Tag Archives: women’s historical fiction

Reading History: “Circe” (by Madeline Miller)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

When I had finished The Song of Achilles, I felt bereft. Here was this extraordinary author who managed to hit all the right notes I look for in historical fiction, and now I had nothing more to look forward to! Fortunately for me, Madeline Miller had just released a new book, Circe, and I devoured it even more quickly than I had her debut novel.

While Song had touched me because of its sensitive yet frank depiction of physical and emotional love between two men, Circe was something else, a tale of one woman’s desire to both understand and, ultimately, become the mortals whom she has spent so many hours and encounters, both good and bad. It is a novel about the nature of mortality and the burdens associated with being a child of the gods, at once a story of tremendous suffering and exquisite love.

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios, but from the beginning she feels that she is not like the other petty gods and Titans that surround her. When she discovers that she actually has magical abilities, the stage is set for a confrontation with her fellow immortals and, ultimately, her father. She is ultimately banished to  a distant island, where Circe encounters many of the famous figures of mythology, including Jason and Medea, the wily hero Odysseus and, eventually, his son Telemachus. As the years go by, she feels herself increasingly drawn to these mortals until, as the novel reaches its conclusion, she must decide whether she will become one of them or retain her immortality.

It’s always a challenge (I think) to write a convincing fictional account of the ancient pantheon that isn’t simply a parody or attempts to poke fun at the gods that we (in a world that still straddles the line between scientific rationalism and Christianity) see as little more than fairy tales. Fortunately, Miller has a knack for conveying the gods in a way that makes them both utterly realistic and yet fantastic at the same time. Her Olympians are, I think, very much in keeping with what the Greeks themselves imagined, full of spite and cruelty, yet also inescapably compelling.

As she did in The Song of Achilles, Miller manages to capture the beautiful yet brutal world that emerges from the words of the ancient Greeks. When Circe wanders through the halls of her father’s palace, or when she embraces the lonely bleakness of her isle, Miller allows us deep, piercing glimpses of these places as Circe herself would see them. In the process, we come to not only understand the woman herself, but also to appreciate the lushness of the prose through which that experience is conveyed.

Circe shares with Song a deep, rich awareness of the power of language to move us, to make us look at and think about the world in new, exciting and (sometimes) uncomfortable ways. Like Mary Renault–with whom she is often compared–Miller has the knack for conveying the foreignness of the ancient world that does not efface or detract from its ability to draw us into it.

Circe, however, is in many ways a very different novel than its predecessor, if only because it seems so focused (refreshingly) on a woman (even if she is a demigoddess). Circe is far from perfect, and Miller doesn’t try to idealize her. She is rebellious, prone to making foolish decisions,  and, despite her divine parentage, fundamentally curious about the mortals that the gods have in their thrall. Indeed, it is her desire to understand humans–in all of their beauty and ugliness, their loves and their hates, their kindness and their cruelty–that allows her to keep going despite all of the betrayals and heartbreak she faces.

And that, to me, is the novel’s fundamental purpose: to probe at what it is that makes us human. Because of her quasi-divine status, Circe has a perspective on the foibles of mortals that we lack, simply because we are imprisoned within our own perspectives. More than that: we are imprisoned in time. Circe recognizes that the one thing that humanity cannot escape is its mortality, and it is the one thing that will always structure (and doom) her relationships with her mortal lovers. While she is fated to continue marching through this world, she must contend with the inescapable fact of losing them.

Ultimately, it is this focus on mortality that gives Circe’s decision to abrogate her immortality and use her magic to become one of them. One can debate whether her choice to do so undercuts her power as a strong female character, but to me that rather misses the point. By the end of the novel, Circe has seen enough of the cruelties of the gods to know that she no longer wants to be one of their company, and she has at last found a man who will love her as she deserves to be loved. The fact that he is a mortal finally forces her to make the choice that seemed obvious from the very beginning. In the end, Circe becomes a mortal not just because she loves Telemachus, but because she finally recognizes that humans have an ability for compassion that the gods simply cannot. It is this recognition, even more than her love that ultimately drives her to give up her immortality.

And now that I’ve finished Miller’s sophomore effort, I think I feel even more devastated than I did when I finished, knowing that it was going to be quite a while before I saw something else from this very talented author of historical fiction. All I can say is that Circe is a must-read for anyone who loves the ancient world and its reception in the modern one. With this book, Madeline Miller shows that she truly deserves recognition as one of the finest historical novelists writing today.

I just hope that we don’t have to wait too long for Miller to offer us more of her inimitable vision.

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Reading History: “The Huntress” (by Kate Quinn)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve been a fan of Kate Quinn’s historical novels for some years now. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when she moved away from antiquity and the Renaissance into the 20th Century, but then I read The Alice Network, and all of my doubts were utterly swept away. The novel kept me captivated from the beginning to end.

Having been quite thoroughly convinced that, in Quinn’s capable hands, even modernity could make for good historical fiction, I waited for the release of The Huntress with baited breath. And, once again, I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel centers on the woman known as The Huntress, a Nazi who was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of several children in the last days of the war. She comes into the life of young Jordan, an aspiring photographer living in Boston, in the form of Annalise, her father’s wife-to-be. She is also pursued by Tony (an American), Ian (a Brit), and Nina (a former Russian fighter pilot), who each have their own reasons for wanting to pursue this dangerous and deadly woman. Gradually, their fortunes will coincide with that of this ruthless killer, and none of their lives will remain the same.

The story of a Nazi murderess is, sad to say, incredibly relevant to the United States in 2019. As several of the characters point out, the US in the aftermath of World War II was far more interested in rooting out communists than in hunting down Nazis, and Quinn ably captures the struggles (financial and emotional) that devoted Nazi hunters had to endure as they sought justice from those who perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust. Fortunately, Quinn’s novel is also unequivocal in its denunciation of The Huntress, and there were several moments in the novel where I truly wished that she would be struck down in the cruelest and most violent way possible. I suppose that’s a good feeling to have when it comes to Nazis, right?

As she always does, Quinn manages to create kick-ass female characters, ones who are willing and able to set out on paths that are very different from the ones that society expects of them. In that sense, the novel really reminded me of a film from the 1930s or the 1940s, when female stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford kicked ass and took names. Jordan, as a young woman coming of age in the aftermath of the Second World War, faces intense pressure to give in to the cultural imperative to get married, have children, and settle into peaceful domesticity, but she would much rather be out taking photographs like her idols. Right up until the end, she refuses to be put in any of the boxes that society has for her.

Of course, the most kick-ass of all the characters is Nina, a complicated and conflicted heroine if ever there was one. As she claws her way into the ranks of the Russian air pilots, she finds herself falling for another woman named Yelena, and their passionate (though brief) affair provides some of the most moving scenes in the entire novel. There aren’t very many people who can capture same-sex desire in a way that isn’t either sterile or prurient (and this is particularly true of queer women), but somehow Quinn manages to do just that with Nina. While she eventually comes to have feelings for Ian, the novel makes it clear that it is Yelena who owns a piece of her heart that she can never quite bring herself to give in the way that she did when she was young. And while some might hope that she stays with Ian past the novel’s end, I for one hope that she finds happiness, somehow, with Yelena.

I thus especially enjoyed the ways that the novel gives free rein to women’s sexual desire. The novel isn’t erotica, obviously, but boy does it really capture the power of sexuality to impact people’s lives, both men and women. Quinn doesn’t romanticize sex, however, and she makes clear that sometimes it’s okay if people submit to desire even if they have no intention of getting married. Sex is often far messier, and more complicated, than we realize.

What really set this novel apart, however, was that it avoided the ease of a simple happily-ever-after ending. Sure, the main characters are all still alive, and they are all together, but it remains unclear whether things will stay that way. Nina, in particular, might decide to go off and search for her long-lost Yelena, or she might be happy with Ian. Jordan will probably be happy with Tony, but it may be that she’ll find someone else. The point is that we do not know for sure, and it is this narrative indeterminacy that I found especially refreshing.

Lastly, I just want to say how much I enjoyed the novel’s reflections on the nature of photography and how the camera has the ability to capture truths that we may not notice with the naked human eye. As a scholar of visual culture, the question of whether (and to what extent) the camera can capture objective truth is one that I have thought about a lot, and let me tell you, Quinn gets to the heart of the question. When Jordan captures her stepmother’s face showing its true colours as a ruthless hunter, it shows us just how powerful a photograph can be, how easily it can expose parts of ourselves that we would rather remain hidden. It’s an unsettling thing to think about, precisely because it tears away the illusions that we have about ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world.

I truly cannot say enough good things about this book. It reminds us of why it’s important to not forget history, to remember those who have given so much to rid the world of evils like the Nazis. If you take my advice, you should go out as soon as possible and buy The Huntress. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

Reading History: “Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession” (Alison Weir)

Alison Weir continues to surprise and amaze me with her ability to bring something new to the stories of Henry VIII’s six queens. In Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, she brings Henry’s most infamous queen to vibrant life, painting a portrait of a woman doomed to live in a period that is as beautiful as it is deadly, as full of peril as it is pleasure.

Contrary to what some might like to see from a new novel told from Anne’s perspective, Weir doesn’t attempt to make her into a saint. She is imperious, and she knows that she is smarter and cannier than Henry, who emerges from this novel as something of a spoiled brat who is as indecisive as he is cruel, as prone to folly as he is sparkling wit and intelligence. Raised in privilege and coming of age in the courts of Europe where women are the dominant voices, Anne returns to an England still very conservative in its views of women and the relationship between the sexes. Indeed, it precisely Anne’s inability to adapt to the restrictions of England that sets her on a collision course with her inevitable execution.

Throughout the novel, we get a sense that Anne wants something more out of life than is possible in the world in which she lives. She is, in many ways, a proto-feminist, a woman who chafes at the restrictions placed upon her by a culture that is so thoroughly dominated by men that it cannot even imagine that a woman would have a mind of her own. While this might seem anachronistic to some, it is worth pointing out that this was a period of rapid social change, and the evidence we have suggests that, indeed, Anne was quite responsive to the currents of social change that were sweeping through Europe, both in terms of the Reformation and the relations between the sexes. Unfortunately, Henry is far more conservative than he appears to be.

And this, ultimately, is what causes her downfall. Though she knows that she should do more to placate Henry and not endlessly antagonize him and downgrade him in front of others, she cannot seem to help herself. It is this constant oscillation between knowing the wise thing to do and being unable to do it that gives the novel its essential dramatic tension and that makes Anne’s story so profoundly affecting. We in the 21st Century view her sentiments as entirely justified, given that (I would assume) those of us reading women’s historical fiction feel at least a measure of feminist sentiment.

Weir’s style has truly matured since her earlier historical fiction outings, and though there are a few repetitive turns of phrase that mar the flow of her work, for the most part I was able to lose myself in this sumptuous world of sex, plotting, and politics. This is a world that is at once exquisitely courtly and yet also perilous, where the whims of a virtually absolute monarch can bring even the most powerful noble crashing down into ruin and death. As he points out to Anne, he can bring her down as quickly as he raised her up from obscurity.

Given that the entire novel is told from Anne’s perspective and is therefore somewhat limited, Weir still manages to capture the complex psyche of one of history’s most infamous women. She doesn’t shy away from the less appealing parts of Anne’s personality–particular her vengeful attitude toward the recalcitrant Katherine–but she makes these feelings understandable and explicable. She also deftly weaves in Anne’s unrequited love for Henry Norris, though she goes to great lengths to show that, however unhappy Anne was with Henry, and however much she did not really love him with her heart, she never went so far as to engage in a physical affair with another man.

Nor is Weir afraid to demonstrate the darker parts of the Anne Boleyn saga. The last scene of the novel details Anne’s experience after the sword decapitates her. While the science has yet to decide whether in fact one remains conscious after decapitation, Weir opts to end the novel with a (mercifully) short sequence. It’s one of those scenes that really sticks with you, long after the book is finished. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this particular artistic choice, but Weir deserves a great deal of credit for being adventurous enough to end the novel in this way.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Weir’s novel. I must admit, though, that I am quite looking forward to the next outing, where we will get a glimpse into Jane Seymour, certainly one of Henry’s more enigmatic queens. If Weir does as expert a job at depicting Jane as she has with Katherine and Anne, then we are in for a treat indeed.

Reading History: “Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen” (Alison Weir)

I first discovered the work of the historian Alison Weir when I picked up her Life of Elizabeth I way back in 2000. Since then, I’ve read several of her other historical biographies, as well as some of the historical fiction novels that she’s written. I’ve almost always loved them.

I was a little underwhelmed by the idea of another series about the wives of Henry VIII. Surely, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn) has been so many times that another novel would feel repetitive.

Boy, was I wrong.

Somehow (probably through magic of some sort), Weir has managed to take this well-worn tale and weave it into something truly compelling, magical, and deeply saddening. A fitting way to describe the life of Katherine of Aragon, yes? Though all of Henry VIII’s queens deserve a measure of pity for having to put up with such a tyrant, Katherine has always occupied pride of place in the pantheon of royal martyrs.

The novel is basically a fictional biography of Henry VIII’s first queen, from the time that she sets out to be the bride of his elder brother Arthur (who dies soon after their wedding, probably from tuberculosis), all the way to her death several years later, after Henry has had their marriage annulled on his own authority and essentially had Katherine imprisoned.

It would be easy for a historical fiction author to paint this story in stark, unsubtle tones, so that Katherine is the virtuous sufferer while Anne is the scheming harlot. Though the novel is told exclusively from Katherine’s  perspective, Weir does manage to keep it from slipping into this simplistic model. Katherine is understandably resentful of her young rival, and we are certainly meant to identify with her, but that’s to be expected.

In Weir’s hands, Katherine emerges as a fiercely intelligent, independent woman who nevertheless accepts her inferior place in Henry’s life. She recognizes that, as a woman in Early Modern England, her status will always remain continent on her husband, and while her decision to defy him is certainly justified by her sincere belief that she was a virgin when she came to Henry–and, contra some other authors, Weir makes it clear that Arthur was not able to seeing the consummation through–and by her belief in her daughter’s inheritance, Weir also makes it clear that Katherine was not always as astute as she might have been.

One of the novel’s great strengths is its willingness to show Katherine in all of her complexity. She was incredibly proud–of her lineage, of her royal blood, of her status as a wife to Henry–and she was also deeply pious. We get the strong sense that she defied Henry not only from pride, but also from actual love for him. Whether or not an Early Modern royal woman could feel those things is rather beside the point.

Through this novel, we get a sense of a world that, as Weir puts it in the author’s note, was by turns beautiful and brutal. This was a world of courtly love and sumptuous banquets, but also of ruthless politicking and brutal executions. Katherine, as a royal, was in both a very powerful and privileged position, yet she too was subject to the whims of a man who gradually grew to believe that he truly was next to God in terms of how much authority he deserved. Thus, her life was always in his keeping, a fact that becomes crushingly evident as his royal favour gradually turns sour and his wrath threatens to fall in full force upon her.

Weir also makes no bones about the fact that Henry was, in many ways, a sociopathic tyrant whose will it was extremely dangerous to thwart. That being said, she doesn’t paint him in the sort of cartoonish villain light common to other works of historical fiction (ahem, Philippa Gregory), but instead as the natural product of his time. This was the period in which the medieval was already a memory and the Early Modern was giving birth to new classes of people. Katherine had the misfortune to fall squarely into that tumultuous period.

Next up, I’ll be making my way through some of Weir’s other works, so stay tuned!