A novel about plague village of Eyam in Derbyshire

The novel is written from the point of view of a housemaid named Anna Frith, on what she lives through when the plague hits her village. It is based on the history of the small Derbyshire village of Eyam  that, when beset upon by the plague in 1666, quarantines itself in order to prevent the disease from spreading further.(An aside….the origin of the word quarantine is from the Italian ‘quaranta giorni’ = 40 days.  It’s first known use was in the the only known way of dealing with the Black Death pandemic).

Currently with the outbreak of COVID-19 our only weapons at present – ‘social distancing’ and quarantining are methods used during the great plague of 1665.  This novel may not be what you want to read just now…a bit close for comfort!  But it is a good read.


A novel about the life of Mary Anning the fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became world-famous for important finds she made in the fossil beds of Lyme Regis

This novel re-imagines her lonely and difficult life and the fight she had with the male dominated scientific world.  Once Museums reopen go to the Natural History Museum and see the fossils she discovered.


THE DIG John Preston
A  historical novel based on the find in 1939 of the Sutton Hoo ship burial

The novel begins when Sutton Hoo landowner Edith Pretty hires Basil Brown, a self-taught local archaeologist, to excavate the burial mounds on the field by her house.  When the ancient hoard was discovered in the days before the Second World War, a fearful and desperate nation hailed it as the British Tutankhamun.  The discovery brings an invasion of  academics and busy-bodies from London.

I loved this book – only just over 200 pages – but as the Observer Review said ‘From this simple tale of dirt, Preston has produced the finest gold’.  Also the Sutton Hoo treasure is one of my top favourites in the British Museum (Room 41)… that museums are slowly reopening treat yourself to a visit.


EARTHLY JOYS Phillippa Gregory VIRGIN EARTH Phillippa Gregory
Two historical novels about the 17c plant hunter and gardeners John Tradescant, father and son

Better-known for her War of the Roses and Tudor historic novels (all brilliantly researched and well worth reading) – but in these two lesser known books Phillippa Gregory charts the life of the famous gardeners and plant collectors father and son  John Tradescant (the Elder and Younger).  John the Elder becomes gardener to Charles I and his flamboyant and notorious favourite – the Duke of Buckingham (Earthly Joys).  His son John the younger, (Virgin Earth), inherits his father’s unique collection of plants and his role as international plant collector.  He flees to Virginia to escape the upheavals of the Civil War, and much of the book concentrates on his life there.

I preferred Earthly Joys as it is mainly set in Jacobean London as the Tradescant family home and extensive garden was just South of Lambeth Palace. (come on my Lambeth walk!…) The family tomb forms the core of the Museum of Garden History at St. Mary Lambeth.  The other aspect that interested me was the story of his collection of natural history, art and ethnography. Known as ‘Tradescant’s Ark’, Tradescant earned extra money by opening it to the public.  This quirky collection can still be seen as it forms the core of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
However I also enjoyed
Virgin Earth as a good read, and an evocative portrayal of the tough life of the early settlers in Virginia.


Historical novel of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife to Henry II

This forms a sequel to Alison Weir’s biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, thus is amazingly well researched.  Queen Eleanor died in 1204 aged 82 and was Wife to Henry II (Plantaganet) and mother to Richard I Lionheart and King John. She was one of the most powerful and influential figures of the Middle Ages. She was controversial even in her time, beautiful, intelligent and wilful. Little wonder she was immortalised in the award-winning 1968 film ‘The Lion in Winter’.

I have always found medieval dynastic history somewhat indigestible, but this novel really brings the era and the character of Eleanor to life.


A historical novel about the brief life of Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey, was a pawn in a dynastic power game played by her ruthless mother (Henry VIII’s niece Frances Brandon) and a scheming father (Henry Grey  Duke of Suffolk).  But once briefly Queen she demonstrated she also had a mind and determination of her own, and rather refreshingly she is portrayed as a rather unlikeable character.

Alison Weir is better known for her historical biographies, but even being satiated with the Tudors, I found this a fascinating book and almost felt it to be more of a biography than historical fiction.  It tells Jane’s story through multiple first-person narrators and the writing style uses of present tense for almost the entire novel.  I did find this mildly disconcerting, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the book.


A novel set in Huguenot Spitalfields in 1790s

Part novel/part romance, the story is set in 18c Spitalfields.  Based on real historical events and characters it conjures up a good picture of the  life and society of the silk weavers in turbulent times, when the silk weavers’ trade and way of life was being threatened by mechanisation and political turmoil.

I found the story rather lightweight and predictable, but I really enjoyed it for the historical and social background it portrays.  It also features Anna Maria Garthwaite 1690 – 1763, famous designer of Spitalfieds Silks, some of which are to be seen in the V&A (British Galleries, Room 52b, case 1) and whose plaque is to be found in Princelet St.

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