The best novels to bring you close to historical figures

Joanne Limburg Author Of A Want of Kindness
By Joanne Limburg

The Books I Picked & Why

Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel

Book cover of Wolf Hall

Why this book?

This is the first of three books which tell the story of Henry VIII’s right-hand man and fixer, Thomas Cromwell. Written in the present tense, it puts the reader right in the centre of Cromwell’s complex, seductive and dangerous world. We see him rise from lowly origins to be one of the most powerful men in England, but we understand that the axe could fall at any time. This is the book that showed me how powerful historical fiction could be.

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The Blue Flower

By Penelope Fitzgerald

Book cover of The Blue Flower

Why this book?

It’s an unusual historical novel which opens with a scene of drying laundry, and this is a novel like no other. Set in late 18th Century Germany, it covers the student years of Friedrich von Hardenberg, who would later achieve fame as the Romantic poet Novalis. 

He becomes obsessed with Sophie von Kühn, a sickly (and very young) girl. They become engaged, but never marry, as Sophie dies of consumption a few days after her 15th birthday. The novel is named for Friedrich’s other obsession, a story he is writing in which a young man longs to see the blue flower that “lies incessantly at his heart.” The more he tries to grasp the meaning of this image, the more it eludes him. I love this book for daring to open with a laundry scene, for its beautiful writing, and for its theme of finding the beauty and wonder in small, ordinary things.

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By Rose Tremain

Book cover of Restoration

Why this book?

The character at the centre of this book, the clownish and exuberant physician Merivel, is fictional, but his world revolves around the very real figure of Charles II. After Merivel cures one of the King’s favourite spaniels, Charles enlists him to marry his newest mistress – a ruse to draw his very jealous main mistress, Barbara Villiers, off the scent. Merivel receives a country estate in return and is sent to live there with his new wife, under strict instructions not to touch her. When he falls for her, he is kicked out of their home and seeks refuge with a student friend at the New Bedlam Hospital. He needs to get back into the King’s good books. Like its anti-hero, this novel is ebullient, funny, and strangely loveable.

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By Janice Galloway

Book cover of Clara

Why this book?

One of the great things historical novels can do is bring previously sidelined figures into the centre, and Galloway’s book is perhaps my favourite example of this. The title character is the nineteenth-century German pianist and composer, Clara Schumann, nee Wieck. We first meet her as a child prodigy, controlled by her overbearing father, and then come to know her as Clara Schumann, hardworking musician, mother, and wife to the increasingly erratic Robert Schumann. Galloway makes you feel as if you know what it’s like to live as a nineteenth-century woman, and a famous and gifted one at that.

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Apology For The Woman Writing

By Jenny Diski

Book cover of Apology For The Woman Writing

Why this book?

This is a book about being a celebrity’s biggest fan. In 16th Century France, eighteen-year-old Marie de Gournay reads the essays of the philosopher Montaigne, and is so overwhelmed that she faints. When she finally meets her idol, she stabs herself with a hairpin to prove her devotion. For two blissful months, she lives as his adopted daughter. When he dies four years later, de Gournay devotes herself to editing the writings he left behind, persisting even though she is despised both by the intellectuals of the time and by her own family. I know how it feels to be that intense, socially awkward, bookish girl and I found Marie’s story extremely moving.

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