Reading historical fiction can help to give insights into lives in other times in ways that straight history can’t. History itself needs to be true to reality (even if it is an individual historian’s view of what is real) but fiction can help us to see what it would be like to not just read about the 17th century but to actually live it. The non-fiction gives us an interpretation of primary source documents and other record but the fiction, which is usually equally well researched, can give us an idea of how it would feel to be there when those documents were being written. I love reading both but I have a particular weakness for good historical fiction. The Illumination of Ursula Flight, opening with the titular heroine’s birth just as a comet heralds the Restoration of Charles II, looked like just my cup of (newly fashionable in the C17th) tea.
Ursula is an interesting character – she adores her father, wants to love her rather distracted mother, is fascinated by plays and the theatre and is the centre of a small group of local children for whom she writes a series of short dramatic pieces. Her education and rebellious nature make her seem very modern so it would be easy to think that she isn’t very typical of her age – but this was the age of Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish and Lady Mary Wortley Montague so not every girl was confined to sewing and childbirth. There is plenty to disturb Ursula’s happy life – a spoilt brother, a lost youthful romance and then, more seriously, the death of her father and an arranged marriage to an older man. The marriage isn’t happy – mostly because of her husband’s slightly odd sexual needs and a fraught relationship with her mother-in-law – and the religious differences which arose during the age of Cromwell continue to cause problems within even within the happiest of families. Eventually Ursula breaks with convention completely, runs away and tries her luck in the London theatre world.
I enjoyed this book. The historical period is one I’ve only read a few books about so I found it quite educational but it was also a good story. Ursula was an engaging character and I cared about what happened to her – I really loved the way that she turned key events in her life into short plays. And her plays were really rather funny too… This is a good read if you enjoy strong female leads and a historical setting.