The best historical novels about creativity and the arts

The Books I Picked & Why

Four Letters of Love

By Niall Williams

Book cover of Four Letters of Love

Why this book?

This beautiful book is possibly the most important book of my writing career. I found it in a second-hand bookstore in Dublin on a rainy afternoon and, like the plot, I felt that my finding it was a stroke of providence. I was so moved by the story that I immediately signed up for a writing workshop with the author. That workshop was a defining moment in my life – after it, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Although this story is not directly about art, it shows how a man’s calling, his compulsion to paint, plays a key role in the lives and the destinies of others. The novel has a fairytale-like quality to it, a poetic timelessness that captures the essence of spirituality and love.

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Girl Reading

By Katie Ward

Book cover of Girl Reading

Why this book?

Girl Reading is a highly creative and imaginative book. Superbly written, it takes the reader on a journey through time, and the vehicle for that journey is art. There are seven scenes from seven different time periods, each depicting an artist and a portrait of a girl or woman reading. It is such an original concept and it’s thoroughly absorbing. Given my fascination with history and art, I absolutely devoured it. Girl Reading went on to play an important role in my own writing life. I was so impressed with it that when it came to sending my own book out to agents, I sent my manuscript to Katie Ward’s agent, who is now my own.   

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The Lady and the Unicorn

By Tracy Chevalier

Book cover of The Lady and the Unicorn

Why this book?

Although the obvious choice when considering a Tracy Chevalier novel about art would be Girl With a Pearl Earring, I found The Lady and The Unicorn to be equally as engaging. The story of how a tapestry comes to life is different to the story behind a painting. I enjoyed the way the novel is woven together like a tapestry itself through a number of different narratives, and that it has a common thread running through it in the character of Nicolas des Innocents, a womanizing artist. I also liked the way it provides a wonderful blend of fact and fiction that gives the reader a glimpse into 15th-century art and craftsmanship.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Oscar Wilde

Book cover of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Why this book?

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde sits on my bookshelf like a literary Goliath and I dip into it from time to time for inspiration. Wilde is a master of prose and writes with incredible wit and agility. Replete with famous aphorisms, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a dark tale of art and life, of meaning and superficiality, of soul and conscience. What I love the most about this book is the constant references to art imitating life and vice-versa. This is a classic masterpiece, at times chilling, at times philosophical, and yet, as you can only expect from Oscar Wilde, consistently humorous.

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The Noise of Time

By Julian Barnes

Book cover of The Noise of Time

Why this book?

"Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it….art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time". 

This powerful novel, charting the life and career of the Russian composer Shostakovich (albeit a fictional account) reveals how artistic freedoms are stripped away under totalitarianism and what that does to an artist’s soul. It gives a chilling insight into the relationship between art and power, and the way a creative life is utterly compromised by the workings of a Communist regime. I found it a fascinating book as it showed me how creativity can still find a way to flourish even in the absence of artistic freedom.  

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