Historical Fiction

There are a number of strands at play in this curiously titled novel set in postwar London in the Coronation year, 1953. The well-to-do Mrs Harriet Wallis, convicted of the murder of her husband, Cecil, becomes the second-last woman in England to be hanged. The last woman to be executed for murder in England was Ruth Ellis, about whom Mike Newell made the film Dance with a Stranger (1985), with Miranda Richardson as Ellis.

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In their earliest incarnations, fairy tales are gruesome stories riddled with murder, cannibalism, and mutilation. Written in early seventeenth-century Italy, Giambattista Basile’s Cinderella snaps her stepmother’s neck with the lid of a trunk. This motif reappears in the nineteenth-century German ‘The Juniper Tree’, but this time the stepmother wields the trunk lid, decapitating her husband’s young son. In seventeenth-century France, Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard kills his many wives because of their curiosity, while in his adaptation of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the Queen’s appetite for eating children drives her to commit suicide out of shame. Jealous, Snow White’s stepmother (and in some versions her biological mother) wants to kill the girl and eat her innards, but is ultimately thwarted; her punishment is to dance herself to death wearing red-hot iron shoes.

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Fortune begins with Napoleon’s triumphant entry into Berlin on 27 October 1806. Does it matter whether the popular image of the emperor astride a magnificent white stallion is an embellishment? ‘Time sullies every truth,’ Lenny Bartulin tells us. History is as much a fiction as this tale of derring-do and dire misfortune  ...

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One of the few advantages a contemporary writer of historical fiction has derives from working in a context with laxer censorship laws. Representations of sexuality and violence once proscribed can be incorporated to better approach the social conditions of the period. With regard to narratives about Australia’s convict history ...  

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From its raw and revelatory prologue, Nigel Featherstone’s novel Bodies of Men offers a thoroughly humanising depiction of Australians during World War II. In telling the story of two soldiers, William – too young to be a corporal – and his childhood friend ...

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Leah Kaminsky’s novel The Hollow Bones focuses on Ernst Schäfer, a German who was sent to Tibet by Himmler in the late 1930s, outwardly to collect plant and animal specimens; secretly to ‘search for the origins of the Aryan race’. Himmler’s abhorrent obsessions are not focused on ...

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Just one thing can shape your whole life’ is one line in a novel of four hundred and fifty pages, but it is telling in its application toward the characters of this brilliant début novel. Set on the Hawkesbury River in 1806, the cast of characters is large and yet we find each of them living with the consequences ...

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Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

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October 2018, no. 405

Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s novel Beautiful Revolutionary chronicles the decade leading up to the Jonestown massacre in Guyana when Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, orchestrated the ‘revolutionary suicide’ and murder of more than 900 members of his congregation ...

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The Coves by David Whish-Wilson

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October 2018, no. 405

A small bay is a cove, and so is a man, according to old-fashioned slang. The Coves takes advantage of this coincidence: it’s a story about a gang of men that rules ‘Sydney Cove’ in the mid-nineteenth century. But this is not the familiar Sydney Cove in New South Wales. There is another one ...

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A short way into this intriguing novel, author Ruby J. Murray cites Virginia Woolf on the subject of biography. According to Murray’s protagonist, Woolf called it ‘a plodding art’: ‘Every life, she wrote, should open with a list of facts … a stately parade of the real. Births, deaths and marriages ...

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