Genre: Historical Biography

Literary, Sagas, Christian and Biographical

“I learned that this genre provides an interesting lens to examine the hopes and fears of our past and present.” Jessica Atherton

1 Setting/Frame : Genuine if not completely accurate; escape into another time and place; learning about a different occupation/role than one’s own; relevance
2 Character: Authentic characters carry the story even with good world-building especially if characters are based on a real person. Experiencing a life that one would never have; through multiple viewpoints we learn of others experiences and other cultures
3 Writing Style/Language: More descriptive and lyrical than other genres; story telling ability is key
4 Tone or Mood: Sense of stepping into the past—strength of novel’s frame and storyline makes it an immersive experience. Readers want to feel the pull not just the dry details.
5 Storyline: Include the story of that time in the background of the character’s story; Good story brings history alive

Pace does not seem to be a great factor in determining choice for real Historical readers.

Approachable way to learn about history; can peak interest in nonfiction subject areas
Wide variety so determining what reader wants is paramount in this genre.

Thank you to Jessica Atherton; Stefanie Aucoin; Eileen Barrett; Michelle Deschene; Diane Giarusso; Nanci Milone Hill; Jan Resnick; Rebecca Rowlands; Christine Sharbrough; Sandra Woodbury

Meeting: Tuesday, March 25, 2013; 9:45am to 12:00N
at the Peabody Institute Library (15 Sylvan Street. Danvers; Telephone: (978) 774-0554)

Historical Biographical assignment for March 25, 2014:

Benchmark: Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia.

Read 2nd title in the Historical Biographical genre (suggestions below).

Handouts: Johnson, Sarah. “Historical Fiction.” Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests. 7th ed.,Orr & Herald, eds., LU, 2013 p.85-92.
Especially see “Current Trends” p.89 on Biographical Fiction.
Previous handout [Saricks on Historical Fiction from The RA Guide to Genre Fiction (2009) p.290-311] was given to the group in May 2010 & 2013)

Appeal to be read for March meeting: Focus on all the appeal factors, but really think about character, tone and frame.

Notes on Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia Discussion and other Historical Biographies
Submitted by Sarah Woo

Author captured paintings very well
Web site: good
Leane listened to the audio: ok

Appeal: literary; sense of place; Italian language smoothly moved in and out of correspondence – well-integrated; good description: the reader feels as though she is there, can see the dress, taste the food, hear the crowds.

Detail in description of paintings too extensive for some
But for others: detail in the description of the art and the [painting] process was good and illustrative of the thought process A went through with her paintings; that’s how we get to know her; we admire A’s perseverance.

Almost no description of A herself.

More appeal: the way A assessed what she was looking at, colors and tone; we learn about something new and can enjoy art as a topic.
Read-alike: The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro [especially for art of creating art]

Artemisia’s trial: visceral, horrifying, well-described; contemporary in the sense that not much has changed as far as “blaming the victim”; but several people felt the writing was overwrought, melodramatic, which took some people out of the story
The beginning of the story: was Vreeland trying too hard to make an impression? Did this make the characters feel bland, stoic?
Artemisia: the story is all about the trauma in her life, but she was able to express her passion in her painting.

Elements of note:

• Forgiveness – at the end
• Mother –daughter relationship: bothersome? A sacrificed the relationship with her daughter for her art; her daughter is much less sympathetic than Artemisia: spoiled, shallow
• History repeating itself – we don’t learn. Women are still the ones to make concessions, sacrifices
• Artemisia’s real life is not as portrayed in this story; this is a version of her life
• Artemisia was able to be herself with Galileo; he brought out the best in her; she was unapologetic with him
• Secondary characters give you a good sense of the main character

Appeal: will appeal to those interested in art; those who read for character; story: reader is easily absorbed into the story; literary but approachable; strong woman; inspirational; dramatic; will learn something; role of women; entrée into great artists of the Renaissance, patronage system
Second Choices

Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, Sarah Dunant (Michelle)
Accessible; lacks heart, disappointing
Characters: flat and unfathomable, especially if you know anything about them
The truth is fascinating, but this book isn’t; it avoids “tough” issues
Written as though it is nonfiction; a parade of facts

Under the Wide & Starry Sky, Nancy Horan (Jim)
Jim is a real Robert Louis Stevenson fan, but this worked to the book’s detriment
This book is about Fanny Osbourne’s and RLS’s lives. Author nails Stevenson but not Osbourne. The reader couldn’t see what she saw in RLS
Appeal: descriptions of Antwerp, Paris, Edinburgh; anyone who reads for setting, not character (as Jim does); would also appeal to anyone who lies reading RLS books – this addresses the creation of his books

Mozart’s Sister, Rita Charbonnier (Eileen)
If you liked The Passion of Artemisia, you will like this
The sister’s letters to a man she is falling in love with; also partly in 3rd person; struggles with her father not supporting her; lots of potential but overshadowed by Mozart
Appeal: characters, role of women; Europe

The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier (Shelley)
Complements The Passion of Artemisia; strong woman, good story
Appeal: writing; setting; character comes to life
Per Nancy: tension between her and the painter

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, Carolly Erickson (Diane)
M/A awaiting her execution, and then thinking back
Couldn’t connect with the character; perhaps the diary format was the issue, so that could be an appeal factor if you like diary format
Atmospheric; an effort to make her human; learn about Louis, who was not a good character; if you are fascinated by M/A you might like it

Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard, Sally Cabot (Jan)
Characters surrounding BF’s life; the story is told from their point of view, along with that of another fictionalized woman who was the mother of Franklin’s son
Appeal: well-developed characters; portrayal of limited options for women and how they dealt with their choices; approachable; anyone who likes historical biography; all about relationships; setting

Pope Joan, Donna Woolfolk Cross (Jessica – Chelmsford)
9th century Saxony
Appeal: end notes with author – how people pieced together historical facts and how she tied them together

The Aviator’s Wife, Melanie Benjamin (Becky)
Good sense of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s character
Portrait of a marriage and her relationship with her children
Delves deeply into their personal story – A’s emotions more than just their marriage
Also historical details
Appeal: plot and setting to some extent, but more character

Signed, Mata Hari, Yannick Murphy (Stephanie)
Indonesia seemed very real
Dull vignettes; that don’t capture much about the characters, or even most of the places

The Invention of Wings
, Sue Monk Kidd (Terry)
Pre-Civil War Charleston
Appeal: characters and setting

Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier (Sandy)
Mary Anning: poor girl who sells fossils in England in the early 1800s
Story told from her perspective in alternating chapters with another, more well-educated character; they become friends; complex tale
Appeal: story, characters; Evolution debate
Some say: “all about fossils”

The Constant Princess, Philippa Gregory (Sandra)
Strong female lead; didn’t feel she was really there
Best descriptions were the stories within the story
Disconnected from time and place – more politics than people and place
Appeal: interconnected series; politics

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler (Rachael)
Story of F Scott and Zelda’s marriage; good story but didn’t quite ring true
Pacing: fairly quick
Per Stephanie: Save Me the Waltz, by Zelda Fitzgerald, her perspective of her life, makes this one ring true

Queen of the Tearling, Erika Johansen (Christine)
I had no notes on this – just the title

I Am Madame X, Gioia Diliberto (Leane)
Muse for J S Sargent; quick read
You get sick of her – narcissistic
Fascinating relationship with JSS, but you get so little of it

Recommended by Christine: Magnificent Vibration, Rick Springfield [hot autobio at PLA)


Benjamin, Melanie. Alice, I Have Been. (2010) Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Alice in Wonderland)
—. The Aviator’s Wife. (2013) Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Boyle, T.C. The Women. (2009) Frank Lloyd Wright

Cross, Donna Woolfolk. Pope Joan. (1996) Joan of Ingelheim

Diliberto, Gioia. I Am Madame X. (2003) John Singer Sargent’s Virginie Gautreau

Edghill, India. Queenmaker. (2012) Biblical David’s Queen Michal

Erickson, Carolly. The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette. (2005)

Fowler, Therese. Z. (2013) Zelda Fitzgerald

Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. (2001) Mary Boleyn
—. The White Queen. (2009) Elizabeth Woodville Grey

Keane, Mary Beth. Fever. (2013) Mary Mallon “Typhoid Mary”

McCann, Colum. Dancer. (2003) Rudolf Nureyev

Moehringer, J.R. Sutton. (2012) Willie Sutton

Moran, Michelle. Neferiti. (2007)

Murphy, Yannick. Signed, Mata Hari. (2007)

Naslund, Sena Jeter. Abundance. (2006) Marie Antoinette

Renault, Mary. The King Must Die. (1958) Theseus

Russell, Mary Doria. Doc. (2011) Doc Holliday

Stachniak, Eva. The Winter Palace. Catherine the Great

Vidal, Gore. Burr. (1973)

Weir, Allison. Dangerous Inheritance. (2012) The Tower of London; multiple prisoners

Second Titles

Sandra Woodbury

The Constant Princess – Philippa Gregory
Appeal Factors: character-driven; strong female protagonist; dramatic; introspective; leisurely-paced; descriptive

This was a very introspective book, told from the viewpoint of Katherine of Aragon. It begins when she is a young girl seeing her mother in war camps, and follows her through her adult life, including her marriages to Prince Arthur and King Henry. It’s a fairly tragic story, and yet I did not feel much sympathy for her (maybe I wasn’t supposed to because she was to be viewed as strong not pitiable). I was touched a couple of times, but overall found the book to be cold. I also thought the italicized internal thoughts/dialogue of Katherine were repetitive and over-done, interrupting the story more often than moving it forward or adding anything. The setting was realistic and believable enough, but I didn’t feel as thought I were there immersed in it. The best parts, I thought, were the descriptions of Spain from Katherine’s childhood.

Becky Rowlands

The Aviator’s Wife – Melanie Benjamin
Appeal Factors: Characters, Setting, Plot

The Aviator’s Wife follows the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and an aviator herself. The story is narrated in the first person by Anne, and Benjamin offers a unflinching, honest look at a complicated marriage. We follow the Lindberghs from Charles’ historic flight and their marriage in the 1920s, to Charles’ death in the 1970s. Benjamin mixes historical details of aviation in the ’20s, Lindbergh’s Nazi ties in the ’30s, and life during wartime, with a deeply personal narrative of Anne Lindbergh’s life at home with her children and with and without Charles.

For this reason, the biggest appeal factor is CHARACTER, specifically the characters of Anne and Charles. PLOT and SETTING also feature here, as several sensational things happen to the Lindberghs, but I would recommend this book to readers wanting to delve into the marriage and personal life of one half of a famous twentieth-century couple.

Rachel Steele

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler
Appeal Factors: Well-developed main characters, (and lots of cameos from other notables of the jazz-age), quick pace, sympathetic storytelling

A fictional portrait of the famously disastrous marriage of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, from Zelda’s point of view. Beginning when she meets and falls in love with Fitzgerald, the novel paints Zelda as a bright, charming woman who steps into the role of eccentric flapper to help her husband become the literary celebrity that he was. Zelda struggles to retain her own creative identity, though at one point her own writing is published under Scott’s name, and throughout their marriage the two struggle with jealousy–both professional and romantic. Later she takes up both painting and dancing in an attempt to find herself within the confines of this turbulent marriage. Her decline into mental illness is portrayed as a direct result of Scott’s drinking, the strange rivalry/friendship of Ernest Hemingway, and everyone’s insistence that she be a better wife and mother.

As a story it was vibrantly and convincingly told, with scenes of touching emotion, somewhat nuanced characters, and plenty of detail about jazz age parties and the social scenes that the Fitzgeralds frequented.

Michelle Deschene

Blood & Beauty: The Borgias – Sarah Dunant
Appeal Factors: Pace (surprisingly quick); Frame (strong sense of place, particularly the Vatican); Storyline (emphasizing events over character development)

In 1492, Rodrigo Borgia wins the papal election to become Pope Alexander VI. Two of his children, Cesare and Lucrezia, became important players on the board, one bent on securing the family’s legacy through decisive victories in battle, the other by a string of marriages into prominent families. Blood & Beauty follows the Borgias through the year 1501, covering by various degrees:
• The Pope’s affair with Giulia Farnese, and the enmity and vicious rivalry Rodrigo engaged in with both Cardinal Della Rovere and Caterina Sforza.
• Cesare becoming Cardinal of Valencia, and later eschewing the robes to lead the papal army and French troops provided by King Louis XII. The narrative closely follows his campaign up to the siege and fall of Forli. Also, in brief: His relationship with Micheletto Corella; the intermittent bouts of illness he suffered as a result of contracting syphilis; and his marriage to Charlotte d’Albret.
• Lucrezia’s first two marriages are the foundation of her role in the story, with the third marriage coming into play towards the end. Also, in even briefer brief: Rodrigo appointing her governor of Spoleto around 1499, at the approximate age of 19.

Blood & Beauty is an accessible piece of historical fiction due to the skillful, untangled presentation of events and important players. What it lacks, however, is heart. Fascinated as I am by the Borgia family, I must admit to being particularly disappointed by the treatment of Cesare and Lucrezia, individually and together. They could have been the emotional cornerstone of the novel, bringing much needed vibrancy and life to a story that read like embellished nonfiction, but they were instead flat and, at times, unfathomable.  Dunant’s writing is solid, but she tells more than she shows, reducing the narrative to a parade of prettily told facts and events.

Leane Ellis

I am Madame X – Gioia Diliberto
Appeal Factors: compelling, detailed, and lively

The fictional story of Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent’s painting Madam X, is a first person narrative in the form of her memoir. The author, Diliberto, is a biographer and could not find enough sources to write a biography but does rely on morsels of fact to jump start her imagination and provide a compelling story about a provocative woman’s life in Belle Epoque Paris. Diliberto recreates Virginie’s tempestuous personality, the captivating salons, artist studios, opera, and streets of Paris, and the struggle between artist and model to control the painting that would change their lives. The author convincingly conveys Virginie’s tragedy-filled life: her shame of pregnancy, death of her sister of typhoid, and her emotional isolation. Her descriptions of Civil War Louisiana, the Creole aristocracy, the expatriates and beautiful people of Paris come alive on paper. The place and period is well researched and plays well as the tableau for the imagined Virginie. The other characters are a mixture of layers (Aunt Julie) and stereotype (her narcissistic mother). Virginie comes across as vain, capricious, and seductive. It makes sense that Sargent would find her aloof and alluring, convincing this reader that Virginie believed that her beauty was her most precious commodity and spent if for all that it was worth. I was fascinated with Virginie’s world view; but did not like many characters in this book.

There is an extensive bibliography included on the people and times for those who want more fact and less conjecture. All in all–a compelling and lively quick read.

People who enjoyed the imagined heroine of McLain’s The Paris Wife might enjoy this version of an expatriate female in Paris; it would make a good match for readers who liked Susan Vreeland or Tracy Chevalier. However, Virginie whines and worries about herself almost exclusively and readers who tire easily of this narcissism may want to skip this one even as it captures beautifully the era and cultural spaces.

Stefanie Aucoin

Signed, Mata Hari – Yannick Murphy
Appeal Factors: possibly setting, although only Indonesia stood out

What is more captivating of the imagination than the story of a beautiful dancer turned enemy spy? I was thrilled to check this book out of my library, but ultimately was disappointed with the story of a woman who should have been easily able to capture the attention.

First of all the writing is technically good, but I found it very difficult to read through the jumble of short vignettes that Murphy loosely tied together. I like more depth and detail in my books and this novel is striking in its absence of details, mostly focusing on emotion and a dream-like quality that seemed to surround Mata Hari. A lot of the time names weren’t used and two or three paragraphs would go by only referring to “her” meant to mean Mata Hari but I was never completely sure if it was or if Sister Leonide and Ana Lintjens were supposed to be the focus.

Historically I think that Murphy tried to stay true to the facts of Mata Hari’s life, her early marriage, life in Indonesia, death of her son etc, but I felt no connection to these events as I felt like a biographical novel should have. This could have been about anyone or someone completely made up, nothing seemed unique, except the one phrase that repeated itself over and over “I have walked across the sea.” One of the things that I did appreciate was a woman writing about another woman who was seen simply as a sex object without any hint of hidden feminism or a subtext that it was somehow wrong. Mata Hari chose that life, and to her it was what she needed to do to escape the monotony and brutality of her life.

This book read too much like a rambling death row confession and it just wasn’t appealing to my desire to sink into a story and inhabit the world an author creates. Too much of this story was simply dark walls and black stone beyond which lay a world of white. Characters seemed flat and the pace was very slow even though the chapters were never more than a few pages. I would probably not recommend this book in the future and I wish I hadn’t had to finish it for a discussion group. Worst of all I picked this book out for myself expecting a sumptuous tale of dancing, sex and espionage.

Eileen Barrett

Mozart’s Sister – Rita Charbonnier
Appeal Factors: enough facts to hold the story together, leisurely paced, reader can empathize with Nannerl, setting 18th century Europe

Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart, otherwise known as Nannerl, was a musical child prodigy as gifted as her younger well-known brother Wolfgang Amadeus. Together as children they performed in the finest courts of Europe. This ended abruptly when at the age of eighteen her father informed her that she was to become a piano teacher to help support her brother’s career. This is the fictionalized, with enough truth, story of Nannerl’s life with all her dreams, hopes, and disappointments. The chapters are in the third person, but often also contain “letters” sent between her and the man she hopes to marry. What talent and music the world lost due to her father’s decision.

 Jim Riordan

Under the Wide and Starry Sky – Nancy Horan
Appeal Factors: Well developed characters and beautifully drawn settings

Under the Wide and Starry Sky is dual biography of Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne. The story begins with Fanny arriving in Antwerp with her children fleeing her philandering husband in America. A lot of time is spent with Fanny before Stevenson is introduced in chapter ten jumping through a window in a French inn. This is a subtle statement of one of the books major themes that without Fanny Osbourne there would have been no Robert Louis Stevenson. Horan is very good at this showing how at every step of his writing career it was Fanny that supported him, edited his stories, gives him ideas and often times nursed him back to health all at the expense of her own writing and painting. That devotion becomes one of the major tensions of their relationship. However, the one question that Horan doesn’t really answer is does why Fanny do it. It is very clear what Stevenson sees in Fanny. She is an exotic America who rolls her own cigarettes. To the sickly Stevenson who was just starting to get out from under the thumb of his parents and have adventures of his own she was irresistible. It’s not clear though what she sees in him besides a brilliant writer. In spite of that weakness, the characters are very sharply drawn. One obvious group this book would appeal to is lovers of Stevenson’s writing who will not be able to resist watching him write their favorite books. Horran also does an excellent job creating the world for the reader and she has to. Stevenson and Osbourne cover a lot of ground: Paris, Scotland, The east and west coast of the US and the South Pacific among others. Those places are as much a part of the story as the protagonists and her writing takes you there and gives you the feeling of walking along with the them through the latter half of the 19th century.

Jessica Atherton

Under the Wide and Starry Sky – Nancy Horan
Appeal Factors: Character driven storyline with detailed exotic settings

Nancy Horan examines the love between Fanny Van de Grift Osborne and Robert Louis Stevenson. This historical biography follows the intrepid Fanny as she escapes to Europe with her young children, fleeing the shame of a philandering husband. While recuperating from the loss of her son, she meets Louis and is not terribly impressed by the slender, slightly goofy young man. In time, he wins her over and their love blooms into an affair, followed by marriage and a peripatetic lifestyle filled with fantastic descriptions of international settings. Horan closely observes Fanny and Stevenson while adding a huge cast of characters with a deft hand.

The skills of the author sometimes do not match the oversized lives of her characters. This is an author to watch, if not the best book to read.

Jan Resnick

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
Appeal Factors: leisurely & rigorously paced; complex historical figures, gradually revealed; Language – richly detailed, stylistically complex, and witty; story – character driven, intricately plotted, sweeping in scope; tone – atmospheric, melancholy, reflective; frame – England, 1500 – 1535

This award winning Book One of the Wolf Hall Trilogy explores the life, character and perceptions of Thomas Cromwell, the go-to guy for Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry VIII. Thomas is born the son of an often abusive blacksmith. He runs off early and makes his way to Europe and evolves from a worker to a soldier to a merchant/lawyer and astute observer. He is at Wolsey’s side as Henry begins his campaign to divorce his wife of 20 years, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, to enable his marriage to Anne Boleyn. The Reformation is making its way into England; the Catholic Church is buttressing its position by refusing to deal with annulling the marriage, and everyone’s loyalties are tested between ambition and security.

Wolf Hall is a rigorous read. It takes place in a distant and incredibly complicated time. Mantel’s style is lovely, but stylistically complex – the reader must pay attention. This will appeal to readers who enjoy historical detail, a leisurely and demanding read. For those readers, this is a beautiful and rewarding book. Nothing is obvious, actions and motivations are gradually and subtly revealed. The cast of characters, groups and the Tudor family tree are listed in 9 pages.

It is a fascinating look at statecraft, Henry & the Church, and life in the 16th century.

  • Series: Wolf Hall Trilogy, Book 1
  • Similar authors: Ariana Franklin, Philippa Gregory, Michael Clynes, Ford Madox Ford, Maurice Druon