What I’ve Been Reading: Historical Biographies

I tend to go through these phases where I’ll read 10 historical novels in a row, then some literary fiction, then a classic or two, and then I’ll read nonfiction for weeks on end. I’ve been in quite a nonfiction mood these days, and I’ve found myself reading a number of historical biographies. Some of the biographies were for research, and some were just because I found the subject matter interesting. Each of these books satisfied my curiosity for all things history.

I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals about Abraham Lincoln a few years ago (probably around the time the Lincoln film came out), but lately I’ve been feeling like I need to remind myself that there have been American presidents who did their best for the United States, namely my favorite, number 16 himself, Abraham Lincoln. Yes, he was a complex person, as we are all complex people, which makes him all the more inspiring. First I reread Team of Rivals, and then I read David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln biography, and I found that the two biographies complement each other well. Where Goodwin focuses more in depth on the men who surrounded Lincoln, Donald gives more insight into the man himself. Of course, there’s crossover since both historians were writing about the same man, but if you’re curious about what an intelligent, thoughtful, caring, talented American president might look like—here you go.

Being the Dickensian I am means that some kind of Dickens—novel or biography—is never far from my To Be Read list. For my current nonfiction project I’m writing about how Dickens and Queen Victoria influenced the age named for the Queen herself. Interestingly, Dickens and the Queen met only once toward the end of Dickens’ life, and yet in their own ways they shaped one of the most fascinating historical eras—one of the most fascinating at least if you judge by people’s continuing enthrallment with the 1800s. Yes, I’ve read pretty much every Dickens biography known to man or beast, but I did come across two that I had somehow missed. The great actor Simon Callow is also a great writer, and his Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World is a refreshing look at Dickens’ love of theater and how it influenced his writing and his life. Michael Slater’s biography Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing is another gem, and Slater is one of the preeminent Dickensians around. While I dare say there’s little left to discover about Dickens’ life, it’s always interesting to see how each biographer shares the details in his or her own way–at times sharing more about the biographer than about Dickens, I suspect.

I admit that, though I’m quite familiar with the era named for her, I didn’t know a lot about Queen Victoria. I remembered a bit from my graduate studies in Victorian literature—she was a young queen, she loved her husband, and after he died she mourned him the rest of her days. She was the first to wear what we might recognize as a modern day wedding dress, and she should get some credit for inventing Christmas (along with Jesus and Dickens) since Prince Albert’s Christmas traditions became the fashion during the 19th century and carry through today. I love the Victoria series starring Jenna Coleman, but I had a lot to learn about Queen Victoria in order to bring her to life on the page. To help me fill in the blanks I read Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird and Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson.

It’s always time well spent reading historical biographies. Often, when we think of famous people from the past, their legends overshadow the human being and the reality of the person gets distorted in tall tales. Talented historians can help us separate facts from fiction, and we need all the facts we can get these days. If you’re looking to learn more about these extraordinary 19th century lives, any of these historical biographies are gold mines.

Now I am indeed back to reading historical fiction, Outlander #4 in fact–called Drums of Autumn. American colonies, here I come.

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