speak/listen

My 10 favourite historical novels

By John-Paul Flintoff

Many (most?) novels are set in the past. So what, actually, is a historical novel? The working definition, for this list, is: books that were set in a period the author didn’t actually live through. I’ve typed them in the order they popped into my head.

My comments don’t pretend to summarise the entire book – just to give an impression of what I particularly remember enjoying – and perhaps therefore something about what I took from it in writing my own historical novel.

  1. Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
    Not an overwhelming quantity of look-at-this historical research, thank goodness, because that’s not needed in a thrilling chase story.
  2. Poor Things, Alasdair Gray
    A powerful sense of the past built up partly through pastiche, and by Gray’s beautiful illustrations and borrowed historical engravings
  3. Alias Grace, Margaret Attwood
    Great to have a story with a woman at the centre, since there’s so much more historical material, generally, about men. I loved Attwood’s deft use of point of view, and her richly evocative language.
  4. Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree, Tariq Ali
    I should not, of course, be surprised that Ali – better known for his public, activist life – should have produced such a delicately observed and richly imagined world (in this book and the others that followed it).
  5. World’s End, TC Boyle
    Truly deserves the epithet rollicking, like Boyle’s other books. I particularly liked the way this dips in and out of the distant and the very recent past.
  6. Micah Clarke, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    I found a bashed up copy at my in-laws house, and only read it because I couldn’t find anything else. I loved it. (I also took it apart, and remade it.) A story that imagines what it was like to be part of the Monmouth Rebellion against James II – as, I believe, Daniel Defoe once was.
  7. Moonfleet, J Meade Falkner
    The best bit has to be near the beginning, when our hero hides inside the crypt. Like Kidnapped and Micah Clarke, this is a book that doesn’t get bogged down in demonstrations of historical accuracy but pushes forward constantly with action
  8. The Farthing Family, Caroline Graveson
    Story of a Quaker family in 1600s London, written by my great-aunt, herself a prominent Quaker. Written for children (and I consider that to be a good thing).
  9. A Traveller in Time, Allison Utley
    Another book notionally for children, and another book that moves thrillingly between one period and another.
  10. The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey
    Long before Richard III’s bones had been excavated, I felt he’d been hard done by because of this book. It probably doesn’t count as a historical novel by the terms I set (above) but I don’t really care.

So: that’s my list (for today, anyway). What’s yours?

Posted: January 17, 2015