Friday, May 27, 2016

History as a story

There are historical novels and then there is history told in the form of novels. One kind uses history to tell stories. The other uses stories to tell history. Edward Rutherfurd's London (1997) is a good example of the latter type. He attempts to cover the entire history of the city, from before the Romans arrived to the present day, through the lives of a few families. These families may be fictional, but they brush shoulders with historical figures such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare and they become involved in such major events in English history as the Norman conquest, the Black Death, the Great Fire, the building of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Crystal Palace and the Blitz. The author places momentous events and important personages in the context of ordinary people whose lives they impacted.

Because the novel covers more than 2,000 years, it necessarily becomes a series of related short stories, some better than others but all worth reading as much for the history they relate as for the stories themselves. Some characters hang around for two or three chapters, but eventually they are replaced, as in real life, by children and grandchildren who pick up the story. Rutherfurd's characters cover London society from the titled class to the servant class, sometimes within the same family. Family trees at the beginning of the book help the reader keep straight who is related to whom.

Both the novel's first and last chapters have the same title, "The River." The Thames is London's one constant, the only thing that has been there since the beginning and will continue long after the final page.

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