Forwards or backwards? Which way through history should I move? I have fallen behind in writing about the books I have been reading, so a few (in this case combined) catch up posts are needed. I love historical fiction, though I tend to read more from the interwar era than any other. I've got a mix of books here, however. Two historical fiction novels set hundreds of years apart and one 'contemporary' novel which must have caused quite a stir when it first came out. Even more than half a century later and it still made me raise my eyebrows, but I'll work my way up to that one.
I like reading books set in the Medieval period, but I don't often pick them up. I think I went through a big Tudor phase (technically Henry VIII and his many wives came just a bit later) some years ago and have just moved on into new interests since then. I think my last foray into the Medieval world was with Lady Agnes, that wonderful French Medieval mystery by Andrea Japp from last Fall (and I still have the sequel to look forward to). When the mood arose once again earlier this year I decided to revisit a novel I read in my pre-blogging days that I knew I had enjoyed, Judith Koll Healey's The Canterbury Papers. It's subtitle is "a novel of suspense", which describes it well since it isn't exactly a mystery, and not exactly a romance, but it has elements of both.
Set during the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Koll Healey took her inspiration from real historical figures and from the actual places that are the historical backdrop of this novel that she had visited and read about. While she did take a few liberties with the historical timeline, much of what she writes about is based on real people, places and events. The royal princess Alaïs Capet is asked (though I am sure you don't turn down a request from a former Queen) to travel to England and retrieve a packet of letters belonging to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Whatever is in the letters is enough--incendiary or otherwise, to cause embarrassment to King John and cause a murder or two along the way which, of course, will cause no end of troubles for Alaïs.
Alaïs travels under the guise of making a pilgrimage to Becket's tomb, where the letters are supposed to be hidden. It gets a bit tricky as Alaïs was formerly King Henry II's mistress (Eleanor's husband--though coerced she was, mind you) and bore a son, who she has long believed died shortly after his birth. That part of the story gets a little complicated (since I am not as well versed in the period as I could be), but it's not necessary to get too bogged down in the historical detail of the royal genealogy. The fun of the story is the intrigue and the messy royal politics, the rumors and innuendo as well as the interplay between Alaïs and her childhood friend and former member of the royal court, William, who purports to be the prior at Canterbury, but is more likely to be one of the Knights Templar. Ah, the plot thickens. This was just as enjoyable the second time around as the first being steeped in atmosphere and royal intrigue. The various mysteries are brought to satisfying conclusion and there is even a way paved for a sequel, The Rebel Princess, which happens to be on my TBR pile. So convenient!
Another reread, Helen Humphreys's The Lost Garden, is another gorgeous novel much like her The Evening Chorus, which I so enjoyed last year. She is one of my 'must read all her books' authors. I meant to get to one of her other novels sooner than this, but no matter. So often books come along at just the right moment, when you need a particular sort of story most. So moving forward in time a good seven hundred years or so, The Lost Garden is set in the Devon countryside during the Blitz. It is a bittersweet novel filled with desire and passion, of loss and love and truths discovered.
Gwen Davis is something of a misfit. She feels more comfortable around her plants than she does leading the group of land girls she is put in charge of. She had been studying 'parsnip canker' at the Royal Horticultural Society in London when she decided to take on a job organizing wartime agricultural production. Honestly her work with parsnip canker had been going nowhere so better off to go back to her beloved Devon. She may know gardens and plants, but she does not know young women. Or young men for that matter. Gwen isn't quite of a 'certain age' yet, but an ocean seems to separate her from the other young women. They are billeted in the servants quarters on the estate of a great country house where they'll be working. The manor happens to be housing a group of Canadian soldiers getting ready to, sooner or later, deploy to Europe.
There is one young woman, not quite as young as the other land girls, but not so stuffy as Gwen who acts as a bridge between the women smoothing things out. She is a free spirit but obviously burdened by painful memories and loss. Her fiancé has been reported missing in action yet she remains hopeful he will be found safely. Gwen has her own burdens. It's perhaps symbolic she likes to lie under the weight of her massive encyclopedia of roses she has lugged down from London. She feels the weight of so much, of all that is lacking in her life, particularly the lack of human touch and warmth the feeling of love having been raised by a cold and distant mother. She feels her inadequacies and they seem to define her. She's haunted by the news that her most loved author, Virginia Woolf has gone missing, not yet declared dead.
Gwen finds a secret garden on the estate that she sets out to bring back to life. The combination of plants and flowers filled with, she is sure, some secret mystery, some meaning or message between lovers. So it is not surprising that she misinterprets the feelings of others. Is she seeing in them only what she wishes were true? She harbors secret feelings for the Canadian officer in charge of the men in the manor house thinking he might perhaps reciprocate them. Helen Humphreys is always eloquent. Her books are beautiful and lush, much like the gardens Gwen tries to revive. This is a sad story, but hopeful in its way, too. Filled with the meanings of loss and longing and a lesson in what it means to love and be loved. Her books are always wonderful reads and worthy, as was the case here, of revisiting!
Oh my, just over a decade later, and how far we have come. All the way over to America and the small New England town of Peyton Place. What a hotbed of sordidness lurking in such a proper little town. What scandal Grace Metalious must have created when she wrote Peyton Place. It must have been both shocking and liberating in its way. It was a blockbuster bestseller that prompted TV adaptations and must have remade the publishing world. Not even halfway through the book and I was sure every possible taboo I could think of and maybe even a few I had not had to have been broken. Just when I thought she had surely reached the outer limits, something else awful was happening, there was always something more. Let's see--rape, murder, incest, illegitimacy, xenophobia, illegal abortions and reckless and illicit and just nasty behavior fill these pages. And it matters not at all whether it is the town's leaders or the town's drunks that take center stage. Metalious is an equal opportunity writer--everyone has a chance to be bad or good (rather more bad than good here, however).
Do you know the movie Tootsie? In order to get work Dustin Hoffman dresses as a woman so he can act in a TV soap opera. When his contract is renewed, much to his chagrin, Bill Murray's character jokes that maybe there is a morality clause in his contract, but that he couldn't think of anything 'Tootsie' hadn't already said or done that would shock the audience in order to get him kicked off the show. That's how it is with Peyton Place. Of course Metalious is just shedding light on the cold hard facts that small town America is no better than the big city when it comes to morality and it is easy to judge what happens in our neighbor's backyard, but maybe a little attention should be directed to our own. Small town America is just a little more repressed and judgemental while hiding its own shortcomings. And that is the beauty of this book. Nothing like turning the microscope onto ourselves.
Talk about soap operas. This is pure, unadulterated melodrama. No . . . Melodrama. It calls for capitalization. The cast of characters is large and the story opens on a sunny Indian summer afternoon when all is golden and beautiful. There are a number of storylines each interrelated of course. It opens and closes with young Allison MacKenzie initially a gawky teenager who will find her own by story's end, though I suppose she becomes somewhat jaded by the time those last pages roll around, and how could anyone not in a town like Peyton Place? The story mostly revolves around three women--Allison, her mother Constance and Allison's friend Selena. Mother and daughter (no husband/father in the picture and that is a story all its own) are middle-class but Selena decidedly lives on the wrong side of the track. It's all the other characters who revolve into and out of their orbit or make up the background/town that flesh out the picture. What happens? What doesn't happen in this story. Really, it is just average everyday life--trying to get by, make a living, find happiness circa 1950, but there are no rose color glasses involved here.
Peyton Place is a longish book, and it did weary me somewhere about halfway through the book. I mean how much drama of this sort can a reader take? But I was happy to persevere. It would be a fascinating book to read again with an eye towards thinking of it with a feminist perspective since so much of what happens happens to women. There is lots of sex. Not exactly the liberating sort, more the sort that gets brushed under the carpet, yet Metalious allowed none of that. Surely this book must have paved the way for a variety of other books--both Feminist and pulpy. What came after? The era of Valley of the Dolls? (I read that years ago and should reread it sometime, too).
So, quite a journey I took from Medieval France and England to respectable (or not so much, really) New England of he 1950s! Interesting to compare and contrast and think of the different lives and how much they have changed and in some cases it's all the same problems all over no matter the century.