Category: historical fiction

Historical novelist Maria McCann on Ace, King, Knave

maria mccann

[An] exuberant revivification of grave robbers and gamblers, hucksters and whores in 18th-century London: like Hogarth sprung to life.

– Hilary Mantel, Books of the Year 2013, Observer

This is my second interview with Maria McCann – I first interviewed her back in 2010 about her previous novel, The Wilding, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize. That novel was set during the Restoration in 1672. For her new book, Ace, King, Knave, Maria has moved forward almost a century to the Georgian England of the mid-1760s. The novel is the tale of two young women: Sophia, born into the Somerset aristocracy, and Betsy-Ann, the daughter of travelling fair people, and their relationship with the same man, though they each know him under a different name. To Sophia, he is Mr Zedland, heir to an estate in Essex with an elegant townhouse in London. The man Betsy-Ann knows as Ned, however, comes from a much more disreputable background.

The Georgian capital is a world where everyone, whether highborn or low, is looking for the Great Chance – ‘London’, as Sophia is to discover, ‘is not like the countryside, where a lady travelling within her own district can expect to be recognized and looked up to. Life here is teeming and anonymous. The most infamous women go lavishly caparisoned and keep carriages, so that even the practised eye can scarcely distinguish virtue from vice’. That problem of telling virtue from vice, the fraud and the trickster from the genuine and trustworthy runs through the whole book. Every human interaction – from a game of cards to a marriage – is fraught with the danger of things turning out to be not what they seem. The high-born can take pleasure dabbling in the mud, and the low-born can pass themselves off as their betters. Social interaction becomes a complex game of trying to read the manners, clothes, and language of other people, while trying not to let too much of your own hand show – highly appealing terrain for a novelist, and indeed for the reader.



German novelist Eugen Ruge on ‘In Times of Fading Light’

eugen rugeIn Times of Fading Light is Eugen Ruge‘s debut novel, a bestseller in Germany, and the winner of the 2011 German Book prize, awarded to the best German-language novel of the year. A multi-generational story spanning well over half a century (and drawing to a certain extent on Ruge’s own family history), it charts the impact of wider historical events on the lives of the Umlitzer family, who once belonged to the Communist elite but whose socialist utopia has long-since vanished by the time the book opens in 2001.

Through four generations, Ruge presents different perspectives of life under changing political regimes and the restrictions they imposed – we move from Fascism, to Communism and post-Communism, finishing with hyper-Capitalism. We witness characters’ lives that still have their fair share of mundane chores, problems and domestic disputes, but which appear extraordinary set against backdrops that are hard now to imagine.

ruge fading lightEugen Ruge was born in 1954 in the Urals in the former Soviet Union, where his German communist father Wolfgang had fled from the Nazis in the 1930s. When Russia and Germany went to war Wolfgang as an enemy alien was sentenced to hard labour and exile. After his release, he married a Russian woman and in 1956 the family returned to East Germany, where Wolfgang Ruge became a noted historian and his son pursued studies in mathematics and later a career in geophysics. But literature exerted a powerful appeal and Eugen Ruge began writing for the theatre, radio and documentaries, and also became a distinguished translator of Checkhov’s plays. Despite his Russian origins and a period in the west that began in 1988, Eugen Ruge has spent the majority of his life in Berlin, the city where, despite all the changes it has seen in his lifetime, he told me he still feels most at home.

I met Eugen at his home in the Prenzlauer Berg district of former East Berlin in  autumn 2012, where this interview was recorded.



Inventing Ruritania – Vesna Goldsworthy

Vesna Goldsworthy: Inventing Ruritania

I recently interviewed Serbian-born, London-based writer, poet, and academic Vesna Goldsworthy, whose books include a  collection of poetry, The Angel of Salonika, and a memoir entitled Chernobyl Strawberries, which one reviewer described as “suffused with a longing complicated and deepened by the eradication of the Yugoslav state”.

I met Vesna to discuss Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, another book which contemplates the identity of South Eastern Europe, in this case the construction of the Balkans in the British literary imaginary – “a gently ridiculous proxy” as Vesna calls it  (typified by the fictional kingdom of Ruritania) for the real Balkans; a repository for the qualities of a region which by turn attracted, fascinated and repelled the British; a place that could be turned into farce and pastiche, or depicted as a place of potential menace, where European identify dissolved into something irredeemably alien and eastern.

To listen to the podcast [22:45], click here.

To find out more about the book, visit Vesna’s publisher’s site here.

6. Books of the Year – Catherine Arnold

Cat ArnoldOur final guest who shares the highlights of her past twelve months of reading is historian Catherine Arnold.

I first interviewed Catherine about the second book in her London trilogy, which explores the darker aspects of the city’s past, Bedlam: London and its Mad. You can hear the interview here. (The first volume of the series, as yet unpodcasted, is Necropolis: London and its Dead.)

More recently, we met to talk about her latest book, City of Sin: London and its Vices. You can listen to that here

Here are Catherine’s choices from her 2010 reading:

Newgate London's Prototype of HellLooking back at the books which I’ve enjoyed over the past year reveals that history, personal, national and social, has been much on my mind. I’m currently researching a book about London and crime, and to this end I’ve particularly enjoyed Newgate, London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, and Tyburn, London’s Fatal Tree (Alan Brooke and David Brandon), both from the History Press (Sutton). Gripping accounts of two of the darkest aspects of London life.

Willetts Members OnlyAs I have also become something of an expert on the sins of the flesh, I highly recommend Paul Willetts’ Members Only (Profile Books), a highly entertaining account of the life and times of Paul Raymond. Raymond was Mr Soho, and his life story reflected the changing nature of London’s naughtiest neighbourhood and its transformation from sleazy clubland to sanitized tourist trap.

Gregory Queen's FoolA mixture of the personal and political side of history is one of the most compelling aspects of Philippa Gregory’s writing, and this year I’ve particularly enjoyed catching up on her work, particularly The Queen’s Fool (about a young Jewish girl at the court of Mary Tudor) and The White Queen  (both Simon and Schuster) which sees Miss Gregory heading in a slightly different direction, towards the Plantagenets and their extended, squabbling families. Families, extended, eccentric and otherwise are the focus of two memoirs which have intrigued and entranced me.

Families, extended, eccentric and otherwise are the focus of two memoirs which have intrigued and entranced me.Seymour In My Father's House Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, about growing up in a dotty vicarage on the Welsh Borders, has been re-issued this year with an introduction by her daughter. Another unusual family feature in Mirand Seymour’s memoir, In My Father’s House (Simon and Schuster) about Miranda’s childhood in a rambling Nottinghamshire mansion with her charming but infuriating father, a motorcycle fanatic and late convert to homosexuality, and her tremendously loyal and long-suffering mother.

Finally, for anyone looking for a diverting but thought-provoking read, I’d recommend This Charming Man by Maria Keyes which ventures boldy into some dark territory (domestic violence and alcoholism) whilst maintaining her distinctive warm, witty tones – she’s the slightly dotty Irish best friend every girl needs.

1. Books of the Year – Elizabeth Speller

Elizaberh SpellerToday we begin a new series of guest posts in which writers and publishers choose their favourite books of 2010.

Our first guest is Elizabeth Speller, whose first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, was published to great acclaim earlier this year. You can hear my interview with her about the book here.

Her second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, will appear in May 2011. Here are her choices (you’ll find an interview with one of her selected authors, Madeleine Bunting, here):

Harris Romantic ModernsMy greatest pleasure this year came from reading Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. Read selectively, randomly or straight through (I did all three, in order) it is a wonderfully intelligent and lively journey through the landscape of the imagination between the wars.

Harris informs but also has huge fun with the creativity, fantasy and sometimes spectacular self-indulgence of the period. I’m delighted to see publishers producing such visually beautiful but serious books to compete with e-publishing. It was announced yesterday that Harris has just won the Guardian prize for a first book.

Six Weeks coverMy second choice is more sombre: Six Weeks: the Short but Gallant Life of a British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel. This intimate history is taken from the letters and diaries of very ordinary young men. These are, in the main, not poets, not heroes, just soldiers buying expensive uniforms, being brave, bored and scared, doing their duty and trying (and often failing) to survive. They are also very young: there is one poignant account of a dying subaltern asking his puzzled corporal to tell Uppingham (his school) that he did “all right”. Lewis-Stempel proves there is still more to know about that most terrible and most studied of conflicts.

Bunting The Plot coverFinally, Madeleine Bunting’s The Plot: A Biography of My Father’s English Acre maps a personal and national biography on to one tiny piece of land in Yorkshire. About spirit of place and passionate attachment to land- it is memoir, history, and exploration of identity in one.

Hilary Mantel interview revisited

Wolf Hall cover“Revisited” because this is something of a first for Podularity: a transcript of an interview which I conducted earlier this year with Booker prize-winner Hilary Mantel.

If this feature proves popular, we’ll be doing more of these in the course of the autumn.

And if you would prefer to listen to the interview rather than read it, you can still find it by clicking here.

This transcript was created by Typing Angels, and we’re very pleased to have found them.

George Miller:

Hello, and welcome to this first edition of Podularity for 2010. My name is George Miller, and I’m delighted to say that my guest in this first programme of the New Year is Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, the novel in which she charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell from abject beginnings to Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

Shortly after her Booker win in October, I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon interviewing Hilary about the book. An edited version of the interview appeared shortly afterwards on the Blackwell site,, but this is the first opportunity to hear the whole interview. I took as my starting point the Hans Holbein portrait of Thomas Cromwell, which probably shapes, to a large extent, many people’s view of the man. In it, he looks hard, cold, even cruel. That portrait is incorporated cleverly into the fabric of this novel. Late in the novel, Cromwell is confronted with a vision of himself that others see, and it comes as a shock to him. I asked Hilary to tell me more about what she was doing in that scene, with images and self-images of the man.

Hilary Mantel:

Yes, I think when Holbein painted a courtier, he was, in a way, painting the man’s office, and a Tudor minister didn’t want to look pretty – he just wanted to look powerful, but of course, because Holbein’s a genius, there’s always an extra dimension there. In my book, when Cromwell sees the portrait, he is rather shocked by it. He’s got no illusions about being handsome, but the hardness of the portrait takes him by surprise, and the way his hand is gripping the roll of paper, as if it’s an offensive weapon, and he says, “I look like a murderer”. His son says to him, “Didn’t you know?”, which is quite a shocking moment, really. Now, what I noticed immediately about the picture is how Cromwell is penned into a small space. It looks as if Holbein has said, “Sit there”, and then he’s pushed the table against him. There’s another table at the side of him, he actually can’t move. In my second book, Cromwell learns to live with the portrait, but he realizes increasingly that Hans was right – he can’t move. His scope of action, as an idealist as opposed to a practical politician, is now severely curtailed, and so he says, “Artists know the truth before we do”.

So I wanted to consider what might be the experience of having your portrait in your house, learning to relate to it as another self. Then later though, this is now with the scope of the book, the original gets lost, which is quite piquant, because of course I think the original Cromwell has got lost. Read More

42. The Return of Captain John Emmett

Speller: Return of Captain John EmmettTo record this week’s podcast, I travelled to the Cotswolds to visit my guest (and friend), Elizabeth Speller. Elizabeth has recently bought a splendid shepherd’s hut on wheels which she is using as a retreat to write in. Although this book wasn’t written there, its sequel, currently a work in progress, will be.

You can see the hut – which is enough to arouse the envy of anyone with writerly ambitions – in the video we recorded, which will be on this site shortly.

In the mean time, click on the link above to listen to our audio podcast in which we talk about making the transition from non-fiction to fiction, the challenges of setting a novel in the past, and the ways in which the reverberations of the First World War continued to be felt in the years that followed armistice.

The novel has been getting terrific reviews: The Times, for example, said:

“Speller’s writing is gorgeous, her research immaculate and very lightly worn. Sheer bliss.”

And the Independent said:

“Covering death, poetry, a bitter regimental feud and a hidden love affair, it’s set to be the new Birdsong – only better.”

Click on the book cover above to find out more about it.