The best novels featuring historical figures

The Books I Picked & Why


By Maggie O'Farrell

Book cover of Hamnet

Why this book?

I love anything about Shakespeare. This is the story of William Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11. Little is known about the boy, but Maggie O’Farrell weaves a moving story out of the bare facts. It is a story about the profound grief and loss shared by Shakespeare and his wife, Ann, whose name is Agnes in this book. She comes to life, too, and O’Farrell gives us a portrait of a marriage like any other where a husband and wife are sometimes at odds, sometimes want different things, but try to understand themselves in their grief. A beautifully written book, too, evoking Stratford-upon-Avon in the sixteenth century.

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Miss Austen: A Novel of the Austen Sisters

By Gill Hornby

Book cover of Miss Austen: A Novel of the Austen Sisters

Why this book?

Miss Austen is Cassandra, sister of the more famous Jane, who takes centre stage in this story, though Jane is there, too, as the beloved missed sister, not the novelist. The year is 1840, Jane has been dead for twenty years, Cassandra is in her sixties and though frail is on a quest to find some missing letters which may reveal secrets about Jane and Cassandra which must not be known. It’s a mystery and we want to know if Cassandra will find those letters, but it is also a touching portrait of sisterly devotion. Cassandra makes an admirable heroine, determined and resourceful despite her frailty. It also tells much about the way in which spinsters, usually ignored by society, have a rich and complex inner life.

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The Poison Keeper: An enthralling historical novel of Renaissance Italy

By Deborah Swift

Book cover of The Poison Keeper: An enthralling historical novel of Renaissance Italy

Why this book?

Another woman steps out of the shadows of history in this novel about seventeenth-century Italy. Gulia Tofana was a notorious poisoner of terrible men and Deborah Swift explores in a tale full of excitement and drama the imagined early career of Gulia whose mother was executed for murder. Gulia just wants to be an apothecary, but her friendship with the abused wife of an aristocratic, power greedy husband draws her into murder. It is full of rich detail – you can feel the heat, smell the perfume, hear the rustle of silk and taffeta, and you can’t help being on the side of the women trapped in a corrupt and violent world.

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Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel

Book cover of Wolf Hall

Why this book?

Another famous man from the sixteenth century, this time Thomas Cromwell. The Holbein portrait of Thomas Cromwell shows us a very grim-looking character with shrewd eyes looking away from us. History gives us Henry VIII’s political fixer. Hilary Mantel gives us the living, breathing man, abused by a cruel father, later grieving for his dead wife and his adored daughter while negotiating a political world in which a man must be as ruthless as his enemies. Hilary Mantel shows us that history is not as simple as it might seem, and Thomas Cromwell is a human being with all the contradictions and complexities that human nature holds. And there is so much to be learnt about the Tudor period. A compelling read.

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The Windsor Knot

By Sj Bennett

Book cover of The Windsor Knot

Why this book?

This is a detective story featuring Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II investigating a very nasty murder with the help of her assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, formerly a captain in the army. The victim is a Russian musician, a guest at Windsor Castle. Naturally, the men in charge at Windsor think the Queen ought to be shielded from the nasty details. That’s a mistake. The 90-year-old Queen knows all about the wicked world and brings her shrewd knowledge of human nature and cunning to find out whodunnit. A marvellous portrait of the Queen – very funny at times and you learn a lot about how the court works. The Queen knows all that’s going on and what she doesn’t know, Rozie Oshodi finds out for her.

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