New historical fiction to read
But that’s just one of the narrative possibilities MacLeod envisions. Here is a still rebellious Lawrence, dying of tuberculosis in the south of France in 1930. And, looking back, a depiction of his exile during World War I in rural Sussex with the cultured British family whose lives he would painfully distort in a widely read story. Here is the war widow’s 20-year-old granddaughter whose husband was humiliated by the story, studying Lawrence at Cambridge in the late 1950s, ignoring the family connection – until she was invited to play a role in the lawsuit against his publisher. Here is this trial, full of drama, even though we know what the verdict will be. And, most provocatively, here are Italian views, in the fall of 1920, of Lawrence’s tryst with the woman who was to inspire the heroine of his novel. Such slicing, dicing and speculation should not work. And yet, against all odds, it is.
Rachel Pastan engages in more conventionally structured speculation in ON THE FIELD (Delphinium, 352 pp., $ 26.95), which is based on the life of Barbara McClintock, the American cytogeneticist who won the Nobel Prize in 1983. From childhood, McClintock’s alter ego, Kate Croft, experiences a tidal wave of struggles: with a mother who does not see the point of sending her to college, with comrades and colleagues who undermine her efforts, with a scientific establishment that belittles the achievements of women. She also struggles with her sexuality and with the realization that even after she and a female partner find happiness, their bond will be tested by the demands of her career.
Pastan’s portrayal of Kate is persuasively cheesy. Her dedication to the study of corn genetics is all-consuming: She is delighted to attend a dinner conversation dominated by analyzes of corn pigments and feels personally offended when a friend changes her subject. study of corn flies. In one of her rare heterosexual encounters, she finds herself comparing the poor man’s member to an ear of corn. Constantly informed that she must go out into the world and support her cause, Kate is much more at ease in the laboratory. No wonder she broods after hearing one eminent professor’s formula for success in science – talent, luck and perseverance – “He hadn’t mentioned arrogance.” Assurance. Ruthlessness. Pride.”
Paul Griffiths takes a different historical approach in SIR. BEETHOVEN (New York Review Books, 312 pp., Paper, $ 17.95). In 1823, the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston (a true organization that still exists today) approached the great composer with an invitation to write an oratorio. In fact, the deal was never made, but Griffiths leads us to assume that it was – and that Beethoven lived a few years longer than he actually did and traveled to America in 1833. This made-up tale is then superimposed on a rigorously researched description of early 19th-century Boston, with an animated cast of characters recovered from the archives of the time.
How to deal with the fact that Beethoven was deaf and did not speak English? Griffiths found that by this time, due to a “rare prevalence of hereditary deafness”, the people of Martha’s Vineyard had developed a form of sign language. In addition to his signing skills, his knowledge of the scriptures came in handy when he insisted on rewriting the libretto and argued with its author, a pompous Unitarian minister. That this often comedic production continues is a small miracle. And the Griffiths novel too.