When I was fourteen and fifteen, a young freshman in high school, I devoured historical fiction. And no, Philippa Gregory, I’m not looking at you. It started when I read The Memoirs of Cleopatra in ninth grade, a tome that took me a month to read and caused many stares among my teachers when I carried it around the halls. I had a love for reading about historical figures as if they were living and breathing beside me and found that I learned much more about actual historical events in this manner, rather than in the dry form it was delivered to us in school. I read a dozen books by Jean Plaidy, a couple by Margaret George, Antonia Fraser, and Alison Weir before I stumbled upon Anya Seton.
Years later, I still love historical fiction but my bar has been set a lot higher. Years of research have made me a skeptical reader. But I still love reading fictionalized versions of history, especially ones that do not feature an actual queen, king, or princess, but ones that use historical setting to tell a story with unique, well-developed characters. These characters have to do two different things simultaneously, and flawlessly, in order to be believable in a historical setting and interesting to a modern audience: they have to act like they would in the past yet speak to some modern issue. It’s very difficult, and can descend quickly into kitsch if not done well. Anya Seton’s Green Darkness is one of those examples of successful historical fiction.
It’s a little gimmicky in the beginning. In the late 1960s, a young American woman named Celia has just married an English noble. It was a whirlwind romance–they met and married on a boat and claimed love at first sight. A year later, Celia’s husband Richard has become taciturn and withdrawn, and Celia bored and unhappy. When Celia and Richard both suffer emotional breakdowns and hover near death, an Indian mystic recognizes their symptoms and suggests an alternative to Western medicine: an exorcism-like reliving of their past life in order to free them of it. The themes of this novel are reincarnation, the power of cause and effect, and the ways in which our lives–and past lives–influence our souls and the lives of those around us.
There are two main sections of this novel, the one set in the 70s and the one set in the Tudor period of England, during the tumultuous reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary I. There are several reasons why this novel works. One reason is the setting; the other are the characters.
Setting the novel during the Tudor period is trite and overdone. There are so many novels that deal with Henry VIII’s six wives, and with Queen Elizabeth’s reign, whether it features Shakespeare or the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or with Elizabeth’s controversial claim of virginity, that the Tudor period has been so thoroughly canvassed it seems like nothing new can be described. However, Seton chose brilliantly to set her novel almost exclusively within the reigns of Edward and Mary, and in doing so, manages to shed light on a violent period of English history. We learn about the politics of religion during this time period and how believing in–or indeed, even speaking about–the wrong religion could not only impoverish you, it might send you to the stake.
Factions appear in the social landscape of the novel: the Catholics and the Protestants. When Edward is on the throne, all must shut up their chaplains and hide their rosary beads. When Mary is on the throne, they must redact their previous positions and extol the virtues of Catholicism, or else be burned. The political atmosphere of the novel produces some interesting characters and taught me a lot about an often-overlooked period of English history, nestled as it is between those two giants Henry and Elizabeth.
Then there are the characters. Celia, the previous edition of the modern Celia, is an impoverished tavern girl with slightly noble relatives. Her poor but well-bred aunt takes her under her wing when Celia is fourteen, and the young girl spends some time in the luxurious Cowdray Castle. There, she takes faith classes from Brother Stephen, a devout monk disciplined to the point of self-mutilation, and horrified at the Protestant changes occurring in England. Much to Brother Stephen’s chagrin, confusion, and horror, Celia falls in love with him.
The results are complicated, tragic, and vivid. This novel is not a romance, yet it is romantic. And at its heart is the question: who pays for our actions in life? If karma is real, how many lifetimes of service to others will cleanse our souls? And if we do meet again those we’ve known in previous lives, how do our past lives affect our present one?
Celia is not your typical romance-novel heroine. She begins the novel as a timid albeit vain young girl and becomes cynical, brave, and strong in the course of it. Brother Stephen reminds me of a much more moral Arthur Dimmesdale crossed with Orlando Bloom: stoic, self-harming, incredibly religious, yet unfailingly fair and kind. Oh, he’s also supposed to be gorgeous.
The novel has aged a bit since its publication in the 70s, but it’s still a lush, thought-provoking, beautiful book. I read 250+ pages in one sitting, and was entranced. Forty years ago, historical novels were still considered intellectual literature. It is only in recent decades that they have fallen in repute, probably due to subpar writers appropriating the genre and sullying its name (Philippa Gregory, now I’m looking at you). Green Darkness and the entire Seton collection reminds us what great historical fiction can be. Good literature of all genres introduces readers to new worlds, and that’s exactly what historical fiction does, except it has the power to teach us about world history, our roots, and the way we can relate to people from ages past.
Seton, A. (1972) Green Darkness. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt