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