H is for historical novels

Author: Anne

Date Published: Aug 16th 2017, 9:53pm

When I wrote the blog below, about two years ago, I was new to historical novels having ignored them for most of my reading life for the reasons I give. I have to say that I am now a historical novel reader ! I have overcome most of my issues and although I shall almost certainly never read a Philippa Gregory novel I have found some great new stories - take a look at my reviews and you will see them. Historical fiction is not a major part of my reading diet but it is becoming a more important part.

I particularly recommend the following which I have read in the past few months (as well as those I mention in the original blog) :

"Serena" by Ron Rash - set in the logging industry in America

"The Sealed Letter" by Emma Donoghue - love and divorce in Victorian England

"Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" by Susanna Clarke - Magic in London society

"A Thread of Grace" by Mary Doria Russell - Occupied Italy in WW2

"Bellman and Black" by Diane Setterfield - Death in Victorian Britain

"An Ice-cream War" by William Boyd - Africa in WW1

"The Strangler Vine" by MJ Carter - A crime novel set in India in the nineteenth century

"Standing in the Rainbow" by Fannie Flagg - 1950s American rural life


A colleague asked me yesterday if I had read the well regarded “Wolf Hall” because he knew that I have a great interest in Tudor history. I did find myself having to try and articulate the reason why I don’t normally read historical novels. Strangely, it is because I like and know a lot about history that I find many historical novels so off putting.

Of course, there are some historical novels which just get the facts wrong. I’ve read a few of those in the past but on the whole historical novelists, especially those who wish to be taken seriously, research their setting and the time period very well. They may take the odd liberty with facts as we know them but then so too do writers of contemporary fiction. Accuracy isn’t actually my issue.

My problem is that a writer of fiction has to make choices about what they think may have happened where a reader of history will be presented with a number of options. For example, there are lots of unknowns in history such as : How did Lord Dudley’s wife die, was she murdered ? What happened to the princes in the tower ? Where is Lord Lucan, if he is still alive ? Did Catherine of Aragon sleep with her first husband or not ? Where did the voices that Joan of Arc hear come from ? These are just a few examples. We know very little about lots of historical events and even the existence of some historical figures is in doubt. When I read a history book the author tells me the evidence and the conflicting theories and then often makes a judgement themselves about what the facts are. When a writer sits down to write a book of fiction they can’t offer much in the way of options and have to make a definite decision about what has happened in order to tell the story. My problem is that I am too aware of the things that have not been considered.

It is obvious that this is not the fault of the writer. We expect them to tell a good story and they have to do this to the best of their ability. The problem lies with me and the way that I read historical fiction. But it is not acceptable for me to dismiss a huge amount of varied and well written books on the grounds that I find some of them hard to read so in recent times I have tried to overcome this issue by choosing to read books set around events that I know nothing about or alternatively set in past times but not about well known events. In doing this I have discovered some gems and have found a way to tap into all that historical fiction waiting to be discovered and read.

Here are a few you may like to consider that I have enjoyed :

“Longbourn” by Jo Baker – set in the time of “Pride and Prejudice” and using the same characters but telling the story from the point of view of the servants. A really good read – and it moves to Portugal for some of the action too.

“The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” by Fannie Flagg. Set partly in early twentieth century America around the barnstorming air shows. A very funny read in places

“The Night Watch” by Sarah Waters. This is set in London during WW2. Excellent character building and a great atmosphere.

The Falco stories of Lindsey Davis. Set in Rome in the first century – start with “The Silver Pigs”. Great writing and very funny. This era has the advantage for me in that I know very little about Roman history.

The Benjamin January books by Barbara Hambly. These are set in the slave communities of Louisiana in the eighteenth century which is another area I know little about. This author excels in portraying menace and fear and her books are riveting – start with “A Free Man of Color”. You could also try her vampire series set in Victorian Europe beginning with “Those who Hunt the Night”

I hope that if I revisit this blog and update it in the next year that I will have other examples of historical novels which I have read and enjoyed – there are lots out there for me to try.