By Guest Blogger Jo Manning
“I stagger towards
the last line of a book like a drunk navigating furniture,” said Diana Norman.
Photograph: Mary Jane Russell
historical fiction author Diana Norman was a veritable giant of the genre. Arguably, the best amongst many. Her history
was impeccable, and she never shortchanged those readers, letting them know
when she had to make things up for the purpose her plots. Her characters are
remarkable, fully-fleshed-out human beings who are sympathetic and memorable,
and her stories are romantic and compelling. She wrote books that were
extremely difficult to put aside.
I first came to know her work upon the publication of her last series of books
Of The Art Of Death was the first one -- those featuring the 12th-century
Sicilian pathologist/medical examiner Adelia Aguilar, which the obituary in The Guardian opens with, I must
disagree with the reporter’s assertion that Norman “was best known” for these books.
Those of us who love novels set during the English Restoration and
Regency periods would beg to differ. (And I have my colleague Margaret Evans
Porter to thank for introducing those to me.)
set during the Restoration, when the son of the murdered King Charles I,
Charles II, was put on the throne, restoring the Stuart monarchy interrupted by
the Cromwell interregnum, is a masterpiece.
And it is a hefty piece of work, indeed; I thought it, however, too
short, because the writing was so brilliant. Norman explored Restoration
theatre – and the growing role of women on the stage – the harrowing Plague and
its deadly consequences – the byzantine world of 17th century
politics – and the Puritan/Roman Catholic conflict that was to continue on for
many years after the death of Charles II.
enriches her stories by mixing in many historic and literary personages along
with her fictional characters. The Shores Of Darkness has a
wonderfully funny profile of the
always-in-debt/always-in-trouble-with-the-authorities pamphleteer and author
Daniel De Foe (a recurring joke being those who are constantly corrected by the
self-important Mr Foe to insert the “De” before what others think is his full
surname). The Vizard Mask introduced me to an important and complex historical
personage and military man, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I and
brother of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, whom I’d not previously
women are wonderful! Makepeace, the New
England Puritan spinster/tavern owner (yes!) protagonist of A
Catch Of Consequence is funny, good-hearted, and feisty. She
captures the heart of an English aristocrat in this first book of her trilogy
(the “catch” of the title), suffers mightily, wins, loses terribly, and finally
triumphs to become a wealthy and fulfilled businesswoman, happy in her
achievements and family and not brought down by widowhood and penury. The last
of the trilogy is really her daughter’s story (the daughter she had with the
handsome “catch”) who winds up in Paris during the Reign of Terror and is
caught up in its ugliness and deaths. That book is called The Sparks Fly Upward;
the second of the trilogy – referred to as the Makepeace Hedley series – is Taking
did a good deal of research for the part of my biography of Grace Dalrymple
Elliott, My Lady Scandalous, that had to do with the French
Revolution and can attest to her good and careful research here. It is truly mesmerizing
storytelling – and what intricate plotting! – both combined with meticulous
factual information; Norman was a rare mistress of these arts that go into
writing splendid historical fiction, much as her 12th-century character
Adelia is a “mistress of the art of death”.
all, she wrote some sixteen historical novels (four of them in the Adelia
Aguilar series – and please note that titles were changed for publication in
the United States) -- and three works of
non-fiction, of which The Stately Ghosts Of England, a
very short book published in 1963, is a fun read on her adventures in haunted
Diana Narracott, London-born, was taken to Devon to escape the Blitz. Hard to
believe that she left school at the age of fifteen and went on to become such a
fabulous writer. (But her father had been a journalist, so she came by her
talent naturally!) She started out her career as a journalist, becoming
probably the youngest reporter on Fleet Street. She married Barry Norman, a
fellow journalist (he always said she was the better writer) – she wrote for
Herald and he for the Daily Sketch -- and they had two
daughters. Leaving Fleet Street for
motherhood, she managed to squeeze in another career, that of local magistrate,
whilst undertaking her newer challenge, the writing of fiction.
Norman wrote a moving, loving tribute to Diana on her death that has been
widely reprinted. You can read it here. Keep a tissue handy during your reading of it.
Diana and Barry on
their wedding day in 1957
She was beautiful, witty, highly
intelligent, quirky, stubborn and always immense fun to be with. She was a devoted wife, mother and grandmother
and she was also — this is not just
my opinion — one of the most gifted historical novelists around. I loved her to death and beyond.
She appeared on the New York Times and other bestseller lists
and received awards from the Crime Writers’ Association for titles in the last
of her series, which were genuinely more historical crime thrillers than her
historical novels – though a soupcon of mystery was always a delicious part of
those novels as well.
“Proud: Both Barry and Diana
achieved acclaim in their chosen field, with Barry earning a CBE. They are
pictured with daughters Samantha (left) and Emma (right)”
love what she says about her writing her crime thrillers here and must end with
lovely thing about the 12th century is that you don't have to go too far to
find wonderful plots. I always plot
first. If you're writing thrillers which, of all the genres, have to be
well-constructed and not
streams of consciousness, you've got to know where you're going. I have
the last line of the book in my
head before I sit down to write and I stagger towards it like a drunk navigating furniture to get to
the far side of the room."
She once cited some of her literary
influences: Tolstoy; Dickens; Austen;
Raymond Chandler; and John Le Carre. An eclectic mix…but, all, wonderful
writers, as Diana Norman was. Do read her…you run the chance of becoming
addicted, but I can hardly imagine a lovelier addiction than the novels of the
brilliant Diana Norman.