In the past few years, I have started reading more and more books set towards the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20thcentury. Most of the books have an element of mystery or are blatant mystery novels, other are purely historic in their core.
The idea of travelling back in time is always interesting and it brings forth enough flights of fancy, but then reality sweeps in: I am a woman. Historically not the gender you’d want to have when travelling through time, you will be at a disadvantage no matter in which historic period you end up. However, the ideas and philosophies started during these years before and after 1900 are part and parcel of most of what happened in the 20th century. Of course, as our history is linear, all of history is what brings us to this present day.
What is it about the fin de siècle that attracts me?
[Fin de siècle] typically encompasses not only the meaning of the similar English idiom “turn of the century”, but also both the closing and onset of an era, as it was felt to be a period of degeneration, but at the same time a period of hope for a new beginning.
This same optimism of ideas is reflected in the books I have been reading. Quite a few of these books are part of a series which is always a plus when I start: I find that when I like a book, the idea of more books featuring the same main character draws me in. I guess for me a book can never have too many pages nor too many following stories!
I think it all started with The Little Book by Selden Edwards, but as I was browsing through my books looking for a book to give to a colleague, I noticed The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White, apparently bought August 2008. For my trip to
Vienna, my mother suggested reading The Hare with Amber Eyes.
The Abyssinian Proof
By Jenny White
Turkish magistrate Kamil Pasha, featured in anthropologist White’s fictional debut, The Sultan’s Seal (2006), returns in another whodunit set in late-nineteenth-century Istanbul. When thieves zero in on valuable religious relics, Pasha is commissioned to expose and break up the smuggling ring before another extremely valuable reliquary is sold on the lucrative European market. As he searches for a mysterious silver box revered by an unique Abyssinian sect, he gets more than he bargained for as he trolls the backstreets of Istanbul in search of a holy object purported to contain a secret message known as the “Proof of God.” White infuses this mystery with both historical detail and suspense, artfully conjuring up an irresistible adventure set in an exotic time and place.
The Little Book
By Selden Edwards
Thirty years in the writing, Selden Edwards’ dazzling first novel is an irresistible triumph of the imagination. Wheeler Burden-banking heir, philosopher, student of history, legend’s son, rock idol, writer, lover, recluse, half-Jew, and Harvard baseball hero-one day finds himself wandering not in his hometown of San Francisco in 1988 but in a city and time he knows mysteriously well: Vienna, 1897. Before long, Wheeler acquires a mentor in Sigmund Freud, a bitter rival, a powerful crush on a luminous young woman, and encounters everyone from an eight-year-old Adolf Hitler to Mark Twain as well as the young members of his own family. Solving the riddle of Wheeler’s dislocation in time will ultimately reveal nothing short of one eccentric family’s unrivaled impact upon the course of human history.
The Hare with Amber Eyes
By Edmund de Waal
In this family history, de Waal, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, describes the experiences of his family, the Ephrussis, during the turmoil of the 20th century. Grain merchants in Odessa, various family members migrated to Vienna and Paris, becoming successful bankers. Secular Jews, they sought assimilation in a period of virulent anti-Semitism. In Paris, Charles Ephrussi purchased a large collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny hand-carved figures including a hare with amber eyes. The collection passed to Viktor Ephrussi in Vienna and became the family’s greatest legacy. Loyal citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Vienna Ephrussis were devastated by the outcome of WWI and were later driven from their home by the imposition of Nazi rule over Austria. After WWII, they discovered that their maid, Anna, had preserved the netsuke collection, which Ignace Ephrussi inherited, and he settled in postwar Japan. Today, the netsuke reside with de Waal (descended from the family’s Vienna branch) and serve as the embodiment of his family history.
By chance I happened on a copy of The Winter Queen and it gripped me; the second novel is hot on my to read list. Currently I am reading the second book in a series by the french author Claude Izner (pseudonym of two sisters) and my aunt has just given me the book Gillespie and I by Jane Harris.
The Winter Queen
By Boris Akunin
Moscow, May 1876. What would cause a talented student from a wealthy family to shoot himself in front of a promenading public? Decadence and boredom, it is presumed. But young sleuth Erast Fandorin is not satisfied with the conclusion that this death is an open-and-shut case, nor with the preliminary detective work the precinct has done–and for good reason: The bizarre and tragic suicide is soon connected to a clear case of murder, witnessed firsthand by Fandorin himself. Relying on his keen intuition, the eager detective plunges into an investigation that leads him across Europe, landing him at the center of a vast conspiracy with the deadliest of implications.
Murder on the Eiffel Tower
By Claude Izner
The brand-new, shiny Eiffel Tower is the pride and glory of the 1889 World Exposition. But one sunny afternoon, as visitors are crowding the viewing platforms, a woman collapses and dies on this great Paris landmark. Can a bee sting really be the cause of death? Or is there a more sinister explanation? Enter young bookseller Victor Legris. Present on the tower at the time of the incident, and appalled by the media coverage of the occurrence, he is determined to find out what actually happened. In this dazzling evocation of late nineteenth-century Paris, we follow Victor as his investigation takes him all over the city and he suspects an ever-changing list of possible perpetrators. Could mysterious Kenji Mori, his surrogate father and business partner at the bookstore Legris operates, be involved in the crime? Why are beautiful Russian illustrator Tasha and her colleagues at the newly launched sensationalist newspaper Passepartout always up-to-date in their reporting? And what will Legris do when the deaths begin to multiply and he is caught in a race against time?
Gillespie and I
By Jane Harris
As she sits in her Bloomsbury home with her two pet birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter recounts the story of her friendship with Ned Gillespie—a talented artist whose life came to a tragic end before he ever achieved the fame and recognition that Harriet maintains he deserved. In 1888, young Harriet arrives in Glasgow during the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter with Ned, she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in their lives. But when tragedy strikes, culminating in a notorious criminal trial, the certainty of Harriet’s new world rapidly spirals into suspicion and despair.
All books from the fin de siècle: the Izner books take place in Paris; The Little Book is all about Vienna; The Hare is mostly about Vienna, but more about Europe in general; The Abyssinian Proof is where the Ottoman Empire shows its beauty; Gillespie and I will take me to Scotland; and the books by Boris Akunin are all about Mother Russia.
And for some more inspiration:
[post recovered thanks to the wonderful work of Archive.org and their
Way Back Machine!]