George RR Martin joked that as much as he loved historical fiction, his problem with it was “that you always know what’s going to happen”. Even when you know the outcome, however, the journey can still be exciting – something true of Louisa Treger’s impressive Madwoman (Bloomsbury Publishing). The novel describes the extraordinary bravery of 19th-century journalist Elizabeth Cochran Seaman. Under the pen-name Nellie Bly, Seaman wrote a blistering exposé of the insane asylum at Blackwell’s Island, a “human rat trap” in which she intentionally got herself incarcerated. Her ordeal makes for a dramatic story.
Another historical novel written with panache is Rebecca Stott’s Dark Earth (4th Estate), the gripping tale of two women who flee to Londinium in 500 AD. It is a novel that puts a female perspective right at the centre of a time period usually dominated by men’s stories. I also enjoyed Natasha Pulley’s The Half Life of Valery K (Bloomsbury), an engrossing novel set in Siberia in 1963. The story was inspired by some chilling real events after the cover-up of a radiation leak.
The tales in Oskar Jensen’s Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century London (Duckworth) confirm that the much-trumpeted “Victorian values” were, in reality, little more than the shameful lack of humanity towards the poor. The book, rich in research, provides a telling account of how, even in death, the impoverished were “chivvied and moved on”. When the rail lines into London’s St Pancras were being laid in the 1860s, tens of thousands of bodies, some of them in freshly dug graves, were “unceremoniously unearthed, jumbled up, indiscriminately buried”. It does at least explain why, growing up in the area, I always felt an eerie Tangina Barrow Poltergeist vibe around the station.
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