Thursday, December 18, 2008

Learning History from Novels

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband has a passion for history. He provides many of the tidbits of arcane information that my character Jimmy comes out with, along with the complete disregard for their irrelevance to whatever is going on in real life at the time. (Please note that he is otherwise not the model for Jimmy, who would be far less sweet and more of a curmudgeon if he were.) I know a lot of the same facts my husband does. Over more than thirty years, we’ve had many a lively conversation about periods and personalities that span the globe and thousands of years. The main difference between us is this: my husband gets his information from history books, while I get mine from novels.

Take American history. As a kid, I discovered Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg novels in the library and checked them out over and over. I could still probably draw from memory most of the family tree of the fictional Day, Sprague, and Murray families from the Revolutionary War up to World War II. Thane introduced me to the Virginia gentlemen who met in the Raleigh Tavern to plot for independence, Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, fighting a guerilla war in the Carolinas, Elizabeth Van Lew spying on Confederate soldiers in Libby Prison, the malaria-ridden soldiers and unauthorized journalists who charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba with the Rough Riders, and a host of others.

How about ancient Greece? I devoured all of Mary Renault’s books from The Last of the Wine to The Persian Boy (the ones after that were not as good). I know who Alcibiades and Hephaistion were, I know how come Cleopatra was not Egyptian (her ancestors were the Ptolemies, descended from one of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian generals), and I have a vivid picture of how Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle affected those around them, each in a different way.

For the Regency period, I turned to Georgette Heyer, whose novels picked up where Jane Austen’s left off. Mixed in with the romance and fashion in Heyer’s books is such a convincing take on Regency morals, manners, and language that I’m constantly spotting her locutions in the work of other writers. I have no idea if the slang of the time matched Heyer’s or if she made some of it up. Heyer also gave me a clear picture of the events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo as well as many details of the Peninsular Wars that preceded it.

Historical mysteries have broadened my horizons too, adding Brother Cadfael’s version of the 12th century and Sister Frevisse’s version of the 15th. A. Conan Doyle and Laurie R. King have given me Sherlock Holmes’s Victorian London. Josephine Tey’s A Daughter of Time is my anchor for the Wars of the Roses, challenging and illuminating Shakespeare’s version of the events of the Tudor takeover.

Thinking back, I realize that it all started in childhood. One of the first books I remember reading was called something like Sally and the White Horse. It was about two English children who are captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves. I used to get the monthly children’s magazine Jack and Jill. One serial I remember, based on a true story, was about a little girl called Frances Slocum who lived in the Susquehanna Valley and was captured and raised by Indians. I still think of her each time I drive across the Susquehanna River on my way from New York to Washington DC.

As I said, my husband reads and rereads history the same way I do novels. His favorite light reading for a long time was Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. I could never get into it. But I’m looking forward immensely to Jeri Westerson’s medieval noir, Veil of Lies.


Joyce said...

I'm going to have to look for that Williamsburg series! I love Williamsburg. I know the books are probably out of print, but maybe the library has them.

I read a lot of the John Jakes books when I was younger. He had that really long series that began with "The Bastard," and I remember reading "North and South." (The book was much better than the mini-series on TV.)

I like anything about the Civil War. In my second book, (still unpublished) there's a subplot concerning a journal by a Confederate soldier and a gruesome murder he witnessed.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Joyce, they actually are in print in rather expensive hardcovers, probably collector's editions.

Joyce said...

Liz, I checked the local library catalog online and they have the books. I found them on Amazon, too, but you're right--they were a little pricey.

Jennie Bentley said...

Everything I know about Ancient Egypt, I learned from reading Elizabeth Peters. Since she's actually an Egyptologist, I figure most of what I picked up is probably pretty accurate. On the other hand, most of what I know about Ancient Rome - beside what I learned in school - came from reading Lindsey Davis. And though I adore Falco, I'm not sure he's a very accurate representative of his life and times.

I wrote an article about just this thing for the Mystery Readers Journal earlier this year. Growing up, I thought history was boring. It wasn't until it got coupled with a few hot guys with their shirts off, digging in the dirt, that I saw the charm!

Julia Buckley said...

Is Frances Slocum the girl that THE WHITE was based upon? I know that was a book in which a girl was captured by Indians and then eventually married one and had Native American children. Ultimately she thought of herself as a member of the tribe.

Jeri Westerson said...

Oh my. I'm afraid this is one of my pet peeves. I believe there are three places from which you should NOT learn your history: novels, movies, and the History Channel. These things can certainly inspire you to do your own research and continue to learn about interesting eras, but in all of these mediums, there is no garuntee you are really learning history. Maybe just enough to learn it wrong. The above examples are places to be entertained in an historical setting, but please learn your history from reputable scholarly works!

sexy said...


CLM said...

Dear Liz:

I am also a devoted fan of Thane's Williamsburg novels and coincidentally was just telling a co-worker at lunch today how excited I was to visit Williamsburg for the first time because of Julian Day. I also love Heyer, and think you would enjoy Jane Aiken Hodge's bio of her, now back in print.