Some of you may have seen this on Tony Riches’ blog The Writing Desk a few days ago – many thanks, Tony.
In a 2015 reader survey, I asked participants to name three favourite historical novels. Listed below are the twelve top titles mentioned by over 2,000 readers. What characteristics do they share?
Immersed in time and place. Activating all senses, these novels transport readers to another era right from the opening pages. Here’s an example from the opening paragraph of Master and Commander, the first of the Aubrey and Maturin series: “He was wearing his best uniform—the white-lapelled blue coat, white waistcoat, breeches and stockings of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, with the silver medal of the Nile in his buttonhole …” Here, words like breeches and stockings help set the time period, as does the reference to ‘silver medal of the Nile’, a sea battle that took place in 1798.
Superb writing. Prose, pacing, emotional resonance, plot twists and entertainment value factor into superb writing. Table stakes for high quality fiction of any genre. Each title on the list offers a uniquely compelling blend of these factors. As an example, here’s what one Goodreads reviewer had to say about When Christ and His Saints Slept: “Sharon Penman is one of those exquisitely rare writers who can’t put a foot wrong. The vocabulary she can draw upon would put professors of English to shame, her understanding of the language is almost unmatched, and her consummate fluidity of writing and fluency has few rivals. Moreover, Sharon’s writing style is supremely natural and elegant in its simplicity.”
Characters both heroic and human. Readers want to experience famous figures as believable characters complete with doubts and flaws or everyday people accomplishing heroic tasks in times so different from today. Outlander and Gone With the Wind are examples of novels based on everyday people; Wolf Hall and The Greatest Knight are examples of novels exploring the lives of famous historical figures. The strengths and flaws of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt emerge in Seton’s Katherine as do those of Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler in Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
Authentic and educational. Readers love to learn. The hallmark of favourite historical fiction is meticulous research followed by carefully chosen information to create a seamless blend of history and story. If you want to know about building cathedrals in the 12 century, choose The Pillars of the Earth; to explore Henry VIII’s destruction of the power of the Catholic Church, read Dissolution.
Dramatic arc of historical events. Each of these novels uses the dramatic shape of real events to tell a compelling story. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory shows us the times and intrigue of Henry VIII’s court as Catherine of Aragon loses her influence to Mary Boleyn who in turn loses to her sister Anne. Outlander explores a time when Scottish clans hoped for the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the end of English rule.
If you haven’t read them, I’ve included a brief blurb about each title to whet your appetite.
Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon: Scottish Highlands, 1945. Claire Randall, a former British combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding clans in the year 1743. The series explores the life of Claire and Jamie Fraser, a Scottish warrior who rescues her, during a time of great danger and upheaval.
The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman: A novel of the controversial Richard III—a monarch betrayed in life by his allies and in death by history. In this superb novel, Penman redeems Richard III—vilified as the bitter, twisted, scheming hunchback who murdered his nephews, the princes in the Tower—from his maligned place in history with a dazzling combination of research and storytelling.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: England in the 1520s: if the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. Cromwell helps Henry break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman: Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England’s ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king’s beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John’s attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales—and Llewelyn—Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: A spellbinding epic set in twelfth-century England. The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the lives entwined in the building of the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known—and a struggle between good and evil that will turn church against state, and brother against brother.
Katherine by Anya Seton: Katherine is an epic novel of the love affair between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt that changed history. Set in the vibrant fourteenth century, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets who rule despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already-married Katherine. Their affair persists through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption.
The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick: A penniless young knight with few prospects, William Marshal is plucked from obscurity when he saves the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. In gratitude, she appoints him tutor to the heir to the throne, the volatile and fickle Prince Henry. But being a royal favorite brings its share of danger and jealousy as well as fame and reward.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind explores the depth of human passions with bold intensity. A superb piece of storytelling, it vividly depicts the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This is the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, manipulative daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, who arrives at young womanhood just in time to see the Civil War forever change her way of life.
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory: When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of the handsome and charming Henry VIII. Dazzled by the king, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. In reality, she’s a pawn to her family’s ambitious plots and as the king’s interest begins to wane, Mary is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne.
When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman: A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England’s King Henry I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman: Henry’s beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned.
Aubrey & Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian: stories based on the friendship between Captain Aubrey, R.N., and Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and intelligence agent, against a thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of a life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson’s navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as great ships do battle.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.