Historical Fiction for A-Level Students
Like many people who were educated in the 1970s, I learnt far more history from reading the seemingly inexhaustible supply of historical novels by Jean Plaidy than I ever did in class. History teaching is far better and more interesting these days (until Mr Gove gets around to changing it back to 1950s mode) but reading good historical fiction is still a surefire way to absorb yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of another period of time. The best historical writers have such a sure grasp of their material that they build up a convincing level of detail without ever letting it intrude on the story. If you emerge blinking into the 21st century clutching the conviction that ‘it must have happened like that’ then you know you are on to a winner. (I don’t need to remind you, of course, that it probably didn’t happen exactly ‘like that’.)
Here is a list of my favourite historical novels and some narrative non-fiction as well. The fiction is a mix of serious literary fiction and pure enjoyable story-telling, but there is no book on the list that won’t tell you something about your chosen era that you didn’t know before.
The Morland Dynasty, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Originally conceived as a twelve-book series that would take
the history of a Yorkshire family from medieval times up to the present day,
the Morland series has now hit 34 books
and counting, with book 35 due out in September 2013. The first few books cover
about 50 years at a stretch but the latter books barely cover a year each.If you are ever stuck in bed, or jail, for six months this is the series to reach for.
The Alexander Trilogy, Mary
Renault’s novels of Ancient Greece have inexplicably fallen out of fashion, but for my money there is no better depiction of the short and brilliant career of Alexander the Great than she gives in this trilogy (Individual titles are Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, Funeral Games)
The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Very readable reimagining of the Iliad told from the viewpoint of Achilles’ friend, lover and companion Patroclus.
Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield
Pressfield is the go-to guy for detailed accounts of Ancient Greek warfare, and Gates of Fire, which tells the story of Thermopylae is, in my opinion his best; a very convincing attempt at reimagining the battle from inside the mind of a Spartan warrior.
Under the Eagle, Simon Scarrow
Scarrow’s Eagle series follows the adventures of Centurion Macro and his sidekick Cato as they battle their way around the empire in the reign of the Emperor Claudius, while getting increasingly entangled in the machinations of the emperor’s sinister secretary Narcissus.
The Forgotten Legion, Ben Kane
Gripping action-adventure series set in the late Republic. The central characters are boy-girl twins who become a gladiator and prostitute respectively providing plenty of opportunities for a graphic worms-eye view of Roman life.
I, Claudius, Robert Graves
The oldest and still the best. A must-read for all, Graves based his first person account of the life of the Emperor Claudius (continued in Claudius the God) on the gossipy writings of Suetonius, private secretary to the emperor Hadrian.
Mistress of Rome, Kate Quinn
First of a very readable series spanning the reigns of the emperors from Domitian to Hadrian. Heavily influenced by Suetonius, Quinn really gives a sense of the cruelty and violence that stalked Imperial Rome.
The Gates of Rome, Conn Iggulden
First of a four-volume series chronicling the life of Julius Caesar. Iggulden takes a number of startling liberties with the facts, including making Caesar and Brutus the same age and completely mangling the events of the war between Marius and Sulla. However, the books are very readable and engaging and the author does provide historical footnotes to explain his deviations from historical fact.
Caligula, Douglas Jackson
The reign of the notorious emperor as seen through the eyes of Rufus his elephant handler. Jackson presents a more nuanced picture of Caligula than the usual evil monster of historical fiction.
Gladiatrix, Russell Whitfield
A new twist on the ‘blood in the sand’ epic, this one stars Lysandra, a female gladiator fighting for survival both inside and outside the arena.
Empire, Anthony Riches
Hadrian’s Wall in the reign of the emperor Commodus. Hard fighting and lots of very accurate military detail.
The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell
First of the six-volume Saxon Stories series, Cornwell brings 9th-century Britain to life as he follows the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a man of whose loyalties are torn between King Alfred and the Danes.
I am the Chosen King, Helen Hollick
The story of Harold Godwineson, told in riveting detail. Hollick is one of the best chroniclers of Anglo-Saxon Britain around.
The Greatest Knight, Elizabeth Chadwick
Chadwick’s early novels are at the historical romance end of the histfic spectrum, but she has really come into her own with her much meatier later novels chronicling the lives some of the most powerful nobles of 12th England. The Greatest Knight and its sequel, The Scarlet Lion is a two-part biography of William Marshal, one of Richard I’s barons.
The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Penman
Penman’s gripping novel about Richard III who she portrays in a sympathetic light; she absolves him of blame for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower, for instance. Equally enthralling is her four-volume series covering the turbulent lives of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their four sons, which starts with When Christ and his Saints Slept.
We Speak No Treason, Rosemary Hawley Jarman
Another brilliant novel about Richard III, which falls squarely into of the ‘wronged Richard’ camp. I wish sometime or other someone would write an equally good book which shows him in a less hagiographic light.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer
As readable as fiction and arguably even more interesting, this book really gives a sense of what it must have been like to live in fourteenth century England: the sights, the sounds and most especially the smells.
Outlaw, Angus Donald
Strictly no green tights in this gritty series featuring Robin Hood as a 12th century gangster. Set in the reign of Henry II, this is told from the perspective of Alan Dale, a teenage thief who becomes Hood’s sworn man.
Insurrection, Robyn Young
The first in a series telling the story of Robert Bruce and Scotland’s fight against Edward I.
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Franciscan monks investigate a series of murders in a 14th-century Italian abbey. Eco’s post-modernist take on a historical detective story that takes in medieval theology, heresy and the Inquisition.
Dissolution, CJ Sansom
Brilliant evocation of Tudor England as lawyer Matthew Shardlake is sent by Thomas Cromwell to investigate a murder at a monastery.
VIII, HC Castor
A gripping first person account of the life of Henry VIII. See the reviews page for more details.
Firedrakes Eye, Patricia Finney
First in a series of Elizabethan spy stories with a distinctly literary bent. Finney is at home in Tudor England which she brings vividly to life and her complicated plot, though it demands some attention to follow, gives an authentic sense of the way in which politics, religion and espionage were entwined in this era.
The War of the Three Kingdoms
The Bleeding Land, Giles Kristian
Civil War has split the Rivers family as brothers Tom and Mun find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.
Traitor’s Blood, Michael Arnold
First in a historical adventure series, starring Innocent Stryker, a captain in the Royalist army who is the Civil War’s answer to Richard Sharpe.
Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks
Based on the true story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, where, in 1666, villagers took the extraordinarily selfless decision to quarantine themselves after plague arrived in the village, knowing that they were condemning themselves to virtually certain death.
An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
I keep buying copies of this book and people keep nicking them. A fascinating mystery set among the scholars and scientists of Restoration Oxford, with an ingenious four-part narrative structure.
Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth
Booker-winning epic set aboard an 18th century slave ship.
A Respectable Trade, Phillipa Gregory
Well-researched novel focusing on the relationship between the wife of a Bristol slave trader and her African slave Mehuru.
Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian
The seafaring adventures of a ship’s captain and a surgeon who moonlights as a secret agent, the Aubrey and Maturin novels bring to life the world of Nelson’s navy.
An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer
Not just a romantic novelist, Heyer knew her history. This account of the Battle of Waterloo was reputedly recommended reading at Sandhurst at one time because of its accurate description of Wellington’s battle tactics. She also wrote The Spanish Bride a fictional account of the Peninsular War based on the true story of Lt Harry Smith and his bride Juanita.
Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell
One thing’s for sure, after reading a couple of instalments
of the adventures of rifleman Richard Sharpe, you will be able to load a Baker
rifle blindfolded. Sharpe doesn’t take
too many liberties with the history in this pacy action-adventure series
chronicling the Peninsular War.
Young Bloods, Simon Scarrow
Born within a few months of each other, Wellington and Napoleon would one day hold the fate of Europe in their hands. Over the course of a four-book series, of which this is the first, Scarrow recounts their lives in a parallel narrative that builds towards the ultimate showdown at the Battle of Waterloo.
Victorian Britain and Empire
This Thing of Darkness, Harry Thompson
The story of Darwin’s friendship with Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle,
Flashman, George McDonald Fraser
Bully, cad and all round rotten egg, Flashman is the most engaging antihero of literary history. Originally commissioned as an officer in Cardigan’s 11th Hussars his chequered career finds him at the scene of virtually every major military conflict of the Victorian age, despite his best efforts at evasion.
To Do or Die, Patrick Mercer
Mercer is a Crimean War expert and this novel gives a really accurate account of Victorian soldiering, including a graphic depiction of the battle of Inkerman.
Mrs Duberly’s War, ed Christine Kelly
Not a work of fiction, but the gossipy letters and diaries of Fanny Duberly, one of the few officer’s wives who accompanied her husband to the Crimean battlefields.
Eyewitness in the Crimea, ed Michael Mawson
The diaries and letters of Fred Dallas, an officer in the 46th Regiment, give a vivid portrayal of what life was actually like in the first modern war.
American Civil War
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Eighteen-year-old Henry Fleming, a private in the Union army, confronts his own cowardice to become standard-bearer for his regiment.
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Sweeping saga of the Confederate South, this novel has a lot more to offer than a love story: its panoramic view takes in the pre-war Southern Plantation lifestyle, the siege of Atlanta and the privations of post-war Reconstruction.
Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Connor
Set on an emigrant ship en route for New York, the passengers comprise a microcosm of the world they are leaving behind. But one of them is a killer.
The Ragged Troused Philanthropists, Robert Tressall
This socialist classic, written by painter and decorator Robert Noonan in 1911, is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the class system functioned in pre-War Britain.
First World War
Regeneration, Pat Barker
Never has the trauma of shellshock been so graphically explored as in Barker’s recreation of the work of psychiatrist Anthony Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital.
My Dear I wanted to Tell You, Louisa Young
Lyrically written story which centres around working-class Londoner Riley Purefoy and his love for the upper-class Nadine. Excellent descriptions of trench warfare and plastic surgery. For me, however, the ending of the novel let the rest of it down.
Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
Epic love story between a young Englishman and a French girl set among the horror of World War One, counterpointed by a modern-day framing narrative (which is just plain annoying if you ask me).
A Long Long Way, Sebastian Barry
The poetically told story of Willie Dunne a young Irish soldier who finds himself on the wrong side of history
Second World War
Fortunes of War, Olivia Manning
Classic series of mid-century novels which follows the fortunes of English couple Harriet and Guy Pringle and their eclectic group of multinational friends when war breaks out in Europe.
The Siege, Helen Dunmore
Beautifully written account of a family caught up in the Siege of Leningrad
20th Century USA
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Brilliant and searingly honest self-portrait of the great American activist and Civil Rights crusader. Not a recommended read, a compulsory one.
Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
Epic romance set in the Russian Revolution
Wild Swans, Jung Chang
The story of twentieth-century China seen through the eyes of three generations of women from one family, this book is proof that good autobiographical writing can be far more enthralling than fiction.
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Set in late 19th-century Nigeria, this novel tells the story of what happens where British colonial culture comes into conflict with traditional Igbo society in a small village.
My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan
Memoir rather than fiction,the powerful and brutally honest story of an Afrikaner who rejected his heritage and painfully tried to make sense of his place in a changing South Africa.