Janet Benton: 7 Works of Historical Fiction that Changed Me
Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong, is the first-person account of a Quaker woman in 1883 who refuses to give up her baby despite the staggering prejudice and hardships she will face as an unwed mother. It is a beautiful, rich, harrowing book that illuminates a period of history that is often overlooked but continues to resonate today. We were deeply moved by Benton’s novel and asked her to tell us about the works of historical fiction that have changed her and led her to write one of her own.
There’s a quality of nostalgia in the books I love most, a sense of writers paying homage. After all, writing is a form of preservation—and the aims of historical fiction intensify this effect. By nature, historical fiction brings forth voices from times that are gone. Its writers seek to dig up the hidden and bring it back, to give those whose stories haven’t yet been told or told “correctly” a chance to speak.
Those who write historical fiction with first-person narrators, myself included, may feel a special thrill on encountering their narrator’s voice. In a 2016 essay, Alexander Chee wrote about his historical novel, Queen of the Night, “I heard the voice of my narrator, as clear as a haunting, a voice in my head.” When we read such a story, that voice comes alive in our heads. A convincing first-person narrator from the past takes readers into a time-traveling trance.
Writers are readers first, and we write partly to honor the books we love. The books below are among those that have changed me.
1. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (available in English since the 1920s)
My time was taken over for days at a stretch by the historical novels I read early in life. One was a trilogy set in medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter. It tells of Kristin’s life from her first journey from home at seven to her death decades later. In between, she faces nearly every tragedy known to womankind. The novel opened my young eyes to tensions between early “pagan” and later Christian practices, the ways a woman’s choice of partner and experiences of motherhood can shape and misshape her life, and the moral ambiguities that can result.
2. Ariadne by June Rachuy Brindel (1980)
Some historical novels are an urgent call to examine the past in order to change our views of the present. Ariadne is such a book. Violent, poetic, painful, and sensuous, it brings to life a brutal transition from matriarchy to patriarchy on the island of Crete from two points of view: Ariadne, the last queen of the goddess-worshipping island, and the mortal Daedalus, an architect, designer of swords, and shipmaker, who becomes an instructor to the knowledge-hungry queen and helps destroy the traditions she serves.
3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
I was shocked on first encountering Hawthorne’s style and substance: his sensuous, elegant, lengthy sentences, the ways he skewered figures one might have been taught to respect, the messages of women’s subjugated power that form a thread of gold through the narrative. In the mid-1600s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hester Prynne, an unwed mother, is made a pariah and forced to wear a scarlet A. She turns that A into a gorgeously embroidered badge of defiance and wisdom.
4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
An epistolary novel set in the early to mid-twentieth century in rural Georgia and in an invented village in Liberia, this novel taught me the tremendous power that bursts from the page when a profoundly oppressed person has her say. Its primary letterwriter is Celie, whose situation and lack of artifice instantly seared my heart. With no one to protect her, Celie is enduring incest and unwanted pregnancy. Her first letter opens thusly: “DEAR GOD, I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” My emotions were in her hands from these lines until the end.
5. Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin (1990)
This jewel of a novel is set in Victorian England. It retells Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of Mary Reilly, Dr. Jekyll’s new housemaid. Mary’s diary begins with a story the doctor has asked Mary to write to explain the origins of the bite-mark scars on her hands and neck. She begins: “It wasn’t the first time I’d been shut up in the closet, if closet isn’t too grand a word for the little cupboard under the stairs.” Instantly one longs to protect this observant, truthful young woman and hopes along with her for something better than her unfortunate life to date. Yet she doesn’t find solace for long in her new employer’s home. This novel reads as if Mary had made a ventriloquist of her author. It has the compression and force that all of Martin’s novels possess.
6. The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (2012)
Set in ancient Ephesus, The Testament of Mary gives us the voice of the mother of Jesus. The contract between mother and child is a profound one, and to be kept from preserving one’s offspring is, for those of sound mind and heart, an incomparable agony—an agony Mary cannot overcome. Far from convinced that her son was the Son of God, she tells us her perspectives on his later years and death, the “group of misfits” who followed him, and her own failures. This novel does something I love deeply, something I’m always searching for in fiction: it turns our assumptions upside down through a powerful and startling point of view. The voice of Mary seems to come from both a particular time and no time; it seems to have always existed. Toibin’s writing is powerful and spare.
7. Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks (2001)
Finding a writer one adores always feels like a discovery. I “discovered” Brooks’ stunning diary novels a few years ago and read them in a white heat. Her narrators are skilled and deeply humanitarian reporters of what they are given to witness. Year of Wonders is an urgent account of an actual English village closed to travel for the year 1666, during a plague epidemic. Brooks learned of the village’s sacrifices through a modest commemorative sign she saw there. The intensities of living trapped and deprived amid an epidemic are narrated by Anna, a lifelong resident of the village who lost her husband and two sons to the plague. She becomes a maid in the minister’s household and takes on frightening tasks as needs arise. A courageous witness, Anna grows much in Year of Wonders, and Brooks does justice to the lost history of this village.
What are your favorite historical novels, and what do they tell you about who you are and what you love?