Lucy Worsley on her Favourite Historical Children's Novels
Lucy Worsley, one of our most beloved historians and television personalities, has always had a great affection for historical novels aimed at children. To coincide with the publication of her latest book for Young Adults, The Austen Girls, Lucy picks her favourite children's stories set in the past.
Each morning of my normal working day begins with a spiral staircase. I climb up the fifty-one steps which lead to the curators’ room in the Tudor palace of Hampton Court.
Our office has a neo-Gothic fireplace and a suit of armour, and I sit at my desk under the stern gaze of the heads of long-dead wild beasts mounted on the walls. In the unlikely event that marauders should ever come rushing up the stairs, we have a secret escape passage hidden behind a hanging. But using the escape chute might even be less safe than staying put, as it leads you straight into The Haunted Gallery, and the ghost of Henry VIII’s unfortunate fifth wife, Katherine Howard, wanders abroad at night.
Every single day I tell myself how incredibly lucky I am to work in a palace.
The story of how I came to be a historian, working at Hampton Court begins long, long ago, when, as a kid, I was a voracious reader of historical novels for kids by writers like Jean Plaidy and Rosemary Sutcliff. It’s the reason I started writing historical fiction for younger readers myself, in the hope of inspiring the person who’ll doing my job at Hampton Court in twenty years’ time. It was books like these ones below that tickled my fancy and made me fall in love with the past, and I hope you might find old (or new) friends here among my favourites which I’ve chosen for the Waterstones blog.
I was one of the judges for the Historical Association’s competition for historical novelists, and I was working my way through the shortlist on the train to Hampton Court. One day I started Hetty Feather, aimed at eight-year-olds. When the heroine gets separated from her sister, I found that I was sobbing like an eight-year-old myself, and stumbling off the train I also managed to leave my dry-cleaning behind. What I love about Hetty Feather is the dark, sad, setting of the Victorian orphanage, and the real history of the Coram Hospital from which the story springs. Coram mothers handed over the babies they hadn’t enough money to care for. Each mother would also hand over a heart-breaking token - like maybe a button split in half - so that she could prove the relationship should she ever be in a position to come back and reclaim her child.
It doesn’t shout out that it’s a historical novel, but neither is The Explorer set in the present day. Inspired by a 1920s explorer who sought a lost city in the Amazon, the story’s about some children who survive a plane crash only to get lost in a jungle. One of the brilliant things about it is the way it conjures up the nostalgic land of children’s literature inhabited by the Swallows and the Amazons, or the children of Narnia. There’s almost too much to enjoy here, the plant life of the jungle, the thrill of finding the ancient city, the adventures – and that’s before you get to the kernel of it all, which is a devastatingly painful story about love.
I love the seventeenth century and spent four years of my life living in it when I was researching my PhD thesis. For that brief period, I was probably the historian in the world who was most intimate with a doomed, glamorous, dead Cavalier – the real-life Duke of Newcastle - who lived in a marvellous castle and who fought for King Charles I. So a story like this one, set in a castle, with a Civil War backdrop, a kickass heroine (and bonus ghosts) could almost have been written with my reading needs in mind.
Everyone thinks of Elizabeth Wein as the author of the massively-popular Second World War adventure Codename Verity, but I almost preferred her later book Firebird because I have such a weakness for stories set in Russia, a place that I first encountered in the 1960s children’s classic, The White Nights of St Petersburg by Geoffrey Trease, and which I’ve visited many times since. In Firebird, the heroine is just as admirable and intrepid as Maddie in Codename Verity, and again Nastia is a pilot, along the lines of Stalin’s ‘night witches’, the female flyers who became the most highly-decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force. But as well as Nastia’s adventures in the skies, there’s the addition of a fiendishly clever plot involving the doomed Romanov family. It’s catnip to lovers, like me, of Russia, royalty and revolution, and of stories about courageous girls.
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