The notes I made after thinking about Pat O’Dea Rosen’s challenge to name five authors who influenced me are on a piece of notepad paper about three by four inches in size, but it’s given me a lot to think and write about.
When I was in high school (mumble mumble) decades ago, historical fiction, particularly fictionalized biography and history, was very popular. Phillipa Gregory is probably the best known writer in this vein today, and I have several of her books on my shelf, some read, some waiting. I remember reading books by Jan Westcott, Rosemay Hawley Jarman, Edison Marshal, Frank Yerby and others, many of them now out of print, some virtually forgotten. Some I can’t remember well enough to track them down, even on the Internet. (It’s like looking up spelling in the dictionary–you really need at least a starting point, a title or an author.)
The three that I remember best, authors who fed my love of history as well as reading, were Anya Seton, Zoe Oldenbourg, and Samuel Shellabarger.
Shellabarger, who wrote scholarly works as well as fiction, is best remembered for Captain from Castille (the story of Cortez’ conquest of Mexico as seen by one of his young officers) and Prince of Foxes (set in Renaissance Italy). And, cheating a bit here, thinking about Shellabarger reminded me of Lawrence Schoonover, who wrote similar novels including several set in Spain (The Queen’s Cross and The Prisoner of Tordesillas) and France (The Spider King). As far as I can see at Amazon, the novels of both Shellabarger and Schooner are out of print today.
Zoe Oldenbourg was born in Russia but lived and wrote in France, both fiction and nonfiction about medieval France, the Crusades, and especially about the persecution of the Cathar heretics by the Catholic Church. I remember the books, which are now out of print, as fascinating and often heartbreaking; I was entirely in sympathy with the heretics, who generally came to a bad end. Oldenbourg’s novels included The World Is Not Enough, The Cornerstone, Destiny of Fire, Cities of the Flesh, and many others. Her non-fiction included The Crusades and Massacre at Montsegur. All of her work was translated from the French, very long and very dense, heavy going for today’s readers (including me–I don’t seem to retain the love of 700-page epics I once had, or the time to read them).
Many of Anya Seton’s novels, on the other hand, have been reprinted in a series called Rediscovered Classics, with forewords by Phillipa Gregory. The most famous of these, and the one I remember most clearly (probably because I read it numerous times) is Katherine, the (largely) true story of Katherine Swynford, the mistress and eventual wife of John of Gaunt and ancestress of the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the modern British Royal Family. I long ago lost my original copy of Katherine, but I found another at Half-Price Books, along with copies of Green Darkness and Avalon. Seton is also remembered for The Winthrop Woman, Dragonwyck, and many others, but Katherine, the story of a love affair that survived through decades of turmoil, was my favorite.
Next time I stop by Half-Price Books, I’m going to look for Shellabarger and Schoonover; I’m betting I won’t find either one. I haven’t seen a book by Edison Marshal in many years, although he was once extremely popular. One of these days I’ll read Katherine again. Oldenbourg: probably not. Too much tragedy for my current tastes. So many books, so many memories.
What books would you like to find and read again?