Janet Lee’s first novel, The Killing of Louisa, has just been published by University of Queensland Press. Janet struggled to know how to choose ‘Just Ten’ favorite historical novels out of the many she loves, so decided to look at the bookcase on her right, in her study, and write about the books which sit on the top shelf. She apologises to all her other favourite historical novels who weren’t sitting on the top shelf at the time.
Janet Lee lives in south east Queensland with her family and is currently working on her second novel. The Killing of Louisa won the Emerging Queensland Writer category in the 2017 Queensland Literary Awards.
Now Janet Lee shares her top ten historical fiction reads …
by Janet Lee
Just ten? How do I narrow my historical fiction selection to just ten favourites when there are so many to choose from?
Remarkable Creatures is a work of fiction set largely in Lyme Regis, England, in the 1800s. Many of the people portrayed in the novel did exist, including the two female fossil collectors, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Anning was purportedly struck by lightning as a child and Chevalier has Anning feeling a thrill of lightning every time she unearths a fossil. ‘Yes, Mary Anning, you are different from all the rocks on the beach.’
I have seen Anning’s fossil exhibits in London, and I made sure I kept my eyes open for a remarkable creature when I visited the cliffs around Lyme Regis. But I am no Mary Anning.
Early in this novel, a young Ned Kelly watches as a ‘trap’ breaks apart a cake his mother has baked and wants to deliver to her nephew, who is in prison.
“Tis not poverty I hate the most nor the eternal grovelling but the insults which grow on it which not even leeches can cure …” – Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang
From the moment Ned’s mother picks up the broken cake, re-wraps it and shoves it under the door of the gaol, I felt the Kelly rage and pride. It stayed with me through the book, and long after.
Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2000.
Forsyth masterfully tells stories within stories as she re-imagines Dortchen Wild, a young woman who lived next door to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – the famous, fairy telling, Brothers Grimm. Dortchen tells beautiful stories to the Grimm brothers. I loved that the book had so many layers, old tales and cruelty are set within a love story and incredible poverty, then all wrapped up amid the Napoleonic Wars.
Forsyth wrote in my copy, ‘a novel of love, war and fairy tales – I hope you are spellbound.’
I absolutely was.
Ashley re-imagines the artist Elizabeth Gould, beginning in London in the 1820s. Elizabeth Gould painted beautiful birds, but her legacy has been largely overshadowed by her husband, John Gould. Ashley brings Elizabeth Gould to life and shows the artist at work amid the demands of motherhood, ship voyages and separation from her children.
I came to love this woman and found the final scenes particularly moving. The description in the end scene is simply beautifully written – but no spoilers.
Brooks was inspired by the few details which survive about the first Native American who graduated from Harvard College in 1665. Brooks begins by placing the reader firmly on the island which is now known as Martha’s Vineyard, so much so that I felt I could smell the water and needed to look down to see if the hem of my skirt was wet.
There is beautiful, evocative language throughout the novel from the very first lines: ‘He is coming on the Lord’s Day. Though my father has not seen fit to give me the news, I have the whole of it.’
In Germany, in the early 1500s, a small village is in the grip of a famine and the people are starving. Thinking there is a curse upon the village, a friar comes to rid the town of witches using his book ‘The Witches’ Hammer’ as a guide to gaining confessions.
The Witch’s Trinity is filled with exquisite details, visions, a wise herb healer and a mysterious cat. I grew to love the characters Mailman portrayed and I began to fear for them all.
The Weight of Water
by Anita Shreve
A photojournalist travels by boat to a group of islands, for a story about two murders which occurred in 1873. While researching, they find a document written in 1899 which relates to the murders. The modern story and the story within the historic document pace along together, towards a devastating conclusion.
Was it Ned Kelly himself, who sat beside Drewe and explained how it all came to this? I think it might have been. I can see Kelly, sitting in the pub at Glenrowan sharing a quiet drink with the writer and saying, ‘now, this is what happened, it’s been a long time since my da called me sunshine’, or some such.
There are pearls of writing throughout the book, but Kelly’s description of his sentence aboard the prison hulk is particularly vivid, with the horses drowned in the water, and the sea viewed as his gaoler. It is a scene which still echoes though it is many years since I first read this book.
by Alice Hoffman
The Dovekeepers is the story of four women and their secrets, set around 70 A.D. amid the siege of Masada when 900 Jews were in a fortress in the Judean desert. They held out against the Roman army for months, but when the end came, only a few women and children survived.
This is a story beautifully imagined, with some scenes depicting terrible violence and others tender love. Hoffman masterfully guides the reader through the siege and reveals the secrets of the women who tend the doves.
by Mary Beth Keane
In New York at the start of the 20th century, Mary Mallon works for some of the wealthiest families in Manhattan. Mary Mallon is better known as Typhoid Mary, a woman who was held responsible for the deaths of several children.
Typhoid Mary was described as an ‘asymptomatic carrier’- one who passes the disease along without suffering from the symptoms themselves. Keane humanises Typhoid Mary and tells the sad story of her life – her arrests and her isolation. Mary’s thoughts as she nears the end of her own life are particularly sad – but again – no spoilers.
The Killing of Louisa
To lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like murder.
In New South Wales in 1888, Louisa Collins was sentenced to hang after being tried multiple times for the alleged murders of her two husbands. The testimony of her young daughter helped to decide her fate.
This clever and compelling novel recreates Louisa's time in her Darlinghurst prison cell as she reflects on her life and on the grief and loss that delivered her to this place. Despite difficult marriages, financial hardship and the deaths of several children, she remains resilient and determined to have her own identity.
But as she faces her final days, will Louisa confess to her crimes? Or is an innocent woman about to be hanged?