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October 26, 2010

There’s a genre of cloely imagined, well researched historical fiction that I find irresistible.   Mary Renault and Rosemary Sutcliffe come to mind.

Mary Renault is notable for her books about Ancient Greece, both mythic and historical.  In particular I remember Renault’s The Bull from the Sea and its sequels, about Theseus and the legend of the minotaur and her books about Alexander the Great – The Persian Boy, Fire from Heaven and Funeral Games.  Renault’s books are for an adult audience and are lent particular poignancy by the homo-erotic content – the relationship between Alexander and his servant boy Bagoas, for example.  Mary Renault was herself lesbian and there is an interesting non-historical book, The Charioteer, set during the First World War in a London hospital (perhaps The London Hospital where I trained as a nurse – I remember the setting seemed eerily familiar) which concerns love between men and women and explores the dilemmas involved in the attempt to preserve life.

Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote for younger people and concentrates on early British history. One of her most famous books is The Eagle of the Ninth about the search for the Ninth Legion that was wiped out beyond Hadrian’s Wall.

I have just finished another novel in this tradition (complete with a love affair between a Roman Prefect and a young boy from the Eceni tribe).  This is Boudicca ( by Manda Scott.  Happily there are two more books in the series: this one was called Dreaming the Eagle and takes the reader up to Claudius’ invasion of Britain in AD 39.  One knows the eventual outcome but still I read this  with the ridiculous hope that history might be changed.  Scott writes well with strong research to back up her fictions and I was, as I have been from childhood, taken by the idea of women fighting alongside men and matrilinear royal bloodlines.  As a Druid this is, of course, the culture where some origins of my spirituality probably lie.  The book doesn’t mince words about the brutality of hand to hand combat – in parts it reads like the Illiad with skulls being broken and bodies being cloven in various ways.  Roman and British atrocities are dealt with even handedly.  All sorts of interesting ideas: I’d never thought that a battle horse could itself be a weapon but of course a savage horse could kill effectively.

Why is this fiction so attractive to me? Escapism certainly. “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” have distracted and seduced me all my life. It’s equally a curse and a blessing. The eternal mystery of the past – always with us but never truly knowable in material terms.  Well, if you’re reading this and thinking yes, yes, yes try the novels suggested here – if you haven’t already.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 6:39 pm

    There are THREE more books, Liz. A lot more time to spend with Breaca yet.

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