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?

41 thoughts on “Historical Novels

  1. Isn’t that a very loose definition of historical novels? I wouldn’t have thought of The Leopard as an historical novel.
    I consider a novel as historical when it is written by an …historian. Someone I can rely on for believing the historical details of the book. Otherwise, I always wonder if everything is true or if it has been arranged for the sake of the plot. So for me books by Dumas are novels that happen to refer to historical events.

    My favourite one is Les Reines de France by Simone Bertière. Both reliable and well-written.
    La Chambre des Dames was good too, if I remember well.
    And of course the excellent crime fiction series by Steven Saylor.

    • Yes, I agree, it is very loose but that makes the book an excellent guide as it contains such a lot. I hadn’t thought about the fact that many historical novels are written mostly by historians but that is of course true. I got La chambre des dames and other books by Jeanne Bourin but never got around to read them. I like Régine Pernoud’s books and she does recommend her. I was always sure she must be good. You mentioned the books on the French queens before. I looked them up, they sound very tempting. My biggest problem with historical novels is the length. However I don’t think you need to be a historian, you should just do proper research. I think it must be an extremely challenging genre for a writer. I had never heard of Steven Saylor before.

  2. “Written by a historian” – now that is an eccentric definition. You’re arguing that the form is detemined by the credential. In that case, Walter Scott’s historical novels – and he essentially invented the form – are not historical novels. Many historical novels may be written by historians, but I have great doubts that many of the best are.

    A historical novel is a novel – fiction. Of course the historical elements are rearranged and even falsified. Of course!

    So besides Scott – and I assume these are all in the book – Manzoni’s The Betrothed and Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris are easily among the best of the 19th century. Stevenson’s Scottish novels are fun – Kidnapped and Weir of Hermiston and so on.

    • I don’t know how he chose the books, to be honest, he just states he didn’t want to write a best-of, just give suggestions and be as varied as possible. Victor Hugo is mentioned and Manzoni maybe as well but he didn’t get an entry (maybe one of the additional books mentioned or in one of the themed lists). I agree, no need to be a historian to write a historical novels but some research might be good. That is the second time I hear about Stevenson’s Scottish books. I need to look them up. Manzoni is on my TBR pile.

    • I’m not eccentric, this is a cultural difference. 🙂 I know Anglophones don’t have the same definition of historical novels.

      Visit a bookstore in France and you’ll never find Victor Hugo in the historical novels section. Nor Salambô, btw

      In this section you will find books written by historians or books written by authors who aren’t historians but are specialized in a particular period or country (like Henri Troyat, for example)
      See, Caroline spontaneously quotes Régine Pernoud, and she’s an historian.

      If historical is anything before 20thC, then Jane Austen is historical about the mores of the English small countryside nobility. (I exaggerate, I know, but then where does “historical” stop?)

      • I’ll grant you French bookstores. But not any other cultural difference. Please see this entry for Roman historique. It is exactly in line with the Anglophone definition.

        Georg Lukács, the author of Le Roman historique / The Historical Novel (1937), was no Anglophone.

        Jane Austen wrote about her own time. Walter Scott wrote about his own past.

        • I think that we are just about to mix two very different things. One is the novel with a historical theme and the other would be the historical novel as genre writing, like crime novel. Of course you could argue and say that Dostojevski wrote crime novels, and in a sense he did but he wasn’t a crime writer, as in genre writer. I think that bookarounthecorner was referring to this type of genre writing which does, indeed happen to be very often written by historians at least in France and also in Germany by the way. Now, this guide book does actually mix. That is why we find C.S Forester alongside with Willa Cather.

          • I’m being precise – I’ve been talking about genre writing the whole time.

            In the standard literary history, Walter Scott was not the first person to write a novel wth a historical theme – he was the creator of the genre of the historical novel. Almost instantly, writers all over Europe and America, inspired by Scott’s novels, often read in French translation, began writing novels in the new genre. Some, like Hugo and Manzoni, are still read. Most are forgotten. When a writer like Dickens or Flaubert chose to write a historical novel, they understood that they were writing within a mature genre, and were able to use or parody or undermine the conventions of the genre.

            Yes, many historians now write in this genre. bookaroundthecorner’s claim is that “written by a historian” is the definition of the genre, or at least that’s how everyone in France understands the term.

            • Oh God, now I remember why I graduated in maths and studied business and why I got bored in literature classes despite all this love for books : I’ll never be good at lit crit and putting things in the right boxes. 🙂

              • I will not be able to look at the corner of our local bookshop labelled “historical fiction” with the same careless insouciance ever again. I have been marked for life… I’m joking but I am also serious. I wasn’t aware how different this genre can be perceived. I must admit that when I heard the term historical fiction before I mostly associated it with light fiction. The term genre fiction was synonymous with light fiction for me.

        • Ok, I surrender to the official definition.

          But Caroline is right, we’re mixing things and her comparison with crime fiction is spot on.

          The historical novels section in bookstores includes books, generally written by historians, which are a way to make accessible to a large audience historical facts. They are aimed at illiterate people like me who just aren’t able to finish a non-fiction book and yet want to learn something. The point is to teach something to the reader in a light way. That’s what I’m looking for when I think “I want to read an historical novel”. That’s a genre, and it’s not easy to find good ‘historical novels’ in that sense because eveything relies on the ability of the historian to be a bit of a novelist.

          I understand that the official definition of historical novels refers to novels whose stories happen in the past, and the past of the writer. But the aim of Notre Dame de Paris isn’t to make medieval Paris known. The aim is the story of Esmeralda. And for me, before being historical, it will always be a novel. Then ‘historical’ is a name on the same level as ‘romance’ or ‘picaresque’.
          Very bold of me to go against all the great scientists of literature, I know.

  3. Sounds like a fun book! I LOVE lists, so I’m sure I would enjoy it. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction, but a top three doesn’t really come to mind immediately. I’ll have to think about that.

    I am more inclined to agree with Amateur Reader on the definition of a historical novel – a historical novel doesn’t have to be excessively factual. I’ll read non-fiction for facts and information, and historical novels for entertainment and enlightenment. 🙂

    • It is a fun book. He has edited many others as I saw today. Must-read classical fiction, must-read fantasy.I suspect that is why some novels, like Manzoni are not in this one.
      I tend to read non-fiction if I want information on a certain time period but I can see that you would want to be able to trust the writer. I think there are really different types of historical novels, we seem to all have a few ideas about it.

  4. Interesting post and discussion. I personally would define historical fiction as a story that takes place within an historical context. Just being set in the Middle Ages does not cut it. It would have to be assocaited with a specific event in the Middle Ages. I insist that the historical facts not be tampered with. I do not mind if the author constructs a fictional story around those facts. I also hope to learn something in the process, but in an entertaining way. My favorites would be “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Sharpe’s Waterloo”, and “Run Silent, Run Deep”. You asked.

    • I guess your definition is more in line with bookaroundthecorner. I opt for introducing the terms literary historical fiction vs just plani historical fiction… I think for me the setting is already making it a historical novel. The most important part is really that the author writes about a time much prior to his writing…. All Quiet on the Western Front I am afraid isn’t a historical novel. Remarque wrote it shortly after the war. If I decide to write a novel about the 90s it won’t be a historical novel. You mean historical in the sense of “tied to an important historical fact”, right?
      I haven’t seen Sharpe’s Waterloo yet. I thought your favourite was the Badajoz episode. Run Silent, Run Deep might be worth a try.

      • I really don’t get the “it has to be a certain amount of time after the event to be an historical novel”. All Quiet was published in 1929. Surely that makes it historical. Besides, Remarque was obviously writing it for future generations. I think your book about the 1990s, if it was set around an historical event would be an historical novel. Not a hysterical novel, I hope.

        Now that you mention it, the Sharpe novel on Badajoz (Sharpe’s Company) is my favorite. But as far as teaching in an enteratining way, I submit “Waterloo”.

        • All Queit could only be a historical novel if Remarque had written it recently, since he wrote it when it happened it isn’t, strictly speaking. Else every novel that is old would be a historical novel but that isn’t the case, they are called classics. I agree All Quiet is a classic about a historical event but not a historical novel…

  5. Halldór Laxness wrote the historical novel Gerpla (The Happy Warriors) about two would-be “warriors” who find themselves caught up in events in Europe in the 11th century. In his quest for historical accuracy, Laxness even limited himself to writing in 11th century Icelandic! Some Icelandic readers consider it to be his masterwork. It is an extremely rare book in English, although I believe it is fairly common in German and the Scandinavian countries.

    • This sounds decidedly interesting. Lucky I speak German and am finally seriously learning Swedish. Meanwhile The Fish Can Sing is on position one on my pile. I wonder if they managed to capture the 11th century Icelandic in their translations. In any case, this seems to be a novel that would fit everybody’s definition of a historical novel.

  6. Oooh, love a list and that one about writer’s lives is one I will print out and keep. It’s perfect for my research at the moment – thank you! And this sounds like a very interesting little book. I read historical fiction least of all the genres, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy it; I do very much. Only somehow it always ends up elbowed aside by other books.

    • I thought it was a particularly interesting list. I enjoyed quite a few books on writer’s lives and will explore more thanks to this book. It’s different from a biography but valuable in its own righ. I’m glad you can use it. I think these guide books are marvelous. Not just an enumeration of everything we already now. I feel I haven’t done historical novels not enough justice and will have to remedy this in the future.

  7. Thanks for introducing me to the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guides – what a great series. Have you read Perfume by Patrick Suskind? That’s one of my favourite historical novels. Also, anything by Beryl Bainbridge

    • You are welcome. I think they are great. You are right about The Perfume. I loved it, it’s fantastic. I totally forgot about it. It is also mentioned in the book. And I just checked, Master Goergie does also get an entry.

  8. Funny, I never thought of Gone With the Wind as historical fiction before, but I guess it is. That is one of my favorites too, along with Les Misérables, A Tale of Two Cities and Girl With a Pearl Earring.

    Great lists, Caroline.

  9. Hmmm… I don’t know if I ever read historical book before. Not my kind of genre I guess.

    Tho I do plan to re-read a historical fiction manga based on the french revolution.

    • That sounds intriguing, I hope you will review it. I think there are quite a few crime novels and series that are historical, mabe you would like them. And some of the action driven ones like Hornblower or Sharpe.

  10. I love historical fiction, but I know it’s not always a favorite of other readers. I like Georgette Heyer’s novels and Elizabeth Chadwick writes about the Medieval period. I also like Katharine McMahon and Daphne du Maurier. It looks like the author has a pretty broad definition of the genre. I will have to see if I can find a copy of that over here–thanks for the heads up!

    • I was thinking of you when I ordered it and wondering if you already got a copy as I know you like historical fiction. Yes, her definition is broad and interpreted like this I most certainly also love historical fiction. I would love to read something about the Middle Ages, so will look her up. I read Georgette Heyer years ago, too long ago to remember but will give her a try one of these days. Daphne du Maurier is wonderful but I don’t think I know Katherine McMahon.

  11. Thanks for pointing me to this, Caroline. Quite a discussion there 🙂 I think I was also mixing up historical fiction with historical genre fiction. If The Leopard is historical fiction, then I love it!

    • Forgot to mention – I was at a talk by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare a year or two back, and he said that for him, ‘historical novel’ is a meaningless category. He writes novels, some of which are set in the past and some in the present, and it makes no sense to him when critics draw a dividing line between them just because of the setting.

      • I think it would be valuable to move away from the term unless it’s genre novels. That’s mirrored in this discussion, with me and Emma “voting” for it’s use for genre and others who want a more broader approach.
        I’m thinking of Pat barker’s Regeneration Trilogy for example – yes to a certain extent it’s historical fiction but I would never have called it that. For me it’s literary fiction with a historical theme.

    • Yes, that’s my thinking. As much as I liked Chevalier’s book, it’s genre fiction. At least I would say so, I don’t think the writing is in any way literary. Historical novesl are a difficult “genre” because a genre of literaray fiction and a genre of genre novels. In the little book I attached the boundaries are blurred.

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