Books My Mother Loved…

February 16, 2016
My mother loved historical fiction.  In the days when Erma Bombeck was the queen of domestic humor, and would be feminists felt caught between Betty Friedan (too serious) and Erica Jong (too randy) historical novels were a thinking woman’s guilty pleasure.  More serious than Barbara Cartland’s frothy stories, less licentious than the bodice and pants-bursting tales of the “Sweet Savage” series  and miles beyond the Harlequin romances, historical novels combined enough research and literary craft to create entertaining stories that someone wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen reading. About half of the stories were based on historic figures; the other stories were based around historic places and events.   The heroines weren’t always beautiful (at least they didn’t think they were) and while most of the stories still focused on a woman’s quest to achieve a happy home, husband and family, the traditional ending wasn’t guaranteed.  

Mama had a ton of these books and I ran through them all while I was a kid.   At the time I thought they were terribly boring; I was in love with “the classics”.  The world must have have agreed with my teenaged self , because I don’t see many historical novels these days.  Nevertheless, there were good stories in that genre, stories I’m glad to see back in  print these days.  If you’re waiting out the winter and need the company of a resourceful person, take a look around for some of these stories:

This is one of the “real person” protagonists, I mentioned and a poster child for the proposition that those who seek tolerance from others should practice what they preach.  Elizabeth Fones Winthrop was the daughter-in-law of John Winthrop when he became the first governor of the pilgrim colony in Massachusetts which should have given her some clout in the new world.  Instead her first husband drowned and Elizabeth was remarried off to Robert Feake, one of the weaker-minded men in the colony.  Elizabeth became a land owner so her family would have a steady income but independence wasn’t a trait Puritans looked for in their women.  Elizabeth got a colonial cold shoulder instead. Feake deserted his family and Elizabeth married her business manager next and was nearly hanged for her trouble; her fellow settlers weren’t sure she was divorced first.  Elizabeth had poor taste in husbands but she survived her bad choices, attacks by the indigenous natives, ostracizing and Massachusetts winters without central heating.  I love that my sister lives close to Elizabeth’s old stomping grounds.  Something in New England must strengthen a woman’s character
Norah Lofts could be considered Anya Seton’s British counterpart.  Like Anya, she was one of those women who fit writing around the other chores in her life and based many of her works around the place where she lived (Seton spent much of her life in New England, Lofts, across the pond, lived in Suffolk).  Lofts wrote her fair share of “real woman” stories, publishing stories about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Anne Boleyn but my favorite Loft series known as The Suffolk Trilogy.  The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset follow a building from its initial construction (in the late 14th Century) until the mid-1950’s by giving us the secrets and life stories of the people who live there.  From generation to generation we see them trying, failing, falling, getting up and starting again and a mystery that confounds one of the inmates of Old Vine may be solved by the next one.  It’s an engrossing story and well worth the read, along with her other books. 
If Anya Seton wrote American stories and Norah Lofts held the crown for England, than Catharine Gaskin was a citizen of the world.  Born in Ireland, she made herself at home in Australia, England, Ireland, Manhattan and the Isle of Man, always researching and writing about women and the need to make wise choices.  Gaskin’s best known is SaraDare based on an English girl who was transported to Australia after cross-dressing and  horse-thieving and lived to become a respected and honored businesswoman of Australia. 
However, my favorite is The Lynmara Legacy, a story of a Russian mother, her American daughter and how they deal the English home and family both of their lives get mixed up in.  For both women, discipline is their greatest ally but ambition and regret almost steal their chances for happiness.  This is a 20th century story, starting just prior to the October revolution and ending sometime in the 1970’s but there’s a perspective of the 1930’s and 40’s that is worth seeing.  If anyone gets to the end of Downton Abbey and still wants “more story”, this would be a good book to choose.

No one could discuss the popular historicals of the mid-20th century without mentioning Forever Amber.  This Restoration Romance was the hot ticket of 1940’s, upsetting people and selling out everywhere by featuring one of the original hot-bodiced heroines: Amber St. Clair.   On one level, Amber is the first step into the “Sweet Savage” romances my mother deplored as “mind pablum” because it focuses a lot on sex.  Amber spends a big part of the book sleeping her way to the top of Charles II’s court in order to get back the man who intrigues and eludes her for years.  In the meantime she survives the Great Fire of London, the Plague and all the other “fun” of Restoration England. (The research on this started with a college thesis and ended up covering hundreds of books) Does the plot sound a little like Gone With the Wind?  Well, it is except Scarlett O’Hara had a reputation to lose and in the end, missed the companions and friends she’d dumped along the way.  Not Amber.  Never Amber.  Amber’s a round-heeled minx with no Melanie or Mother to guide her but she’s strong and has the survival instincts of a cat.  She survived and thrived despite society’s best efforts.  Whatever else you have to say, you must respect the resilience of Amber.

Now I see my mother had one heck of a ride on life’s merry-go-round.  She grew up in a society that believed women who worked outside the home had some innate flaw in their lives. Then, after she joined the ranks of housewives and mothers, the Sixties hit and she was told her life was wrong.  Society’s values flip-flopped at least twice more in her lifetime and she must have been exhausted chasing after the woman she was “supposed” to become.  So I can see why she loved these historical novels.  Like Mom, these heroines made mistakes, and at some point each of their worlds upended around them but they never gave up.  With a plot of land or a pretty dress or sometimes just gut determination, these heroines started over, determined to endure, if not prevail and they usually did.  Sometimes, they got the man they wanted, sometimes they missed that boat.  But they never gave up on themselves or the possibility of the future.  

And that’s a lesson worth remembering.

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