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Start young and historical novels can become a lifelong addiction

September 27, 2013
Favourite History Books/ photograph courtesy of Anne Gracie

Favourite History Books/ photograph courtesy of Anne Gracie

As a child we moved often because of my dad’s work, so in my first nine years of schooling I attended six different schools. Because we tended not to accumulate stuff, libraries became incredibly important to me. Though I was an outdoors active kid during the day, in the evenings I was a total book worm. My dad didn’t approve of TV, and I was the kind of child who was always running out of books to read. Without an endless supply of books from libraries, I don’t know what (or who) I would have become.

And though I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on, historical novels were always a favourite. The first historical novel I remember reading was when I was eight. We were in France, and I had run out of books.

On one of the second-hand bookstalls beside the Seine my mother found a little book in English called Guy of Warwick. It was about a brave knight (Guy) who committed great acts of bravery (usually by wiping out the last of some endangered species) in order to win the heart of the cold Lady Phyllis. I thought Guy deserved someone a whole lot nicer than Phyllis, but I still read it over and over. (And yes, I was the bad child who coloured in those letters on the cover in the pic.)

In sixth grade, my little Victorian country primary school had a wonderful library, and my friend Laetitia and I became regular borrowers. It soon became a point of honour between us to finish our books that same night — of course they had to be about the same size. The school librarian initially didn’t believe that we were reading a book each night, so he used to test us with questions, and also point us to good authors. We became fast, accurate readers.

We read everything, and among the range were some wonderful historical novels.

Rosemary Sutcliff swept me away into Roman Britain and to this day I love The Eagle of the Ninth — a story of Roman Britain and a young man’s quest to retrieve the lost Eagle of his Father’s Legion, the Ninth. I travelled India’s Grand Trunk Road with Kim and Rudyard Kipling. I entered Victorian-era society with Frances Hodgson Burnett and her Little Princess, The Secret Garden and The Lost Prince.

For me, a historical setting was just as exciting as any other setting — Roman Britain, Narnia, Colonial India, outback Australia, or the world of The Borrowers.

But the writer who truly thrilled and haunted me with his historical settings was a man called Henry Treece.

His books were called ‘children’s books’ and certainly, in the libraries where I found them, they were shelved in the children’s section, but they were bold, dark, confronting, fascinating books. They took me to places and times I’d never known, and brought Romans, Britons, bronze age tribesmen, Vikings, Ancient Greeks and more to life for me.

Rereading them, I can’t believe they were called children’s books. He didn’t hold back, didn’t soften or sanitize his books for the sake of young readers —there was blood sacrifice, sex, politics, and violence, all taken completely in context — not written to shock, just to evoke the times—he was a schoolmaster and a passionate historian. And evoke the times they surely did.

Here’s a piece I read when I was in sixth grade and have never forgotten. It’s from The Dark Island — when Romans first come to pagan Britain. I’d visited Stonehenge some years before, when we lived in Scotland and became tourists every weekend, but it was this book—this scene—that truly brought the place to life for me.

 

The tribes have gathered, and some Romans are there as guests of the chiefs. A group of boys —chieftains’ sons—have sneaked up to watch a forbidden ceremony.

Suddenly an old woman began to call out and whine, “O King, it is my son on the stone before you. He did no evil. He loved the gods. Why must you take him, lord?”

The boys heard her start to cry and then scream; then she was silent and Beddyr looked with his wide black eyes at a gaunt soldier he knew and said, “What has happened, Pedair? Why is the old woman crying, then?”

The soldier, his eyes still fixed on the blood-stone, said, “It is nothing, Prince, only an old cockle woman selling her wares.”

And before the boy could ask again, a group of black-haired Picts began the long, low, rhythmic moaning that is the prelude to their death-dances and a party of soldiers had to break ranks to quieten them down.

So the boys got onto their knees and tried to look between the legs of the chiefs, but they could see little.

“He’s got red hair,” whispered Morag excitedly.

“They always have,” said his brother.

Then they shrank back, blinded for a moment by the sun’s first long ray that struck inch by inch along the eastern avenue. And when they could see again, Caradoc said to his friend Gwyndoc, “I can see Father’s feet. He’s dressed like a druid.”

“What’s he doing?”

“He’s pushing a stick into the red-haired one! No, it isn’t a stick, it’s a mistletoe stake! He’s having to push very hard, the red one is wriggling so much!”

Then they became aware that they were enveloped by a great silence, that no-one, the length or the breadth of the plain, was speaking or moving, and they fell silent, too. And a strange sound came to their ears; it was quite like a hare when you tried to wring its neck and couldn’t quite. Then there was sobbing and gurgling, and all over the plain people were gasping and moving and talking again.

[Henry Treece, The Dark Island]

Powerful stuff, eh? No wonder I devoured his books, even though I’m sure they gave me nightmares at times.

But shortly after I’d worked my way through all of Henry Treece, I discovered an author who affected me even more powerfully, though in a very different way. I wasn’t haunted by her, her books weren’t frighteningly real — they were pure, delicious fun!

We were in a new town, and my new reading friend Merryn had dared me to borrow a book from the adult library – a book by her mother’s favorite author, Georgette Heyer. We were eleven and I fully expected to get into trouble for my temerity. The wonderful librarian didn’t send me away, I triumphantly bore my first Heyer (These Old Shades) from the library, and it started a life-long love affair with Heyer’s novels.

Many years later, when I turned to writing books myself, the Heyer influence became apparent: my genre of choice was Regency-era historical romances, partly because I can’t resist a little humour, and partly because in some ways I feel as though I grew up in Heyer’s Regency world.

I’ve collected all my childhood favourites, some from rare book sites, some from library sales. I still read widely, and when times are tough, my best escape or stress release is to stick my head into a book. Heyer is still one of my comfort reads. And librarians and friends are still pointing me toward good new-to-me authors, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Anne GracieAbout the author:

Anne Gracie is a Melbourne writer who writes Regency-era historical romances for Berkley (USA) and Penguin Australia. Her website is www.annegracie.com

@AnneGracie

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2013 11:46 am

    Heyer is a comfort read for me too, Anne. Began to read my mother’s books as a child also. Frances Hodgson Burnett left an indelible mark on me too.

    • September 27, 2013 4:04 pm

      Maggi, I owe a fair bit to the friends who used to go book hunting with me. I haven’t seen either of them since I was a kid — we moved on and never went back and we wrote for a bit but lost touch. As for FHB, The Little Princess started a lifelong fascination for India, the Empire and orphans. 🙂

  2. September 27, 2013 2:28 pm

    Anne, you could have been writing about me. It’s a bit uncanny but wonderful to know someone else had a similar childhood, reading habits, and favorite historical fiction authors. Although I don’t have a collection like you, I still have the first book I bought with my allowance when I was eight years old.

    • September 27, 2013 4:10 pm

      Jillian, wouldn’t it be great to have a long chat about favorite children’s books? I write in a room lined with books, and on my left there are three shelves that contain many of my childhood faves, including my collection of Heyers. I can’t help myself – books are an addiction. When we moved to Melbourne, I went to a high school in Parkville and used to catch the tram down to Flinders St station, but sometimes got off early and explored the city. In my wanderings I discovered Berry’s Antiques which, down the back of the shop, had tables and shelves full of books, all for 10 or 20 cents. I took to going there whenever I could and all my meagre pocket money went on books, which must have been from deceased estates. It was my idea of heaven.

      • September 28, 2013 6:43 am

        Anne, it would be great to discuss our favorite children’s books. Are you attending RWA14 in San Antonio? If so, we might have a chance for whatever length of chat our schedules will allow.

  3. Anne Gracie permalink
    October 1, 2013 11:25 am

    Jillian, I’m not sure at this stage. A few of my friends are definitely going, but it will depend on how y writing is going. But if so, yes, a definite catch up

    • October 1, 2013 12:12 pm

      Anne, I hope we can make a catch up happen. We follow each other on Twitter, so I’ll send you a DM a month or so before RWA14.

  4. October 8, 2013 10:28 am

    I loved Eagle of the Ninth as well ( d9d you know there is a movie?). The great thing about Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle, is that you could follow a whole history of Roman Britain into Saxon England through the stories that traced the line of that Roman youth Marcus Aquila to his descendants, where we find them fighting for King Arthur in Swords at Sunset. The book series “grew up” as the readers did: that last book is actually classified as an adult book. I really loved that the story didn’t end with one book.

    • October 8, 2013 10:36 am

      Hi Rusty, no I didn’t know there was a movie. Must see if I can hunt it down. I loved the way the books were connected, too, though I don’t think I ever managed to read all of them, nor all of them in order. That might be a project. 🙂 I think most of the history I learned I learned through reading novels and it was always more real to me than it was in history books.

  5. Sue Williamson permalink
    August 7, 2014 2:16 am

    Hi Anne,

    I have just been introduced to the blog Read Watch Play and caught your post on historical novels which really resonated with me. Like you, I discovered Georgette Heyer at about the age of 12, but before that my absolute hero was Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel and that book catapulted me into the world of the historical novel and the world of romance at the tender age of 8 ( an only child in the days before 24 hour tv, growing up in the frequently wet North West of England,the book was my refuge).
    From that beginning, I devoured everything historical I could get my hands on: Rosemary Sutcliffe, Helen Lewis,Walter Scott, Charlotte Bronte; Jane Austen, Barbara Cartland (!), Anya Seton, Anthony Hope, Frank Yerby, John Galsworthy, just to name a few and then at the age of 15 I discovered the incomparable Dorothy Dunnett whose books still provide the yardstick for me in historical excellence and accuracy (as well as providing a hero and heroine to die for in Lymond and Philippa).
    I adore historical novels and I love romance (you are an auto buy for me, by the way!). Today I work in the public library arena which feeds my habit as well as affording me huge amounts of enjoyment. (How great is it to combine your hobby with your job!!) There is nothing can really compare with that initial excitement of an opening a book by a favourite author or discovering a new author that is destined to become a real companion.

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