Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Lust and love in historical fiction

The title Royal Harlot should have tipped me off.

I picked up Susan Holloway Scott's novel about Barbara Villiers Palmer, notorious mistress of England's Charles II, expecting a certain amount of titillation, but also hoping for an enlightening glimpse into merry Restoration London.

I got smut.

I have no problem with a bit of smut. A well-placed sex scene can liven up any story filled with treaties, treason, war, politics and beheadings. After all, where would Henry VIII be without the beguiling Anne Boleyn or that tart, Katherine Howard?

But a third of the way into Royal Harlot, I already felt bludgeoned by the sex scenes. Reading this novel was a bit like watching Showgirls.

Heaving bosoms and throbbing manhoods do not a plot make. Therefore, I finished the book totally unenlightened about Charles' Dutch wars or his divisive religious policies. Scott spent just a few pages on the Great Plague and Great Fire of London. (I learned more by quickly skimming Wikipedia entries than I did from this book.)

But I did discover Charles II and Barbara Villiers liked sex. A lot. My grade: D

Thankfully, another of my recent reads, Loving Will Shakespeare, brought the past vividly to life while offering a convincing love story. Carolyn Meyer's novel focuses on Anne (Agnes) Hathaway, who became Shakespeare's wife.

Historians know little about Anne, other than Shakespeare bequeathing her the "second-best bed" in his will, and that she was eight years older than her husband. Meyer's Anne is a lonely girl growing up in an unhappy home, who despairs of ever finding someone to love her. She is drawn to Will by his charm, creativity and zest for life and as he becomes a young man, finds herself unexpectedly falling in love with him. Their romance will be bittersweet, as Shakespeare will spend most of his time in London, wedded more to the theater than to his wife.

The novel included many wonderful scenes of rural village life in Elizabethan England, including holiday customs, marriage traditions and the excitement generated by the queen's annual progress. My grade: A-

Morgan Llywelyn's Strongbow: The Story of Richard and Aoife, another novel centering on a love story, left me wanting to know much more about its protagonists. It was an absorbing, touching read, but too short. My grade: B-

Richard de Clare (Strongbow) was a Norman knight denied his lands and titles, who fought on behalf of Aoife's father, the deposed king of Leinster in Ireland. I discovered through a Google search that Richard and Aoife were the parents of Isabel de Clare, who married William Marshal, one of medieval England's greatest knights and statesmen. Does anyone know of any other books focusing on Strongbow or Aoife?

The final book in this love-themed reading roundup is the best book I've read this year so far: Peony in Love by Lisa See. A ghost story, a historical fantasy, a family saga and a coming-of-age tale, the novel immersed me in the unfamiliar world of 17th-century China and captivated me with its beautifully told story.

The novel is set during a time of political and social upheaval in China, when thousands of women left their cloistered existences to pursue intellectual lives, writing and publishing their own work, before society forced them back into their family compounds. A woman's right to express herself is a major theme of the novel.

Peony is a 15-year-old aristocratic girl obsessed with the controversial opera, The Peony Pavilion. During a performance of the opera staged in her family's compound, she secretly meets and falls in love with a poet, Wu Ren. Locked in her room for her transgressions and to await her arranged marriage, Peony becomes so absorbed in writing her thoughts about the opera, she forgets to eat, and dies just before her scheduled wedding.

From there, the novel explores intricate Chinese beliefs about the afterlife as Peony roams the world as a hungry ghost, visiting Wu Ren and influencing his subsequent wives to continue writing about the opera. Peony's story mirrors The Peony Pavilion but also deviates from the opera in unexpected ways. She learns surprising, heartbreaking truths about the women in her own family, and ultimately finds a way to be remembered and honored as an individual.

Peony in Love was a hypnotic, strange fairy tale that required some suspension of disbelief to be enjoyed. I willingly followed the story where it led me, sometimes slowing my reading to savor the beautiful writing, sometimes speeding up in my impatience to discover what would come next. My grade: A+


Mimi said...

I'm not a prude, but I have to admit, Outlander got tiring after awhile (another sex scene, good gravy).

I however am trotting over to PBS to put Peony and Will on my Wish list! thanks!

Carla said...

"Does anyone know of any other books focusing on Strongbow or Aoife?"
Not as main characters, unfortunately. Richard Strongbow has a cameo role in The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick. As it's about William Marshal, Richard Strongbow's daughter Isabel de Clare is a main character in the second half of the book and in its sequel, The Scarlet Lion.
Thanks for your review of Royal Harlot - you confirmed all my guesses as to its likely content!