Historic Fiction, s’il vous plaît

Historic Fiction | Emerald Glow Magazine

Six female authors. Eleven captivating novels featuring female protagonists.. These notable works filled our reading list and transported us to another world.

Here at Emerald Glow Magazine, most of our free time is spent between the covers of a book. The books we read do not need to be newly published — just new to us.

We are particularly drawn to historical fiction because it enables us to learn about a prior time, while permitting the author to use their artistic license, adding believable details that may not be available in historic records, fully bringing the characters to life.

The Perfume Collector

The Perfume Collector is a work of historical fiction written by Kathleen Tessaro. Published in 2013, this novel mainly takes place in 1955, during the changing point in the life of Tessaro’s protagonist, Grace Munroe. We featured The Perfume Collector in our digital edition article, “The Art of Perfume”.

We adore the romanticism surrounding perfume, which Tessaro has artfully mingled with our love for literature. She captures the high society glamour of 1950’s London and Paris, lustfully transporting us to another realm. Grace Munroe is a young, newlywed Englishwoman who receives a mysterious letter claiming she is the sole inheritor of a quite large Parisian fortune.

This unexpected bequest propels Grace into a state of curiosity and relentless pursuit to comprehend the motivation behind her inheritance. She travels alone to Paris to uncover the truth of why she was selected, and discovers more of herself along the way.

We were captivated by the luxe imagery Tessaro uses to describe the perfume in this novel — the perfume that acted as its own main character, changing the plot and ushering emotion to the forefront of the storyline. We felt as if we were physically able to smell the fragrances described, which allowed us to put ourselves deeper into the heart of the story. This novel is full of personal transformation, complex relationships, and the impact our sensual desires have on the orchestration of our future path.

The Fortune Hunter

The Fortune Hunter is the second novel from author Daisy Goodwin. This novel gives us a glimpse into the later life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. At the age of 38, the Empress, known affectionately as Sisi, leaves her husband Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria at home for an extended trip to England on a hunting expedition.

Bored with the ritual of the Hapsburg Court, she finds freedom in horse riding and forms a romantic relationship with her English groom, Captain Bay Middleton. This novel provides a personal observation into the life of a mysterious and revered woman. We learned that our most intimate friendships in life are truly the most significant influence over our happiness.

The Accidental Empress

When we found The Accidental Heiress, we were excited to read more about the woman we liked so much in The Fortune Hunter. Alison Pataki weaves an intricate portrayal of a girl who later becomes the Empress of Austria. Chronologically, this story takes place prior to the The Fortune Hunter, when Elisabeth is just fifteen years old.

Pataki take us on a journey, showing us firsthand the emotional turmoil and royal challenges that Elisabeth faced in her young life. She leaves her home to support her older sister, captivates the Emperor of Austria, spends time abroad in Budapest with her children, and is crowed Queen of Hungary. In The Accidental Heiress, we follow her transition into adulthood.

Historic Fiction | Emerald Glow MagazineEast of the Sun

East of the Sun is a 2007 novel written by Julia Gregson. Set in the fall of 1928, we meet three young women on an ocean passage from England to India. Viva Holloway, 26, is hired as a chaperone to escort Victora Sowerby and Rose Wetherby to Bombay, where Rose is to marry Captain Chandler, an English calvary officer. Viva also takes on an additional passenger, Guy, a 16 year old ex-boarding school student. The first portion of the novel explores their time on the ship. The remaining pages show us how they spend their time once they arrive in India.

East of the Sun begins with a familiar premise — coming of age through a journey around the world. However, Gregson creates depth and establishes character familiarity in her novel, making this novel far more enchanting than we initially expected.

Chapters follow the lives of Victoria (Tori) and Rose, but the novel is centered on Viva’s experiences. Viva is a struggling writer, and once in India, she begins helping at a local orphanage in exchange for lodging. Viva spent her youth in India, but after the death of her father and sister, Viva was sent to live with relatives in England. Her mother remained in India, and died soon after. Viva has not been to India since.

Viva’s passage to India is masked under the pretense of collecting an old trunk left behind when her parent’s items where shipped back to England. As we become more familiar with her, we understand that perhaps her trip is meant for closure. She is searching for peace and understanding with her memories, and with herself. Viva feels at home in India. She quickly readjusts to the vibrant colors, fragrant scents, and communal noise of the city.

Gregson effortlessly weaves the stories of these three women together, and because we first meet them before they themselves are introduced to India, we too see it through their eyes for the first time. This novel is an enchanting look into the lives of three young women faced with adjusting to an entirely new country.

Even though this story begins over 75 years ago, we found relevance to our lives in the present day. Here are some things we learned from the three leading female characters in this novel:

Viva Holloway
If you think you have reached your limit, keep going. You will find friends in unexpected places.

Victoria Sowerby
Drinking gin and eating cake might delay, but ultimately, will not solve your problems. You can never have too many Christmas decorations.

Rose Wetherby
Talk more to your parents. They worry far more about you than you worry about them. Never regret cutting your hair. What is done, is done.

Author Kate Morton: 

Historic Fiction | Emerald Glow MagazineAs admirers of historical fiction, the five novels written by Kate Morton are a gift. Driven by strong female characters, each novel tells a story set in the past — the 1920’s through the 1960’s — with a connection to present day. The characters in the earlier events are somehow connected to those in the present, but Morton reveals this connection in her own time. Often, even the characters themselves are searching for the connection, and we must travel with them along their journey of discovery.

English country houses. London before the Blitz. The Cornish coast. A decaying gothic castle. These are a few settings for which the characters live, run away, or are drawn back. Morton weaves dimensionally intricate stories, with each chapter shifting back and forth between characters and time. We found each one of these novels exceedingly difficult to put down.

Secrets. Suspense. We follow along as the characters unravel their mysterious past. Morton proves to bestow her characters with the proper amount of humanness. They are conversationalists. We learn about them by observing them, and by listening to their internal dialogue. Sometimes we see their innermost thoughts, while at other times we are left waiting until they show their revelations to those around them. We hope with them. We fear with them. We wait in anticipation with them. We smile with them.

The House at Riverton, 2006

Three young girls witness a shocking event during a summer party. Years later, one of them remembers what exactly took place that remarkable evening.
Time Period: 1924 | 1999
Main Character: Hannah and Emmeline Hartford | Grace Bradley
Setting: Edwardian Summer house | Rooms of Grace Bradley

The Forgotten Garden, 2008

An Australian granddaughter finishes the search her grandmother began while she was alive to explore her mysterious past on the Cornish coast.
Time Period: 1976 | 2005
Main Character: Nell | Cassandra
Setting: Blakhurst Manor, Cornwall | Brisbane, Australia

The Distant Hours, 2010

A daughter unravels the secrets of her mother’s World War II country evacuation — and finds much more inside the walls of this gothic castle.
Time Period: 1941 | 1992
Main Characters: Edie | Blythe sisters
Setting: Milderhurst Castle

The Secret Keeper, 2012

The lives of two women from different worlds collide when a young girl witnesses the arrival of a strange man on a summer day. When she is much older, she investigates the significance of his appearance.
Time Period: 1961 | 2011
Main Characters: Dorothy | Laurel
Setting: ‘Greenacres’, Suffolk | London

The Lake House, 2015

While on a holiday visit near Cornwall, a young policewoman uncovers a cold case – the disappearance of a child some 70 years prior.
Time Period: 1933 | 2003
Main Character: Alice Edevane | Sadie Sparrow
Setting: ‘Loeanneth’ | Cornwall

The Paris Wife

Paula McLain published her first novel, The Paris Wife in 2011, bringing to life the woman who captivated Hemingway at the age of 28. Set in the intriguing decade of 1920, the novel gives a firsthand account of Hadley Richardson’s marriage, interests, and struggles. While previous accounts and biographies passed her over as “the first wife” (Hemingway went on to have three more), her time with Hemingway had a great effect on his both his work and his lifestyle.

Even though we remember Hadley for her association with Hemingway, McLain does an astounding job to honor Hadley as her own woman, a girl from Saint Louis who moved to Paris during World War I with her husband. All too often, historical accounts of women only resurface when we remember their husbands or sons. We believe that is important for literature to allow these women to star in their lives, as heroines in their own right.

The Paris Wife paints an intimate account of Hadley and Hemingway’s first time meeting in Chicago. Hadley was eight years older than her crush, but they began writing letters back and forth after she returned home to Missouri from the Windy City. As she waited anxiously for each letter to arrive, she fell in love with his words, his words that would go on to enthrall the world.

In the early years of their marriage, Hadley faced many struggles as a mother to a young son, living on a struggling artist’s budget in the aftermath of the war. The apartment she lived in was not grand, but she made the sacrifice of wealth and comfort to encourage her husband, giving him emotional support in the trying days of his early career. The Paris Wife includes characters we are now familiar with including Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Sylvia Beach of the infamous Shakespeare and Co. This circle of artistic talent was new to Hadley, and the Left Bank personalities, while not unkind, found more in common with her husband than herself.

Over time, Hemingway began to alienate his mentor Stein, publicly criticize fellow writers, and most detrimental to Hadley, flirt with other women. These years are told from his point of view in the memoir, A Moveable Feast. Now with this novel, McLain has finally given Hadley a stage for her point of view.

Circling the Sun

Author of The Paris Wife, Paula McLain continues to enlighten us with her entertaining account of a young Beryl Markham living in a British occupied Kenya during the early 20th century.

Beryl Clutterbuck was born in the United Kingdom on October 26, 1902. A few years later, her father moved her family to a vast farm in the Rift Valley, Kenya. Charles Clutterbuck became the preeminent horse trainer in Kenya, exposing Beryl to the animals and the methods at a young age. At just 16 years old, Beryl married neighboring farm owner Jock Purves. McLain focuses on the discord Beryl felt in her marriage. Jock was much older, and their marriage was founded less on passion and more on practicality.

While in town socializing with other British expatriates, Beryl meets Denys Finch Hatton and Berkeley Cole. These men are main characters in the life of Karen von Blixen, the most famous woman to live in Kenya at this time. Writing under the name Isak Dinesen, Karen published her autobiographical account of her time in Africa under the title, Out of Africa, in 1937.

Denys Finch Hatton and Berkeley Cole were schoolmates from Oxford, who decided to take up big-game hunting. Then the African safari was an untamed wilderness. In Circling the Sun, Beryl becomes romantically involved with Finch Hatton, while at the same time he was also involved in a relationship with Karen. Living alone as a women in Kenya during this time was difficult. In fact, it was nearly impossible. Beryl was forced to marry for both physical and financial security, but with Jock, her happiness remained unsecured.

McLain mainly focuses on the interval of Beryl’s life before she made her famous aviation expedition. In 1936, she landed in North American, becoming the first woman complete a solo, nonstop flight westward across the Atlantic. An equally difficult accomplishment, Beryl became the first female horse trainer officially certified in Kenya, meaning that she was able to work for a respectable income while separated from her husband.

Beryl established a strong reputation for training difficult horses, animals that were particularly skittish, wild, or injured. Her tenacity and fearlessness that showed at an early age in her training, were again shown later during her time as a pilot. Beryl channeled her marital frustration and familial disappointments into staying active with her work and fully living out her passions.

Later in 1942, like Isak Dinesen, she recorded her experiences in the form of a book, West with the Night. Ernest Hemingway wrote to a colleague in a letter, “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true…I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.” If you take stock in Hemingway’s good opinion, reading her original work sounds perfectly exquisite.

Today, we have the tendency to romanticize British colonialism, especially in Africa and India. While there is richness and beauty in the landscape, the perceived lifestyle, and the access to wilderness, there are also negative repercussions on a personal level. Many would consider Beryl’s life to be privileged by many standards, but McLain illustrates her flaws, her shortcomings, and her mental fragility. She encounters self-doubt, loneliness, and despair. This first person point of view gives a taste of realness, and authenticity to Beryl’s life as a women in Kenya.