From Dickens to Mantel – the fiction that makes the past feel gloriously real

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII in the 2009 BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall - Allstar/BBC TWO
Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII in the 2009 BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall - Allstar/BBC TWO

Later this month, the Royal Shakespeare Company will be staging an adaptation of The Mirror and the Light, the final novel in Hilary Mantel’s great trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. The first two novels in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both won the Booker Prize: a reminder that historical fiction has repeatedly hit the literary heights.

Indeed, Walter Scott’s Waverley, published in 1814, and the only novel to have given its name to a railway station, stands as one of the most significant works in the entire history of European literature: for so innovative was its use of the Jacobite uprising of 1745 as a fictional backdrop that it served to launch an entire new genre. Today, history is as likely to be a theme on the fiction shelves as on the non-fiction shelves. At its best, it can bring the past alive like nothing else, and transport the reader into times that otherwise might seem unfathomably distant. A fictional vision of history can be no less true to a vanished age than one written with scholarly intent.

Here is my choice of 20 essential historical novels. I have opted to exclude those that, although set in the past, are not conventionally categorised as historical fiction (so no War and Peace, no Les Misérables, no Midnight’s Children). History has to be the central theme of the novel. I have also sought to convey something of the astonishing range of the tradition.

There are novels that, like Waverley, are deeply rooted in realism; and there are novels that freely embrace the supernatural. There are novels that are self-conscious works of art; and there are novels that serve primarily as adventures, or romances, or both. All of history is here.

Ivanhoe, by Walter Scott (1819)
Scott’s pivot away from 18th-century Scotland to medieval England proved a colossal success. To the frustration of medievalists, his portrayal of a society divided between Norman and Saxon continues to influence how the Middle Ages are understood to this day.

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
No characters have ever swashed a buckle to such dashing effect as the eponymous heroes of Dumas’s thrilling adventure story. Chivalrous swordsmen, villainous beauties, Machiavellian cardinals: the 17th century has rarely been made to seem as glamorous.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859)
As influential on how the British see the French Revolution as Ivanhoe was in shaping attitudes to the Middle Ages, this is quite simply the greatest historical novel written in English.

Mads Mikkelsen as Captain Rochefort in the 2011 film adaptation of The Three Musketeers
Mads Mikkelsen as Captain Rochefort in the 2011 film adaptation of The Three Musketeers

I, Claudius, by Robert Graves (1934)
Graves, by ventriloquising the Roman emperor Claudius, and drawing on the histories of Tacitus and Suetonius, demonstrated the potential of ancient literature to refashion the novel – and, in due course, TV drama.

The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch (1945)
Broch’s novel about the last days of Rome’s greatest poet is at once the most unreadable and the most brilliant of historical novels. As a meditation on The Aeneid, it is worthy to stand alongside Dante.

Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)
Yourcenar, unlike Graves, offered barely a concession to modern sensibilities when writing her own fictional memoir of a Roman emperor. The result is dazzling: an utterly convincing portrait of a world very unlike our own.

The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)
“For things to remain the same, everything must change.” Tomasi’s novel, based on the life of his great-grandfather, a Sicilian prince who lived during Italian unification in the 19th century, remains the best-selling Italian novel of all time, and one of the greatest.

Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliff (1963)
Of all the many attempts to place the legend of King Arthur in a historical context, Sutcliff’s portrayal of him as a warlord fighting to keep the flame of Roman civilisation alight remains the most stirring.

Derek Jacobi, John Hurt and George Baker in the landmark TV series I, Claudius
Derek Jacobi, John Hurt and George Baker in the landmark TV series I, Claudius

Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser (1969)
Recent events have given this, the first outing of Fraser’s cowardly and unfailingly entertaining antihero who finds himself in Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War, a renewed saliency.

Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault (1969)
The first in Renault’s trilogy of novels about Alexander the Great, it succeeds in an almost impossible task: animating the upbringing of the most charismatic conqueror who has ever lived.

Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes (1975)
Magical realism meets the 16th century in Fuentes’s dazzling portrayal of a Spanish court in which Philip II has married Elizabeth Tudor, and the New World is yet to be found.

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman (1980)
Begun while Stalin was still alive, and long censored, Grossman’s novel is a fictional portrayal of the Eastern Front so sweeping, so rich and so devastating that it has worthily been compared to War and Peace.

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (1980)
Never have literary theory and semiotics been put to such best-selling effect as they were in Eco’s first work of fiction: a detective story set in a 14th-century Italian monastery.

Restoration, by Rose Tremain (1989)
A brilliantly entertaining romp about a medical student in the reign of Charles II, it deservedly won Tremain a place on the shortlist of the Booker Prize.

William Jackson Harper as Royal in the Amazon Prime series The Underground Railroad - Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon
William Jackson Harper as Royal in the Amazon Prime series The Underground Railroad - Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks (1993)
Two timelines are woven through the fabric of Faulks’s profoundly moving novel: one set before and during the First World War, and one in the 1970s. Both serve as mirrors to the other, resulting in a novel that is not just about the Western Front, but about how memories of the Western Front have been processed, remembered and occluded.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières (1994)
Bernières’s novel set on the Greek island of Cephalonia before and during the Second World War was read by everyone – and deserved to be.

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears (1997)
No historical novel has ever pulled off a twist quite like the one that concludes Pears’s murder-mystery set in Restoration Oxford. I will say no more. Just read it.

The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory (2001)
Not for nothing has Gregory established herself as the great mistress of historical romance. This – the story of Anne Boleyn’s elder sister – is her masterpiece.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (2009)
Worthy of a position on this list for its use of the present tense alone.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (2016)
Cora, a slave on a plantation in Georgia, makes a bid for freedom by travelling on what, in Whitehead’s award-winning alternate history, is a literal railroad. Historical fiction at its most imaginative and unsettling.

The Mirror and the Light opens at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1, on October 6. Tickets: themirrorandthelight.co.uk

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting