9 of the best historical novels – as chosen by expert historians

We asked nine expert historians and authors to share with us their favourite historical novels...

Historians have chosen their favourite historical novels.
1

March Violets by Philip Kerr 

March Violets by Philip Kerr

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In all historical fiction authenticity is key, and that requires both a deft touch and a considerable gift for research. The late Philip Kerr had both, and his debut March Violets, which was first published in 1989, recreated the political and emotional universe of Nazi Germany – and specifically Berlin – with an attention to detail that few other authors have matched.

The story – of corruption in the SS set against the backdrop of the Berlin Olympics of 1936 – is a rattling, prize-winning read, that oozes atmosphere and is chock-full of historical figures. It was also notable for introducing to the world the brilliant character of Bernie Gunther, the sympathetic yet hard-bitten detective, who would feature in so many of Kerr’s later works.

Chosen by Roger Moorhouse, a historian and author specialising in modern German and Central European history. Roger is a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Warsaw and is the author of a number of books on modern German history, including Killing Hitler (2006), Berlin At War (2010),  The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 (2014) and The Third Reich in 100 Objects (2017).

 

2

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

People don’t often class James Ellroy as a historical writer – thanks to books like LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia he gets pegged as pure crime. That misses his strength as a novelist steeped in the past and a nonpareil historical muck-raker. 

American Tabloid opens a trilogy depicting the hellish underworld of US history in the 1950s and 1960s – a world of sleaze, corruption, collusion and political scandal. It owes much to Don DeLillo’s Libra, showing the JFK assassination as the product of historical confluence as much as criminal conspiracy. But it is written in Ellroy’s uniquely staccato, foulmouthed and ribald American argot. I re-read it every few years and the effect never goes stale. It’s as bracing and disconcerting as being punched in the face.

Chosen by Dan Jones, an award-winning historian of the Middle Ages and the New York Times bestselling author of The Plantagenets (2014) and The Wars of the Roses (2015). His latest book, Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (2019), is out now. 

 

3

Orlando by Virginia Woolf                                                      

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Historical fiction comes in many forms, and Virginia Woolf believed she was inventing a new one with Orlando. Subtitled ‘A Biography’, its eponymous hero was based on Virginia’s own lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Orlando’s home on Vita’s ancestral home of Knole – but there’s a twist. Born in time to become a favourite of Elizabeth I, Orlando is magically still young and vital on the date of the book’s publication, 11 October 1928. By that time the hero has become a heroine; but, crucially, changing his/her sex without losing her inheritance. (Vita’s tragedy was that, as a girl, she could never inherit her beloved Knole.)

Gender fluidity and questions of identity apart, this is a glorious romp through the sexy 17th and elegant 18th centuries, through the frowstiness of Victorian values into the age of the aeroplane.  

Chosen by Sarah Gristwood, a best-selling Tudor biographer, novelist and broadcaster, and author of a number of books including Vita and Virginia: A Double Life (2018), The Queen’s Mary: In the Shadows of Power (2017) and Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (2012).

 

4

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte 

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte

Kaputt is a novelized version of Curzio Malaparte’s experiences during the Second World War. It can’t be classed as a work of pure history because Malaparte’s imaginative gifts move the book into a kind of half world between fact and fiction.

The combination of Malaparte’s slight detachment as an Italian journalist, together with his personal perceptiveness, allows us to see key figures of the war in an original light. His impression of the Romanian politician Mihai Antonescu, for instance, was that “no other eyes in the world resemble a snake’s eyes more than Mihai Antonescu’s”.

Malaparte is also a descriptive writer of genius. For example, the picture he paints of the Warsaw Ghetto is heart-breaking: “the faces of women and children seemed made of paper. In every face there was already the bluish shadow of death.”

Kaputt is by some measure the finest novel I’ve ever read about the war.   

Chosen by Laurence Rees, a former head of BBC TV history programmes and the founder, writer and producer of WW2History.com. His book The Holocaust: A New History (2017) was a Sunday Times top 10 bestseller. His next book, Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants and the Second World War will be published by Viking/Penguin in October 2020.

 

5

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

I have to start with a confession: I don’t like historical fiction. As a historian, I am so hard-wired to facts and the truth that anachronistic language and context in fictional versions of real history really irritate me. In my own specialist field I have a pathological aversion to Romanov novels. Why make it up when you can tell the real story?

That said, I have enjoyed a few historical novels in the Victorian pastiche genre. For me the standout book is the one that set the trend back in 1989 and that is Charles Palliser’s imaginative epic, The Quincunx. I bought the hardback hot off the press and became so engrossed that I had to ration myself to 50 pages a day so that I did not finish it too quickly.

Many have followed, notably The Crimson Petal and the White and The Meaning of Night, but, 31 years on, the sheer energy, inventiveness and attention to detail of The Quincunx make it my enduring favourite.

Dr Helen Rappaport is a Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling author and historian specialising in the period 1837–1918 in late imperial and revolutionary Russia and Victorian Britain. She has written 14 books including Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy (2011) and she worked on the first two series of the ITV drama Victoria. 

 

6

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

We fall in love most passionately with the books we read as adolescents. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault has been part of my life since I was 15, re-read countless times. Set in Athens during the 5th century BC it is narrated by Alexias, a boy growing to manhood.

The wars against Sparta dominate the political landscape. Alexias meets Lysis, an older man, and the two embark on a passionate love affair. Together, they talk of love and beauty with Socrates. They join the Athenian cavalry, and then its navy, as the Peloponnesian War stretches on, ravaging Greece.

As the city is led to disaster by the sulky and beautiful General Alcibiades, headstrong Alexias and steadfast Lysis live through it all. They are real and vivid characters in a world so fully realised that it seems ludicrous Renault was not there, a living witness to all the grandeur and hubris of Athens.

Chosen by Antonia Senior, a journalist and writer who reviews historical fiction for The Times. Antonia is the author of Treason’s Daughter (2015) and The Winter Isles (2017)

 

7

Sovereign by CJ Sansom 

Sovereign by CJ Sansom

I am a huge fan of the long-running Shardlake series. Thanks to Sansom’s impeccable research and exceptional writing, they vividly conjure up the dangerous and volatile world of Henry VIII’s later years – and, most recently, the reign of his ‘precious jewel’, Edward VI. The ‘crook-backed’ lawyer Matthew Shardlake is a brilliant if unlikely protagonist, ably assisted in the first few books by his irreverent sidekick, Jack Barak. It is virtually impossible to choose a favourite from among this utterly compelling series, but Sovereign is hard to beat. 

Set in the autumn of 1541, it focuses on the events surrounding Henry VIII’s progress to the rebellious north with his pretty (but adulterous) new wife, Katherine Howard. It is not long before Shardlake is on the trail of a brutal murderer and becomes embroiled in a plot that questions the legitimacy of the entire Tudor dynasty.

Chosen by Tracy Borman, a historian, broadcaster and author of a number of books including Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him (2018) and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction (2013). A new edition of her Thomas Cromwell biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Hidden Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, is being published on 5 March 2020 and the final novel of her King’s Witch trilogy will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in June 2020. 

 

8

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek 

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek

In south-west England, 1348, a band of travellers moves towards the coast. They are an unexpected party: a group of archers, a noble lady who is trying to escape a loveless marriage, a serf who has worked on her father’s land and dreams of battle, and a cleric. They come together out of necessity and a shared destination – Calais. 

Little do they know, as they move towards what they think will be a better life across the English Channel – war, wealth, love and glory – they move closer to the Black Death, the biomedical disaster that crippled the western world. The disease has already claimed millions of lives and now it creeps towards the English coast, the same way the party moves. As their stories intertwine and they grow closer together, the people and places they encounter on their journey are falling apart. 

This is a story of love, loss, friendship and determination, set within the harsh reality of the 14th century.

Chosen by Helen Carr, a medieval historian specialising in the 14th and 15th centuries. Helen is in the process of writing a biography on the controversial medieval magnate and prince, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. The Red Prince, the Life and Times of the Duke of Lancaster is due to be published by Oneworld in 2020.

 

9

Imperial Governor by George Shipway

Imperial Governor by George Shipway

I first read this novel of Boudica’s rebellion of AD 60 in my early teens, and it ignited a fascination with the history of the Roman Empire which has never left me. The story is in the form of the memoirs of Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor of the frontier province of Britain. 

Suetonius Paulinus bears a distinct resemblance to a British soldier/colonial official of the early-mid 20th century, not surprisingly as Shipway served as a cavalry officer in India. While this has its anachronistic drawbacks, it gives an insight into colonial mentalities which is plausible in an ancient context. 

Above all, Imperial Governor is a terrific adventure story, laced with politics and realistic battle scenes. More than 50 years after its publication, it remains an excellent read.

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Chosen by Professor Gary Sheffield, one of Britain’s foremost military historians specialising in Britain at war, 1914–45. He is the author of a number of acclaimed histories, including the best-selling Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities (2001) and The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (2011), which was chosen as a military book of the year by The Times and was shortlisted for the Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature. 

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