Harry Sidebottom picks his top five historical novels for castaways.
Alfred Duggan, Family Favourites (1960)
As a boy I got into historical fiction through the novels of Alfred Duggan, as well as those of Graham Shelby, George Shipway, R. F. Tapsell, and Wallace Breem. I have chosen Duggan’s Family Favourites, not only because it is a wonderfully told story, but also because it has influenced me in at least a couple of important ways. The novel tells the story of Elagabalus, the extraordinary and perverse teenager who was emperor of Rome AD 218-222. The emperor is viewed through the eyes of Julius Duratius, an ex-Praetorian writing his memoirs in obscurity, four hours walk from Hadrian’s Wall, and thus the potential safety of the barbarian tribes outside the empire should the authorities seek his arrest. The novel sparked my interest in the third century AD, which led to my scholarly publications on the period, and then to the setting of both the Warrior of Rome series and the Throne of the Caesars trilogy. More specifically Duratius posed a question that has remained with me. How easy it was it to run or hide from the agents of the imperium? Recently, so many years later, I explored the theme in my short story Silence&Lies (2015).
Mary Renault, The Persian Boy (1972)
Only the best historical novels convincingly recreate long gone, alien cultures. All too many put modern characters, complete with contemporary western attitudes and values, in fancy dress. The triumph of Renault’s The Persian Boy is to immerse the reader in not one but two ancient cultures, as the Macedonians of Alexander the Great are viewed through the eyes of the Persian eunuch Bagoas. I read this novel as a teenager. It was the first fiction that I had encountered that dealt sympathetically with homosexuality, and I remember finding it unsettling. Long before the boom in scholarly studies on ancient sex and gender, it shocked me into the realisation that Classical sexuality was very different from ours. Another accomplishment of the novel is the complexity of the main character. Bagoas in many ways is far from admirable, but Renault always makes him believable, and never entirely unsympathetic.
Patrick O’Brian, Desolation Island (1978)
O’Brians Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin tales make up one of the greatest series of historical fiction ever written. Like many readers, O’Brian came to my attention via an article published by Timothy Mo in The Spectator (if my memories are correct). The piece was called something like ‘The Best Novelist You’ve Never Heard Of’. I enjoyed O’Brian’s first four novels very much, but it was Desolation Island that got me totally hooked. The tensest of chases through the mountainous seas of the southern latitudes, as Jack is pursued by ‘a very bloody minded Dutchman’, had me waking in the middle of the night shouting ‘Get down from that rigging!’ O’Brian wrote great action sequences, but so much more. His mastery of contemporary documents allowed him to summon up the food, clothes, music, and above all mentalities of the time. The novels, which illuminate profound things about friendship, transcend any supposed restrictions of genre. As has been said, these are the novels that Jane Austen`s naval officer brothers might have written if they had had her literary talent.
Tolstoy, War and Peace (1865-1869)
It has to be admitted that War and Peace is not an easy read. It took me two, perhaps three months. But it was more than worth the time and concentration. Tolstoy created the blueprint for the multiple story line, multiple point-of-view novel. Arguably no subsequent epic – all of which are, directly or indirectly, in his debt – has ever equalled this monumental, but tightly controlled, story of the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Few novelists have had the intellectual confidence to propose a new philosophy of history. Tolstoy, reacting against the then prevalent ‘great men’ interpretation of history, created a world where Napoleon and Kutuzov were as powerless as a Pierre Bezukhov or an Andrei Bolkonsky.
Given it was written a long time ago, in the same century as its subject, it is all too easy to forget that War and Peace was a historical novel. Bearing that in mind illustrates that the prejudice against historical fiction of some contemporary self-consciously literary figures, the idea that by its nature it is somehow second rate and trivial, is quite a recent creation.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)
The unnamed young protagonist, ‘the kid’, joins a gang of scalp hunters operating on either side of the US-Mexican border around 1850. Relentlessly violent and disturbing, the novel has some of the most visceral action sequences ever written, and in Judge Holden one of the most repulsive yet compelling characters in fiction. McCarthy’s ability to summon up landscape and weather is unrivalled. As a friend said to me, McCarthy makes the English language get up and dance. The thrilling, if perverse Odyssey ends with a passage which may hint at the existence of a Manichean Demiurge. Stuck on a desert island, I should have more than enough time to reread and think about the novel, until I could work out what the ending was all about, and do so perhaps without using words like Manichaeism or Demiurge.
Just as War and Peace reminds us that the contemporary denigration of historical fiction is transient, so Blood Meridian demonstrates that, in the main, this criticism is parochial to Britain. On the Continent, especially in France and Italy, historical novels can be freely accepted as novels of ideas, and intellectuals can write them without being accused of slumming it (think of Hubert Monteilhet or Umberto Eco). Similarly in America to set fiction in the past does not serve to undermine its credibility. The March by E. L. Doctorow, Two For Texas by James Lee Burke, The Son by Philip Meyer: the list is easy to expand. Hopefully with Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and the forthcoming final volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell a salutary shift in attitudes will begin in Britain.