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
The 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.
Although I first came to know her work upon the publication of her last series of books – Mistress 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.)
The Vizard Mask, 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.
Norman 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 encountered.
Her 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 Liberties.
I 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”.
In 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 houses.
Mary 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 the Daily 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.
Barry 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
Barry Norman wrote:
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)”
I love what she says about her writing her crime thrillers here and must end with this quote:
“The 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.