The 10 Historical Novels That Everyone Should Read

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The 10 Historical Novels That Everyone Should Read

Recent pop culture would lead many to believe that historical fiction is mainly the province of the bodice ripper. The popularity of Netflix’s Bridgerton alongside other period drama faves Downton Abbey, Victoria, Poldark, and Sanditon on PBS, the upcoming The Buccaneers on Apple TV+ would have readers convinced that the local bookshops only have period set stories that also include steamy, swoony romance. But that’s just not true—- though historical fiction can include romance as part of the bildungsroman of a character, the true heart of it is depicting the era around them, and not just the goings on in the bedroom. 

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of historical novels that don’t include romance, but it’s only a subsection of the genre. What I’m saying is, that if you limit yourself to the romantic corner of historical fiction, you’re missing a wide swath of truly great books. And while some of these do have love stories, they’re not the main focus. So let’s dive into some of the best historical fiction novels out there, from the tried and true that stood the test of generations to the modern classics that should grace the next generation of high school reading lists and definitely should make your TBR pile.


Trust Cover Historical Fiction

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Hernan Diaz’s novel Trust is a clever conceit – it’s structured as a collection of four manuscripts in varying stages of completion, focused on the life of 1920s-era Wall Street tycoon Andrew Bevel and his wife, Mildred. Two are incomplete autobiographies/diaries written by Bevel and Midred; one is a thinly fictionalized telling of Bevel’s life by a biographer, and the fourth, gluing these first three together, are the postmortem thoughts of Bevel’s deeply disillusioned former ghostwriter.

This fascinating funhouse mirror angle on the 1920s boom and bust of New York isn’t just deeply worthwhile for its nesting doll narrative of how fact and fiction blend together. It’s also how history becomes a memory and memory legend until it’s impossible to tell what’s more important, the history or the historical fiction


Middlemarch cover Historical Fiction

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life is the work of English author Mary Anne Evans, better known by her male pseudonym, George Eliot. Published in 1872, Eliot’s masterwork is set in the fictional English Midlands town of Middlemarch, spanning four years, from 1829 to the adoption of the Reform Act 1832, in which women were, for the first time, explicitly forbidden to vote. 

Technically, it is the story of 19-year-old Dorothea Brooke, who marries an intelligent man who resents her for being the same, intertwined with the career of Dr. Tertius Lydgate, who marries for status and winds up regretting it. But it’s really more of a portrait of the world and how women learn to function and manipulate the patriarchy under which they have no power and are losing ground every day. The smart ones figure out how to find their happiness and content within what they can achieve, while those who try to push too far never achieve fulfillment.


The Attic Child by Lola Jaye

Lola Jane’s The Attic Child was only just published in 2022, but it instantly made the long and shortlists for prestigious awards and famous book lists besides. It starts as a Victorian/Edwardian set novel in the early 1900s and has the same tropes as many “poor orphan” stories from English books of the time. The protagonist, twelve-year-old Celestine, lives alone in a freezing cold attic, treated as an unpaid servant to the household. 

There’s just one big difference between this and, say, A Little Princess or The Water Babies. Celestine is a Black boy shipped to the U.K. from his native homeland, and there’s no magic here, no rescue coming, no secret benefactor. What there is is an untold history of a Black population that was brought to the U.K. and used and abused and forgotten. And for Celestine, there’s Lowra, a young orphan girl, who, decades later, is banished to the same attic and discovers the secrets a family keeps.


Les Miserables cover

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Listen, some books just last, and though Victor Hugo’s doorstopper of a historical novel is practically a punchline. But there’s a reason that Les Miserables was made into multiple four-hour films since the 1930s, several TV miniseries, and one deeply improbable, utterly inescapable musical that’s been parodied half to death. In a small band of interconnected characters, it manages to capture a broad swath of the misery of the human condition that is baked into society’s own mores and how our own laws strip us of our ability to be humane to each other.

Hugo captured this universal truism within a deeply distinct time and place: France in the Regency Period from 1815 to 1832. There is an exactness to this world, from the smell of the sewers to Cosette’s cloche hats, without which the moral of the story would not hit so hard. It’s why historical novels’ details are as important as they are and why these novels grab you the way they do because within their specificity is where you find their larger truths.1linebreakdiamond.png

A thousand ships Historical Fiction

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes is a comedian and a classist, and her novels since 2014 have woven in Greek myth retellings from various angles, often with sly humor. She retells Oedopus and Antigone as The Children of Jocasta and, more recently, the story of Medusa in Stone Blind. But A Thousand Ships is her retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women involved, and it’s an eye-opener of an angle.

In A Thousand Ships, the muse Calliope narrates numerous stories from the perspective of the women involved in the Trojan War to Homer including Hecabe, Cassandra, Penelope, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, and others. Though the outcome is one of those forgone conclusions, hearing it from the perspectives of the women, none of whom were ever given voices by contemporary historians of the era, makes every beat of the long war feel fresh.


The Forsyte Saga Historical Fiction

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

Originally published as three novels and two interludes between 1906-1921 and collected under The Forsyte Saga in 1922, this old-school classic from author John Galsworthy is a thinly veiled fictionalized recounting of his own family’s history. Beginning with the first book, The Man of Property, set in 1886, the saga follows the fortunes of a new money family only a few generations removed from their farming ancestors.

While there is romance in The Forsyte Saga, these are anything but happy books. The three generations recounted all live in varying stages of unhappiness; falling in love is usually a prelude to calamities of one type or another, and (spoiler alert!) people usually die. That being said, this is one of those portraits of English upper-class life that really hammers home how miserable they all were, and people praise to the heavens, and it really is THE classic of that genre. 


Wolf Hall Cover Historical Fiction

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Now that Hilary Mantel has finally finished her epic historical fiction trilogy about the life of Oliver Cromwell, I can start telling people to read it. But even if she never had, the first book, Wolf Hall, really is a gorgeous book and the corrective to anyone forced to read A Man For All Season. (Wait, was that just me?) 

Listen, I’m not saying that Henry VIII’s penchant for remarriage hasn’t been done to death. (It’s totally been done to death.) But Mantel just walks right up in Wolf Hall and slaps every assumption out of your mouth. In a world where there are thousands of takes on this subject, hers is the new definitive. And that’s saying something.


Anam cover historical ficton

Anam by André Dao

I will admit that André Dao’s Anam is probably stretching “historical fiction” a touch. Not because the novel is based on the real-life story of Dao’s search to uncover his own grandfather’s life story, but because Dao will veer off the imagined perspective of his ancestral history without warning to dive head first into essay territory where he meditates on the past, memory, forgiving, and forgiveness. That’s not to say these essays aren’t genuinely brilliant stuff, but they’re not exactly part of the brief. 

That being said, Dao’s novel is as remarkable as his grandfather’s life, moving seamlessly from imprisonment in Chi Hoa prison under the Communist government for being a Catholic intellectual to the present day in Cambridge, where Dao is researching and experiencing the first months of raising his daughter, Edith. The story moves across decades of the 20th century and continents and countries, from Vietnam to France to Australia, all the while immersing the reader in each time and place completely. 


Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters: An Everyday Story by Elizabeth Gaskill

Elizabeth Gaskell is best known for writing Cranford and North & South, but her best non-romance-based historical fiction novel is her final one, Wives and Daughters: An Everyday Story. That’s probably partly because Gaskill passed away in 1865 before finishing; on-screen adaptations like the BBC’s usually add on a romantic ending.

But the plot of Wives and Daughters is much more about coming of age, following the story of Molly Gibson from the age of nine until adulthood. The daughter of a widower, she winds up friendly with landed gentry, whom her father sends her to live with to avoid the attention of an unsuitable suitor. Molly’s experiences and the secrets she learns are a slice of 1830s-era English life, but one much more cheerful than Forsyte.


The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Have you ever had a book just live in your head rent-free forever after you read it? The Water Dancer was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel, but you’d never know it. It’s straddling the historical fiction line with a serious magical surrealism thread, but considering the subject is slave life in the pre–Civil War South and the brutal reality of that, it’s kind of a necessary counterbalance to the real-life horror.

The story revolves around Hiram, a mixed-race kid of a plantation owner who sold his mom not long after he was born. Hiram has a photographic memory yet can never picture his mother until the day he nearly drowns when he learns he has “conduction,” the ability to use her memory to transport people across impossible distances. Hiram escapes north and starts using his ability to work with the Underground Railroad, only to learn he’s not the only one with gifts. While the fantasy makes things bearable, the history of the Underground Railroad and the horrors Hiram sees are true and will stay with you long after the book is over.

Ani Bundel is an Associate Editor at PBS/WETA’s Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by Anglophiles for Anglophiles. A self-taught journalist from the school of hard knocks, Ani came up blogging in the fast-turn-around era. Ani’s other regular bylines can be found on CNN, NBC News, and more.

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