Is it possible to wholeheartedly love a book that often boggles your mind? I’ve actually come to realize that it’s the books that make me feel out of my depth that often become my favorites.

I remember that after reading One Hundred Years of Solitude I went on a scholarly discovery of Colombian history and that The Mist of Avalon brought me as close to religion as my atheist self ever was. Most importantly, these books led me to other books, which led me to other intensive searches.

The meatier the book, the more a Companion enhances the reading experience and as a history-buff I’ve found them especially useful with historical fiction. I’ve realized that if my 21st century brain understands all dialogues and references then I’m either being spoon-fed or the book is far from realistic.

I’m also a Collector, so I get a big kick out of owning stuff connected to literary favorites. (I also do the same for certain movies and series, but that’s a whole different post…)

Do you also use book Companions?

Here are some of the best:

The Dorothy Dunnett Companion I and II by Elspeth Morrison

These books are companions to Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (16th century) and The House of Niccolò (15th century) series, some of the most well researched novels I’ve ever read. Her fictional characters interact with actual historical figures and they both use literary quotes in different languages (Lymond in particular is a poetry-lover, a polyglot and a show-off). Dunnett also has no qualms about realistically portraying the complex geopolitics of the time.

The Companions (which Dunnett helped compile) provide background information on historical figures and events, explain the many obscure literary references, and offer translations, maps and genealogical trees. They’re the perfect guide to help readers navigate through the  tortuous world of Renaissance life and politics.

Typical entries :

Entre cuir et chair : LIONS, 6: ‘Secretly’, or, literally, ‘between skin and flesh’. Said here, rather eerily, of knowledge privily stored.

Kiss any arm you cannot break: UNICORN, 39 : A Saying which continues: ‘And pray God to break it’.

Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian by Dean King, John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes

Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World by Richard O’Neill

Here’s a normal dialogue in one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels:

‘What luck?’ asked Jack.

‘Well, sir,’ said Killick, ‘Joe Plaice says he would venture upon a lobscouse, and Jemmy Ducks believes he could manage a goose-pie.’

‘What about pudding? Did you ask Mrs Lamb about pudding? About her frumenty?’

‘Which she is belching so and throwing up you can hardly hear yourself speak,’ said Killick, laughing merrily. ‘And has been ever since we left Gib. Shall I ask the gunner’s wife?’

‘No, no,’ said Jack. No one the shape of the gunner’s wife could make frumenty, or spotted dog, or syllabub, and he did not wish to have anything to do with her.

You see the challenge? And it’s not even related to naval history, so imagine when he goes on about the different types of sails…

The wonderful things about both these two books in particular is that they’re much more than a glossary of obscure 18th century terms. Among other juicy information, they explain the flora and fauna of Maturin’s studies, map the places mentioned (some of which changed names meanwhile), show pictures of medical instruments and diagrams of the ship’s organization.

For good measure I also have Musical Evenings With the Captain: Music from the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian. It’s a great experience to actually be able to listen to specific songs when O’Brian mentions then in the books.

Notes on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
free site

I know there’s actually a Companion book, but the online version has been good to me so far.

These graphic novels are every fan of Victorian literature’s wet dream. They are brimming with references, some of them easy to spot, but others from books that are all but forgotten. I also found the site really useful in pointing out small details that I might have otherwise ignored:

Page 1. Panel 1. A further indication of how far Mina Murray has fallen from the Victorian ideal of “proper” womanhood is seen here: she’s smoking.

The site is a communal pool of knowledge and is constantly being updated. Contributors often put forward theories that are more or less farfetched, but always interesting:

Page 16. Panel 4. This is the second time in this issue that Nemo has raised the idea of an aerial bombardment of Britain. There are many precedents in the popular fiction of the day for such a thing; perhaps Moore is indicating that Nemo has encountered a “lethal airship”?

Certain details in the novels are so vague that they give wing to multiple interpretations:

Page 18. Panel 2. I’m quite certain that the waif in the nightgown is meant to be someone, though I don’t know who. Paul Crowley suggests that she’s simply meant to refer to the plight of poor children in Victorian England, poverty having driven her to prostitution. Dave McKenna suggests that the waif might be Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll, while Emilio Martin sees Dr. Gull, the murderer in Moore’s From Hell.

Jane Austen’s England and Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Author, both by Maggie Lane

Jane Austen in Style by Susan Watkins

These are not officially “Companions”, but in their different way each has helped me better understand Austen’s world and writing.

Watkins’ book is more specific than the other two, as she focused on lifestyle. There are details about the furnishings, fashions, china and glass of the period that can still be admired today. Lane’s are wider scoped and cover the author’s life, family and her time.