Historical Novels

100 Must-Read Historical Novels (Bloomsbury Good Reading Guides)

I always thought that I didn’t like historical novels or that it was at least a genre that I hardly ever read. Still, when I came upon this little book (it’s a very small size) on amazon I was curious and as it was one that you can open and browse (as you can when clicking on the picture) I had a look and was astonished how many of them I had read or knew. I found Pat Barker’s Regeneration in it as well as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. Willa Cather is mentioned alongside with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I was so curious that I finally had to order it and I am glad I did. It’s a great little book.

100 Must-read Historical Novels describes 100 books in detail, with a brief introduction to the author and  a summary of the book. Other books of the author are mentioned as well as books that are similar and movies based on the book.

In between the entries on the authors are book lists with themes. You can find a list of books on World War I and its aftermath, a list with books on the American West, a list with historical novels on Asia, a list with historical fiction for children, novels on ancient Greece and Egypt, The Renaissance, The Middle Ages and so on and so forth.

I picked two lists as examples and reproduced them for you:

Black History Fiction

David Dabydeen, A Harlot’s Progress

Barbara Hambly, A Free Man of Colour

Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes

Toni Morrison, A Mercy

Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

Caryl Philipps, Cambridge

William Styron, The Confession of Nat Turner

Margaret Walker, Jubilee

Writers’ Lives

Andrew Taylor, The American Boy (Edgar Alan Poe)

Julian Barnes, Arthur & George (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Anthony Burgess, Nothing Like the Sun (William Shakespeare)

Frederick Busch, The Night Inspector (Herman Melville)

Tracy Chevalier, Burning Bright (William Blake)

J.M. Coetze, The Master of Petersburg (Fyodor Dostojevsky)

Michael Didbin, A Rich Full Death (Robert Browning)

Helen Dunmore, Counting the Stars (Catullus)

Carlos Fuentes, The Old Gringo (Ambrose Bierce)

Tom Holand, The Vampyre (Lord Byron as one uf the undead)

Michèle Roberts, Fair Exchange (William Wordsworth)

Steven Saylor, A Twist at the End (O.Henry)

C.K. Stead, Mansfield (Katherine Mansfield)

Colm Toibin, The Master (Henry James)

Of those mentioned here I have Colm Toibin’s The Master and A Mercy on my TBR pile. I did start The American Boy but never really got into it but Devil in a Blue Dress is a favourite.

I realize that my understanding of historical novels was slightly narrower than what is shown in this book and maybe that was based on a misconception. A historical novel had to be set before the 20th century. That’s why I wouldn’t have considered Pat Barker to be a writer of historical novels. According to Nick Rennison, the author of the book guide, he applied the same rule that Sir Walter Scott once applied. In order for a novel to be called historical, the events that are described must have taken place at least 60 years prior to the year in which the writer lives.

My favourite three historical novels (in a narrow sense) are: Françoise Chandernagors L’allée du roi aka The King’s Way, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

I know that many of you love historical novels. Which would be your top three?