Historical Fiction/Nonfiction Pairings

Next Meeting: Tuesday, September 26, 2017; 9:45am to 12:00N  at the Reading Public Library (64 Middlesex Avenue, Reading; Telephone: (781) 944-0840)
Please sign-up for next meeting using the MLS CE Calendar.

!!ANNOUNCEMENT: On November 28, 2017,  we will be having a Planning/Strategy meeting instead of our usual genre study discussion. We have a schedule through 2018 and it is time to discuss what we need from this group individually and collectively.  Please come to this meeting whether you are a founding member, longtime or sometime attendee, or brand-new participant.  Help us shape the future of our RA studies.  We will be meeting at Methuen’s Nevins Memorial Library from 10:00am to 12Noon.  We will also do an RA exercise which will be explained at the September 26th meeting in Reading. Sign up will be by the MLS CE Calendar.

RESOURCES for 9/26/17: NONFICTION: Cords, Sarah Statz. The Real Story. 2006 Libraries Unlimited. P.149-153, 161, 164. Handed out 11/22/16; Biography, p.197-200.

FICTION: Johnson, Sarah. “Historical Fiction.” Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests. 7th ed.,Orr & Herald, eds., LU, 2013 p.85-92. Especially “Current Trends” (89) :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

 Assignment for September 26, 2017:

 We complete a three-part arc in Historical Non-Fiction and top it off by reading Historical Fiction/Nonfiction duo on the same topic.

The Benchmarks: Everyone reads Janet Wallach’s Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia. (1997) or Georgina Howell’s Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (2008) NONFICTION BIOGRAPHY and Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day. HISTORICAL FICTION.

 Please post your 2nd titles in this topic  under Submit 2nd Title Info from above menu.

Appeal to be read for September 2017 meeting: Focus on all the appeal factors, but really think about frame: place, time, and tone and the appeal differences between nonfiction and fiction.


This list is representative – not exhaustive.  Feel free to invent your own pairing—find fiction and nonfiction on the same topic.

 Benedict and Peggy Arnold–Allison Pataki’s The Traitor’s Wife (2014)   FICTION

Mark Jacob’s Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America (2013) NONFICTION

 Cleopatra—Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra (1997) FICTION

Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life (2010) NONFICTION

 Charles Dickens—Dan Simmon’s Drood (2009) FICTION

Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life (2012) NONFICTION

 Alexander and Elizabeth HamiltonElizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s The Hamilton Affair (2016) FICTION

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2004) NONFICTION

 Ernest Hemingway—Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (2012) FICTION

Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway (2017) NONFICTION

 Beryl Markham—Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun (2015) FICTION

Beryl Markham’s West with the Night (1942) NONFICTION

 Mary, Queen of Scots—Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Queen (2008) FICTION

Antonia Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots (1969) NONFICTION

 George Sand—Elizabeth Berg’s The Dream Lover (2015) FICTION

George Sand’s Story of My Life: The Autobiography of George Sand (1991) NONFICTION

Victoria Regina—Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria (2016) FICTION

Julia Baird’s Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire (2016) NONFICTION

 Frank Lloyd Wright—Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank (2018) FICTION

Jennifer Fandel’s Frank Lloyd Wright (2017) NONFICTION

Elective Titles

Beth Safford

Charles Dickens: A Life – Claire Tomalin
Appeal Factors: compelling, sympathetic and closely observed characters, well-researched, atmospheric, detailed setting

This is an thoroughly researched and sympathetic study of a complex and not always likable man. The author previously wrote The Invisible Woman,” the story of Dickens’s mistress and their relationship, so she has an in-depth knowledge of the people involved. The characters are closely observed and vivid, and the reader shares both her respect for Dickens for his talent, philanthropy, and hard work, and her clear disapproval of how cruel he could be to his friends and family. He resented and punished his wife, who endured 11 pregnancies in 15 years, for the burdens of their large and troubled family as though he had no part in its creation! In addition to a detailed and evocative setting, which allows the reader to really sense Victorian England, in all its contradictions, Tomalin provides brief but through summaries of all his works for those of us who haven’t read him since college. I would highly recommend it for literature and/or history buffs.

Drood – Dan Simmons
Appeal Factors: character-driven, intricate plot, flawed characters, fast-paced, creepy, atmospheric

Drood is based on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the novel Dickens had to yet to complete when he died at age 58. The highly unreliable narrator is fellow author Wilkie Collins, and it is hard to tell how much of the disturbing and dramatic events are actually happening and how much are the product of Collins’s drug-addled mind. Prior knowledge of Dickens, Wilkie, or their writing would be helpful but is not necessary because the author successfully conveys Dickens with all of his ego and recklessness and Collins, who is both his friend and follower, and who also resents him bitterly. The style is chilling and melodramatic. and the dark underbelly of proper Victorian England makes for a nightmarish setting. Recommended for horror fans as well as readers of British literature.

Leane Ellis

Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria (2016) for fiction and Julia Baird’s Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire (2016) for nonfiction

Author: Daisy Goodwin & Julia Baird

Appeal Factors: Baird: Sweeping breadth of life and times with context of era; Moving and Compelling strong female character; Engaging style and superbly researched. Goodwin: Strong female character coming-of-age; Sparkling dialogue, compelling cast of characters, well-imagined setting and time period, and dramatic, romantic tone.

The pairing I chose was Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria (2016) for fiction and Julia Baird’s Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire (2016) for nonfiction. After binge watching The Crown on vacation this summer, I was in the mood for more British monarchy. Both books captured the complexity of Victoria and the immense responsibilities of a young woman who becomes queen at the age of eighteen. While Baird’s version also included 200 pages of source notes and over four hundred pages of biography, it covered the entirety of Victoria’s life in great detail and panache. Goodwin’s book ended with her engagement to Albert and covers her earliest years sporadically. What Goodwin does well is take the “facts” that Baird weaves into an intriguing tale and uses them to generate a character-driven coming-of-age novel riddled with hyperbole and over-the-top drama. Goodwin is light and fun; Baird is heavy and serious. Both paint Victoria as warm and relatable, headstrong and determined. Baird does her best to undo the myths that have always surrounded Queen Victoria; and I feel she proved her points admirably. Goodwin shows the emotional growth of a young sheltered woman and introduces the potent woman Victoria would become. Goodwin takes authorial license and creates composites and reliable versions of historical figures—making the emotional truth more important for her purposes. I would read a sequel even with the high drama because it was highly entertained. Baird provided an accessible, fact-filled, moving ride through the 1800s and a crash course in the history of the British monarchy and Great Britain. I plan to binge the Victoria miniseries next!

I would suggest Goodwin to anyone who likes a good historical romance or coming of age novel, as well as strong historical female protagonists. Baird will appeal to any history lover of well-researched and lively biographies.

Jan Resnick

Genre: Fiction/Biography pairing
Vanessa and Her Sister – Priya Parmar
Appeal Factors: Pace: Fast; Characters: Complex, beautifully revealed; authentic, flawed; Story: Character-driven; Language: Lyrical, elegant, compelling, witty, richly detailed; Tone: Serene, atmospheric; strong sense of time and place; Frame: Bloomsbury London, 1905-1912

The focus of this insightful biographical novel is the Stephen siblings, primarily painter Vanessa and her younger writer sister Virginia (Woolf). Told through a series of diary entries, letters, telegrams, and tickets, the reader gets to know the Bloomsbury group as it evolved into a hub of culture and the risqué contrast to Victorian values.

Vanessa and Virginia are just beginning to develop as true artists against the background of Virginia’s instability and mental illness. The artists and writers in their brother’s circle provide a background as well as stimulation to their skills. They also provide context for their competition.

Thoby, the eldest son brings in most of the group as extensions of his college friendships. Vanessa, the eldest, is the anchor of the home, the planner, organizer, and when necessary, the rock for Virginia’s flights and panics.

The novel reads very quickly and smoothly as the author bridges between Vanessa’s imagined journal and letters, telegrams, and postcards written by the various members of the group. The characters are gradually revealed in all their complexity. A wonderful read accessible to those who know the writers/artists and those who would now like to. Highly recommended. LibraryReads Favorites 2015, New York Times Notable Books 2015).

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours; Mrs. Engels by Gavin Mccrea; Susan Sellers – Vanessa and Virginia; Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh; Norah Vincent’s Adeline; Jo Baker – A Country Road, A Tree; Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos; Nancy Horan – Under the Wide and Starry Sky; The Dream Lover – Elizabeth Berg; The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland; Tracy Chevalier – Burning Bright; Frida by Barbara Louise Mujica.

Genre: Fiction/Biography pairing
Virginia Woolf: a biography – Quentin Bell 
Appeal Factors: Pace: Deliberate (print – small); Characters: Complex, well revealed; authentic, flawed; Story: Chronological; Language: Compelling, richly detailed; Tone: Strong sense of time and place; Frame: Primarily London, 1882 – 1941

Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf was only the second published about her. Unlike later biographies, this is strictly historical avoiding the literary criticism included in other titles. The initial section of the book outlines the family biography and lineage. It briefly sets up the family history and gives a view of Virginia’s parents’ background and their impact upon her.

This volume includes: Volume 1 Virginia Stephens 1882-1912 (216p.); Volume 2 Mrs. Woolf 1912-1941 (314p.); 115 pages of chronology, appendices and indexes.

This biography feels massive but over a quarter of it is footnotes and other documents. It also includes photos. It is easily possible to read the narrative and skip the footnotes if the reader chooses. There are lots of names, places and dates for those who appreciate them, but the narrative is linear and clear. If the author plans to follow-up with information at a later point, it is clearly indicated. Bell was an historian having a clear respect for his subject, with, as a member of the family, access to all the personal materials about her as well as access to her husband Leonard Woolf.

The biography reads easily, though the amount of detail slows the pace. Virginia Woolf was a very complex woman at a very complex time. This history puts the Bloomsbury group in a context for the reader. Virginia Woolf is a sympathetic biography, but not an indulgent one. Recommended.

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours; Susan Sellers – Vanessa and Virginia; The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland; Tracy Chevalier – Burning Bright; Becoming Jane Austen – Jon Spence; Jane Austen by Carol Shields; Douglas Gresham’s Jack’s Life (C.S. Lewis); Wodehouse by Robert McCrum; Julia Briggs – Virginia Woolf: an inner life; Ruth Gruber – Virginia Woolf: the will to create as a woman; Viviane Forrester – Virginia Woolf: a portrait; Hermione Lee – Virginia Woolf’s Nose: essays on biography.