What do you think of when you hear the word “history”? Memorizing lists of Roman emperors, trying to keep Henry VIII’s wives straight, or just the sheer number of North American battles named after otherwise inconspicuous geographic landmarks? You’re not alone, but you’re also missing out.
I’ll admit it: I’m kind of a history nerd. I’m unequivocally not an historian (we’ve got some real historians floating around PMag Land, if you’re looking for one) but I did minor in it and I do find histories interesting. When I started my library science program, I was torn between youth services and archival studies. I eventually chose the former, but every time I enter an archive or rare documents room, I’m reminded of why it was such a dilemma.
So it should come as no surprise that I find books about history–both fictional and non-fictional–appealing. At the same time, I admit that lots of books about history are dry, boring, and often read like textbooks. But when you know what to look for, there are so many microhistories, biographies, and fictional histories that are rich enough in detail to be appealing without relegating themselves to being a list of dates.
When I’m in a history mood, I inevitably gravitate toward 16th-18th century European monarchs. Most recently, there have been a series of books on this list that I’ve enjoyed.
The first of these, an historical fiction that is actually a repeat favorite, is The Lady Elizabeth: A Novel, by Alison Weir. Weir writes both historical biographies and historical fiction, making her one of my go-to authors when I get into a European history kick. The Lady Elizabeth was my first of her books, and I loved it. While written as fiction (and as easy to read as anything by Phillipa Gregory), it’s historically accurate and has a great depth of research. The nature of fictionalizing an historical character does, of course, lead to the inclusion of plot devices that are known to be speculation, but overall it’s a wonderful story of the life of Elizabeth I.
Other work by Weir includes a fictional novel about Lady Jane Grey, non-fiction works offering extensive coverage of Tudor England in a format that’s comfortable to read for pleasure.
The second is non-fiction: Sex With the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics, by Eleanor Herman. This book is delightfully gossipy while still being heavily researched. Subjects include the obvious, from Anne Boleyn to Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette, but also some monarchs whose sexual escapades were less sensationalized. Further, Herman not only discusses the lives of the queens themselves, but also the consequences they had on royal succession and politics and the reasons behind the differing reactions to queens taking lovers.
At nearly 400 pages, this one’s a bit hefty for a beach book, but it’s also available on Kindle!
The third of my recent reads is Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser.
It’s another non-fiction, and I was driven to it after reading the chapter about her in Sex With the Queen. Fraser’s book goes, obviously, much more in-depth on her subject, but in a similarly comfortable style as Herman’s book. While both of these books are full of references to letters, court records, and other forms of documentation to support their claims, they engage in enough dramatization to make the books read as stories rather than as long lists of documents and contents.
In addition to these three, my to-be-read shelf is also currently holding The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, by Slavenka Drakulic, and The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz. All came highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to diving in!
Marie Antoinette: The Journey / Antonia Fraser. Anchor, 12 November 2002. U.S. $17.95 (Paperback)
Sex With the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics /Eleanor Herman. William Morrow, 11 April 2006. U.S. $25.96 (Hardcover)
The Lady Elizabeth: A Novel / Alison Weir. Ballantine Books, 4 November 2008. U.S. $15.00 (Paperback)
Cover images via Amazon.