It’s like time travel: Reading a work of historical fiction allows us to succumb to the pull of the past, to escape the humdrum here-and-now and visit earlier, exotic eras. Mixing the inventiveness of fiction with the veracity of solid research, historical novels are delightful hybrids. The narratives here take place in Renaissance Italy, finde- siècle France and 16th-century England; they feature struggling artists and merciless monarchs, dysfunctional families and doubt-wracked lovers; and through a blend of delicious speculation and verifiable information, these novels help us to imagine what might have been.
Fresh impressions of a great painter
Author of the acclaimed novel Marrying Mozart, Stephanie Cowell returns with another precisely crafted historical piece. Claude and Camille: A Novel of Claude Monet elegantly explores the relationship between one of Impressionism’s greatest practitioners and the woman who was his muse. In Paris in the 1860s, Claude Monet—penniless and with no artistic reputation to speak of—struggles to make his name as a painter, surrounded by like-minded colleagues such as Renoir, Degas and Manet. In the well-born, beautiful Camille Doncieux, Monet finds his true inspiration. Witty, spirited and fiercely loyal, Camille leaves behind a comfortable existence in order to marry Monet, becoming his best friend and eventually bearing him two children. Over the years, the couple contend with poverty, the trials of war, a harshly critical art world and a public not quite ready for Monet’s work, but their hardships are lightened by his revelatory experiments with paint and his significant friendships with the Impressionists. Fleshing out the artist’s biographical outline with fresh imagery, well-paced dramatic scenes and carefully calculated dialogue, Cowell presents a vivid portrait of Monet’s remarkable career. She writes with intelligence and reverence for her subject matter, providing a rich exploration of the points at which life and art converged for one of history’s greatest painters.
A chilling chapter from England’s past
Fact is often stranger than fiction, as Mary Sharratt proves in her carefully researched novel Daughters of the Witching Hill. With characters and incidents drawn straight from the historical record, Sharratt’s irresistible novel is set in Lancashire, England, in 1612—the year a witch-hunt swept the region. Bess Southerns, the novel’s central figure, is a poor widow who lives in Pendle Forest. Gripped by visions, she soon gains notoriety as a mystic of sorts. Bess is able to treat the sick using folk magic, and she can also predict the future. She shares her secrets with Alizon, her granddaughter, and with her best friend, Chattox. But when Chattox begins dabbling in more sinister arts, and when a tinker falls ill after quarreling with Alizon, the locals begin to suspect that dark forces are at work among the women. As fear seizes the community, Roger Nowell, a prominent magistrate, pursues Alizon and Bess in hopes of making his name as a witch-hunter. Panic in Lancashire rises to a fever pitch while he tries to capture his quarry. Sharratt fills the book with fascinating accounts of rituals and magic practices, and her gift for the language of the era brings the narrative to life. Striking just the right balance between the demands of fact and the allure of a good story, she has produced a novel that’s both convincing and compelling. Daughters is—literally—a spellbinding book.
The politics of painting
Lynn Cullen weaves a glittering tapestry in The Creation of Eve, a novel based on the true story of celebrated Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Singled out for her extraordinary gifts, Sofi is invited to study in Michelangelo’s workshop in Rome, an honor unheard of for a woman. But when controversy upsets the careful balance of her life, Sofi leaves Italy for Spain and attaches herself to the retinue of King Felipe II. At court, she becomes a lady-in-waiting and painting teacher to the king’s discontented bride, 14-year-old Elisabeth de Valois. The two young women quickly become allies, sharing secrets and schemes. But Sofi’s presence at court causes ripples she never dreamed of, as she finds herself mixed up in a love affair—an entanglement with the queen, the king and the king’s handsome half brother, Don Juan. Cullen blends themes of art, gender and politics into a provocative novel that feels surprisingly timely. Her Sofi is a lively narrator—a resourceful young woman whose insights and observations engage the reader from the first page. Cullen drew on Spanish court documents, legal records and letters, as well as the paintings of Sofonisba herself, to prepare for the writing of this lavish tale. The result: a narrative with the kind of authenticity that only history can provide.
From drawing room to courtroom
Best-selling author Katharine McMahon (The Alchemist’s Daughter; The Rose of Sebastopol) is a former magistrate who worked for 20 years in England’s legal system. Her law expertise is on full display in The Crimson Rooms, a sophisticated thriller set in 1920s England with a plucky up-and-coming attorney as its heroine. Dedicated to her vocation, 30-year-old Evelyn Gifford lives with her mother, aunt and grandmother. The family is still in shock over the loss of Evelyn’s brother, James, who died in the Great War. A new chapter opens in the Giffords’ lives when a nurse and her young son arrive on their doorstep. The nurse insists that James was the boy’s father, and that they conceived the child during wartime in a hospital. The Giffords allow the pair to stay, while Evelyn turns her attention to a new case involving a war veteran accused of murdering his wife. When a dashing (and married) attorney named Nicholas Thorne joins forces with her on the case, Evelyn finds herself falling for him. But she’s disturbed by suspicions about her newly acquired nephew and the woman claiming to be his mother. The mysteries accrete to spine-tingling effect in this smartly constructed tale. McMahon based the character of Evelyn on a real lawyer named Carrie Morrison, a groundbreaking British barrister, and the cases she features in the book were drawn from true events. The historical foundation gives weight and significance to her briskly paced thriller.