A historical novel is a novel that tells a story set in the past. It is a very broad category, as stories set in the past may fall into the genres of thriller, detective, crime, science fiction, mystery, suspense, horror and, in fact, all of the genres. For example, Ian McEwan’s WWII novel, Atonement, is both an historical and a war novel. It is also a speculative novel. All that shows how simplistic and ridiculous it is to categorise literary works of fiction.
However, it is often helpful to talk about novels in terms of genres. Historical novels blend fact and fiction, using historical events and figures as a backdrop for fictional characters and plots. The purpose of historical novels is to entertain and inform readers about a particular time period or event. They can also be used to explore historical themes and ideas.
Historical novels have been around for centuries, and they have been written by some of the most famous authors in the world, including Sir Walter Scott, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens. These novels have played an important role in shaping our understanding of the past, and they continue to be popular today.
Here are twenty historical novels to get your teeth into if you would like to enter those literary time machines:
The Tale of Genji (c. 1008) by Murasaki Shikibu is set in Japan during the Heian period. It follows a prince who is the son of an emperor. The novel is a complex and nuanced exploration of love, loss, and the human condition. It is considered one of the greatest works of Japanese literature, and it has had a profound influence on Japanese culture.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1330-1370) by Luo Guanzhong is set in China during the Three Kingdoms period. It tells the story of the struggle for power between three warlords: Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan. It is a vast epic that chronicles the rise and fall of empires, and it offers a fascinating glimpse into the political and military history of China. The novel is considered one of the greatest works of Chinese literature.
The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a young Frenchman who is falsely imprisoned for treason. After 14 years in prison, Dantès escapes and sets out to exact revenge on those who wronged him. The novel is known for its complex plot, its vivid characters, and its sweeping historical scope. It is a classic tale of revenge, redemption, and the power of love.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens is set in London and Paris during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who is falsely accused of treason and sentenced to death. Dickens’s novel is a powerful and moving exploration of the themes of justice, mercy, and redemption. It is the story of two families, the Manettes and the Darnays, who are caught up in the turmoil of the Revolution. Dickens’s writing is both expansive and intimate, and he provides a vivid portrait of the French Revolution and its impact on ordinary people.
Les Misérables (1862) by Victor Hugo is set in France during the Napoleonic era and the July Monarchy. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, a former convict who struggles to redeem himself in a society that is often cruel and unjust. Les Misérables is an exploration of social justice, redemption, and the nature of good and evil. It is an epic, a powerful indictment of the French penal system and a celebration of the human spirit.
War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy is set in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. It tells the story of five aristocratic families as they experience the war and its aftermath. War and Peace is a vast and complex novel that explores a wide range of themes, including war, love, family, and fate.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Orczy is set in England during the French Revolution. Its protagonist is Sir Percy Blakeney, a British aristocrat who moonlights as the Scarlet Pimpernel, a masked hero who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine. Orczy’s novel is a thrilling adventure story that also offers a glimpse into the turbulent events of the French Revolution.
I Claudius (1934) by Robert Graves is a historical novel set in Rome during the 1st century AD. The emperor Claudius, a stuttering, limping man was once considered to be an idiot but who is often underestimated by his enemies. The novel explores the themes of power, family, and fate. It is a witty and insightful novel that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Roman Empire.
Gone With the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell is set during the American Civil War. The protagonist is Scarlett O’Hara, a Southern belle who struggles to survive the war and rebuild her life. Gone With the Wind explores themes of love, loss, and the resilience of the human spirit. It has been both praised and criticized for its portrayal of race and gender.
The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck is set during the Great Depression. The novel follows the Joad family as they migrate from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life. The Grapes of Wrath is a powerful and moving novel that explores the human cost of poverty and economic hardship.
Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe is set in Nigeria during the colonial era, and it explores the clash of cultures between the Igbo and the British. Okonkwo, a powerful and respected man in the Igbo tribe of Nigeria, is forced to confront the arrival of the British colonial government. Achebe’s novel is a classic of African literature and a powerful indictment of colonialism.
. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee is set in the American South during the Jim Crow era. The novel tells the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a black man against false charges of rape. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of American literature that explores themes of racism, courage, and the importance of standing up for what is right.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez is a magical realist novel set in the fictional town of Macondo. The novel spans over 100 years, of the Buendía family. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a complex and multilayered novel that explores themes of family, history, and the individual’s place in the world.
The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan relates the story of four Chinese American families in San Francisco. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and it explores the themes of family, culture, and identity. It is a powerful and moving portrait of the Chinese American experience.
The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro is set in England during World War II. A butler, Stevens, reflects on his life and career at Darlington Hall, a grand country estate. The novel is a meditation on the nature of service, loyalty, and the past.
Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) by Arthur Golden is set in Japan during the early 20th century. It tells the story of Sayuri, a young girl who is sold into the world of geishas. The novel is a coming-of-age story that explores the themes of identity, tradition, culture and the power of love.
The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy tells the story of two young twins, Estha and Rahel, and their experiences of caste, class, and family in Kerala, India, during the 1960s.. Roy’s novel is an exploration of the social and political changes that were taking place in India at the time. Her writing is lyrical and evocative, and she captures the beauty and complexity of India in the 1960s.
Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan’s World War II novel tells the story of Briony Tallis, a young girl who makes a false accusation that has devastating consequences. The novel is a powerful exploration of the nature of guilt, memory, redemption and the power of words.
Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie concerns two Nigerian families during the Biafran War of 1967-1970. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War, and it explores the themes of war, love, and loss. It is a beautifully written and heartbreaking story of the human cost of war.
Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall, set in England during the 16th century, is a fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, a low-born man who rises to become one of the most powerful figures in the kingdom in the reign of King Henry VIII. The novel explores the themes of power, ambition, and betrayal. It is a well-researched and engrossing novel that offers insights into the Tudor court and a unique perspective on a turbulent period in English history.
And that’s our list of the 20 best historical fiction novels. What’s your take on these – any surprises, or any historical fiction novels not on this list that you feel should make the top 20?