Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Charlecote Park – The National Trust

Morning everyone, wherever you are! 

As you may know, I am a lover of Victorian novels, and my love for all things Victorian meant that I was incredibly excited to visit Charlecote Park yesterday. It’s not too far from me, being near Wellsbourne, Stratford upon Avon. 

It’s a grand, elegant and beautiful Victorian house, belonging to the Lucy family for over 900 years. You may remember I mentioned Mary Elizabeth Lucy’s memoirs in a recent post. It was really special to experience her house, influenced by their many travels abroad, and their beautiful grounds with her book in the back of my mind. 

  
Within the house, we can only see the central part because the family still live here. The paintings were bold and proud, the wallpaper still in its original form in a number of the rooms dating back to the 1830s. 

  
For me, the library is impressive. It boasts of views across the River Avon, books all around, a comfortable fireplace for winter, and inviting seating. I could have happily moved in. Once more, it is easy to imagine the family reading together, and Mary writing her memoirs here for her grandchildren. 

    

As I’ve mentioned already, the grounds really were spectacular. Deer and sheep roam freely, and it is really quite beautiful and tranquil to see. It’s easy to see how inspiring this place is. 

   
 
One little anecdote that does make me smile from Charlecote, is it’s link to William Shakespeare. It is believed that a young Shakespeare was caught poaching deer from here and was sent to Magistrates court. In his ‘revenge’ it is also believed that in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the Lucy coat of arms, as well as a poaching incident are referenced, that the character of Justice Shallow is based on Sir Thomas Lucy. Naughty Shakespeare! 

  

There’s also a brilliant bookshop here – I picked up a bag full. Before I spoil it for you, make sure you visit yourself. It really is breathtaking. 

To find out more visit:

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/charlecote-park/ 

BL x

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Filed under Days Out, Historical Fiction, National Trust, Photography, Stratford upon Avon, UK, Victorian Lit

The Clothes On Their Backs – Linda Grant

  
Morning all!

Today, I’m going to review The Clothes on Their Backs. The Clothes on Their Backs was a really interesting, if not predictable novel. I’ve read a Linda Grant novel before, We Had It So Good, but I really did not enjoy it. I found it a bit flat. Therefore, I went into reading this novel with little expectations. I was surprised! The plot was seamlessly fluid. The themes are not lightweight, but the artful crafting of language makes it feel like you are breezing through the plot. The themes are as relevant today as they were when this novel was originally published in 2008, they tend to stay with you after you’ve read the novel. 

The novel centres around Vivien Kovaks. She comes from a family of Jewish-Hungairian immigrants who arrived in 1938. They are relieved and grateful to England for giving them refuge. Vivien is the niece of Sandor Kovacs. He is presented as a deeply layered character throughout the novel. He is a rent baron, who made his fortune from the new London Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the 50s and 60s. The houses were a disgrace and incredibly small. Violence was used to remove tenants that were deemed unprofitable. Grant notes that this character was inspired by Peter Rachman. 

Sandor is a distant figure in Vivien’s childhood. Her father, Ervin, alludes to a past history where her uncle is a bad character and influence. At this time, it is still secret. Vivien has a vivid memory of Sandor and his girlfriend at the time appearing at the door of the family’s London apartment. She was 10 years old. The visit from her uncle threatens to disrupt their new peaceful lives in England. Sandor had bought a Toblerone for his niece, which her father forbade Vivien to have. Instead, she saw the girlfriend eat it as they walked away. 

‘He opened the gilt clasp of the girl’s crocodile bag and pulled out a bar of Toblerone the size and weight of a hammer.’

Ervin is adamant that nothing good will come out of his brother, and rather predictably (Ervin’s opinion), 8 months later, Sandor is sent to prison in a blaze of newspaper headlines. It is here that Ervin decides to change one letter of their last name, in order to break away any links between himself and Sandor. Vivien, like any curious 10 year old, is fascinated by the colourful character she saw for a split second at the door. The men parallel each other. Ervin is repeatedly seen hiding behind the door, scared of everything, whereas Sandor is presented as open, honest with nothing to hide. 

“Don’t ask questions. No one ever had a quiet life by asking questions, and a life that isn’t peaceful is no life at all.” 

Whilst Sandor is in prison, Vivien’s life takes a dramatic and tragic turn. Her husband dies in a freak accident days into their honeymoon. She returns home to her parents where it seems she is destined to live her previous life. However, a chance encounter with Sandor in a park saves her. It’s obvious that they know each other’s identities, but Vivien and Sandor act as if they are really strangers. Vivien gives him a false name, Miranda, as she is employed as his secretary. Sandor is writing his memoirs and needs her to take notes. The story she is given appears to be the story she’s been searching for all her life: her history. Questions regarding her parents, her uncle, where they came from and why. 

‘There were several moments in this conversation when I could have told my uncle who I was, and there were times too, I later understood, when he could have revealed himself to me too, for her recognised me at once, and not because he had a good memory, but because my father had gloatingly gone to see him in prison…’

Here the plot splits into Sandor’s relevations regarding his life, and Vivien’s intimate relations with Claude, one of Sandor’s tenants. Initially skeptical of what she is being told, she does come to empathise with her uncle. Someone is bound to make a profit out of a bad situation, what’s the harm if it’s you? In the background of the plot, contextually, the rise of the National Front in the 1970s is gaining momentum, and there is a feeling of increasing racial tension within London. Sandor worries about his girlfriend, Eunice. Vivien hands out leaflets for the Anti-Nazi League. There is a growing feeling of unease that this is all going to explode. Of course, it does when Sandor throws Vivien a 25th birthday party. It’s lavish and beautiful and results in the two admitting who they are, partly because Vivien’s parents attend. 

Throughout that summer, my parents’ fear and paranoia had been growing, until their anxiety burst out on to the surface and what had been a dream existence, a pleasant half-life, suddenly seemed to them like a walking nightmare.’ 

The party, overall, was a success, despite her father insulting Eunice. Despite this, Vivien felt unable to return home, so her uncle gave her a flat for free and she continued to make notes on her uncle’s memoirs. She also spends a lot of time reading and being with Claude. Sandor and Eunice plan their wedding and move in together. Sandor is more and more concerned about the types of people in the area where Eunice lives and is desperate for her to move in with him. 

“A different class of person lives over there… And not a nice class.” 

Vivien and Claude’s sexual relationship comes to an end, as they argue about Viven’s abortion. Knowing that violence would be the answer, she remained vague regarding the details to her uncle. Nevertheless, Vivien walks in on her uncle, Claude, blood and a knife. Knowing the police would send Sandor back to prison, only an ambulance was ordered. Vivien makes the call, and the police come. It was the end of Sandor. 

‘My uncle was in a cell and as soon as I saw him, I knew he was finished. I could tell that he would not survive and he didn’t.’ 

The novel ends with Vivien back in her parents flat listening to the tapes of her uncle. She gives them to Eunice, who still defends her love Sandor. The circular narration of the plot means the novel ends with Vivien and Eunice, some years later, just as the novel started. We as a reader have been on a whole journey of Viven’s life throughout the space of just under 300 pages. Eunice persuades Vivien to buy a red dress in order to reinvent herself. Clothes in this novel act as a means to show how they make you feel. They are the disguise we can take on and off or discarded if we no longer want them. We can’t trust that Vivien really knows who she is, despite the events within the novel. 

‘Whether they are true or false (and I have no cause to doubt them), this past is the only one I’ve got, there is no other available.’ 

I really enjoyed this novel. It’s not overly political, it doesn’t punch you in the face, but it leaves you questioning the hypocrisy of it all. Is it predictable? Potentially. However, the novel is successful at presenting a female view of this period of time. The growing unease nationally matches the growing unease felt by Ervin. There is a reason why this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and why it won an Orange prize. Definitely worth a read. 

BL xx

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Letters From Home – Kristina McMorris

Now, I don’t normally read romance or history, but you should never say never. I saw this book in a shop and I’m not really too sure why, but it called to me. The word ‘unforgettable’ naturally jumps out of the page. With the ‘extraordinary’ that precedes it, this story is rather built up. Thankfully, I really enjoyed this novel. It was heart warming and emotional. I really bought into the story, the characters were also incredibly likable. It wasn’t overly sentimental or mushy, something else that I really appreciated. 

The novel opens in Chicargo, 1944, during World War II. It centres around a sparkling and lifelong friendship between three girls: Liz, Betty and Julia. Each girl is coming to a crossroad in their lives. Liz is engaged to be married to her childhood sweetheart, Dalton, but after meeting Morgan, a U.S. soldier at a USO dance, she is not so sure. Liz felt an immediate connection with him, but there was the slight problem of how he was being shipped out the next day. Julia is meant to marry the love of her own life, Christian, who is serving with overseas, but she is offered an internship at Vogue as a result of her incredible talent. However, if she takes it, she feels that this would mean sacrificing her relationship. Betty, repeatedly described as the prettiest girl, is trying to identify who she really is, when she meets Morgan, when Liz leaves the dance. Morgan does not understand why Liz left him, until the end of the novel. She decides to write to him whilst he’s serving overseas. 

The close relationship between Morgan and his brother Charlie is also rather moving. They show the usual ‘brother banter’ between each other, and yet, Morgan feels like he has to protect his brother, especially at war. Morgan wouls have been happy at home, on the farm, he thought it was the best thing to do to sign up as well and watch over his brother. Charlie is described as being very jokey and off the wall. He clearly needs his brother and at war, they needed each other. “Charlie! Where are you?” 

Betty, feeling unsure and having a lack of confidence with her letter writing, begs Liz to help her by writing the first letter. Liz naturally feels apprehension because of Dalton, however, she agrees, letting Morgan believe it is Betty writing to him. The letter motif is essential to this novel, it is what holds the plot together. In an age of emails, the letter is quite romantic. Who doesn’t get excited when they receive a personal letter? That same emotion is what kept both Liz and Morgan going during their own personal challenges; Liz and her relationship, Morgan and the war. 

Overtime, Liz and Morgan exchange many letters. They share their lives, secrets, thoughts and emotions. Their feelings grow and deepen over the year they spend writing. It is also through these letters that we gain a first hand experience of the scenes of war. I found these to be written in great depth with accurate detail. I felt like I could see and smell the associations with war. It was very moving. “I’m actually writing to you tonight crouched in one of those soggy holes. My knee sure doesn’t make a great desk, but with a grain of luck you’ll still be able to read most of this.”

Meanwhile, Betty decides that she too much help in the war effort, and uses her powers of persuasion to enlist in the Women’s Army Corp. Betty soon realises that war is difficult. She faces the injuries and sounds of men slowly dying. I have a massive respect for Betty. This showed another layer to her character other than the beautiful woman that she embodies so well. She too has a love affair of her own. It is only when she lets her guard down that she too ends up getting hurt, when she finds an incriminating photograph. “She felt her very soul being sucked away as she collapsed against the bed, the photo clinging to her hand.” Julia too receives her own heartbreak, and again I feel the description regarding the girls’ reactions is very well written. Liz too makes a life changing decision for herself and Dalton. 

As the war and the novel come to an end, both Liz and Morgan can’t wait to meet each other again. However, love clearly isn’t that simple as it is actually Betty who receives the telegram. When Betty and Morgan meet, naturally Betty has no idea what is going on, being in a jungle for the past year herself. By the closing stages of the novel, everything is tied up in a neat little bow. is too short not to say how you feel to the people you love.” I do feel like I’d like to know more about Julia, but that’s a minor criticism. 

This really is a good summer read and is well written with plenty of historical accuracies. I really felt like I could trust the novel because of the Kristina McMorris’s personal experiences within this novel, being as her grandfather fought in the war, something which is noted before the novel begins. “Respectfully dedicated to the veterans of World War II, a generation of heroes who, like my grandfather, fought valiantly and courageously to secure freedom for us all.” The letters from her grandparents gave her inspiration. For me, I felt all warm inside when I read this book. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but despite it being a genre I don’t normally read, I did enjoy it. A perfect summer read. 

Big love x

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Filed under American Literature, Book review, Historical Fiction

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

   

I first heard about this gem of a book when Penguin emailed me with a list of their latest top picks. Something appealed to me, I’m not quite sure what, but there was something about it. So I purchased it straight away. I wasn’t disappointed! In fact, I was gripped from start to finish.

‘this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.’ There is a distinct lack of punctuation and capital letters. The teacher in me dispairs at this, but it is crucial to the development and the consequences of this novel. It shows throughout the novel the importance of literacy and of learning to the protagonist, Mary. 

The book is divided into 4 sections to represent the seasons in one year. Each section starts with the above quote. She repeats in her first person narration the fact that this is her own story and that her hair is the colour of milk. 

The novel opens in 1830. Mary is a teenager of indeterminate age, born with a dodgy leg and has the ability to offend with her back talking mouth. Her family: mother, father and three sisters have no use for her beyond the hard work in the fields. Work is a reoccurring image in this book. It never seems to end. In fact, Mary is not allowed to sit down during the day unless she was milking the cows. Life is hardworking and always demanding out in the fields. 

The one source of kindness in her life is from her grandfather. He is a cripple as his legs were crushed; making him a permanent invalid. Her father is a man who regularly has violent tempers and beats his wife and children. Mary has spent her life observing the natural world, thus giving her native intelligence (very important for the closing of the novel.) But, she is completely uneducated and illiterate. As a result of this, she knows exactly what is happening one night when she wanders into the barnyard and sees one of her sisters getting intimate with the vicar’s son, but she has no idea what the consequences would be. 

Change comes to shake up Mary’s life and Mary is sent away by her father to work for the vicar. Mary will work for the vicar, caring for his sick wife, and he will pay her father, essentially selling her to slavery. She regularly gets into trouble and pines for home, but life isn’t so bad there. She is treated with kindness and the vicar’s wife cares much about her. Yet there is a feeling of inevitability. The wife is ill, so how long will the kindness last? 

The historical element of this novel is well developed and fairly apt. Being set in 1830/1831, historically, women were dictated to by the men in their lives. As the fourth daughter to an impoverished and illiterate farmer in the west of England, the author places Mary in a long line of literary heroines who are not only at the mercy of the men in their lives, but the victims of the men’s perversity. The very people who should have protected her most, her father and the vicar, are the ones who abuse their position repeatedly. The heartbreak doesn’t end there. 

The vicar’s wife dies, the household servant is dismissed and Mary moves to a new position within the house. She becomes a student as the vicar teaches her to read using the Holy Bible. Mary is obsessed with learning more and the vicar is hooked on Mary. He starts to using her and sneaking into her room at night claiming loneliness as his excuse and right to rape her, in exchange for teaching her reading and writing. 

However, Mary decides she’s learned enough from the vicar and puts up resistance. The vicar turns nasty and fails to understand. He continues to force her and becomes more violent. One skill that Mary has, which ultimately gives her the upper hand, as a farm girl she has killed many animals. The cheese wire in her pocket is her way out. The last time he rapes her, she has her cheese wire. Yet she never really expects to use it. But she has to, to save herself. 

‘and so i shall finish this very last sentence and i will blot my words where the ink gathers in the pools at the end of each letter. and then i shall be free.’

The novel starts with this naivety, this simple hard working farming life. But there is always a feeling that something bad will happen. And boy does it. 

Big love x

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Filed under Book review, Historical Fiction