Reading historical fiction varies by country – part 1

After looking at survey results through a gender lens, I thought readers might be interested in a country lens. I’ve chosen to compare US and UK, since these countries had the most participants. One hypotheses is that favourite authors will vary – let’s see what emerges.

NOTE: I’ve looked for questions prompting significant differences rather than minor variations that are unlikely to be statistically relevant. Additionally, on a percentage basis more men participated in the UK group than the US.

What type of story appeals to you?

Story Preferences US & UK

Preferred time periods:

In some cases, US and UK readers prefer different time periods.

  • 3000 BC to 1000 AD: UK 34%, US 16%
  • 6th to 12th centuries UK 44%, US 27%
  • 17th Century UK 19%, US 33%
  • 18th Century UK 25%, US 45%

Reflecting on your favourite historical fiction books, how relatively important are the following factors?

While factors such as superb writing and the dramatic arc of historical events were of similar importance to US and UK readers, other factors showed wider variation.

Characters both heroic and human: UK 51% said it was very important, US a whopping 65%

Romance and/or sex: UK 56%, US 37% said this factor was unimportant; Hmm that’s interesting.

Where do you purchase/acquire books?

There was a marked difference in library usage with UK at 25% and US at 38%

What book format are you reading?

While e-book usage and mixed e-book and print had small variations, mostly print books showed a larger discrepancy: UK 50%, US 39%

Price Considerations:

On average, UK readers look for cheaper pricing of e-books than US readers

Where do you find recommendations for good books?

From Facebook, Goodreads or other social media: UK 39%, US 55%

And in contrast, browsing the book store: UK 53%, US 39% and from the books section of my newspaper: UK 23%, US 11%

Do you use blogs, social media or other online sites for reading recommendations or discussion?

Yes: UK 68%, US 83%

My head is spinning, so I’ll save the conclusions and insights for you, dear readers. On Thursday I’ll post the favourite authors by country.

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Summer QueenWhen I began THE SUMMER QUEEN by Elizabeth Chadwick – a signed copy, I might add – I promised myself I would read it purely for pleasure rather than with pen in hand to take notes or mark passages for further examination. And I did just that. However, since my mind is still humming with the pleasure of Chadwick’s story, I thought I would use the top attributes of favourite historical fiction from the 2013 historical fiction survey to explain my enthusiasm for this novel.

(1) Feeling immersed in time and place – As a reader of historical novels, I expect to be transported to another world and in this case I was ready to dwell in the early 12th century the moment I opened The Summer Queen. In the very first chapter, descriptions of household activities, garments worn, food served and a pilgrimage to Compostela set the scene immediately. Ancient terms enter the text, dialogue reflects a time of very different customs and manners, we progress from place to place feeling the ache of long hours on horseback and the dust of the road, a gyrfalcon marks Alienor’s power and position.

“The bed itself was blessed with much sprinkling of holy water, and then Louis was guided to the left side of the bed and Alienor to the right, the better to ensure the conception of a son.”

This was a time when men had all the power and the church influenced so many decisions. Women were pawns in marriages that served only to bring land or curtail the influence of some enemy. Despite being a mere female, Alienor discovers and nurtures her own power base – sexuality, intellect, fierce determination, and the steadfast loyalties of her people.

(2) Superb writing – Chadwick’s prose effortlessly blends narration, description and dialogue. Each chapter advances the story with tension and drama, never with superfluous detail or tangential storylines. Dialogue reflects the time and circumstances of the characters and yet is easy for today’s readers to understand. In terms of emotional resonance, I identified with Alienor’s desire to protect Aquitaine, understood her efforts to support Louis and others who depended on her. My heart ached when hers did and I could appreciate how Louis’s disdain and behind-the-scenes maneuvering undermined their marriage. The plot offered many twists and turns – in that era no woman of substance and fortune could take her life’s path for granted.

“Swords of sunlight cleft the clouds and illuminated the pilgrim church of the Madeleine crowing the hill of Vezelay … as if the fingertips of God were reaching down to touch the abbey in benediction.”

(3) Characters both heroic and human – Alienor, Louis, Geoffrey de Rancon, Henry, Geoffrey of Anjou, are examples of characters both heroic and human. Chadwick is careful to let us see their strengths as well as their flaws. Each character comes alive through description, action and dialogue. Alienor, in particular, is magnificently drawn – shining in tempestuous energy and heartfelt longing. And we can readily understand, and even sympathize with, Louis’s flawed personality. Towards the end, Henry bursts on the scene and I am eager to know more about him in The Winter Crown.

(4) Authentic and educational – Chadwick delivers on historical fact without overwhelming the story, concentrating events on people who are critical to understanding Alienor’s life and times. We learn about food, fashion, political strategies, royal tensions, border disputes, the second crusade, the role of the church and so much more. Language of the time is used sparingly, allowing the reader to appreciate unfamiliar terms without being confused.

“the servants spread a trestle under the rich blue sky”

“wrapped in a warm mantle lined with the pelts of Russian squirrels”

“Louis took a mouthful of wine, swilled it around his mouth, and leaned over his destrier’s withers to spit it out.”

(5) Dramatic arc of historical events – as the first novel in the trilogy, The Summer Queen gives us Alienor from the age of thirteen to the dissolution of her marriage to Louis VII and the first few years with Henry II. Chapter by chapter, Elizabeth Chadwick selects only the important characters and events of that time, never burdening the story with too much historical detail. Drama stalks every scene. The stakes are high. Alienors future is uncertain from the time of her father’s death; her position frequently threatened. She leaves her child to accompany Louis on crusade and loves a man she cannot have. Powerful men attempt to thwart her at every turn. Happiness is never a certainty. Death lurks and quickly overcomes. Throughout, tension was palpable and the pages flew by.

The Summer Queen is truly superb. Bravo, Elizabeth Chadwick.

Favourite historical fiction authors – a 1902 perspective

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 9.07.29 AMEileen Iciek and I met through Goodreads after I posted a note about the 2013 favourite historical fiction authors and Eileen responded by referencing a 1902 list of favourite historical fiction. A 1902 list? WOW. I immediately asked Eileen whether she would write a blog post and, to my delight, she agreed. Here’s Eileen’s thoughts based on that 1902 list.

In January 1902, a man named Jonathan Nield published “A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales.”  I happened across it one day as a free download from Amazon for my Kindle, not realizing at first that it was over one hundred years old. Once I realized its age, I was unsure what I might find, but decided to rummage through it out of curiosity.

Mr. Nield’s introduction provided his definition of historical novel: “A novel is rendered Historical by the introduction of dates, personages, or events, to which identification can be readily given.”  Not exactly how it is commonly defined today, but good enough for the time.  A couple of other observations I gleaned from his opening comments were first, that the issue with anachronisms in historical fiction in one that authors of the genre have experienced since the beginning.  He said he had not included some books, despite their popularity, due to their blatant anachronisms.  Second, at that time the terms “historical novel” and “romance” were almost interchangeable.  He often referred to “historical romance” synonymously with “historical novel,” while today historical romance would be considered a subgenre.

There were no bestseller lists at that time (at least that I am aware of) so Mr. Nield simply listed historical novels he had either read or knew to be good.  From his 168-page book, I did an unscientific listing of the authors whose names seemed to pop up most frequently, and used that as an approximation of popularity.  One thing was immediately obvious: in the recent 2013 listing of most popular authors, 15 of the top 20 were women.  In 1902, of the 24 I noticed most often, 22 of them were men.

It was also clear the ancient Romans, the Tudors, and Mary, Queen of Scots have fascinated authors of historical fiction since the beginning.  Not to say that other times and places did not receive attention, particularly the Napoleonic period, but Caesar, Henry VIII and the Scots queen have captivated writers and their audiences for a long time.

I saw only twenty-three books on Nield’s list that I thought are still known or read with any frequency.  They are:

  • Ben Hur – Lew Wallace
  • Quo Vadis – H. Sienkiewicz
  • The Last Days of Pompeii – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  • Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Alexandre Dumas
  • The Prince and the Pauper – Mark Twain
  • The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  • Lorna Doone – Richard Blackmore
  • The Master of Ballantrae – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Last of the Mohicans – James Fennimore Cooper
  • A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  • The Man Without a Country – Edward Everett Hale
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  • Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
  • Middlemarch –George Eliot
  • The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
  • The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Tom Jones – Henry Fielding
  • The Vicar of Wakefield – Oliver Goldsmith
  • Adam Bede – George Eliot

Not all of the authors of the books listed above are included on the list [Nield’s list] of the most popular writers.  For example, George Eliot has two books listed, but her output was not sufficient to get more than a few books recorded compared to the many books others produced.  I chose to list only Scott’s Ivanhoe, simply because I knew so little about his many other books.  The Man Without a Country is actually a short story (tale).  And there are a few odd omissions by Nield, such as that of Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The authors most frequently listed in Nield’s compendium were prolific in an age when writing was done largely by hand.  I lost track of the number of books written by Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas who stand atop the list as the most frequently listed authors still extant.  Many of the other writers’ books can be found on Amazon as free downloads to Kindle readers; some authors and their books, however, have become too obscure to be listed.

The most frequently listed authors I noted on the 1902 list were:

  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Alexandre Dumas
  • A.J. Church
  • Georg Ebers
  • J.M. Ludlow
  • C.W. Whistler
  • A.D. Crake
  • G.A. Henty
  • J.G. Edgar
  • Edward Bulwer Lytton
  • G.P.R. James
  • Charlotte Yonge
  • E. Gilliat
  • Stanley Weyman
  • G.J. Whyte-Melville
  • James Fennimore Cooper
  • S.R. Keightley
  • Emma Marshall
  • Ronald Macdonald
  • S.H. Burchell
  • William Makepeace Thackery
  • Walter Besant
  • C.D.G. Roberts
  • Robert Louis Stevenson

My apologies to anyone who might choose to check these results – they were only my own observations of frequently noted names and may not be wholly accurate.

Finally, I should mention the authors included in Nield’s list that I had known for works that were not historical fiction, but who had published a historical novel or two.  I was most surprised to find that Winston Churchill, aged 27 at the time Nield’s book was published and not yet widely known, had written two historical novels good enough to be included, one set during the American Revolution, and one during the U.S. Civil War.  Others included were Balzac, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Emil Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Mary Shelley, H. Rider Haggard, George Sand and F. Hodgson Burnett.  Flaubert’s novel was set during the Carthage-Rome conflict, of all things.  Mary Shelley’s foray into the genre was titled Perkin Warbeck.  The fact that these writers produced and had some success with historical fiction demonstrates, I believe, the continuing popularity and influence of this genre.

Many thanks for this, Eileen! It’s a fascinating look back in time. From my perspective, I’ve read only a few of the authors Nield mentioned which means there’s much more exploring to be done in this wonderful genre. For those interested in pursuing Nield’s book further, you can check it out on Project Gutenberg or as a free download from Amazon.