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Barbara Gaskell Denvil is the great-great-great grandniece of Elizabeth Gaskell and was herself a successful writer for years in England, publishing numerous short stories and magazine articles, working as a critic and feature writer, a book and television script editor and as a publisher’s reader. However, she temporarily abandoned her career in order to live on a boat and sail the Mediterranean for nearly 20 most interesting years. Now widowed, she lives in rural Australia, and, with increasing passion, has turned to writing full length novels.Her most recent novel Sumerford's Autumn, an addition to the popular genre of historical fiction, is perfect for fans of Philippa Gregory.

Barbara Gaskell Denvil's passion for English medieval history is reflected in her Five Books of Influence

By Barbara Gaskell Denvil

This is not an easy list to make. I have adored so many books in my life and so many have inspired and influenced me. As a child, books were my most important companions and I began to acquire my own tiny library (thanks to my father) at about age six. These were rarely children’s’ books, few of which appealed to me unless illustrated by Dulac, Rackham or others. In fact everything I have ever read has probably influenced me in some way, and my tastes are fairly eclectic, but I am principally a lover of both historical fiction and fantasy – so in order to choose my five favourites, I have kept within that sphere.


This is a cheat I’m afraid, since it is a drama and not a book, but it was certainly the first piece of literature which really influenced my life. I think I was about 8 or 9, and the Shakespearean figure of Richard III, that incredibly charismatic villain, moved me enormously for I had never come across a real villain before. My reading at that age was still fairly simplistic and the only baddies I read about were quite mundane characters. Then I met Richard IIII and he knocked me over!  I wallowed in the enchanting beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry and the incredible presentation of vivid character and intensity of individuality almost entirely created through dialogue. I was mesmerised. Although I knew Richard III was a genuine historical figure, it certainly never occurred to me that this glorious monster might be historically factual. My knowledge at age 9 was limited, but I was sensible enough to know that people like Shakespeare’s Richard could not really exist. It was some years later that I was inspired to research the real man. I did not expect – nor wish – to whitewash my favourite villain, and I was indeed hoping to discover a more believable but still ruthless man. What I eventually discovered was something else entirely – which both surprised and delighted me. But that’s another story! I had of course already moved on to Shakespeare’s other plays and those sublime sonnets. What his poetry taught me was the pure bliss of extraordinary writing and the amazing scope which creativity can endow – and in one huge swoop, through reading the most beautiful words ever written, I began to learn (or try!) the art of writing, of characterisation, of story-telling – plus the utter fascination of history.


From the sublime to the ridiculous perhaps, but with this book I discovered romance. I was about 11 or 12, and too young for real insight, but Georgette Heyer taught me what I was missing! Neither slushy nor openly sexual, this book is a delicious package of wit, excellent characterisation, and pure unashamed arousal. Very much better written than authors of historical romance are often credited with, this is a Regency Romance to savour – lighter than Austen but full of character and dripping in charm. The epitome of romantic pleasure.


So many historical novelists count these magnificent books amongst their principal and earliest influences. It is also rather a cheat again, since there are 6 books, not one. If I must reduce it to one, then the fourth in the series, PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE, is probably my favourite.  There are several reasons for having been so mightily impressed – the excellent writing – the originality of plot and presentation – the wonderfully detailed and accurate historical backgrounds – the ability to unite such varied and sprawling situations and weave them together into active and spell-binding fascination – and the excellent characterisation, even with such an enormous cast of characters. The past is virtually brought alive again, the situations sizzle with passion and threat, and the pages just keep turning. This is definitely the sort of series which inspires others to write historical fiction – and it certainly played an early part in inspiring me.


Actually I have never decided whether I am a lover of historical fiction who also adores fantasy – or a lover of fantasy who also adores historical fiction –  and somehow this novel covers both.  As fantasy goes – this is the father of them all. But I think Tolkien’s masterpiece is also close to being one of the greatest works of historical fiction as well. It is, of course, not history at all but pure fantasy – yet this extraordinary novel includes all the scope and believability of history – the vast spreading landscapes of past ages – the timeless intensity of the characters – the glory and the tragedy. This work of amazing inspiration has its faults as all books do (including all of these – and certainly all of mine!) but it is the heart and soul of living, breathing imagination. More importantly, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is a book which epitomises all that could ever be written or felt about ‘loss’ – that great melancholy equaliser of humanity, and the single thread of learning which weaves all history to the present.


Even as a fantasy lover, I must confess I have only ever enjoyed one Vampire novel (Anne Rice’s very first)  – no dragon stories even though I love dragons – virtually no fairy books and no talking animals (although Narnia bewitched me when I was very young). To me, fantasy means whole new worlds and a gigantic stretch of creativity. I want to enter an atmosphere of magical transportation. I want to experience that yearning immensity which I will never know in my waking life and I want to feel emotions long unawakened. Principally I want to escape the limitations of a physical life – not into fluffy flowers and rainbows, but into the deep dark mysteries of possibility.  This is truly what combines history and fantasy in my mind (even though I am fanatical about history, both fiction and non-fiction, being as utterly accurate as possible) and this remarkable fantasy novel by Gordon Dahlquist (first in a trilogy) achieves exactly that. It is inspiringly and engagingly unique, bizarre and utterly eccentric while combining amazing ingenuity with some delightful humour. I was taken travelling to places I could never have hoped to imagine myself – and for me that is one essential definition of great story-telling. This opened doors where there had been brick walls before.

There are so many more books I have loved. Here I have kept strictly to fiction since I read a great deal of non-fiction during my historical research, and could never hope to pick out the best. And I’ve even left out those beautiful and cleverly sophisticated works of my great-great (and more greats) aunt, Elizabeth Gaskell. She would forgive me, I’m sure. There are too many tremendous works of literature to list, and too many I have adored which I have probably even forgotten by now.

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