History: Without An Imagination, It’s Only “Old Rocks”

Misfortune of Knowing_Abbey from 2006In Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s The Grand Tour Or The Purloined Coronation Regalia, the sequel to Sorcery & Cecelia Or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot,* ancient artifacts might look like nothing much, but in the right wizard’s hands, they can change the course of human history.

I’m sure that many people can sympathize with the sentiment that, as one (minor) character put it as she stood before an ancient temple: “Old rocks are not at all fun.” Even one of our main characters, Cecy Tarleton (née Rushton), thinks it’s a “rather unimpressive ruin.” Meanwhile, her father, Arthur Rushton, who recommended she and her husband James visit the site, “hasn’t much regard for appearances. He’s only interested in history.”

Mar is a RobotHistorians like Arthur see more in old rocks and masonry than meets the eye. Just as my daughters use their imaginations to create a robot from a stack of cardboard boxes, history-lovers use their imaginations to reconstruct the past from historical evidence. They envision the people who lived in those ancient places, piecing together how they lived and what impact their present continues to have on our present. With the discovery of new original sources—or of new insights into known sources—historians re-imagine the past, trying to get as close to what “really happened” as they can.

Knowing that “the thoughts we record today will become the treasured historical documents of the future,” Arthur Rushton presents his niece Kate with a diary, in which she chronicles her honeymoon. Since Sorcery & Cecelia, Kate has become Lady Schofield, having married Thomas, the “mysterious Marquis.” In The Grand Tour, Kate and Cecy are taking a joint wedding journey with their husbands through continental Europe. Their plans suddenly change when a mysterious package puts them on a quest to stop the ruthless rise of an empire built on historically-informed magic.

Kate and CecyIn The Grand Tour, Wrede and Stevermer once again bring to life the Regency Era—albeit with wizards. It’s an enjoyable sequel, even though it lacks much of the charm of the original novel. In particular, the intelligence and independence that made Cecy and Kate so endearing in Sorcery & Cecelia is largely missing from The Grand Tour, as the two young women settle into the confines of married life in a fictional version of the Regency Era.

While the first novel is based on juicy letters between Cecy and Kate, the second novel tells the story through Kate’s personal diary and Cecy’s formal deposition to the British Ministry of Magic, the War Office, and the Foreign Office. As a result, we receive a more intimate look into Kate’s life than into Cecy’s, and we find that Thomas’ surly exterior from the first novel remains intact. Kate loves him, despite his “bossy and devious and obstinate” demeanor, but I didn’t, and I found myself wishing that Kate would challenge Thomas’ controlling behavior more directly and consistently than she did. I liked James Tarleton more than I liked Thomas, perhaps because I knew less about him due to Cecy’s more formal description of the underlying events.

Thankfully, in a satisfying twist at the end, the reliance on Regency Era gender stereotypes hinders the group’s ability to solve the mystery, hopefully teaching an important lesson to everyone involved. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that by Book 3 in this series (published in 2006), Cecy and Kate have found their footing in their marriages and exert more independence from their husbands. Such behavior might be “inappropriate” and unlikely for married women of their social class in the early 19th Century, but let’s not forget that this series of novels is fiction, not history.

*I discussed the first novel in this series in Entertainment for the Cost of a Stamp (How Much Is That Now?).

Image: Kate’s description of a “maimed old abbey church” in France reminded me of England’s Hailes Abbey, which I visited in 2006.



  1. I do enjoy seeing old ruins. I might use my imagination not knowing the history, but don’t historians use what was recorded through time of fact to write their historical tales? I think I misread it too because I needed to read your reply to flygirl140. I did not think accurate history was as important to the characters.

    1. Hi Donna! Yes, historians collect and interpret facts, but they have to fill in the gaps with educated guesses. An active, but grounded, imagination helps.

  2. I’m in the camp that finds old rocks and ruins desperately fascinating. Even at the age of 20, nursing a hangover I found Stonehenge spectacular. Good stuff, old rocks. I read this first book in this series when I was in the 8th grade and didn’t realize sequels existed! I may have to revisit this!

    1. I’ve never been to Stonehenge! I’d love to see it. I recommend revisiting Sorcery & Cecelia. I didn’t like the second book as much as the first, but I’m invested enough in the characters and their world to see what happens in Book 3.

  3. I have wanted to read these books for some time. I am glad to hear you enjoy them.

    I have always found history fascinating and am definitely one of those people who can come across ruins and see beyond the old rocks that are all that remain.

    What an awesome robe! Your daughters are indeed very creative. I am in awe when my daughter comes up with stories and songs off the top of her head. My mom tells me I have always been the same way–and likely most kids are–but seeing it first hand makes me appreciate the human imagination all the more.

  4. It’s probably due to my warped brain that when you first mentioned Cecy and Kate were married, I pictured them living happily together despite the time period of the novel. It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I realized you meant married to men. 😉

    Although history in general bores me to sleep, seeing it firsthand is always intriguing, and I go out of my way to visit ruins and the like.

    1. Cecy and Kate should’ve been married to each other! I really don’t like Thomas, and I probably wouldn’t like James if I knew more about him! Besides, Thomas and James seem way more interested in each other than in their wives.

      1. As I understand it, that’s how they were back then. Men ran the world, women cleaned up after them. 😉 It’s nice things are changing at last. I say ‘are’ because I think that viewpoint is still very much with us, to the detriment of society as a whole.

  5. I adore this analogy! “Historians like Arthur see more in old rocks and masonry than meets the eye. Just as my daughters use their imaginations to create a robot from a stack of cardboard boxes, history-lovers use their imaginations to reconstruct the past from historical evidence. “

  6. I’m not sure I would enjoy this book. I am a historian and it seems like I would connect with Arthur’s character more than the four central characters. I think I may have to stick with something else but I wanted to say that your girls made a pretty awesome cardboard robot!

    1. Thank you! I hope my kids never lose their creativity. As for The Grand Tour, I hope I didn’t mislead you! The characters learn to appreciate the history behind these artifacts (and some loved history to begin with, even if a ruin did look “unimpressive” at first). This is one of those novels that I think historians might actually appreciate (in the way that historians often appreciate Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time).

      1. I hope your kids keep their imagination and creativity! It is such a wonderful gift to have!

        I miss-read your review; I’ll have to check out the series now! I am all about artifacts and the history behind them. I actually started out wanting to be an archaeologist before I decided to focus on museum studies. I will add it to my list!

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