Historical fiction is my favourite genre of literature. Although there’s a tendency to think of historical fiction as over-exaggerated, wildly inaccurate bodice-rippers – read a Philippa Gregory book and you’ll know what I mean – in reality, there’s so much more to the genre. Historical fiction comprises any book set in the past – which technically includes beloved classics like George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, showing just how rich and diverse the historical tradition can be. We’re so excited by tomorrow’s event Writing Historical Fiction with Catherine Hokin that we’ve decided to dedicate a whole blog post to our favourite historical fiction. Catherine, who is herself a talented historical writer, will be sharing loads of informative and fascinating tips about writing historical fiction – everything from conducting research to the balance between fact and storytelling – and we hope that this post inspires you to come along and learn more about the riveting genre for yourself! So, without further ado, here are some of SWC’s top picks of historical fiction…
Golden Hill – Francis Spufford
Recently announced as the winner of the 2016 Costa First Novel Award, Golden Hill is an absolute must-read. Set in the complex society of eighteenth-century New York, the novel follows newly-docked Englishman Mr Smith as he tries to fulfil a mysterious errand, surrounded by suspicion. Spufford’s world is unlike anything I’ve encountered before: rich and dazzlingly vivid, his style (mostly) mimics that of eighteenth-century authors like Henry Fielding, and it was a novel that I would have gladly inhabited for much, much longer. A truly wonderful read.
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Set in the 1950s, the novel begins with Stevens, the long-serving butler of Darlington Hall, ruminating on the absorbing and complex question of what makes a great butler. Taking a few rare days off to drive around the English countryside – and delve deep into memory lane – this novel is a beautiful elegy to the life he could have had. And it’s Stevens who really makes this Booker Prize-winning novel stand out: Kazuo Ishiguro’s characterisation is honestly so brilliant that he seems to simply glide off the page. It’s a slow-burn of a read, but it really is possible to devour it in a matter of hours: The Remains of the Day is historical fiction at its absolute best!
Brooklyn – Colm Toibin
This exquisitely written novel was the basis for the recent Oscar-nominated film; so now’s the perfect opportunity to discover the original story (because we all know that books are better). Brooklyn follows Eilis Lacey who, unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, emigrates to New York for a better life. It’s impossible to put down this utterly absorbing and evocative read, and Eilis is a character that you’ll truly fall in love with.
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
Sebastian Faulk’s critically acclaimed novel Birdsong is another worthy candidate for our favourite historical reads. Alternately chronicling the experiences of First World War soldier Stephen Wraysford and his granddaughter Elizabeth Benson, it’s a striking portrait of the difficulties of war, written with the aim of bringing veterans’ memories of war to a more public awareness.
Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
And, finally, no list of the best historical fiction could be complete without Hilary Mantel’s incredible Booker-winning Tudor novels. (Although I think I speak for all of her fans when I say how desperate I am for the final book in the trilogy to be published soon!) Painstakingly researched and completely gripping, the novels follow scheming Tudor politician Thomas Cromwell and an opportunistic, enthralling cast of courtiers and civil servants. You’ll never read anything quite like it.
Do you agree with our choices? Do you have any other historical novels that you love and think we should know about? Let us know in the comments below, or tweet us at @ScottishWriters. We’d love to hear from you!
Words and images by Rachel Walker