Let’s all go forward into the past, with some new and fascinating insights into people both famous and less famous in our new historical fiction selections.
Some people’s lives are so contradictory and so rich that mere biography doesn’t seem to do them justice. Such a person was Roger Casement, the protagonist of Sabina Morris’ new book, Valiant Gentlemen. A closeted gay man in a time when homosexuality was a crime, he had a gift for friendships, for Irish patriotism and for humanitarianism. His friendship with the Englishman, Herbert Ward, and Ward’s Argentine-American wife, Sarita Sanford, is at the core of this book, which takes Casement and Ward from their experiences in the Congo, exposing the horrors of Belgian rule there (if you’re interested in that period of Casement’s life, be sure to check out Nisi Shawl’s Everfair for another perspective on the Congo and the human rights abuses there), through Ward’s marriage and raising of a family in France, and brings the two of them to disparate paths in World War I, where Ward joined the British Army and Casement began conspiring with the Germans to help liberate Ireland in the disastrous Easter Uprising of 1916. The inherent tensions between the two friends are brought to the fore and notions of loyalty and patriotism become more than just abstract ideas in this poignant and riveting novel.
And then there are people everybody thinks they know, people so famous that entire eras of history are named after them, like Queen Victoria. Though perhaps we don’t know as much about what Queen Victoria was really like as we think, and here to remedy that lack is Daisy Goodwin’s novel, Victoria. The book starts with Victoria’s life as an unregarded princess, considered plain, unprepossessing and totally dominated by her mother (with whom she shared a bedroom until she was 18 years old!). Only with the death of King William IV, her uncle, and her accession to the throne of England did Victoria begin to show the steel of her character and her capacity to rule, much to the surprise of almost everybody who knew her. If you think of Queen Victoria as a repressed woman who did nothing but disapprove of things and give birth to numerous children, you’ll enjoy discovering the real Victoria in Goodwin’s new book.
Another real life person who has become a famous name without people’s really knowing what she was like is Mata Hari, the exotic dancer, courtesan and — possibly — spy, who is also the protagonist of The Spy by Paul Coelho. Though her name is synonymous with treachery and betrayal, Coelho suggests there was little concrete evidence to prove she was actually spying for the Germans during World War I, despite her being executed as a spy by the French. The Spy is written as Mata Hari’s memoir in letters, which she’s writing on the eve of her execution, looking back on her life choices from the time she was growing up in a small Dutch town to her miserable marriage to an alcoholic man in Java to her rise to celebrity in Paris in the pre-war and early war years. You may well end up with a different, certainly a more nuanced, view of the famous courtesan after reading this book.