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The Lady Is Strange

Hysterical women of historical fiction

By Hannah Strom-Martin

In the fallout of a post-Hillary society, it is no coincidence that heroines are hot again. Reese Witherspoon currently dazzles as Becky Sharp in Mira Nair's cinematic adaptation of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, imbuing her character with all the complexity that Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson just don't have. Anna Karenina has turned up on Oprah's book list like a red flag in a sea of milk-water chick-lit. And while the world of reality TV continues to bombard us with images of svelte yet mockable babes, the bookshelves are filling with a new crop of female authors reimagining femininity in novels that look to the past to provide a starving modern audience with such vital historical characters as Anne Boleyn and Lucrecia Borgia. Is it literature? The results vary, but this season there is a wide-ranging selection to choose from.

The Serpent and the Moon: Two Rivals for the Love of a Renaissance King (Touchstone; $29.95) by Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent is actually nonfiction but strives for the same sense of high pageantry and sexiness that have made historical-fiction authors like Philippa Gregory such a hot read. The title refers, respectively, to Queen Catherine de Medici and the French noblewoman Diane de Poitiers, both ancestors of Princess Michael, who vie for the love of the French King, Henri II, against a backdrop of war, courtly opulence and the ratifying of some really boring treaties.

At first, Her Royal Highness' cast of characters (literally everyone and their mother) threaten to overwhelm her obvious dearth of knowledge, but her vividly drawn descriptions of champagne fountains, picturesque chateaux and staggering courtly dress soon distract from the confusion of papal, political and family names. The world of the French court circa 1500 comes to ripe, sensuous life, disclosing the kind of minute details (a lady's toothpaste was made from crushed coral, peach stones, cuttlefish bones, tartar of white wine and cinnamon) that would make Philippa Gregory swoon with envy.

This same minutiae, however, is never quite in evidence with the characters. Her Majesty's focus point, Diane de Poitiers, fails to intrigue the imagination. Well-born and beautiful, Diane has everything handed to her, including the love of the dashing Henri II, who takes her as his mistress following the death of her elderly husband.

Older than Henri by 19 years, Diane's mature-woman status seems a unique point from which to explore the notorious love triangle of Henri, Diane and Catherine. But though Her Highness pours on the descriptions of her heroine's famed beauty and sensitivity (Diane helped Catherine conceive Henri's children when all hope of an heir seemed lost, and had more of a hand in their raising than Catherine herself), it is with the homely, marginalized Catherine de Medici that our sympathies finally lie.

A merchant's daughter, maneuvered at the age of 14 into a political marriage with Henri when grander plans went awry, Catherine--with her unrequited love and secret plans for vengeance--is by far the more fascinating third of the triangle, an underdog worthy of S. E. Hinton. In one particularly wrenching anecdote, Catherine watches through a self-made spy-hole as Diane and Henri make love. Scorned by the court, used as a brood-mare by a man whose heart lay eternally with the beauteous Diane, Catherine's psychology warrants a series of fictionalized novels more than Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I combined--but again, Her Highness barely scratches the surface, her prose never allowing us to get closer than descriptions of Catherine's ugliness.

When it comes to character, Her Highness trades in broad, seductive strokes, the hints of rivalry (Catherine bars Diane from seeing Henri on his death bed after 20 years of intimacy) are painted over by descriptions of more clothes, more food, more wine. One emerges from the book tipsy with a feast of detail, still wondering when the main course will be served.

Overabundant detail is also a thorn in the side of Susanna Moore's One Last Look (Knopf; $23), a heady, fictionalized account of three thirty-something English siblings on a six-year trek through 1840s India. Based on the real-life journals of several English women, the story centers around Lady Eleanor Oliphant, her vivacious younger sister, Harriet, and her elder brother--and occasional lover--Henry.

One Last Look unfolds like an opium dream: a wash of rich colors and solid, striking details that don't always add up to something coherent. The plot, such as it is, is told episodically through Eleanor's journals, the events not so much building upon one another as floating free and open to interpretation, much in the style of the time period. Is Eleanor really sleeping with her brother? The prose teases you with suggestion, making the revelation of "who's doing who?" impossible to anticipate.

Characters you didn't know were connected break up, break down, father children and kill one another, and the prose is so dense, you never know why. No matter, the prose itself is the most vital character: descriptions of Indian monsoons ("The servants, convinced that the fish fall from the sky, rush about the lawn catching them with their hands"), Regency balls (the jewels so abundant that "even the far edges of the room sparkled with fire") and Eleanor's slow awakening to an alien country are enough of a reward.

Eleanor's voice holds a longing and voluptuousness sure to tempt any reader who dreams for transport of the Merchant-Ivory kind. If her motives and development are somewhat buried by her existential posturing ("Harriet said that my dreams come from my deepest part--a place without boundaries where women are kept alive"), she is still a heroine who sticks in the mind long after the journey is over.

But the true heroine of this season--hopefully of many seasons to come--is not a character, but an author: Susanna Clarke, mastermind of the delicious Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (Bloomsbury USA; $27.95), a rollicking tome of a novel that combines the best aspects of high fantasy, fairy tale and historical fiction into a bubbling witches' brew of storytelling.

The daughter of a minister, Clarke once supported herself by writing cookbooks, making for an anecdote as droll as anything she writes about. Among her influences, she cites Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Neil Gaiman (of The Sandman comic-book fame) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. In an amazing feat of cross-genre pollination, her story combines elements of all four: Austen's wit, Dickens' social sensibilities, Gaiman's juicy menace and Whedon's irreverent dismantling of cliché.

At the heart of the story are the dashing Jonathan Strange and the fussy Mr. Norell, the first magicians to grace England in several hundred years. With Regency England in full swing (among the book's many delights is a cameo by Lord Byron), Strange and Norell grapple with the problem of Napoleon and the fate of the newly restored "English magic."

Strange advocates the use of the most extreme magic available (at one point, he moves the entire city of Brussels to America to hide some of Wellington's troops). Norell, barely able to lend his fellow magician a book without suffering a nervous breakdown, wants to keep things regulated, even as he makes a diabolical pact with a fairy to solidify his position as the No. 1 magician in the world.

We are in territory both comic and sober, where nothing evolves or pays off in a way expected of either historic or fantastic genres. True, some readers will wonder exactly what Clarke is about and flounder when an ending comes seemingly out of nowhere. But in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, as with the fairy roads traveled by its characters, the discovery is the thing.

Fairies, historical figures, mad prophets and a host of sublimely silly aristocracy cavort through landscapes Romantic and real, with Clarke's prose switching effortlessly from social satire to sly comedy to darkly sensual musings on the nature of the fantastic. Her concept of the fairy is one of the most original takes in fantasy today: a realm where maidens' footsteps fill with blood, the sky speaks and an ancient sorcerer, known as the Raven King, casts his presence in every shadow.

But lest one think this is simply Harry Potter for adults (Clarke, while rightly stating that one could certainly do worse, has dismissed such a direct comparison in interviews), rest assured of Strange's immense literary value. One would be hard-pressed to find another book that incorporates the grittiness of Waterloo or the poignant subplot of a black servant in London, imprisoned by more than just prejudice, with the light touch of Austen at her Pride and Prejudice best.

Clarke will be justifiably compared to the great Regency authors, as she will be compared to Tolkien and Rowling--but this is a double-edged sword. The most amazing thing about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is its originality, a unique mix of darkness, madcap humor and emotional connection that trumps convention and makes it the entertainment to beat this side of the millennium.

Now that, dear reader, is heroic.

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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