Interest in historical fiction has never been higher with Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker Prize for “The Luminaries” falling so closely on the heels of Hilary Mantel’s wins in 2009 and 2012 for “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies.”
No longer derided as “bodice-rippers” with anachronisms or boring textbooks dressed up with poor plots, historical fiction is gaining the respect of critics and readers alike and regularly appears on bestseller lists around the world.
Definitions vary as to how far in the past the time setting must be to qualify, but Walter Scott, who is credited with “inventing” the historical novel in English during the early 19th century provides a useful criterion in the subtitle of “Waverley,” his initial historical novel, the story of Scottish life at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745: “‘Tis Sixty Years Since.” So generally this limits it to events that take place at least 60 years before publication, during a historical period with which the author has no personal experience.
The historical novelist's challenge
Historical fiction is one of the more difficult and demanding narrative forms as the author must master both verifiability and invention. The historical novelist must balance the difficulties of representing history accurately and telling a good story while imaginatively filling in the gaps and lack of historical record.
Take too much latitude with the facts of history and the illusion of authenticity is shattered; take too little and the information of history never comes to life.
The value of historical fiction authors in no way detracts from the work of historians. Though one deals with the verifiable and the other with the imagined, both play important roles in bringing the past back to life.
Yes, the historical novelist trades mainly in entertainment over instruction, but it would be wise to consider Ezra Pound’s famous definition of literature: “Literature is news that stays news.”
Bernard Cornwell is an outstanding example of a historical fiction writer with his Sharpe series set in 19th-century Europe and India; the Starbuck Chronicles set during the American Civil War; the Grail Quest novels set in mid-14th century England/Normandy; the Warlord Chronicles set in Arthurian Britain, and the Saxon series that I am currently reading set in the pre-England of Alfred the Great. “The Pagan Lord,” the seventh one in that series, has recently been on the New York Times and other best seller lists.
Other outstanding historical fiction novels are listed below. For more information check out our electronic resource “Books & Authors,” where you will find title suggestions in over 100 subgenres of historical fiction, from child-in-peril and family saga to military, political, and religious.
More outstanding historical fiction novels
•"Quo Vadis," by Henryk Sienkiewicz. A love story between a Christian woman and a Roman man during the rule of Nero.
•"I, Claudius," by Robert Graves. A fictionalized autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius.
•"The Egyptian," by Mika Waltari. 1949 Finnish novel that was the bestselling foreign novel in the U.S. until 1983.
•"The Pillars of the Earth," by Ken Follett. Intrigue surrounds the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England.
•"Kristin Lavransdatter," by Sigrid Undset. 1928 Nobel Prize-winning trilogy depicting Norwegian life in the Middle Ages.
•"The Name of the Rose," by Umberto Eco. A highly literary murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery.
•"The Hunchback of Notre-Dame," by Victor Hugo. Gothic novel that inspired a flood of tourists to Paris’s most famous cathedral.
•"The Other Boleyn Girl," by Philippa Gregory. Entertaining if inaccurate portrayal of Ann Boleyn’s sister, Mary.
•"The Three Musketeers," by Alexandre Dumas. Swashbuckling tale of d’Artagnan and the three Musketeers in 17th century France.
•"A Tale of Two Cities," by Charles Dickens. Parallel stories intersect in London and Paris during the French Revolution.
•"The Book of Negroes," by Lawrence Hill. An 18th century woman journeys from freedom in Africa, to slavery in the U.S. and back to freedom again.
•"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," by David Mitchell. Love story between a clerk for the Dutch East India Company and a disfigured Japanese midwife.
•"War and Peace," by Leo Tolstoy. Epic masterpiece depicting the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic era.
•"Death Come for the Archbishop," by Willa Cather. Two priests travel 1851 New Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War.
•"Gone with the Wind," by Margaret Mitchell. Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
•"The Far Pavilions," by M. M. Kaye. This romantic epic set in 19th century India under British rule has been compared to Gone with the Wind.
•"Oscar and Lucinda," by Peter Carey. Winner of the 1988 Booker Prize, about the misadventures of two gambling misfits in 19th century Australia.
•"Alias Grace," by Margaret Atwood. Fictionalized account of a notorious 1843 murder case in pre-Confederation Toronto, Canada.
•"Cloudsplitter," by Russell Banks. Story of radical 19th century abolitionist John Brown told from the perspective of his only surviving son.
•"March," by Geraldine Brooks. Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize retells ”Little Women” from the perspective of the absent Mr. March.
•"The March," by E. L. Doctorow. Sherman’s March to the Sea near the end of the American Civil War, told through a large and diverse cast of characters.
•"The Painted Girls," by Cathy Marie Buchanan. The life of the model for Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” is brought vividly to life.
•"The Sisters Brothers," by Patrick deWitt. Multiple award winner about two 19th century hired guns traveling from Oregon to California.
•"Caravans," by James A. Michener. Story of an American diplomat in Afghanistan following WWII.
•"The Thorn Birds," by Colleen McCullough. Melodramatic family saga of early 20th century life in the Australian outback.
•"The Poisonwood Bible," by Barbara Kingsolver. The family of a Baptist missionary adjusts to life in the Congolese jungle.
•"The Night Watch," by Sarah Waters. An evocative story of London during WWII told in reverse chronological order.
•"The Historian," by Elizabeth Kostova. An interweaving of the stories of Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula, and a 1930s search for Vlad’s tomb.
•"Arthur & George," by Julian Barnes. Story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts to exonerate George Edalji, a solicitor falsely accused of a crime.
•"The Seventh Gate," by Richard Zimler. Chilling murder mystery incorporating Jewish mysticism in pre-war Berlin under Nazi rule.
•"Shanghai Girls," by Lisa See. When World War II reaches Shanghai two sisters leave a life of privilege to enter arranged marriages in the U.S.
Sandra Dreaden is the Crestview Public Library's reference librarian.