I enjoy reading historical fiction, and I take particular pleasure in it if I know something about the time period (so I can mentally fact check details as I read). Because of this, I was excited to finally get a chance to read “Fairer Than Morning” by Rosslyn Elliott, because it was ‘based on the life of Bishop William Hanby,’ about whom I know quite a bit. In fact, I have been a volunteer docent at The Hanby House (a historical site in Westerville; check out their website) for a while now, and have always admired the Bishop’s role in local history. He was an indentured servant who escaped from a harsh master, eventually paid off his indenture, became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helped found Otterbein University (one of the first colleges to accept women and non-whites as students), and was vocal in the Westerville Whiskey Wars of 1875 and 1879. All of this he did while supporting his family as a circuit riding minister (and later, a Bishop), the editor of a religious journal, and a saddler. Due to his generous loans (which were never repaid) and the loss of his livelihood (his saddle shop was burned during the Whiskey Wars), Bishop Hanby died nearly pennilous, but with words of praise on his lips. He was a remarkable man, with a significant place in local history, and I was excited to read the fictionalized account of his life, as imagined by Ms. Elliot.
“Fairer Than Morning” is the first in Elliot’s series about the Hanbys (called The Saddler’s Legacy), and focuses primarily on Bishop Hanby. The second novel, “Sweeter Than Birdsong” is about his eldest son, Ben (best known for composing the Christmas song ‘Up on the Housetop’), and the third, “Lovelier Than Daylight,” is about the Hanby’s involvement in the Whisky Wars. I’m pretty sure that’s where the series will end, because Bishop Hanby died soon after those events, but maybe Ms. Elliot plans to write about the other Hanby descendants. Who knows? At any rate, “Fairer Than Morning” was a hard book to put down, and I look forward to reading the next two books with relish. I will admit, however, that I had to turn off my ‘fact checking’ in order to fully enjoy the novel.
Don’t get me wrong; Elliot obviously did a great deal of meticulous research for her series, and it shows, but at the end of the day, she was trying to write a historical romance, and some of the facts had to suffer in order to make the story work out the way she wanted it to. That won’t be a big deal for most readers, although some of my fellow Hanby House guides were up in arms about ‘the things she got wrong,’ and we’ve had some guests who have read it ask us questions about this or that incident (did it happen the way it did in the book?) and we’ve sometimes had to disappoint them with the truth. As for me, once I decided to think of it as separate from the Hanby story I know, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. There was suspense, romance, good versus evil, and some very likeable characters (plus a villain who was every bit as despicable in real life as he was written to be).
My advice: read the series, and then, if you live in (or plan to visit) central Ohio, stop by the Hanby House in Westerville (or at least check out the website) to get the real stories. Sometimes, truth is better than fiction, but fiction is still a lot of fun to read!