I read all types of books, but lean heavily toward historical fiction. I look at it as an effortless, entertaining way to learn stuff. Edward Rutherford’s books have taught me all sorts of things about London, the Salisbury Plain and the laws of the forest.
However – and maybe it’s just me – but I find that I tend to get so involved with the characters and their relationships that I often miss the historical significance of what’s going on… not unlike living through actual historical events. For instance, something that happened in my hometown a while back that was later commemorated in a fairly popular book, but being right in the middle of it, I had no idea that it was part of the wider fabric of the civil rights movement all over the South.
Similarly, when I read historical fiction, I tend to get caught up in the characters and their relationships and their justifications and motives … so much so, that I forget that they are part of history and are changing the world. So no matter how much I watch The Tudors or read novels about Queen Elizabeth I, I find that in order to comprehend the scope of it, it helps if I read some actual history.
Two books I’ve ingested recently have brought a bit of clarity to my view of England in the 15th and 16th Centuries: The Rise of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore and The Tudors: This History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I , by historian Peter Ackroyd. Both books give incredibly detailed accounts of their respective time periods, drawing from historical record along with commentary from people actually involved. I found the first-hand accounts the most fascinating part of the both books. If you can wrap your mind around the way the folks talk sort of like the dialogue on Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, it’s really the best part! I was also grateful for the maps, family trees and portraits included in each book. I found myself referencing them constantly.
Being from America – where democracy and freedom of religion are givens – it’s honestly kind of hard to really understand the importance of the things they were struggling with: divine right of kings, issues of succession, and national religion… but both writers do a great job of laying it out for the reader, as well as giving the reader a feel for the personalities of the players. For instance, thanks to the movie industry, I’ve always imagined that Elizabeth I was a strong, decisive Amazon of a woman, while Ackroyd shows her strength, but uncovers her indecision and vulnerability as she aged as well.
I will say that it took me a while to read these books – they’re hefty tomes, and chock full of gory details… but the end, I’d say it was time well spent… It’s good to have a straight-up picture of history that’s not ALL bodice ripping and rippling man abs!