Reading historical fiction varies by country – part 1

After looking at survey results through a gender lens, I thought readers might be interested in a country lens. I’ve chosen to compare US and UK, since these countries had the most participants. One hypotheses is that favourite authors will vary – let’s see what emerges.

NOTE: I’ve looked for questions prompting significant differences rather than minor variations that are unlikely to be statistically relevant. Additionally, on a percentage basis more men participated in the UK group than the US.

What type of story appeals to you?

Story Preferences US & UK

Preferred time periods:

In some cases, US and UK readers prefer different time periods.

  • 3000 BC to 1000 AD: UK 34%, US 16%
  • 6th to 12th centuries UK 44%, US 27%
  • 17th Century UK 19%, US 33%
  • 18th Century UK 25%, US 45%

Reflecting on your favourite historical fiction books, how relatively important are the following factors?

While factors such as superb writing and the dramatic arc of historical events were of similar importance to US and UK readers, other factors showed wider variation.

Characters both heroic and human: UK 51% said it was very important, US a whopping 65%

Romance and/or sex: UK 56%, US 37% said this factor was unimportant; Hmm that’s interesting.

Where do you purchase/acquire books?

There was a marked difference in library usage with UK at 25% and US at 38%

What book format are you reading?

While e-book usage and mixed e-book and print had small variations, mostly print books showed a larger discrepancy: UK 50%, US 39%

Price Considerations:

On average, UK readers look for cheaper pricing of e-books than US readers

Where do you find recommendations for good books?

From Facebook, Goodreads or other social media: UK 39%, US 55%

And in contrast, browsing the book store: UK 53%, US 39% and from the books section of my newspaper: UK 23%, US 11%

Do you use blogs, social media or other online sites for reading recommendations or discussion?

Yes: UK 68%, US 83%

My head is spinning, so I’ll save the conclusions and insights for you, dear readers. On Thursday I’ll post the favourite authors by country.

Favourite historical fiction authors – a 1902 perspective

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 9.07.29 AMEileen Iciek and I met through Goodreads after I posted a note about the 2013 favourite historical fiction authors and Eileen responded by referencing a 1902 list of favourite historical fiction. A 1902 list? WOW. I immediately asked Eileen whether she would write a blog post and, to my delight, she agreed. Here’s Eileen’s thoughts based on that 1902 list.

In January 1902, a man named Jonathan Nield published “A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales.”  I happened across it one day as a free download from Amazon for my Kindle, not realizing at first that it was over one hundred years old. Once I realized its age, I was unsure what I might find, but decided to rummage through it out of curiosity.

Mr. Nield’s introduction provided his definition of historical novel: “A novel is rendered Historical by the introduction of dates, personages, or events, to which identification can be readily given.”  Not exactly how it is commonly defined today, but good enough for the time.  A couple of other observations I gleaned from his opening comments were first, that the issue with anachronisms in historical fiction in one that authors of the genre have experienced since the beginning.  He said he had not included some books, despite their popularity, due to their blatant anachronisms.  Second, at that time the terms “historical novel” and “romance” were almost interchangeable.  He often referred to “historical romance” synonymously with “historical novel,” while today historical romance would be considered a subgenre.

There were no bestseller lists at that time (at least that I am aware of) so Mr. Nield simply listed historical novels he had either read or knew to be good.  From his 168-page book, I did an unscientific listing of the authors whose names seemed to pop up most frequently, and used that as an approximation of popularity.  One thing was immediately obvious: in the recent 2013 listing of most popular authors, 15 of the top 20 were women.  In 1902, of the 24 I noticed most often, 22 of them were men.

It was also clear the ancient Romans, the Tudors, and Mary, Queen of Scots have fascinated authors of historical fiction since the beginning.  Not to say that other times and places did not receive attention, particularly the Napoleonic period, but Caesar, Henry VIII and the Scots queen have captivated writers and their audiences for a long time.

I saw only twenty-three books on Nield’s list that I thought are still known or read with any frequency.  They are:

  • Ben Hur – Lew Wallace
  • Quo Vadis – H. Sienkiewicz
  • The Last Days of Pompeii – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  • Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Alexandre Dumas
  • The Prince and the Pauper – Mark Twain
  • The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  • Lorna Doone – Richard Blackmore
  • The Master of Ballantrae – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Last of the Mohicans – James Fennimore Cooper
  • A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  • The Man Without a Country – Edward Everett Hale
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  • Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
  • Middlemarch –George Eliot
  • The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
  • The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Tom Jones – Henry Fielding
  • The Vicar of Wakefield – Oliver Goldsmith
  • Adam Bede – George Eliot

Not all of the authors of the books listed above are included on the list [Nield’s list] of the most popular writers.  For example, George Eliot has two books listed, but her output was not sufficient to get more than a few books recorded compared to the many books others produced.  I chose to list only Scott’s Ivanhoe, simply because I knew so little about his many other books.  The Man Without a Country is actually a short story (tale).  And there are a few odd omissions by Nield, such as that of Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The authors most frequently listed in Nield’s compendium were prolific in an age when writing was done largely by hand.  I lost track of the number of books written by Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas who stand atop the list as the most frequently listed authors still extant.  Many of the other writers’ books can be found on Amazon as free downloads to Kindle readers; some authors and their books, however, have become too obscure to be listed.

The most frequently listed authors I noted on the 1902 list were:

  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Alexandre Dumas
  • A.J. Church
  • Georg Ebers
  • J.M. Ludlow
  • C.W. Whistler
  • A.D. Crake
  • G.A. Henty
  • J.G. Edgar
  • Edward Bulwer Lytton
  • G.P.R. James
  • Charlotte Yonge
  • E. Gilliat
  • Stanley Weyman
  • G.J. Whyte-Melville
  • James Fennimore Cooper
  • S.R. Keightley
  • Emma Marshall
  • Ronald Macdonald
  • S.H. Burchell
  • William Makepeace Thackery
  • Walter Besant
  • C.D.G. Roberts
  • Robert Louis Stevenson

My apologies to anyone who might choose to check these results – they were only my own observations of frequently noted names and may not be wholly accurate.

Finally, I should mention the authors included in Nield’s list that I had known for works that were not historical fiction, but who had published a historical novel or two.  I was most surprised to find that Winston Churchill, aged 27 at the time Nield’s book was published and not yet widely known, had written two historical novels good enough to be included, one set during the American Revolution, and one during the U.S. Civil War.  Others included were Balzac, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Emil Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Mary Shelley, H. Rider Haggard, George Sand and F. Hodgson Burnett.  Flaubert’s novel was set during the Carthage-Rome conflict, of all things.  Mary Shelley’s foray into the genre was titled Perkin Warbeck.  The fact that these writers produced and had some success with historical fiction demonstrates, I believe, the continuing popularity and influence of this genre.

Many thanks for this, Eileen! It’s a fascinating look back in time. From my perspective, I’ve read only a few of the authors Nield mentioned which means there’s much more exploring to be done in this wonderful genre. For those interested in pursuing Nield’s book further, you can check it out on Project Gutenberg or as a free download from Amazon.

A Reader’s Paradise

Out of 2,440 individuals, 312 provided a link to their blog or website! What does that say about the world of books?

I promised to publish the list. It includes general book review blogs, genre specific blogs, author sites, specialty blogs, single topic blogs. And they come from all over the world.

I encourage you to stop by some of these sites, browse around, and let them know you found them based on the historical fiction survey. I’m sure I’ll do some more analysis at a later date and, of course, I’ll be publishing the favourite blogs & sites when time permits.

History Refreshed (in Dutch) but it is definitely not exclusively book-related
Reading the Past,
Historian’s Notebook (
For Winter Nights
Washington Independent Review of Books (
The Book Minx
Time For Books – Free Community Library – Vietnam
Passages to the Past ( (books and cooking)
Bitty’s Buried In Books
The Howling Turtle
Custer at the Alamo
Je Suis Prest Book Club
Book Drunkard
Found Between the Covers (
Reading Between the Wines
So Many Books, So Little time (
Life, Library and the Pursuit of Temperance (
Voices under the Sun
Celticlady’s Reviews
Http:// (Stephen Crabbe’s Blog)
Parsing Time by Pallas
Bookworms Dinner
Historical Odds and Sods at
Writing the Renaissance – features some reviews
Caz’s Reading Room –
Bags, Books &Bon Jovi
Rambling Reads:
the book I am reading ( facebook group)
Just Janga
Pen and Paper.
Richard III Society of NSW
Writers Who Kill Blogspot (contributer)
The Unmasked Persona’s Reviews
Historically Speaking – Books to the Ceiling
Ancient & Medieval Mayhem
Romance Bandits
Unabridged Chick:
Unusual Historicals;