Summer reads

Past perfect: From a sinister Victorian thriller to the lush life of Louis XIV's mistress, these historical novels will take you back in time.

Published June 16, 2008 10:26AM (EDT)

Salon's staff is recommending summer books that will whisk you to another time and place without making you go through airport security. Previous weeks featured thrillers, chick lit and memoirs.

In this fourth and final installment, we focus on historical novels: a gripping fictional portrait of Queen Elizabeth's early years, when she was still just "Lady Elizabeth"; a Victorian thriller featuring a mysterious housemaid and a gentleman obsessed with anthropometry; a juicy girl's-eye view of Louis XIV's court; and an intellectual romance that spans two centuries, partly set in Venice, where novelist George Eliot is on honeymoon.

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"The Lady Elizabeth" by Alison Weir

Elizabeth Tudor is a puzzle by any conventional standard of femininity, a woman who declared that if she had her druthers, she'd be "a beggar-woman and single, far rather than queen and married." If she had a great love, or even a great passion, she never got carried away by it, or at least not far enough to let it interfere with the more important (to her) affairs of state. Did her public success hide a private tragedy -- was she, in short, the prototype for Miranda Priestly (from "The Devil Wears Prada") and every other emotionally unfulfilled career woman in popular culture? Or did she, as she proclaimed to her troops at Tilbury, truly harbor "the heart and stomach of a king" within "the body of a weak and feeble woman"?

Alison Weir's novel of Elizabeth's youth, "The Lady Elizabeth," takes the queen at her word. In what appears to be the first installment in a series of historical novels, she depicts the proto-monarch as a girl who learns from a disastrous infatuation at age 14 (with her trifling fool of a stepfather, Thomas Seymour) that love is a treacherous diversion. Furthermore, "her father had desired her mother, and her mother [Anne Boleyn] had met a bloody end." Is it any wonder, then, that the princess greets every suggestion of marriage with "a kind of horror"? Since "The Lady Elizabeth" ends with the queen's coronation, and Weir's last sentence lingers over the "warm and twinkling" eyes of Robert Dudley -- regarded by some as the first serious test of Elizabeth's resolve in this department -- perhaps more romance awaits in future volumes.

So, instead of the usual Tudor soap opera of adultery, beheadings and martyred females -- the kind of yarn that has kept Philipa Gregory, author of "The Other Boleyn Girl," in Jaguars for the past few years -- "The Lady Elizabeth" is a relatively sober work detailing the coming of age of a prudent, if brilliant woman. Initially a willful child, Elizabeth goes in and out of favor with her father, half-brother (Edward VI) and half-sister (Mary I), dodging scandals, treasonous conspiracies, religious persecution and efforts to marry her off to assorted inbred Hapsburg hunchbacks and weaklings. By the age of 20, she is cannily explaining to her elders why an unmarried British queen should stay that way: "If she marries a foreign prince, he might interfere too much in the affairs of the realm. Yet if she marries an Englishman, his rule might raise jealousies and factions."

This is, in short, historical fiction not as romance novel but as speculative biography. Still, there are plenty of velvet gowns, jewels and palaces to feed a reader's appetite for vicarious pomp, and where Weir has chosen to embellish on the established facts of Elizabeth's life, she does so for reasons carefully explained in her author's note. She has a firm grasp of the history, though a less certain hand with her dialogue -- I'm pretty sure no 16th century Englishman ever told anyone to "tone it down"; As a result, on the occasions when Weir has a character quote directly from source materials, the sudden shift in tone can be startling. Nevertheless, that she makes a point of using those sources indicates how conscientious she is with her subject. Weir is more historian than novelist (this is only her second work of fiction, the first being the best-selling "Innocent Traitor," about the life of Lady Jane Grey), and "The Lady Elizabeth" is best enjoyed as that: a dramatic, dishy alternative to a traditional biography, as well as the latest attempt to plumb one of history's best-known, yet most enigmatic figures.

-- Laura Miller

"The Dark Lantern" by Gerri Brightwell

Chamber pots: That's what's missing from the usual Merchant-Ivory depictions of the late Victorian era. However, Jane Wilbred, the heroine of Gerri Brightwell's "The Dark Lantern," set in 1893, can't afford to ignore the unpleasant realities of life before flush toilets. She's a maid in an upper middle-class London house, and emptying the chamber pots is one of her regular tasks. So is carrying heavy trays of tea things up and down narrow stairways in cumbersome skirts (any broken crockery will be docked from her meager pay). Jane feels lucky to have the job; as an orphan and the illegitimate child of an executed murderess, she thought she'd never escape the stingy, sanctimonious country vicar's wife who deigned to hire her despite the "stain" in her blood. Unfortunately, to get this new position, she's had to change her name and forge a letter of reference.

It turns out that Jane isn't the only resident of 32 Cursitor Road with a secret. The mistress of the house, Mina Bentley, keeps wheedling her husband to move back to Paris, where they met, and tries not to go outside any more than is absolutely necessary. She fired the previous maid because she spotted the girl talking to a suspicious-looking man on the street; what is she so afraid of? On Jane's second day, a mysterious stranger manages to bluster his way into the house by pretending to be Mina's husband, Robert, then rifles through the study, apparently taking nothing. The cook is skimming off the top of the household accounts, and the senior housemaid manipulates a complex and inescapable web of favors and obligations that has all the rest of the servants at her mercy.

Brightwell has delivered a delectably sinister picture of the snake pit seething behind the facade of respectable Victorian affluence. Only Robert Bentley himself can afford not to lie, and that's because he's at the top of the heap. Then his brother dies in a shipwreck while returning from India and a young woman who claims to be his widow is rescued from the disaster. She is the only surviving witness to their shipboard marriage; if she's telling the truth, she inherits the house.

A proponent of anthropometry -- a method of comparing very precise measurements of the various features of an individual's body -- Robert is locked in a professional rivalry with the champions of fingerprinting. Each side is trying to persuade law enforcement officials that they have the key to setting up a new system for "the complex process of identification." Since half the people in Robert's own house may or may not be who they say they are, the irony of his situation is rich indeed.

The multiple deceptions and misperceptions of the residents of Cursitor Road mesh like the gears of a Swiss clock, each ticking the next one a turn closer to disaster. Eventually, even the reader is drawn into the machinery, wondering which stories -- and which hearts -- are false. The surprises that wait at the end are more a matter of emotion than plot, and that makes them all the more satisfying.

-- Laura Miller

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"Mistress of the Sun" by Sandra Gulland

Seventeenth century France may have revolved around that most kingly of monarchs, Louis XIV (aka the Sun King), but Sandra Gulland's entertaining novel "Mistress of the Sun" finds its center in a less exalted figure -- that of Petite, a pixieish horse-crazy girl of minor nobility who would grow up to become Louis' first mistress. Gulland seems to specialize in conveying a woman's-eye view of great men: Her previous trilogy of novels retraced the life of Josephine Bonaparte, whose tale is unraveled via imaginary diaries.

"Mistress of the Sun" opens when Petite (aka Louise de la Valliere) is 6 years old, living with her family in the famine-ravaged French countryside, a place where old pagan superstitions comingle with religious belief. Tomboyish and precocious, Petite has already taught herself to read well enough to peruse the mystic writings of Saint Teresa. When a band of local gypsies blows into town with a pack of wild stallions, Petite is transfixed by the most ferocious one -- a white creature named Diablo -- and begs her adoring father to buy him.

When the white horse turns out to be untamable, Petite fears her father will slaughter the beast and desperately turns to a chapter in her ancient horse-training manual on "Bone Magic." The enchantment she performs works, but it also sets off a series of unfortunate events and darkens her soul forever -- or so she is convinced.

Like most girls of the era, Petite has no control over her fate. With no dowry or title, she gets passed around and handed off like a pretty object, first sent to be "waiting maid" to Marguerite, a raucous and misshapen young royal who has high hopes of marrying the teenage Louis. The girls follow the king's activities as if he were a boy-band heartthrob: "It was reported that he was comely, that he refused to wear a wig, that he loved hunting, music and theater and danced the lead parts in ballets."

Eventually, Petite comes into close contact with the regal one himself when she is sent to live at court as a lady in waiting to Henriette, a lively English princess who is married to Louis' brother. The palace is a hothouse of gossip and trysts, and Petite spends her days fulfilling the whims of bored royals, whether dancing or singing or accompanying her cohorts on hunts.

Our heroine is far more interested in riding horses than she is in flirting, or in anything else, really. She observes the pomp and ceremony around her (and boy is there a lot of pomp) with a distant curiosity. Gulland delights in the details of her surroundings, and squeezes great amusement out of minor characters, like Petite's horrible bore of a stepfather, a self-important marquis. He marks their first meeting by oversharing -- blathering on about "the state of his bowels (unforthcoming), the enema and purge he took once a week to balance his humors, his hippo-tusk false teeth," the latter of which he brags work far better than plain old elephant ivory.

It is not Petite's beauty or purity but her spectacular riding skills that eventually excite the admiration of the (by now married) king. At which point "Mistress of the Sun" morphs from an engaging, intricately described girl's-eye view of history into a bodice-ripper. (His breath? "Fragrant with wine." Hers? "Coming now in gasps.") Or at least it does for a few chapters.

But the known facts of Louise de la Valliere's and Louis XIV's life -- recently detailed nonfictionally in Antonia Fraser's "Love and Louis XIV" -- lend themselves all too well to torrid treatment. The rest of the story is laced with all kinds of political and sexual intrigue, as well as religious guilt and public suffering. Gulland's gothic touches sometimes seem overripe but not inappropriate in this easily devoured historical romp about a girl, a king, her horse and their nation.

-- Joy Press

"The World Before Her" by Deborah Weisgall

Not all of Deborah Weisgall's historical novel takes place in Venice, but that ancient, sinking city, so full of beauty and ugliness and decay, is the appropriate launchpad for her tale of two women who visit the city, a century apart. Each journeys there in an airless, stagnant marriage -- one 10 years old, one new. And Venice for each of them evokes memories of earlier and more vibrant loves.

In 1880, 60-year-old Marian Evans, by then a celebrated novelist under the pen name George Eliot, is trying to bring herself, and her writing, back to life after the death of her partner, philosopher and "Life of Goethe" author George Henry Lewes. Evans lived with Lewes (whose wife had left him but not divorced him) out of wedlock for 25 years. After his death, Evans finally married the financier John Cross, 20 years her junior. "The World Before Her" begins with the Crosses honeymoon arrival in Venice.

In 1980, a Rumpelstilskin-obsessed sculptor, aptly named Caroline Spingold, is visiting the city with her husband of 10 years, a financier 20 years her senior. Malcolm Spingold has brought his wife wealth and some happiness, but their decade together has sapped her of something essential -- her spirit and perhaps her artistic self. Now he has brought Caroline to Venice, where she spent a childhood summer before her father left her mother, because he is scheming a way to bring Venice back from the economic death that seems inevitable.

Much of "The World Before Her" is about the dream of reviving things that are dead -- cities and memories and relationships and ambitions -- through art. "Art doesn't fool," says Caroline. "It transforms. It makes the mess bearable." Both Marian and Caroline have woven art from their messes; they create sculpture and stories, making endings happy when life does not promise them the same good fortune. They make pieces of art that should be immune to the passage of time and to decay, and yet are utterly shaped -- in both creation and reception -- by the currents of life and love around them.

Marian fears she cannot write without her late lover; and when she looks at paintings in the Academia with her new husband -- so cowed by her ardor that he literally cannot rise to meet her -- she feels numb. "Fifteen years ago, when she saw them with George, these paintings had affected her like music. All her senses had been receptive; she had been in love, she had been open to the world. Love gave her clarity. It had been a kind of ecstasy."

Weisgall, who has written about music, ballet and painting, jams her book with not only Eliot and Lewes, but James McNeill Whistler, Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Marian and Caroline both search for texture and meaning. They want to spin life into art, to laugh and breathe and soak in beauty, while the men they're with seem wan and lifeless, emotionally and artistically impermeable.

In some regards, Weisgall is taking a page from A.S. Byatt's century-spanning intellectual romance "Possession." It jumps back and forth in time, forming intricate patterns with the life of the mind and the life of the body, worrying about morality both past and present, sending small clues from one woman's story shuttling a hundred years back into the other's. But for all the academic heft of a book that makes a meal of literature, painting and sculpture, and that takes as its setting a heavy, slightly rotted city, "The World Before Her" does not seem as heavy or plodding as might be feared. Weisgall's style is diverting and compelling; the book zips by, even as its meditations on art and time, god and marriage, get full-bodied treatment, and even as she skillfully dips readers in and out of memory and flashback, introducing dozens of characters, some real and some imagined, in two centuries and on two continents.

The novel tells a brief and beautiful story of how we get over love, and how we have changed in our struggles to name and contain it by marriage. "The World Before Her" is not the lightest book you'll pick up this summer, but it might be one of the smartest, and most vibrant.

-- Rebecca Traister

By Salon Staff

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