The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – A Fascinating Tale of Scholars, Vampires and History

The Historian

I have read and loved many books since I can remember learning to read. Yet, I have only read a few of those over and over again. These special books, enough to make me read them again, include the whole Harry Potter series, The Da Vinci Code, and, most recently, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

Today, I want to write about why the last book is special to me. It is a long book. And, it is undeniably boring. That reminds me, there is another book that I have just read, matching the same description. But, more on that later.

The Historian – An Excruciating Task

The Historian - Cover
The Historian – Cover

When I first read The Historian, I was at a point in my life where I was determined to rekindle my relationship with reading. To do this, I chose a tome of epic proportions – one that would give me many sleepless nights trying to get through it. The Historian promised Dan Brown proportions of marvellous plot and intricacies.

I was bitterly disappointed in many ways. This 720-page book did not take me many nights to finish. It took me a day. It was not full of exhilarating plot.  To top it off, the book was lengthy and boring.

At the time however, I did not see all of this. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was a perfect rekindling of my literary love affair. The beginning of more sleepless nights, fighting to finish books boring and exciting.

But as I read what I had learned to call my favourite book over and over, I also learned to call it the most excruciating read I ever had to face. It drew me in like an unwise fool each time I began to read in anew, only to spit me back out – lethargic, and wiser, telling myself that I would never subject myself to that torture.

The Historian – Undeniably, a Love Affair

You are most certainly confused by now. I have taken the time to write a lengthy blog post – a review – of a book which I called special. And, I am criticising that same book to unfettered ends.

You see, I have bittersweet thoughts about The Historian. I love it, but I also hate it.

Why do I love The Historian?

There are many things to love about The Historian. It presents a wide myriad of cities, towns, landscapes, and historical climates to the reader. Through Kostova’s brilliant prose, she displays erudition beyond compare. I have never seen another author understand what she has understood so intimately. This includes the cultures of almost every country in Europe, and Turkey, as well as the complex history of those regions from the early 15th century up until the Cold War. She also demonstrated a deep understanding of their foods, languages, and social tendencies. Undeniably brilliant, she has created a tapestry of history, culture, travel, scenic landscapes, monasteries, and let’s not forget, vampires.

So why do I hate The Historian?

But, that tapestry is not smooth and artistic as it seems. Beneath the beautiful prose and stellar description is a rotting that makes the tapestry hard to follow. The 720-page tome is laden with narration from various aspects. An unnamed girl. Her father. Her father’s advisor. And if memory serves me correctly, a few others. And the narration is sewn in quite jarringly through the plot. The reader is constantly switching between the narrators, their letters, descriptions of libraries and monasteries, and examinations of manuscripts.

And while the plot was undeniably motivating – or maybe it was just the challenge of reaching its resolution that motivated me – even when the reading got rough as I stumbled through the beautiful yet discordant descriptions, it came to a crashing halt when the villain, Dracula, was revealed to be no more than an ****SPOILER ALERT**** irritated librarian.

Kostova had kept me reading through the entire tome, enduring the seemingly repeated descriptions of places and things, and somehow keeping track of the complex plot, all in the hope that the resolution would be as exciting as the book description promised. Instead, I was met with a disappointing anticlimax followed by another lengthy resolution.

Was The Historian worth it?

So was The Historian worth it? Was the excruciating read something I would endure once again. Oh yes!

I will always return to The Historian, because even though I know its end, and I suffer through the intricate plot (which I have come to know, almost), it never fails to surprise me with just how masterfully crafted it is.  It is a marvel how Kostova has created such a masterpiece whose only failings are its complexity of plot and anti-climatic resolution.

I do not see myself as someone who only reads for pleasure. Rather, I read to broaden my mind, to learn. And The Historian taught me. It gave me exactly what I had secretly been looking for. A story of the past, moulded into a story of the present, with history, travel, food, and culture intertwined in it. It is certainly not a fast paced read, but I was somehow excited by its boring nature.

I would definitely call it a travel guide. But its a damn good one at that. And, if one is to read a travel guide, why not read one that will expose you to the countries’ places, food, language, and culture while telling a story. Even if that story has a disappointing end.

Kostova has undoubtedly created something that is hard to rival. It has various major flaws, but I am only writing about them here because I must. I do not even think about them when I return to the book.

So, as with any literary novel, many will hate The Historian, but I am sure, that in time, it will be remembered as an unrivalled piece of art.

Dido Belle: England’s Eighteenth-Century African Enigma

Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle

The Story of England’s First Black Aristocrat: Dido Elizabeth Belle

Would you believe it if I told you that there existed a black aristocrat in eighteenth-century England? No, of course you wouldn’t because this seeming conundrum was certainly not allowed to happen. Even more perplexing was that she, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay – son of Sir Alexander Lindsay, 3rd Baronet – and great-niece of William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice for 32 years. Her blood was certainly noble, at least in the view of an English aristocrat assessing her father’s genealogy. However, look at her mother’s genealogy and she was no more than the daughter of a slave. She was also the illegitimate daughter of a slave as her parents were never married.

Yet, what set her apart from other illegitimate children was that her father accepted her as his daughter and made sure that she grew up under the guardianship of Earl and Lady Mansfield in Kenwood House. Although she grew up with the Earl’s other niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, it is not certain in what capacity she did so. Was she the little Lady’s playmate, attendant, or cousin? Since there is no definite account, most people look at the painting featured above and assert that she was a companion equal to Lady Elizabeth. Others look at it more critically saying that she is portrayed as a Lady’s companion. Either way, Amma Asante’s 2013 movie, Belle, certainly illuminates her relationship with the Earl, with John Davinier (who would eventually marry Belle), and how that all culminated in the Earl’s monumental ruling against slavery.

The Movie: Belle starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Belle meets the young Frenchmen, John Davinier, when he is under the Earl’s apprenticeship for law. Through him, she hears about the Zong massacre where insurance had been taken out on the lives of slaves as cargo. Following mistakes in navigation, there was a shortage of potable water aboard. So as to save the crew and to retain their investment on the slaves, the crew threw the slaves aboard to drown them. Doing so would enable them to get paid out for insurance because if the slaves had died of thirst then they could not be sold and no insurance could be paid out. Belle then proceeds to pass correspondence to Davinier which brings his apprenticeship to an end.

I will skip the romance and depiction of high society that frequents the movie. However, it allows the audience to see exactly how people of colour were treated in England in that era.

The End of the Slave Trade in Sight?

Eventually though, Belle rejects a most amiable proposal. One of the reasons for this was the affection that she had begun to hold for John Davinier. Either way, the story progressed as the Earl became painfully aware that his attempts to give Belle a suitable life, one in which she fitted into English society, had dismally failed. His own reluctance to rule against the crew on the Zong exacerbated this. Furthermore, he could not even rule against them without drawing criticism from every part of English society – royalty, aristocracy, and commoners – as they were too aware of his relationship with Belle. If he ruled against them, it would seem like an unfair judgement. But, realising that his wish to see Belle’s happiness in English society would never be achieved as long as people who shared her skin colour were brutally murdered and slave trade continued, he ruled against the crew of the Zong in a monumental way. As such, he became remembered for respecting the lives of slaves, and thereby as a man who was instrumental in the abolition of slavery.

It cannot be known for certain what drove him to this judgement, but, the movie certainly makes the case that Belle and Davinier were instrumental. And so, the simple story of Dido Belle becomes more fascinating when we realise that not only did she defy social conventions but she possibly played a pivotal role in bringing the English slave trade to an end.