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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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).
- A Traveller in Time, Allison Utley
Another book notionally for children, and another book that moves thrillingly between one period and another.
- 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?