One of my favourite genres of fiction is the ‘reimagined life’; when an author takes a historical figure and sheds new light on them. Not only is it historical fiction (my favourite genre) but it also involves really knowing a person inside and out, which I always find fascinating. In honour of April being National Poetry Month, I made a list of some of my favourite novels about poets; from Marlowe to Plath, there is something here for any fan of the greats.
1. The Marlowe Papers – Ros Barber
A little-known fact about me is that I adore Christopher Marlowe almost as much as I love William Shakespeare. But I am also absolutely certain that Shakespeare wrote all of his own plays and poetry; I won’t entertain any of these theories that he was the Earl of Oxford, or some other nobleman in disguise. That being said, The Marlowe Papers – a novel in verse, which imagines that Marlowe’s death was faked and he went on to write as Shakespeare – is a really great read. Written mostly in iambic pentameter, a feat that is as mind-boggling as it is impressive, Ros Barber weaves an inventive yarn that might just have you thinking twice about Shakespeare’s true identity.
2. Regeneration – Pat Barker
Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first in a trilogy of novels, follows prominent psychiatrist William Rivers through the last years of the First World War as he treats traumatised soldiers. One of his patients includes the poet Siegfried Sassoon, whilst another poet, Wilfred Owen, is also in residence in the hospital. Barker’s exploration of Sassoon and Owen’s relationship – Sassoon is known to have helped Owen develop his poetry – is not the main story of Regeneration, but it is deeply affecting. Barker makes living, breathing humans out of these men who are known so often only by their words about the worst days of their lives, and their relationship is truly fascinating.
3. Burning Bright – Tracy Chevalier
Tracy Chevalier is another author with a real strength when it comes to humanising elusive historical figures. Her Vermeer in The Girl With The Pearl Earring is the more famous example, but in Burning Bright she brings the poet William Blake to vibrant life. With any Chevalier novel, you feel as though you are there in the street at her side, as she peels back layers to show you some truth she alone seems to know. Blake is a more distant figure in this novel than Vermeer was, but as the young protagonists get to know him over the course of the story, we are left with a kind, creative and gentle poet.
4. Fools and Mortals – Bernard Cornwell
When you pick up a standalone novel by Bernard Cornwell, you are almost guaranteed to have a good time. Fools and Mortals is no exception to this rule; it’s a fast paced, riotous run through Elizabethan England. Our main character is Richard Shakespeare, one of William’s brothers, who has come to London to seek his fortune as an actor and ended up being stuck with a series of bit parts in his brother’s works. Richard gets caught up in all sorts of shenanigans and is an endearing character in his own right. But his relationship with his older brother is the real centrepiece of the novel. William is not a nice man here; he’s difficult and prickly, and frankly a bit of a bastard. Seeing the brothers learn to get along is the real fun here.
5. Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets – Jude Morgan
Passion charts the scandalous and fascinating lives of three Romantic poets – Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats – through the eyes of the four women who knew them best. Mary Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, Fanny Brawne and Augusta Leigh lives are charted in such detail that the reader is invested in their stories far before the poets actually enter the novel, which is no bad thing. Morgan’s work is full of politics as well as passion, set as it is against the background of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It does a wonderful job of establishing that to really understand the great poets, we absolutely need to also be talking about the women who were important to them.
6. Wintering – Kate Moses
A novel about Sylvia Plath, especially one set shortly before her suicide, is always going to be a divisive thing. It is also going to be a hard read; Plath’s battle with oppressive depression and the falling apart of her marriage to Ted Hughes are difficult subjects. Fans of Plath’s writing say that Moses completely captures the tone and colour of Plath’s own work in this third-person retelling of the final months of her life. Moses also brings the creation of Plath’s Ariel front and centre, and tries to get into the poet’s head as well as her creative process. Wintering is a raw and painful novel, but one that is well worth the effort.
7. Miss Emily – Nuala O’Connor
Miss Emily is another novel about a troubled woman; in this case, Emily Dickinson is the poet brought to life through vibrant prose. Dickinson is one point of view character in the story, alongside the 18 year old Ada Concannon who is hired as a maid for the Dickinson family. Dickinson is known to be a dark, shadowy figure, but O’Connor teases out a more rounded, realistic version of the poet; a lover of nature, who bonds with the young maid, understanding and supporting her. Ada is just as bright a character, confused by the strange, reclusive woman at first, but soon revelling in their friendship. O’Connor writes with the same kind of economy that Dickinson herself did, and Miss Emily is the wonderful result.
Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.
Gamezeen is a Zeen theme demo site. Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.