There’s nothing like a good historical novel to open your eyes and give you new insight into an era or a place you thought you knew, and there are two new historical novels this month which bring into focus fascinating characters and periods of the past, from a female perspective.
The first, chronologically at least, is Carnegie’s Maid, by Marie Benedict (who also wrote The Other Einstein). Starting in the 1860’s in Pittsburgh, the book follows the life and times of Clara Kelley, a young Irish immigrant who finds herself working for the famous Andrew Carnegie and his family. Clara comes from a poor farming family in Ireland, with nowhere to go and nothing to her name when she decides, out of desperation, to impersonate the experienced Irish maid who disappeared after being hired to work at the Carnegie house. It would be hard enough for Clara to work as a maid anywhere, since she has no skills or experience, but her ruse is made much more complicated by the demanding lady of the house, who rules the place with an iron fist and has no tolerance for error. However, Clara is tough and desperate (a dangerous combination) and keeps her head, working her way into the affections of the patriarch of the household, Andrew Carnegie himself. It’s not that she’s trying to worm her way into his bed, but first her business instincts and then her personality win him over. Clara, however, never forgets that she’s a fraud, and that if anyone in this household were to find out who she really is, it would mean disaster for herself and for her family back home. Her disappearance spurs Carnegie to look at the world differently, and to see that there’s more than just the making of money for its own sake. A vivid look at a vanished world and the development of a ruthless industrialist (look up the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 if you want to see how ruthless he could be) into a great philanthropist.
And if the Gilded Age isn’t your thing (though it should be — it’s a fascinating period of American history), how about a trip through the earliest days of movie making in Hollywood? The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin, brings to life the silent movie era, focusing on one of the earliest and most brilliant stars of the medium, Mary Pickford (known as “America’s Sweetheart”), and Frances Marion, a screenwriter who seized on the potential for “flickers” to become something huge and wonderful. The two women were good friends, both working in the same industry, both ambitious and hardworking, and both running up against all the limitations that industry, and the society around it, placed on women in the teens and 1920’s. All the larger than life figures of the world of movies make their appearances in the book: from Douglas Fairbanks, who was romantically entangled with Mary, to Charlie Chaplin, to Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish and Louis B. Mayer. It was a wild time and Mary and Frances reached the heights women could achieve, though not without heartbreak and trials. If you’re a fan of silent movies or the 1920’s, check out The Girls in the Picture.