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SPOTLIGHT: Geoffrey Trease, who began my passion for historical fiction

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Today is the birthday of Geoffrey Trease, one of my all-time favourite writers for children. He was born in Nottingham on 11 August 1909, and died in January 1998. 

In all, he wrote 100 books for children. I’ve been collecting his books since I was a teenager, but I’ve managed to find less than half of them. I hope to find them all in time. 


My love for him began when I was about eleven, and I read his book Cue for Treason (first published in 1940).

It’s a wonderful adventure story set in Elizabethan England. A boy named Peter has to flee after throwing a rock at Sir Philip Morton, the local tyrant, in protest at his theft of the village’s common ground. He sees a troupe of travelling actors and pauses to watch, but then sees Sir Philip in the audience. 

In desperation, Peter hides in a prop coffin and finds himself loaded on to the actors’ wagon. Desmond, the kind-hearted leader of the troupe, takes him on as a child actor, and he travels the roads with them.  Another boy called Kit joins the troupe, and is given all the best female roles (which, of course, could only be played by boys). 

Philip is jealous and fights him, only to discover Kit is really a girl in disguise. She is fleeing a forced marriage to the evil Sir Philip. 

The troupe ends up in London, and Peter and Kit are accepted as actors by a young playwright named Shakespeare. They act in several of his plays, and then accidentally stumble upon a plot to murder the queen. A wild, fast-paced adventure follows as they race to unravel the plot and stop the assassin. All ends well, with the queen grateful to the young adventurers and Sir Philip unmasked as a traitor.  

I loved Cue for Treason. It was one of the books that ignited my passion for historical fiction. The late 16th century world was so adeptly brought to life, and the characters seemed so real. Kit and Peter were both so brave and determined, and the developing romance between them was so deftly handed. 

I began trying to find more books by him. Our library had a few, which I devoured hungrily, and every now and again I found one in a second-hand book stall. 

What I loved about his books was how effortlessly the historical background was woven into the story. The pace never lags, the story never stumbles, the characters never sound awkward or anachronistic, and yet I finished each book feeling as if I had knew exactly how people of that time spoke and dressed and ate and fought. 

He wrote books set in a number of different historical periods. My favourites include Cloak for a Spy (also set in Elizabethan times); The Popinjay Stairs, set in Restoration Times with Samuel Pepys as a character; Thunder of Valmy, set during the French revolution; and The White Nights of St Petersburg, set during the Russian revolution. 

He began writing stories in an old desk diary as a child, and earned his first half-guinea as a writer at the age of 13 with an article on ‘Amateur Journalism’. He won a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford - but dropped out, determined to be a writer. He worked to help the plight of slum children in the East End of London, and his books reflect his passionately held socialist beliefs. 

In Bows Against the Barons (1934), his very first book, Robin Hood cries out: ‘There are only two classes, masters and men, haves and have-nots.’

Such beliefs were radical in children’s literature at the time, and contributed greatly to his international success. He was particularly beloved in Russia, where his first book sold 100,000 copies. At the time, royalties could not be taken out of the Soviet Union. Geoffrey and his wife, Marian, subsequently lives in Russia for a while, enjoying the fruits of his success. What he saw there may have tempered his beliefs, as his later books – including White Nights of St Petersburg (1967) - were more moderate in their politics. 

From the beginning, Geoffrey set out to overthrow the heavy-handed archaism of historical fiction at the time. “Some of the merriment should be taken out of Merrie England,’ he wrote. 

He did away with what he called ‘gadzookery’, with people saying ‘Zounds’ or ‘Prithee’ at every breath. His characters all talk as ordinary human beings. 

Geoffrey was also determined to have the girls in his stories being as strong-willed and fully-rounded as the boys, something most unusual for the time in which he was writing. 

My love for his books led me to discover other great children’s HF writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff, Leon Garfied, and Elizabeth George Speare. Eventually I read Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and the Baroness d’Orczy … and have been an avid reader of anything historical ever since.  

It's always a pleasure to re-read old favourites (and endeavouring to do so is part of The 50/50 Project - in which I am trying to re-read the books of my Fifty Favourite Authors)  

BOOK LIST: Best Books set during the times of Charles II

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

BEST BOOKS SET DURING THE TIME OF CHARLES II


I’ve always loved stories set in Stuart times, perhaps because my grandmother told me, when I was a little girl, that we were related to the Stuart royal family. When she said ‘we’, she really meant the Clan of Mackenzie, which does indeed have links to the doomed royal family of Scotland, but so long ago and so far away from my own great-great-grandmother Ellen Mackenzie that I could never lay claim to such a connection with a straight face.

Nonetheless, growing up, I read quite a few books set in Scotland and quite a few about the Stuarts. I set ‘The Chain of Charms’, my series of children’s historical adventure stories, in the last days of the rule of Oliver Cromwell and one of my favourite stories to tell at schools and storytelling festivals is the escape of Charles II after the final disastrous defeat to Oliver Cromwell’s army.

Here is a list of my favourite books set during the years of the English Civil War and the Restoration. This blog first ran in May 2013, but I have updated it to include the books I've read in the past year. 

Favourite Books I read as a Kid: 

Sidney Seeks Her Fortune- Catherine Christian
This is an adventure story about a Cavalier family that lost all its money fighting for the king, and sets outs to restore its fortunes. It includes shipwrecks, highwaymen, pirates, romance and the eventual triumph of its heroine, the steadfast Sidney of the title, and writing about it makes me want to read it all over again … 


The Popinjay Stairs – Geoffrey Trease
I really love all of Geoffrey Trease’s books, but this is one of my favourites. The novel begins with a highwayman waylays a coach that numbers among its passengers Samuel Pepys, who is at that time Secretary to the Office of Lord High Admiral of England. The highway men seem more interested in Pepys’official document case than in gold and watches … and this sets off a wild adventure dealing in treason, blackmail and spies. 


Rider of the White Horse – Rosemary Sutcliff 
I also adore Rosemary Sutcliff. This is not one of my favourite, but it is still a vivid and engaging historical novel, telling the story of Anne Fairfax, the wife of a Puritan general, Sir Thomas Fairfax. As always, the writing is vivid and supple and evocative. 


The House at Green Knowe – Lucy M. Boston
This book has only one scene set during the English Civil War, but it always lingered in my memory.  


Favourite Books I Read as a Teenager: 

Royal Escape – Georgette Heyer
One of her few straight historical novels, this book tells the story of Charles II’s dramatic six week escape from England after the last, disastrous battle of the English Civil war. 

The Wandering Prince – Jean Plaidy 
The story of the years Charles II spent in exile as a young man after the loss of his crown, as seen through the eyes of his sister Minette, and his mistress Lucy Walter – Jean Plaidy is not much read these days, but I adored her as a teenager and read every book of hers I can lay my hands on. The Stuart saga was a favourite – it follows on with ‘A Health Unto His Majesty’ which I also really enjoyed. 

Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier
A wonderfully romantic and adventurous book set in Restoration England, about the affair between a bored English noblewoman and a daring French pirate.


Favourite Books I’ve Read in Recent Years

Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks
A brilliant novel about the plague village of Ayam – one of my all-time favourite novels. 

Read my interview with Geraldine Brooks

Lady’s Slipper – Deborah Swift
A fabulous historical novel filled with romance, murder, art, and one rare and gorgeous orchid. 

You can read my full review here


Empress of Icecream – Anthony Capella 
A historical novel about the invention of ice cream, and the seduction of Charles II by the French spy, Louise de Keroualle. 


The Darling Strumpet - Gillian Bagwell
A wonderful novel inspired by the life  of Nell Gwyn, one of Charles II's most famous mistresses. Here is my full review of the book and an interview with Gillian Bagwell.


The September Queen – Gillian Bagwell 
The story of Lady Jane, the young woman who helped Charles II escape England after failing to win back his crown. 


An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears 
An utterly brilliant historical thriller set after the restoration of Charles II, it has so many unexpected twists and turns I gasped aloud at several points in the narrative. Another all-time favourite novel of mine - a must read for any lover of clever, intriguing historical fiction. 


 

The Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart - Marci Jefferson
A wonderful novel set at the royal court after the Restoration, The Girl on the Golden Con tells the story of the beautiful, spirited young woman chosen to be the face of Britannica by Charles II. You can read my full review here. 

Witch Child - Celia Rees
This brilliant historical novel for teenagers begins: ‘I am Mary. I am a witch.’ It is set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II. You can read my full review here and my interview with Celia Rees here.



Act of Faith - Kelly Gardiner
The Sultan's Eyes - Kelly Gardiner

These heart-breaking and thought-provoking historical novels for young adults are set during the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Only the opening scenes of the first are set in England and involve the escape of the heroine Isabella and her father after he is accused of sedition and treason due to his political views. The action moves first to Amsterdam, then to Venice, Spain and, finally, in Book 2, to Constantinople. However I am including them in this list because they give a very vivid picture of the tumultuous times of the English Civil War, and the foment of ideas, philosophies, and politics that surrounded the exile and restoration of King Charles II. Besides, I loved them and want others to love them too. 


If you liked this list, you may also enjoy:




BOOK LIST: My favourite novels set in Tudor Times

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

This week on the blog I have reviewed Nancy Bilyeau's novel of Tudor intrigue, conspiracy and romance, 'The Crown', and  later in the week I'll be interviewing her. 

I have to admit one of my absolute favourite periods of history is Tudor times - all the bloodshed, torture, lust and murder - what's not to love?

It was Jean Plaidy who began my fascination with this period of time. I loved all her books about Henry VIII and his wives, the young Elizabeth I, and Mary, Queen of Scots.

I must dig out all my old Jean Plaidys and read them again! I think it was her novels that really sparked by passionate love of historical fiction.

However, we have to credit Philippa Gregory with the current craze for Tudor novels. I really love her work! My favourites? 'The Queen's Fool' and 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. Brilliant storytelling!




I have also been really enjoying the murder mysteries by British writer C. J. Sansom, set during the reign of Henry VIII, and featuring a hunchbacked yet indomitable lawyer  Matthew Shardlake:




A few books I absolutely adore that you may not be familiar with are:

'The Queen's Own Fool' by Jane Yolen, which is a brilliant YA novel abut Mary, Queen of Scots:


'A Traveller in Time' by Alison Uttley which I first read when I was about eleven years old, and which I have revered ever since. Its a classic of children's time travel adventures, delicately done, about a girl who slips back and forth in time while staying in an old farmhouse, and finds herself caught up in the infamous Babington plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots:



Another book set in Tudor times that I enjoyed hugely recently is the historical thriller, 'The Tudor Secret' by C. W Gortner:



Happy Tudor reading!


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