January was a great month for historical fiction reading, something about the wintry weather (such as it is in Georgia) makes stepping back into another time and place that much more appealing. Although now that I think about it, the bleak days and long nights of winter are perfect for reading any genre. I do seem to read more in the colder months of the year than when the heady days of summer beckon me outside.

dressSheri Holman’s novel The Dress Lodger was the book I chose from my shelves when I was housebound by the ice storm earlier in January. I can’t quite remember why or this book came to be there, but a search through my blog turned up a post about how I acquired it. So The Dress Lodger has been on my shelves for just about six years – almost as long as I’ve been keeping this blog – waiting patiently for me to return and read it.

Set in the early 19th century in Sunderland, a town on the northeastern coast of England, the book’s premise reminded me a bit of Slammerkin, another historical fiction with an English prostitute as the main character. Both feature intelligent women who must live by their wits, using their bodies as a means of survival. The story of The Dress Lodger is told by a set of seemingly all-knowing narrators, a sort of Greek chorus (whose identity we do discover), and the tale they have to tell is one of disease, death and depravity. Gustine is wise and experienced beyond her teenaged years, who one night at a local pub encounters Dr. Henry Chiver, a surgeon who is desperate for bodies for his fledgling anatomical students, a practice which was viewed as nefarious and sinful by many at the time. Gustine believes Dr. Chiver is the answer to her prayers, and so she determines to aid him in his quest, whether he wants her help or not. The impending threat of a cholera morbus outbreak both makes her goal easier and complicates matters for Dr. Chiver.

Virtually nothing in this novel is romanticized or sanitized for the reader’s benefit. If anything, Holman takes an obvious delight in giving the reader a visceral experience, one that assaults the senses on many levels. One cannot sit and read this book from our comfortable 21st century existence and not feel the press of unwashed bodies, not smell the stink of the river, not taste the rotting vegetables nor hear the crowds clamoring for death. One cannot help but be transported and then, upon finishing, come back feeling in need of a good bath and some fresh air – but also that The Dress Lodger is a damn fine piece of historical fiction.

remarkable-creatures1Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was chosen as the first book of the year for my library book club. While it is set during roughly the same time period as The Dress Lodger and even though it is on the opposite side of England, for all intents and purposes, may as well be on another planet, as different as the two settings are. While Sunderland was a choking cesspool of humanity, the village of Lyme Regis on England’s southwest coast is a quaint, almost pastoral setting. Spinster Elizabeth Philpot and her two sisters have moved to the seaside village from London, and Elizabeth soon meets a young girl who will change the course of her life. Mary Anning hunts for fossils, called curies by the locals, on the beaches and cliffs surrounding Lyme Regis, to sell to to tourists and collectors. Elizabeth’s interest fossils is changed into a passion for hunting and collecting by an encounter with Mary.

The two women forge a lifelong, if uneven, friendship, as they face the obstacles of class, gender, and religion in their pursuit of scientific discovery. Several of my book club members remarked that they kept waiting for something drastic, some romantic twist or violent cliffhanger. But this quiet novel needs none of that. Told in alternating chapters by Mary and Elizabeth, it is complex without resorting to melodrama or romance, and simply tells the story of these two fascinating women and their ordinary, extraordinary lives. 

marchBut by far the favorite of my recent historical fiction reads was March by Geraldine Brooks, a novel I’d delayed reading for a few years, partly because I was never in the right mood to read it, and partly because I love Brooks’ writing so much, and reading this means I now have to wait for her to write something new before I can experience anew her talent for bringing the past alive.

The eponymous March is Mr. March, the patriarch of the family in Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. The book opens with March sitting in the mud in the aftermath of a Virginia battlefield, writing a letter to his wife home in New England. The letter is written in the flowery, formal cadence of the period, and paints a rather rosy picture of what he sees around him. But after finishing the letter, he returns to reality, and I was struck by a comment he made that although he promised to write home every day, he never promised to write the truth. And therein lies the crux of this novel. While the girls of Little Women are sheltered from the realities facing their father, the readers of March are given the brutal, unflinching view of life for a soldier (even a chaplain like March) on the front lines of the Civil War.

Brooks also avoids the temptation to portray all of those on the Confederate side as immoral bigots, and everyone on the Northern side as compassionate saints. There are lots of gray areas and people with mixed motives and even murkier morals. But there is goodness amidst the suffering, and while March’s lofty ideals are often tested and sometimes destroyed, there is never not a moment when the reader does not feel empathy for him and those affected by the consequences of his actions.

March is a superb example of historical fiction, one that has placed Geraldine Brooks firmly among my most favorite authors. I just wish she was more prolific! If I were the betting type, I’d put money on this being one of my favorite books of 2011; it’s also my first entry into this year’s What’s in a Name Challenge, for the category of Travel/Movement.