‘The sense of proximate skin–of latent power beneath respectable garments–it had the effect of spring water, bubbling beneath her skin.’ – Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard

May 25, 2019 at 3:24 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  A thoughtful essay on historical fiction recently appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine. “Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?” may be  a somewhat clunky title – at least, I find it so – but author Megan O’Grady makes some points worth pondering:

A new kind of historical fiction has evolved to show us that the past is no longer merely prologue but story itself, shaping our increasingly fractured fairy tales about who we are as a society. The unmooring of time can be found everywhere, in battles for social progress we thought we’d already fought and won. In the media age, history is not simply a chain of facts recorded by scholars but a complex narrative harnessed by political parties and Facebook disinformation campaigns to speak to our sense of identity and belonging. The past we inherit speaks to us individually and collectively, but a common thread, much less a consensus view of reality, feels increasingly hard to come by.

The author mentions a number of titles. Three are among my favorites. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel evokes a turbulent period in English history with uncanny exactitude. And the other – O’Grady calls it “Penelope Fitzgerald’s strange and wonderful take on Novalis” – The Blue Flower.

Two mystery series, not well known in this country, more than satisfy my craving for atmospheric historical fiction: PF Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey books and the Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis novels written by Robin Blake.

And I’ve just finished the richly rewarding Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard. While my husband and I were vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, I had  the great good fortune to be reading A Pale Blue Eye, Bayard’s fictional  account of Edgar Allan Poe’s brief and turbulent tenure at West Point. So I had high hopes for this new novel – which hopes were more than fulfilled.

I can do no better than to quote from the jacket copy:

Told in the alternating voices of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed, and inspired by historical  events, Courting Mr. Lincoln creates a sympathetic and complex portrait of Mary unlike any that has come before; a moving and deep portrayal of the deep and real connection between the two men; and most of all, an evocation of the unformed man who would  grow into one of the nation’s most beloved presidents.

 

There’s some lovely writing in this novel, as is seen in the title of this post. Also some  delightful dialog, as in this exchange wherein Joshua Speed is trying to teach the awkward and unschooled Lincoln the rudiments of ballroom etiquette:
“All right,’ said Joshua. Try it with me. Until you find your way.”
“We’ll regret this,” Lincoln said.
“Now you are the lead, so you will just…you will hook your right hand round my back. Like that. Now I will rest my hand…lightly…here.
“This will end badly.”
“Be quiet. Now…raise your elbows. Shoulder height, that’s it. And back straight. And knees…well, you can bend the knees a little.”
“Like this?”
“Well, no, not like you’re praying.”
“I am praying.”
Dare I use the word, charming? Because that’s what this is. and much of the rest of the book as well. Charming, heartfelt, and irresistible.

Louis Bayard

 

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