Marooned on an Island Monographs: A Historical Fiction Reading List

Laura Sangha

A recent mini-series has emerged on the monster, in which Mark (social history and the history of drinking), Jonathan (reformation history) and Brodie (economic history) have all shared the classic history books that they would take with them if marooned on a Pacific beach. But given that it is impossible to imagine anyone actually settling down with a cocktail and Joan Thirsk’s Economic Policy and Projects, and following an excellent suggestion by a monster reader, my list is comprised of some historical fiction that you might actually pop in your suitcase this summer.


But first, I have to get something off my chest. My name is Laura, I am an early modern historian, and I didn’t like Wolf Hall. In fact, I couldn’t even finish it. I tried, several times, and eventually made it about 200 pages in, but my resolve faltered when I realised I still had 450 pages to battle my way through. Even now I am not quite sure of the reason behind my complete failure to engage with it, but I suspect the slow pace didn’t help, nor the subject matter – when you have just marked 50 essays on Tudor England, spending your precious free time inside Thomas Cromwell’s head seems more like hard work than fun. So apologies, but Wolf Hall doesn’t make my list, though I appreciate that it is much loved – indeed, that is why I wanted to explain its absence. I hope you can still bring yourself to read what follows.

The other thing to note is that I have defined historical fiction in an entirely arbitrary way in order to narrow the field and make my task slightly easier – I have only included novels written by authors writing about a past they did not experience during their lifetime, hence no room for my beloved Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding or Tim O’Brien – they will have to wait for another list!

1) Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998).

instance-of-the-fingerpostPears’ murder mystery is a meticulously researched and brilliantly crafted novel covering spies, blood transfusions, secret societies, witchcraft, faith, political intrigue and much more. It vividly conjures up England in the 1660s, a few years after the Restoration of the monarchy and Church, in a world deeply marked by the political, religious and intellectual revolutions of the preceding decades. The action revolves around the murder of an Oxford fellow, with four witnesses describing in turn their recollections of the event some years later. These unreliable narrators give the novel its ultra-modern feel, the multiple perspectives encouraging the reader to be aware of subtle tricks of misdirection and omission in the witnesses’ evidence and in the process revealing the complexity of influences and motives of the inhabitants of early modern society. In other words, this masterpiece encourages the kind of critical reading of the evidence that historians are trained in – it’s no surprise that so many academics rate it highly! The subject matter is also not to be missed – the four witnesses include mathematician John Wallis and antiquarian Anthony Wood, and there are walk on parts for many other notable figures, including Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys and Valentine Greatorex.

2) Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (Serialised Feb-Nov 1841).

Barnaby_in_Newgate_by_PhizBarnaby Rudge was Dickens’ first attempt at a historical novel, and it is less highly esteemed and much less well known than his only other attempt, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Written during a time of unrest in Victorian England, Rudge also deals with rebellious times, treating the Gordon Riots of 1780, when Protestant anti-Catholic mobs in London erupted into lethal violence, attacking Parliament and the Bank of England, and largely destroying Newgate Prison and the Clink. (Linda Colley describes the events as ‘the largest, deadliest and most protracted urban riots in British history’). Having grown up in Dickens’ country in North West Kent it was inevitable that I would be enthralled by his work, but the strange Rudge is one of my favourites. It has the usual hallmarks of better known Dickensian classics: persistent humour, careful plotting, keenly observed characters suffering an unusually high level of nominative determinism. The book is named for a mentally disabled young man who wanders in and out of the action with his creepy talking raven, Grip; and whilst the heroes and villains are a pleasing mix of both Catholic and Protestant characters, indicating Dickens’ liberalism, his descriptions of the ordinary, mostly working-class mob, are vicious and uncompromising, reflecting his own horror of the many-headed monster. It is the descriptions of the relentless momentum of the rioters, incited by opportunists from the upper classes and swept along in a mindless orgy of violence that really give the novel its power, and despite its flaws it is a neglected gem.

3) Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke: his statement as made to his three grandchildren Gervas and Reuben during the hard winter of 1734 (1889)

clarke 2A rollicking historical coming of age adventure novel narrating the events of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Micah Clarke is a young teenager living near Portsmouth, the son of ‘Ironside Joe’, a devout Protestant who had fought on the side of Parliament in the Civil War. With his father’s encouragement, Micah joins the rebellion against the Catholic James II led by the 1st Duke of Monmouth, first marching to Taunton and eventually fighting at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Along the way Clarke gets into various (and sometimes very harrowing) scrapes and learns the ways of the world, encountering numerous colourful characters including Monmouth himself, but also the fictionalised London gent and wit Sir Gervas Jerome (forced to join the rebels due to his financial difficulties) and the ruthless professional soldier Decimus Saxon (cunningly feigning piety to get his own way). A light read notable for the impressively realised seventeenth-century world it reveals – full of incidental and everyday details that betray an impressive historical knowledge. Identifying those anachronistic elements/ attitudes that were clearly the product of Doyle’s Catholic upbringing is all part of the fun.

4) Robert Harris, Pompeii: a novel (2003)

pompeii001Robert Harris does a great job of writing a suspenseful novel despite the fact that all his readers will already know the ending. The appeal for me is the way that Harris uses a narrative of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to give a detailed picture of life in the Roman Empire in 79AD. The reader follows an aquarius (hydraulic engineer) as he tries to discover why the water supply to many towns in the surrounding area has dried up, in the process becoming embroiled in the murky politics of the region and meeting Pliny the Elder. But all of this is quite literally overshadowed by the catastrophic eruption of the volcano which is described to devastating effect. If the present-day dialogue seems a little incongruous at times and the romance rather unnecessary, it’s spectacular conclusion easily blows these objections away. Note: the novel has nothing to do with the recent hollywood blockbuster on the same topic.

5) Neil Gaiman, Marvel: 1602 (2003).

marvel page 2It’s 1602, Elizabeth I is finally coming to the end of her lengthy reign, there is trouble abroad and economic strife at home, strange portents have been seen in the skies over London… and most of the original Marvel superheroes and villains have suddenly turned up on the scene! Forgive what might be considered a frivolous choice and bear with me while I explain my final entry. Marvel 1602 is a series of comics that transplants Marvel characters into the Jacobethan era, weaving their marvellous origins into the events and institutions of the age. And why not? Mixing the providential and apocalyptic tropes of the Elizabethan world with the concerns of contemporary comics actually works rather well. The early modern age was far more attuned to the possibilities of the invisible world than the current one after all, and winged beings with preternatural powers and James I’s anxieties over the ‘witchbreed’ and entanglement with the Inquisition hardly seem to stretch the bounds of possibility too far. Best of all, transporting marvel heroes back to 1602 reveals some very surprising and satisfying roots for Captain America…


On reflection, perhaps my list also helps to explain my lack of enthusiasm for Wolf Hall. Whilst all my choices deal with significant historical events, they focus their narratives on bit players who only encounter great historical personalities on occasion. This frees up the authors to weave unpredictable plots and to play with their subject matter, providing the everyday look and feel of a period without burying the reader in details they could find in a conventional history book. This leads me to conclude that I probably derive my historical novel satisfaction from fleshing out my contextual understanding of great events and people, without getting too enmeshed in the particulars and straying too close to ‘the day job’. I enjoy the creative liberties that these authors take with their subjects, which opens up spaces to think differently or more loosely about the past. And of course many of these novels also prompt reflection and comparison with events of more recent history, acting as fingerposts to unexpected and unexplored avenues. I’d be delighted to know which novels do the same for you…

Postcript, 05/08/14: More on the role of historical fiction in this Guardian article, including some thoughts from Hilary Mantel herself on the genre. Which I entirely agree with.

Further postscript, 05/09/14: The discussion continues with the BBC dedicating ‘A Point of View‘ to the question.

58 thoughts on “Marooned on an Island Monographs: A Historical Fiction Reading List

  1. What a wonderful selection, sold so well that were I not under a (temporary) self-imposed book-buying moratorium I’d be looking to acquire. Great range too, from neglected classics to an imaginative graphic novel.

    One or two titles slide into my mind in this context. I’ve already mentioned ‘Pavane’ as a classic alternate history novel, set in the 60s and later decades but borrowing elements from Elizabethan, 18C and Victorian Britain as background to a slow-burning insurrection against Catholic tyranny. And I also love the whimsy of Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, set in a Dickensian period that never was.

    The Gaiman novel reminded me of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Gloriana’ riffing on aspects of Tudor spying and intrigue: I’ve got it to reread as I suspect I would appreciate it even more now, decades on.

    Finally, your mention of Doyle’s Catholicism reminded me of Anglican Charles Kingsley and his anti-Catholicism manifesting itself in his Armada-period novel ‘Westward Ho!’, set in Devon and the West Indies, where Kingsley had family connections but which he hadn’t yet visited. Rollicking evocation of Richard Grenville and Francis Drake’s heyday.

    • Many thanks for sharing these, they all look wonderful! Keith Roberts’ counterfactual Pavane particularly takes my fancy – 1960s Catholic England sounds worth exploring. Gloriana also looks promising, and the Wikipedia entry for the novel mentions it in the same breath as Mervyn Peake, so I don’t really need any other reasons to give it a try! Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase I read many moons ago, but I don’t remember much about it, and as you say, re-visiting later on often brings great rewards. If someone could just arrange for an extra couple of hours in the day I might even get round to reading them all…

  2. I am so relieved to find I am not alone in my seeming inability to finish Wolf Hall! After my second attempt came to a dramatic (mid-way) end a couple of weeks ago, I was beginning to fear that I was none other than some kind of second-rate, fraud of an Early Modern PhD student. I guess this might not be the case after all – phew!
    I loved the post too, definitely a few titles to add to my reading wish-list… thanks! 🙂

    • Thanks Lucy! I find that though most people think it is wonderful, there are a few like us that it just doesn’t connect with. That said, I’ll probably keep trying with it over the years, I hate to get defeated by a novel.

  3. Ditto for Wolf Hall! Maybe this is a professional historian thing. To be honest I’ve always found Booker prize winners difficult to read – even when I enjoy other books by the same writers.

    A. S Byatt’s Possession is an honorable exception – and another good (partly) historical novel that says a lot about the academic life too. So is Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang.

    • Many thanks for the suggestions (and for the Wolf Hall solidarity!) Possession has been on my radar for a while, so I’ll move that up my list a bit – sounds like another very clever bit of writing, as does True History. I’ve read very few novels set in Australia (perhaps only A Town Like Alice?) so that will certainly be worth a look.

  4. Wonderful suggestions. Iain Pears Instance of the Fingerpost has long been one of my wife’s favorite novels (and mine). I have to mention a novel by Kenneth Roberts — one of the, if not the only, historical novelists recognized by the American Historical Association for a contribution to historical scholarship — Oliver Wiswell. I read this in high school and became a history major in college on the strength of being taught the complexity of history by a novel that showed the “other side” of the Revolutionary War in what was eventually to become the US. Long out of print, I will reread it as soon as I can locate a copy.

  5. Does Margaret Yourcenar’s ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ count ? It is magnificent writing in novel form.
    Closer to home I return frequently J G Farrell on the fall of the British Empire; in chronological order; ‘The Seige of Krishnapur’ (the Indian Mutiny), ‘Troubles’ (Ireland) and ‘The Singapore Grip’ (the fall of Singapore). Farrell is too crudely political for some (he made speech critical of the sponsors business activities in the Third World when he won the Booker Prize) but his writing and the situations he creates have charm too.
    Finally, and ultimately, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’ has a good claim to be the finest novel ever written in any genre.

    • Thanks for the great suggestions – it seems there is a strong theme of decline/ decay here. I think anything can count, as long as it is an imagined past!

      ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ and ‘The Leopard’ sound like two classics that I haven’t come across before. Farrell’s ‘Empire Trilogy’ was on my radar but hasn’t been recommended to me before now, so many thanks for that.

  6. For the sake of completion, I’ll repost my comment from the earlier thread:

    Having a toddler means that I get approximately 0.01 hours of fiction reading most days, so I haven’t read much fiction in the last couple years. I did though enjoy Mantel’s Wolf Hall, so I guess that’s a good place to start. Also, Calvino’s Invisible Cities is not exactly historical fiction, but it is a brilliant book that really stoked my historical imagination. Graham Swift’s Waterland is another.

    • Thanks Brodie! ‘Invisible Cities’ sounds fascinating, according to Wikipedia: ‘The book is structured around an interlocking pattern of numbered sections, while the length of each section’s title graphically outlines a continuously oscillating sine wave, or perhaps a city skyline’. Waterland has been recommended to me a few times now – another reflective one by the looks of things.

      • Yes, Invisible Cities is definitely reflective. In fact, apparently it has featured as on the required reading lists for some History MAs. However I didn’t find it hard going at all. If anything, the very short chapters made it made it an easy read.

  7. Thanks for the list and the suggestions in the comments. I’ll have to move Rudge higher up my Dickens to-do list. And AC Doyle .. other fiction!
    In regard to Australia, if you want over the top historical fiction, try “Gould’s Book of Fish” Richard Flanagan
    An enjoyable novel set in a more recent era (1930s) is Nicholas Hasluck “Our Man K” about Egon Kisch proselytising against fascism.
    More generally I have enjoyed Marge Piercy “City of Darkness, City of Light” on revolutionary Paris, and still want to find a month to go back to Neal Stephenson’s “System of the World”.

  8. Good article by Nicholas Hasluck, & “One Nation” was a timely jab in 1999. I had come back to point out a couple of obvious omissions and Nicholas beat me to Gore Vidal. And then there is the unreliable memoirist Sir Harry Flashman who bowled the first recorded hat trick in top level cricket. Another Australian writer dealing with the interwar period is Frank Moorhouse and his League of Nations novels, starting with Grand Days which sits patiently on my shelf waiting it’s turn.

    • Thanks for the suggestion – it’s certainly a fascinating subject. Telling the narrative through the bishop’s letters sounds like an interesting way to approach it.

  9. Very diverse and interesting list! I managed to complete an M.A. in literature without encountering a great deal of historical fiction, and have been recently attempting to fill the gap. One novel I loved is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. It fits your criteria (which I also love, by the way), and is narrated by a mostly fictional character, a young woman based on a brief mention in the historical record. It’s about the “plague village” of Eyam, and is gorgeously written.

  10. Would like to suggest a few oldies but goodies: Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar by Rex Warner (about Julius Caesar), Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga beginning with The Crystal Cave, and anything by Mary Renault.

  11. Thanks for this! I’m always on the look out for more historical fiction. I can also relate to your opinion of Wolf Hall. When I first read it, I didn’t know the first thing about Thomas Cromwell and I found the story slow and long. Now that I consider myself somewhat of an early modernist, I plan to reread it.

    Speaking of the early modern period––I have never heard of Marvel: 1602 before but I’m buying it on Amazon right now thanks to your suggestion!

    • Excellent – I’m confident that you are in for a real treat with 1602. I periodically try again with Wolf Hall in the hope that one day it will click…

  12. Good suggestions. I’d like to add Dan Close’s “Glory of the Kings”, which follows two brothers who join King Menelik’s army as it marches to repel the attempted Italian takeover of Ethiopia. Insightful stuff from an much-ignored corner of history.

    • Thanks so much for the suggestion – it’s wonderful the way that this post has introduced me to so many titles that I would never have come across otherwise. The list just keeps growing!

      • In the early ‘60s I was a field editor with a major textbook publisher, working out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the same city that housed my alma mater. On one of my business trips, coming through a small town in West Texas I happened on a used bookstore on the outskirts. Had to check it out. Buried among piles of paperbacks I found a historical novel titled Tom Bone, set in the Revolutionary War period. It had what today would be referred to as a “bodice ripper” cover and seemed so much out of character for my former poli sci professor that I wasn’t sure it was the same man listed on the cover as author. When I went to see him on campus with book in hand I learned, yes, it was, and he ended up recommending several other authors.
        I left his office determined to investigate some of the novelists he mentioned: Samuel Shellabarger, F. Van Wyck Mason, Thomas B. Costain, Rafael Sabatini – all of whom were represented by blockbuster movies starring some of the biggest actors, actors like Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. I read everything I could get my hands on, and recommend to friends even today titles like Prince of Foxes and The Black Rose.
        Most recently, however, I want to recommend Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day, set in Egypt at the end of WWI and through the pages of which march Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill and others of the figures responsible for the mess we have there today, and Doc, a novel that places “Doc” Holliday and the Earps in a whole new light.
        And, Gary Jennings’ Aztec is very, very good.

      • Thanks so much for sharing the secret life of your political science professor – quite a discovery!

        Mary Doria Russell sounds well worth a look, another new entry in the charts. Both your suggestions sound great, especially Doc – my only source of knowledge about the Earps and Doc Holliday is the movie ‘Tombstone’ so it’s probably about time I added a new speculative perspective.

      • Thanks to James Davies for Dreamers of the Day. My aunt was a Red Cross worker in Egypt during World War II and told me many stories of the times and the place. I look forward to revisiting times that she made so exciting.

    • Thanks! I’m guessing I’m not alone in that I’ve only read ‘Hunchback’ by Hugo so thanks for drawing my attention to his other riches. The play he wrote about Cromwell’s internal struggles when offered the crown of England also sounds like a gem.

  13. May I recommend the American historical novelist, Cecelia Holland? I would begin with her first published novel, Firedrake, which follows an Irish mercenary knight across Western Europe to the Battle of Hastings. I remember when I first read it, back in the late 60s, that it was so realistic I was tempted to scratch the flea bites.
    I have also acquired a book to review that I haven’t finished: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parma, an epistolary novel about the Bloomsbury Group told through the eyes of Vanessa Bell and focusing on Virginia Woolf and their circle of friends. So far, beautifully written and captures the period.
    Another recent book that really grabbed me is the Anarchist by Joanna Higgins. This is a subject about which I knew very little, Haymarket Riots and all that. Higgins manages to portray the conditions of the period and succeeds quite well in conveying motives of Emma Goldman and other actors on this stage. Perhaps even presaging future events unless the problem of increasing economic inequality isn’t addressed adequately?
    James Davies

    • Thanks so much for your interest and for your great suggestions. I haven’t come across any of these, but am particularly interested in the Higgins – I know absolutely nothing about American history in the nineteenth century so it sounds like both a good, and an educational, read. Thanks for sharing!

  14. My wife is currently engrossed in An Instance of the Fingerpost, purchased on your recommendation. I await her completion of it that I might begin.

    Also I want to second Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. I began it in high school with not enough time (or interest) to complete it and recently reread and finished it some 50 years later. Glad I waited as the effort would have been squandered on my adolescent cognizance.

    • That’s so nice to hear that someone took up my recommendation – I hope your wife enjoys it at much as I did, and that you do too when the time comes.

  15. Robert Graves is probably best known for his novels about the Roman emperor Claudius, both of which I highly recommend for those not already acquainted with them. I was given the gift of another novel by him that I had been unaware of: Count Belisarius. If one is interested in the Byzantine Empire under the rule of Theodora, this rich and varied novel is well worth the time…..

  16. Pingback: A fictional review of Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton | the many-headed monster

  17. Thank you- I thought it was me! I have a passion for all early modern and teach all things Tudor but Wolf Hall is my nemesis!!! Just can’t read it no matter many times I’ve tried.So glad to know there is someone else in the world !

  18. Pingback: Creativity and history: tales from the blarchive | the many-headed monster

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