Historical Fiction Notebook

Historical Fiction Notebook
a place for history, historical fiction and other random reads.
Review: Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage
Tuesday, April 3, 2012 | Posted by Historical Fiction Notebook | at 3:58 PM | 1 comments

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage takes us behind the paneled doors of the Titanic’s elegant private suites to present compelling, memorable portraits of her most notable passengers. The intimate atmosphere onboard history’s most famous ship is recreated as never before.

The Titanic has often been called “an exquisite microcosm of the Edwardian era,” but until now, her story has not been presented as such. In Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, historian Hugh Brewster seamlessly interweaves personal narratives of the lost liner’s most fascinating people with a haunting account of the fateful maiden crossing. Employing scrupulous research and featuring 100 rarely-seen photographs, he accurately depicts the ship’s brief life and tragic denouement, presenting the very latest thinking on everything from when and how the lifeboats were loaded to the last tune played by the orchestra. Yet here too is a convincing evocation of the table talk at the famous Widener dinner party held in the Ritz Restaurant on the last night. And here we also experience the rustle of elegant undergarments as first-class ladies proceed down the grand staircase in their soigné evening gowns, some of them designed by Lady Duff Gordon, the celebrated couterière, who was also on board (from Amazon).

It’s hard for me to believe that only a hundred years have passed since the sinking of the Titanic – in many ways it seems as though a more considerable span of time has passed since the world of Atlantic crossings, dinner horns and ball gowns.

I appreciated the author’s attempt to focus on one social level traveling aboard the Titanic but he seemed to have little idea of what to do with the story beyond the initial concept. I picked up Lives hoping to learn reams of details about Edwardian food, fashion, parties and travel. I hoped to sink into a book that would make me feel like a privileged passenger on the Titanic.

Unfortunately, I finished the book without any new understanding of what upper-class passengers talked about on their journeys, the etiquette and dress involved. It all proceeded as most Titanic stories do – take a range of characters, give short intros to their lives before the disaster and then keep their stories running as the clock ticks down to the inevitable sinking. I felt that Brewster missed a golden opportunity to examine the last moments of a legendary means of travel and a time that was about to disappear with the first guns firing in World War One.

I was particularly confused by his odd digressions speculating on passengers’ sexual orientation. I think Brewster was trying to make the point about how much moral values have changed in the time since the sinking but that point ultimately had little to do with the sinking or Edwardian society and ended up diluting the power and interest of the book’s main focus.

While I enjoyed this quick read, I remain unsure of who would be interested in reading Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage. The dedicated Titanic fan will already be familiar with the scandal of John Jacob Astor’s marriage, the devotion of the Strauss couple and the dignity of Captain Smith. Downton Abbey types looking for glamour and scandal will not much to chew on here and very little detail.

There are a limited number of people and angles you take on the Titanic tragedy and – given the depth of media coverage – any author would be hard-pressed to come up with something new. I respect the fact that Brewster was already working from a disadvantage but this book could have been so much more. If you’re interested, the author’s fluid writing style makes this the kind of book you can pick up one day, devote minimal amounts of time and attention and have it easily finished a few days later.

Review: The Winter Palace
Friday, March 30, 2012 | Posted by Historical Fiction Notebook | at 2:27 PM | 0 comments

Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.

What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power.

With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia.

I tend to be a bit wary of historical novels that purport to retell the story of a famous figure through the eyes of a fictional lady-in-waiting/soldier/court hanger-on. In my experience, these fictional characters turn out not to be the best means of telling a familiar story. Either the fictional character’s own life takes over, obliterating the reason you picked up the book in the first place (to experience the historical figure’s life in a new way) or there is no need for the fictional character at all and the story could have been better told from the perspective of the historical figure.

The Winter Palace almost immediately shattered my preconceptions about such stories. From the moment Barbara began telling her story – in an elegant but cynical tone – I was hooked. First-person narrative can be an excuse for the author to engage a reader’s sympathies in favor of their lead character – Stachniak tries no such tricks here. Barbara acts and feels real. You get caught up in her paranoia and her shame; you understand her desire for information and power even as you look back with her chapters later at the mistakes that were made. She has flaws but you understand why she acts the way she does.

I appreciated Catherine’s path to becoming Empress all the more because Barbara’s story took me into the shadows and sewers of Imperial power. Stachniak smartly keeps her scenes fast-paced and lean. There are no elaborate scenes that go on for pages and pages – everyone in the book is too busy fighting, gossiping, scheming and lying and the pace reflects their desires. Every author has a “sense” that they make their own and Stachniak’s is scent. By the end of the novel, you can distinguish characters by their perfume and recognize rooms in the Winter Palace by their stink.

If I have any quibble with the book, it’s that it sometimes felt too real. The courtiers and royals are so cruel with each other that I was bit put off about halfway through the book. But this was a minor setback – I was too engaged in the battle for power to stop reading for too long. Some reviewers on Amazon have commented that this felt as though it was more Barbara’s story than Catherine’s and noted the sub-title “A Novel of Catherine the Great.” I suspect this is due more to the publisher’s marketing department than any misguided intentions on the part of the author. The middle third of the book does take Barbara away from Catherine and the Imperial court to focus largely on her own domestic problems. I didn’t mind this section, knowing that Barbara would most likely find her way back to Catherine’s side in time for her coup and the death of her husband. I like to think of this book as an angle on Catherine the Great’s story – not the full story itself.

The Winter Palace will become one of those special books that I make an effort to buy even after reading a library copy. I feel as though I could open it up at any page and immediately be drawn back into the sensations and struggles of 18th century Russia.

Review: The Siege
Sunday, March 18, 2012 | Posted by Historical Fiction Notebook | at 3:47 PM | 2 comments

The year is 1941, and the good people of Leningrad are squeezed between fear of Stalin’s secret police and rumors that the Germans, despite the incredulity of military experts, are rapidly advancing on their great city. When the inevitable happens, 22-year-old Anna, an artist and the sole support for her young brother, invalid father, and the …