So, today, we have Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil, authors of Black Arts. It's set in the Elizabethan era, with a load of magic, murder and mayhem. Definitely my kind of thing. So, seeing as the series will be a set of time-travel a
dventures, I have Prentice and Weil to talk about their favourite historical novels.
We started on this without realising it was a Top 10, and got a bit carried away on the first two. Doing the rest to the same level of detail would have meant writing a small book, so we had to cut things down to a shortened top 5 and a ‘best of the rest.’ No disrespect intended to Dumas, Tolstoy, Homer et al . . .
1. Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian
The adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and the secretive surgeon/naturalist/intelligence agent Stephen Maturin are the greatest historical epic ever written. Roll over Hornblower; never mind the Iliad; you can keep Wolf Hall: this is the true heady wine of historical fiction.
The stories take place in a time of war, and both main characters are warriors – Aubrey the frigate captain, leaping over smoking cannon to board the enemy quarterdeck; Maturin the spy, caught up in the lethal web of secret intelligence. O’Brian captures the tension, horror and joy of combat like few other writers, but the real strength of the series lies in the overarching stories he is telling. These are trials of love, career, money, honour and friendship that we all go through, even though we live in a less heroic age than Aubrey and Maturin.
So O’Brian gets us twice over. It’s impossible to put down any one of these books without finding out whether Aubrey will succeed in saving the East India convoy from Admiral Linois, or if Maturin will escape the murderous wiles of the French in Boston. It’s impossible not to pick up the next one because we are always left with other questions: will Aubrey lose all his fortune to canal-building conmen? Will his wife find out he’s been cheating? Will Maturin ever win the heart of the beautiful, man-eating adventuress Diana Villiers?
O’Brian uses real letters, log-books and reports from the Napoleonic period; his dialogue is pitch-perfect; and his writing captures not only the things he is describing, but the mentality of the people who are looking at them, too. This is something very few writers manage quite so well, and it is what makes these books such a delight.
There’s a quote from Evelyn Waugh that Penguin include on their editions of P. G. Wodehouse:
‘Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.’
Jeeves and Wooster might be a very different kettle of kippers from Aubrey and Maturin. But still, this is exactly how I feel about Patrick O’Brian: ‘he has made a world for us to live and delight in’ – a magic escape hatch from captivity.
I always wonder when George Macdonald Fraser first got the idea: taking the villain from one famous novel, and making him the hero of another. He must have known early on he was onto a winner. From the very first pages of Flashman, what shines through the most is how much outrageous fun he is having writing it.
Harry Flashman is the school bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a pious Victorian account of boarding school life by Thomas Hughes. Tom Brown goes to Rugby School where Dr Arnold, the headmaster, is drumming up the ideal of “muscular Christianity”, hoping to mould a class of heroic “paladins” to run the British Empire. Young Tom laps it up. Flashman does not: he is a coward on the sports field and never the slightest bit Christian. He is finally expelled for ‘getting beastly drunk’ – and this is where George Macdonald Fraser takes up the story, written in Flashman’s own words.
Flashman is now an old man, with an utterly undeserved reputation as a hero. He takes perverse pleasure in the thought of the truth coming out after he is safely dead. If only those pious hypocrites knew what he was really like: well, now they will.
And so we get the disgraceful truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade, Custer’s Last Stand, and many another “glorious” episode – all told from the viewpoint of a cowardly, womanising shyster who is desperately trying to escape getting shot, stabbed, tortured or boiled to death (among many, many other Hideous Fates that Flashman narrowly avoids).
Flashman is scathing about genuine heroes, even when they’re helping him out – ‘mad and dangerous’ is how he describes John Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, as the latter sets off to rescue Mrs Flashman from head-hunting pirates. The one thing he hates more than an imperial glory-boy is the armchair historian who judges our colonial past from a safe distance. Flashman has earned the right to be cynical: the rest of us can shut up and listen.
In fact, you can learn a lot from reading these books: Fraser has a lot of fun adding his own footnotes and appendices to Flashman’s “papers,” weaving his anti-hero into the tapestry of real historical sources. (In once case he even cites a famous painting, ‘by a celebrated Victorian painter of military scenes, T. J. Barker. The mounted figure raising his hand in acclamation may indeed be intended to be Flashman.’)
Harry Flashman has everything you need in an anti-hero: a real streak of villainy, along with enough charm to make us root for him in spite of everything. And as the series progresses, I begin to get a sneaking suspicion that he isn’t quite the coward he claims to be. Once his reputation is (falsely) established, it feeds off itself. At the battle of Ferozeshah, enduring a ferocious artillery bombardment and staring the largest army in India in the face, Flashman wants to cut and run: he only stays because he is ‘under the eye of his Chief.’ In true Flashman style, he explains that this is yet another example of his cowardice: ‘I hadn’t the game for it.’ Maybe “real” heroes are actually no different – overcoming gut-churning terror because they fear disgrace even more than death.
Flashman has his own answer to this sort of amateur psychologising. Years after his expulsion from Rugby, he meets Tom Brown by chance in a London pub. Flashman is freshly returned from Afghanistan, the hero of the army. Tom wants him to join his cricket team. He thinks he has finally seen the real Flashman:
‘ “I’m beginning to understand you, I think. Even at school . . . you were going out of your way to have ’em think ill of you. It’s a contrary thing – all at odds with the truth, isn’t it? Oh aye . . . Afghanistan proved that, all right. The German doctors are doing a lot of work on it – the perversity of human nature, excellence bent on destroying itself, the heroic soul fearing its own fall from grace, and trying to anticipate it. Interesting.” ’
Flashman’s first reaction is ‘to tell him to take his offer along with his rotten foreign sermonising and drop ’em both in the Serpentine.’ But the chance to win glory on Lord’s cricket ground is too tempting, so instead he accepts. On the day, of course, Flashman cheats – and wins yet another gloriously undeserved, flashy victory.
3. War and Peace
Tolstoy’s masterpiece centres around the warm-hearted, aristocratic Rostov family, whose world is torn apart by Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. At the heart of the story is one of the greatest heroines of all time – the courageous, headstrong and captivating Natasha. We also get two very different heroes in Pierre Bezukov and Prince André Bolkonsky, as well as a huge cast of lesser characters (‘lesser’ only in the context of a book like this: other writers would kill to have any one of them as a full-fledged hero or heroine).
Reading the book for the first time aged twelve, I found the first chapter hard going. It is set at a fashionable society gathering, where various characters are discussing the political situation, and the opening sentence – ‘ “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes” ’ – didn’t exactly set my blood racing. The next scene, with a drunken officer teetering on a windowsill to down a bottle of rum while his friends romp around the room with a young bear, was more promising. The one after that had the thirteen-year-old Natasha in it; I fell in love, and that was that.
This is another story that you can lose yourself in – another escape hatch, another magical door. You may find, as I did, that there’s a bit of a doorstep to get over; but once you’re through, many treasures await. Love, romance, treachery, the passion of loss, the agony of remorse; long, starving marches through the snow; torch-lit cross-dressing sleigh-rides at Christmas; drunken revels and disasters at the gaming-tables; the thrill of a girl’s first ball, and the exhilaration of a boy’s first battle. It’s a famously long book, but you’ll wish it went on forever.
4. The Three Musketeers
The ultimate swashbuckling heroes, often imitated, never surpassed – like James Bond, Mr Toad or Sherlock Holmes, the three musketeers have attained the status of legend. You don’t have to have read the book to know who they are: I first came across them aged about five, watching Dogtanian on Saturday mornings.
If all you know of Athos, Porthos and Aramis is the legend, it’s worth taking time to ride with the originals too. The book buckles more swash than any film version could ever fit in, and nothing but the book can do full justice to Milady de Winter, Dumas’ unstoppable, multi-murdering villainess.
5. Sword At Sunset
Rosemary Sutcliffe’s retelling of the Mort d’Arthur takes place in the dying days of the Roman Empire. The legions have withdrawn, and the Saxon barbarians are invading: for Britain, the Dark Ages have begun. Arthur is a Romano-British chieftain, trying to keep the light of civilisation alive.
Sutcliffe isn’t the first modern novelist to have had a stab at the Arthur story. T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone is a brilliant earlier example – but it is a fantasy novel, complete with chivalric trimmings and magical interventions. Sword at Sunset is historical: Arthur and his knights come alive as real people, in a living, complex world that is in danger of total destruction. The legend is all the more heart-wrenching as a result: the desperate struggle, the tragedy and the ultimate redemption by heroic sacrifice have never been more powerfully told.
. . . and the rest.
6. The Iliad by Homer
. . . OK, it’s not a novel. But it is a ripping old yarn – and it’s interesting that the book that many see as the wellspring of Western literature is itself looking back in time to a glorious heroic past . . .
7. These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
It was almost impossible to pick which one of Heyer’s historical romances to include here – but this one just ‘shaded it’ because it has my favourite male lead: the devilish, dashing rake-hell the Duke of Avon. Very few romance novels would dare to begin with the hero purchasing the heroine (who is disguised as a boy) from a tavern-keeper.
You know from the first chapter how it will end: but with Georgette Heyer that simply doesn’t matter. Her eighteenth century is vividly alive. Her dialogue is sharp, her frocks are splendid, and she is very, very funny.
8. The Happy Return by C. S. Forester
Forester’s much-loved hero, Horatio Hornblower, tackles megalomaniac South American potentates, overwhelming enemy forces and ill-starred love in this breathless page-turner. Without Hornblower, could there have been an Aubrey?
9. The Lion of Janina, or, the Last Days of the Janissaries by Mór Jókai
Subtitled ‘A Turkish Novel’, The Lion of Janina deals with what was at the time recent history; yet it reads more like a compendium of fairy tales than a “historical” novel. The central figure is Ali Pasha of Janina, the daredevil Albanian brigand, general, ruler and rebel who brought the mighty Ottoman Empire to its knees in the early nineteenth century. The telling is highly episodic, with whole chapters where Ali never appears that could be short stories in their own right. A rich brew of shipwrecks and smugglers, magical caves, warrior maidens, treacherous sons – you won’t have read anything else quite like it.
10. Leviathan by Boris Akunin
Erast Fandorin, a cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes in the service of Imperial Russia, investigates an unusual murder mystery aboard the steamship Leviathan. Fandorin is a charismatic hero who will have you laughing out loud with delight, and the mystery is heightened by the fractured narrative, told from the perspective of all the main characters including the murderer.