Beyond the Bodice Ripper: Historical Fiction for the Well Informed …NOT!

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A Highly Selective List

THE ANCIENT WORLD

Creation. Gore Vidal. A panoramic and ironic look at the world in 5C BC as told by a friend of Xerxes who got around.

The Greenlanders. Jane Smiley. A total immersion for the reader into the doomed 10C Norwegian settlement in Greenland.

Songs of Kings. Barry Unsworth. A retelling of the Trojan War story.

The Warlord Chronicles [The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur]. Bernard Cornwell. 3 volumes set in 5C Britain following the most probable theory on the historical Arthur. The Celts are trying to hold it together after the Romans have withdrawn and a mystery cult from the Middle East, called Christianity, is moving in to spoil everyone’s fun.

THE MIDDLE AGES

The Corner That Held Them. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Set in a nunnery, with a convincing depiction of its internal politics, in England during the Black Death, a time of great social upheaval.

Down by the Common. Ann Baer. Realistic – almost too realistic considering the state of sanitation – account of a year in the life of a medieval peasant woman.

Ivanhoe. Sir Walter Scott. Although the Normans have ruled England for 100 years, tensions with the conquered Saxons still run high. Robin Hood lends a hand. Scott may be considered the founder of the genre and this book is still quite readable.

Morality Play. Barry Unsworth. Set among a traveling troupe of actors doing Mystery Plays in 14C England. Explores the beginnings of theatre as well as life and belief at that time.

RENAISSANCE AND EARLY MODERN PERIOD

Black Robe. Brian Moore. Set among the Jesuit missionaries in 17C North America, a thoughtful depiction of culture clash.

An Instance of the Fingerpost. Iain Pears. Multifaceted novel covering politics, religion, and science in early 17C England, mainly Oxford.

Jem (and Sam). Ferdinand Mount. A young man sets out to make a name for himself in Restoration London but is upstaged at every turn by some smart aleck named Samuel Pepys.

The Lymond Chronicles [The Game of Kings, Queen’s Play, The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle, Checkmate]. Dorothy Dunnett. 6 volumes follow the life and adventures of a Scottish soldier of fortune throughout Europe and the Middle East in the mid-16C.

Restoration. Rose Tremain. Set during the reign of Charles II. The title has a double meaning as a courtier finds the true meaning of life amid plague and politics and the Great Fire of London.

Year of Wonders. Geraldine Brooks. Based on a true incident during the 1666 plague year in England. Chronicles what happens to the residents of a village when they voluntarily quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of the disease.

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

The American Chronicle [Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, DC, The Golden Age]. Gore Vidal. In 7 volumes, beginning in the late 18C and ending in the McCarthy era, Vidal provides a rather acerbic but always entertaining view of American history.

Drums Along the Mohawk. Walter D. Edmonds. Set in upstate NY during the American Revolution, a vivid depiction of daily life on the frontier in wartime.

The Year of the French. Thomas Flanagan. Set in 1798 when the French attempted to aid an uprising against British rule in Ireland.

NINETEENTH CENTURY

Beloved. Toni Morrison. A slave woman escapes to Ohio but still is not safe. A wrenching depiction of American slavery.

Cold Mountain. Charles Frazier. A Civil War deserter attempts to get back to the woman he loves in the North Carolina mountains while she struggles through a hardscrabble existence. Beautifully written depiction of life and attitudes.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman. John Fowles. Wonderful exploration of Victorian sexual mores.

Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry. Epic tale of life and death on a cattle drive in late 19C Texas.

Possession. A.S. Byatt. The story shuttles between the secret love affair between two 19C writers and the modern day scholars who discover their correspondence. A brilliant recreation of 19C literary life.

TWENTIETH CENTURY

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Ernest J. Gaines. Her dramatic and moving life story begins in slavery and spans to the Civil Rights Movement in the South in the 1950s.

Charlotte Gray. Sebastian Faulks. A cracking adventure story but also an unblinking look at life in occupied France during World War II.

Gone to Soldiers. Marge Piercy. Follows the intertwined lives of ten people, ranging from soldiers to codebreakers to factory workers, during World War II.

Ragtime. E.L. Doctorow. The comfortable life of a middle class family in pre-World War I upstate NY is shattered by outside forces ranging from racism and terrorism to the beginnings of the motion picture industry. The prose has a ragtime rhythm.

Raj Quartet [The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, A Division of the Spoils]. Paul Scott. A huge, multidimensional depiction of the British in India as they prepare to give up their rule after WWII.

Rumors of Peace. Ella Leffland. A girl comes of age in California as World War II begins.

Snow Falling on Cedars. David Guterson. Set in the Pacific Northwest during WWII.

Spies. Michael Frayn. Set in an English village during WWII from the point of view of a young boy. Brilliant depiction of home front life at the time as the boy misinterprets the actions of adults around him and decides his friend’s mother is a spy for the Germans.
 

Helene Androski for the WLA Readers Section
April 2003
handroski@library.wisc.edu