The best historical fiction based on real people

The Books I Picked & Why

The Master

By Colm Toίbίn

Book cover of The Master

Why this book?

The Master is a bravura portrayal of a great writer and a complex, lonely individual. The novel begins when James is at a low point in his writing career. We often forget that great writers have these lows, but for any writer the writing life is full of insecurity and real or imagined failure and James was no exception. At the start of this novel, he has chosen to retreat from public life by buying a house in Rye, England. In this new, private existence, he endures the consequences of his need for a protected space in which to write, and to conceal his sexuality. This, in the context of the notorious Oscar Wilde case.

The Master is a beautiful novel, nuanced and deeply moving. It takes a great writer to pull off a consummate portrayal of another great writer, and Toίbίn is never less than convincing in his evocation of James’ voice and his interior world.

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Remarkable Creatures

By Tracy Chevalier

Book cover of Remarkable Creatures

Why this book?

I am a great fan of Tracey Chevalier’s work, and this is probably my favourite of her novels - a book about fossil hunting, and friendship. The kind of friendship, between two women, that cuts across age and class. It also shapes the era in which they live. This novel shows how the ripples from individual acts and lives spread far and wide, even when those individuals remain relatively unknown. Mary Anning and Elizbeth Philpot form an unlikely, spiky friendship that changes history. One of the best qualities of historical fiction is that it can illuminate both the small and the large scale at the same time. This novel offers us small lives lived in a small town (Lyme Regis) that have (literally) ground-breaking repercussions that change the world. But it is the friendship you will remember. It is a friendship that cuts deep and wounds, but that ultimately transforms both lives.

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By Maggie O'Farrell

Book cover of Hamnet

Why this book?

If you are going to write about real historical figures then choosing someone about whom little is known offers a certain freedom. Shakespeare is at once one of the most famous figures in world history and the most mysterious. Of course, we know even less about his wife, except that she was older than him and had three children with him, two of whom survived.

There is a play (forgive the Shakespearian pun) on the theme of naming in this book. The eponymous Hamnett is the son of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway so one might expect the book to be about him, but it is Anne (referred to as Agnes) who will remain with you. Hamnet is also Hamlet, and Shakespeare himself is the only person who isn’t named.

If all this makes the book sound a little tricky and slippery, then I should say that essentially, it is about love and loss and grieving. Very few books make me cry, but I wept my way through the middle section, and have never been able to forget any of the characters since.

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Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel

Book cover of Wolf Hall

Why this book?

In direct contrast to the technique of choosing the lesser-known character from history, Mantel’s great trilogy offers us portraits of such luminaries as Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and, of course, Thomas Cromwell, the towering central figure in each novel.

It is perhaps cheating to nominate a trilogy. In all three books, however, Mantel takes on the enormous challenge of portraying figures who are so well known as to be stamped on the national imagination, and she does it so well, I believe she has succeeded in altering that imagination. Epic figures such as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, have been recreated and re-vitalised in her trilogy, but her portrayal of Cromwell, butcher’s boy, diplomat, political savant, and mass murderer, is a particular tour de force.

The historical novel will never be the same again after Mantel!

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A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth: Stories

By Daniel Mason

Book cover of A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth: Stories

Why this book?

An unusual one, this collection of short stories and historical fiction rarely appear in short form. But actually, I was just blown away by the writing! The first story, "Death of the Pugilist" is magnificent, and hard-hitting, if you’ll excuse another terrible pun, but the second, about Alfred Russel Wallace, is both exquisite and exquisitely painful. For those of you who are wondering who Alfred Russel Wallace was, he was a naturalist and explorer, whose contributions allowed Darwin to develop his theory of natural selection and evolution. Obviously, most of the credit has been given to Darwin for this world-changing theory while Wallace, who did not have Darwin’s social standing, remains overlooked, in one of those twists of history that speaks volumes about what is commemorated and what is not. Mason’s wonderful story implicitly questions the historical record, and by implication, history itself.

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