Thursday, June 24, 2010

Five Historical Fiction Books About Nineteenth-Century Authors

Novelists Louisa May Alcott, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens all created vivid, beloved worlds. Their stories have lasted up until today, the twenty-first century, and will probably continue for another hundred years. Poets Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning let us into their deepest thoughts with their timeless art. What might their lives have been like? Where did their talent come from? The following books speculate about these famous authors.

Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold
This book isn't completely about Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine, though they were the inspiration. Author Arnold changed their names but kept many of the circumstances the same. Charles married above himself and fathered lots of children with his wife, but what do we know about Catherine's side of the story? Why was their marriage troubled and unhappy? To get a feel for what might have gone on between Charles and Catherine, peer inside the similar relationship between Alfred and Dorothea as imagined by Gaynor Arnold.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn
Charyn is a prolific author, well-versed in the few facts and poetry of one of America's first female poets. He writes from Emily's point of view, mimicking her voice and sometimes her odd spelling. His narrative doesn't flow continuously; rather, he creates vignettes highlighting certain events in Emily's life. None of her poetry appears in the book, which is a shame, but it is mentioned several times. The reader can still see how Emily's upbringing and experiences shaped her poetry, and for a hermit-like spinster, she sure does fall in love a lot. It might be handy to have a book of her poetry at hand to dip into while reading Charyn's book.

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees
Louisa May Alcott was quite the woman. A spinster doted on by her father, she wrote many novels and stories, some under assumed names (and some which have only recently been attributed to her). She also traveled and worked as a nurse during the Civil War. McNees imagines a period in Alcott's life that isn't well-documented, when Louisa, as a young woman, moves with her family from Boston to a small town in New Hampshire. Louisa falls in love but refuses to admit it because she can't reconcile marriage with the independent life she wishes to lead. This book may be a beach read and not for serious study, especially since it's speculative, but it does capture the spirit of life in pre-war America.

Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontes by Jude Morgan
Two sisters in a family of six are the focus of this book. Their brother Branwell also shares the spotlight, with Anne and two older sisters making appearances. None of the siblings lived past 40, but they did write a handful of novels among them. They all lived secluded lives under the influence of their minister father in Victorian England. Why did they choose to remain separated from the world, and how could they have such fertile imaginations for people with such limited experiences? Morgan addresses these questions while deftly portraying the culture in which her subjects lived.

How Do I Love Thee? by Nancy Moser
Moser recreates the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from her invalid days to her marriage to and subsequent life with Robert Browning. Though she is often too sickly to venture outside her father's house, Elizabeth reaches out with letters to learned men of her day in Victorian England. She corresponds with a number of intellectuals and publishes some poems. Robert Browning was a fan of her work and wrote a letter telling her so. A mutual acquaintance arranged for them to meet and thereby set in motion one of the great love stories, a true love story that also makes for a good novel.

As a bonus, if you Bronte fans just can't get enough of Emily and Charlotte, pick up these two titles for even more speculation on your favorite authors:

Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael
Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne published novels under assumed names, pretending to be the brothers Bell. Charlotte's Jane Eyre becomes popular, and when she faces a marriage proposal, she must decide whether to embrace the kind of love she wrote about in her novel or to continue living in isolation, taking care of her family. Some of Charlotte's letters are included in this book, which sticks to facts and is almost biographical.

Emily's Ghost by Denise Giardina
Emily was the youngest of the Bronte sisters and the author of Wuthering Heights. In this novel, Giardina imagines a scenario in which Emily, Charlotte, and Anne fall in love with the same man. Which one, if any, will prevail? Though the set-up is fiction, the feel of Victorian England and other details of the girls' lives are historical.

photo from Flickr

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