Transporting us back to specific times and locales, historical novels place fictional characters against a real-world backdrop. The author must convince the reader of the authenticity of this setting, and if she’s good enough, that fictional world becomes real for a time.
Social customs, language, ways of dress, the homes they live in, how they interact with other people as well as the natural world around them, and yes, even the herbs they use in their daily lives — these are the details that convince us to believe these characters are real, even though we know they aren’t.
Herbs in large doses find their way into popular, mainstream historical fiction. We’re talking here not only about Jane Austen’s swooning Victorian heroines in need of revival with a splash of lavender water, or Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, sent to bed with chamomile tea: Herbs and herbalists have taken some big-budget adventures through bestseller lists in recent years.
Civil War Days
Before there was a hit movie with Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger, there was a book called Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. Set near the end of the Civil War, a Confederate soldier named Inman is walking home to a woman he loves in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, wounded and disillusioned as his world disintegrates around him.
“Inman put the dawn to his back and set out walking west. All that morning he felt stunned and wrenched. His head ached in accordance with the beat of his pulse and felt as if his skull was about to fall into a great number of pieces at his feet. From a fencerow he gathered a wad of the feathery leaves of yarrow and tied it to his head with the stripped stem of the plant. The power of yarrow is to draw out pain, which to an extent it did. The leaves wagged in time with his tired walk, and he spent the morning watching the shadows of them move before him down the road.”
That little herbal detail, so unessential to the story line, helps the tale ring true in an evocative way. Southern mountain folk in those days didn’t need a doctor to tell them that plants in the landscape around them would staunch the bleeding of a head wound. These plants, and the whole natural world, were part of their lives.
A woman named Ruby must tend to her father’s gunshot wound. This passage says something about the times in which she lives, and also about Ruby:
“When Ruby returned an hour later, she had her pockets full of any root she could find that might be remotely useful — mullein, yarrow, burdock, ginseng. But she had not found goldenseal, which was the thing she needed most. The herb had been scarce of late. Hard to find. She worried that people were proving themselves not worthy of healing and the goldenseal had departed in disgust. She packed a mash of mullein and yarrow root and burdock into Stobrod’s wounds and bound them with strips cut from a blanket. She brewed tea from the mullein and ginseng and dribbled it into his mouth...”
Inman fears he is ruined beyond repair by the terrible events he has seen. Ada doesn’t. “What she thought was that cures of all sorts exist in the natural world. Its every nook and cranny apparently lay filled with physic and restorative to bind up rents from the outside. Even the most hidden root or web served some use. And there was spirit rising from within to knit sturdy scars over the backsides of wounds. Either way, though, you had to work at it.”
For readers of popular fiction who may not know them, let me introduce two practicing herbalists, one in 18th-century Scotland and one in prehistoric times. Both these fictional women have told their stories through five books and counting, bestsellers one and all. Herbs stroll through all these books as if they belong there. And indeed they do.
Fans of proper British cozies may not find these novels to be their cup of tea. They serve up adventure and romance, with occasional dollops of robust sex.
Fantasy Old-World Leap
Imagine this scenario: a young World War II nurse named Claire, wandering around ancient stone circles, falls through a crack in time and finds herself suddenly and inexplicably in 1743 Scotland. Okay, that takes a mental leap, but the ploy has worked for author Diana Gabaldon. This scenario paved the way for an entire series of historical novels, starting in 1991 with Outlander. The story line has continued through five blockbuster books, the latest being The Fiery Cross in 2001, with the promise of more to come. They are all chock full o’ herbs.
Why? Because Claire is a healer. She uses the medical tools available to her then, mainly herbs. These books contain a well-researched pharmacopoeia of herbs — minor players, to be sure, but with fascinating detail.
Through these books, she handles life in a Scottish castle amid warring clans; she faces the intrigues of the Paris court of Charles Stuart as she tries with her Scottish warrior husband, Jamie, to thwart a Highland uprising she knows is doomed; she flees back through the ancient stones to her own time, bearing his child, then returns decades later as a mature woman, a modern-day doctor.
At one point she takes on the role of ship’s surgeon for a perilous two-month journey across the Atlantic, gets kidnapped at sea and must handle plague raging through a ship bound for the West Indies. She learns healing ways from the Indian tribes in frontier America, and gets involved in all manner of adventures. In the latest, The Fiery Cross, she and her beloved are colonists in North Carolina, the year 1771, and Claire knows revolution is just around the corner.
The herbs provide vivid details, evoking time and place and adding historical authenticity. We see not only how she uses them, but also where she finds them, how she gathers, preserves and stores them, and how they compare to the modern medicines she used in her former life. Through thrilling adventures, her knowledge of herbs is a quiet thread of daily life.
“I walked slowly beside the stream, eyes alert as always to anything useful. It was too early in the year for most medicinals; for medicine, the older and tougher the plant, the better; several seasons of fighting off insects ensured a higher concentration of the active principles in their roots and stems,” Claire muses to herself in Drums of Autumn.
“Also, with many plants, it was the flower, fruit or seed that yielded a useful substance, and while I’d spotted clumps of turtlehead and lobelia sprouting in the mud along the path, those had long since gone to seed. I marked the locations carefully in my mind for future reference, and went on hunting.”
In this case, the herbs she finds mark the passage of time and the changing
of the seasons, but Claire uses them in ceremonial ways as well, threading them through the drama and tension that draw us to these books in the first place. In the same book, she must preside over a burial:
“I had not known her, would not miss her — but I grieved her; her and her child. And so for myself, rather than for her, I knelt by her body and scattered herbs: fragrant and bitter, leaves of rue and hyssop flowers, rosemary, thyme and lavender. A bouquet from the living to the dead — small token of remembrance.”
Further Back in Time
Ayla’s story goes back to the dawn of humankind, during the Ice Age in prehistoric Europe. We first met her in 1980, when author Jean M. Auel launched her Earth’s Children series, starting with Clan of the Cave Bear. Ayla is a child found and raised by a people very different from her, a Neanderthal clan, where she will always be an outsider. These books offer a compelling saga of survival.
Taken under the wing of the clan’s medicine woman, young Ayla learns the woman’s collective wisdom of the healing plants and natural remedies found in the landscape around them. Ayla is eventually cast out, and she sets out to find her own people. For a time, she lives alone in a valley, where she finds and saves a wounded man, Jondalar, who plays a major role as her partner in the books to come. They set off on a long journey, and Ayla becomes a powerful medicine woman and mystic to the clans she lives with.
Among her skills is a wide knowledge of the uses of herbs, coupled with an instinct for healing that gives her great power in this primitive world. From birth control and hangover remedies to
the serious and life-threatening injuries that occur in her world, Ayla tends
to her clan. She even uses her herbal knowledge on animals she tames