Sunday 18 December 2016

Brona's Salon: Historical Fiction

Whilst doing some research recently about Kate Grenville's The Secret River, I came across this fascinating article in The Quadrant from 2014.

This particular paragraph got me thinking -
Jewish scriptural writers have a tradition called midrash, which means writing about the present through the lens of the past. Writers of history run the risk of a sort of midrash in reverse—writing about the past through the lens of the present. Historians try as far as possible to avoid doing this—for novelists, the situation is not so clear-cut. Characters in novels are always hybrids, partly based on real people, but often stitched-together attributes of a number of different originals.

As a lover of history and historical fiction I have been exposed to oodles of midrash in reverse over the years.

Historical fiction is at it's best when it provides a fresh, modern look at what went before. It cannot change what happened, but it can provide insight it the why and how it happened. It has a licence to play with the nuances, but not with the basic facts that the reader knows or has ready access to. It can bring to life a time long gone. It can makes us feel like we are there witnessing the events - with one foot in the past (where the characters are experiencing their version of now) and one foot clearly planted in our now (giving us the advantages of hindsight).

I'm also curious about how we apply midrash in reverse to our own life stories. Maturity and experience can give us remarkable insights into our past behaviours and actions, but we can never go back to change what happened or whisper words of wisdom to our earlier selves. All we can do is use our new hard won insights to help us move forward. We can apologise for our past wrongs and learn from our mistakes.

To my mind, truly great historical fiction illuminates the past in such a way that it makes us feel unsure of what might happen...even though we know exactly what does happen!

Historical fiction that allows its characters to inhabit their times, so that we can actually see it through their eyes as being the modern, new world that they're living through, can be a difficult task and is often where writers of historical fiction come unstuck.

My current read is one of those books where the writer has achieved this incredible feat of making the past come alive. Which brings us nicely into the realm of Brona's Salon.

Brona's Salon is a new meme which aims to gather a group of like-minded bookish people 'under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.'

I will provide a bookish prompt or two to inspire our conversation.
However please feel free to discuss your current read or join in the conversation in any way that you see fit.
Amusement, refinement and knowledge will surely follow!

What are you currently reading?

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

A thrilling novel based on actual events, about the nature of genius, the cost of ambition, and the battle to electrify America—from the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game and New York Times bestselling author of The Sherlockian.

New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?

The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?

In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.

How did you find out about this book?

One of our regular customers at work mentioned a great review she had read about this book.
By the time she had finished telling me about it, I knew I would have to read the book myself!

Why are you reading it now? 

This close to Christmas I have trouble concentrating and staying focused.
I either need to read quick, easy kids books or a book that will totally suck me in from page one.
I suspected that The Last Days of Night might be one of those.

First impressions? 

And it was.

From page one, with its map of New York, I was hooked.
I'm now 38% through and I can barely put it down to write this post!

It's entertaining, informative, engaging and fascinating.
I feel like I'm living in New York circa 1888.

Which character do you relate to so far?

Our narrator, Westinghouse's lawyer, Paul Cravath was a good choice by Moore.
This was his first big case, so it almost reads like his coming of age story - full of the fumbling foibles of youth, and its arrogance as well.
It's easy to feel for Paul as he tries to make his mark on the world, to become one of New York's main players...only to discover that he may not like the game that everyone is playing after all.

Are you happy to continue?

Most definitely.

This is a ripping yarn with some dramatic images and tantalising scenes.
From the opening scene of a Western Union electrician being burnt alive above the streets of Broadway to one of Marguerite Westinghouse's famous dinner parties.

Where do you think the story will go? 

We all know where this stories goes.
It's what happens along the way that makes this so fascinating.
Some of the details may have been lost to history, but Moore has unearthed and enhanced them to create this wonderful book about ambition, power and progress.

Top left, clockwise - Paul Cravath, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison & Agnes Huntington 
What have you been reading lately?
Are you a fan of historical fiction?
What was your favourite historical fiction read this year?


  1. "midrash in reverse!" What a lovely term. I don't see how it's possible to avoid altogether, though. We are products of our society, after all.

    I read historical fiction sometimes, but I can't think of any off the top of my head that I read last year! Generally when I read historical fiction it's some Christian romance. I used to read a lot of those. And I love Georgette Heyer, of course. I think my favorite historical fiction of all time, though, was Wolf Hall.

    1. Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Dead were tremendous weren't they? Mantel's ability to make us view Cromwell sympathetically, even romantically was an extraordinary feat of midrash in reverse!

  2. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres! I love to combine it with some of my other favorite genres as well: historical mysteries and historical romance. Anne Perry's William Monk series has been hit and miss with me. There are times I feel she is so stuck on the present-day mindset that she spends pages and pages preaching and preaching and preaching in her books. I don't like to feel the author is hitting me over the head with a hammer at any time really, but, in historical fiction it's even a little more upsetting.

    Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick is far. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

    Beyond the sunrise, halfway to the moon, and so very far away it would make your feet weep to think about it, lies a land vast in size and deep in sadness. (7)

    The typewriter was a marvel of miniaturization, made from steel and rubber and ivory. A simple enough thing, though to him, a miracle in itself, for in that box was the potential to write everything that could ever be written. Every word, every sentence, every thought that could ever be, was waiting to be made from the machine in the box. Every single idea ever was in there. And that in itself was a wonderful idea. One day I'll write a story about a closed wooden box. (31)

    Stories twist and turn and grow and meet and give birth to other stories. (41)

    Language is a subtle but vicious killer. (119)

    1. I have Blood Red, Snow White somewhere on my TBR pile - I love Sedgwick's writing, so I don't know why I haven't prioritised it. Especially since it's also the Russian Revolution and Arthur Ransom to boot!

  3. Anonymous19/12/16

    I love historical fiction myself, although I haven't been reading it as much this year just because I have been distracted by other reads. I just so happened to pick up a copy of New York by Edward Rutherfurd for a gift for my mum-in-law and ended up buying a copy for myself. One of my favorites was The Moses Quilt, which is almost entirely historic, but with connections to present day setting. A lovely book.
    I have just taken to reading more historical nonfiction, which is very nice too.

    1. I suspect when I do my end of year wrap up post, my highest tally will be for historical fiction titles...again!
      Mr Books has enjoyed some of the Rutherford books, but I've yet to try one. They remind me of what James A Michiner did with his books (which I read and loved during my twenties, along with Leon Uris). I wonder if the writing style would still hold up twenty years later? Or if we view some of the historical facts differently now?

      I guess midrash in reverse is just another name for revisionism.

  4. I don't usually care for historical fiction (except, of course, Georgette Heyer), but largely because too many authors plump a 21st century woman down into the 19th, put her in a Worth gown, and have her save the poor ignorant masses. I'll happily read really good historical fiction like what you describe above, but that's hard to do!

    1. I have yet to read a Heyer, even though one of my bestest book friends keeps telling me how wonderful they are. However I did go through a phase in my teens when I devoured all the Jean Plaidy royal family books (French and English royalty, although I preferred the French)- romance dressed up in crowns and sceptres!


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