The best historical fiction books for making you think you’re really there

Andrew Martin Author Of The Necropolis Railway
By Andrew Martin

The Books I Picked & Why

Barnaby Rudge

By Charles Dickens

Book cover of Barnaby Rudge

Why this book?

Dickens was born in 1812 and Barnaby Rudge is set in 1775 and 1780, the year of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in London. But the fascinating thing about the book is that much of the London Charles Dickens specialized in describing did not yet exist at the time. As the narration has it, "Nature was not so far removed, or hard to get at," and the book is intensely bucolic in a woozy way. See, for example, the description of a central location of the book, The Maypole Inn: "With its overhanging stories, drowsy little panes of glass, and front bulging out and projecting over the pathway, the old house looked as though it were nodding in its sleep." Dickens had a deep affection for the century before his own; he evokes it brilliantly here. 

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By Peter Ackroyd

Book cover of Hawksmoor

Why this book?

Hawksmoor is a tale of murder and ghostly happenings in some London churches. It’s set partly in the modern-day (or 1985, when it was published) and partly in the early 18th Century. The 18th Century language – making full use of the randomized capitalization favoured at the time – is amazingly vivid: "Mr. Vanbrugghe…blew into my Closet like a dry leaf in a Hurricanoe." Indeed, the modern-day scenes are deliberately slightly pallid in comparison with Ackroyd’s fever dream of the past. I have read this book three times, and it remains mysterious to me – which I mean as a compliment. 

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The Greatest Gresham

By Gillian Avery

Book cover of The Greatest Gresham

Why this book?

For comfort reading, I like period children’s stories, as written by, say, E.Nesbit, Noel Streatfield, Richmal Crompton. Childhood seems to have been more fun when it came up against the constraints of an adult society more formal than our own. Gillian Avery’s achievement was to write spirited historical children’s stories that have all the social nuance you would find in the above authors. The Greatest Gresham (written in 1962, set in the 1890s) is about the timid children of one family who are brought out of their shells by the bolder kids next door, and it all feels just right. For instance, when the mother of the timid children is out on her ‘calling’ (or visiting) day, they always have tea with the family maids, one of whom habitually reads their fortune in their tea leaves. 

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The Go-Between

By L. P. Hartley

Book cover of The Go-Between

Why this book?

The Go-Between is a haunting, doom-laden book about a naïve boy – Leo – out of his depth when staying with a socially smarter friend in a British country house. It’s set in the heatwave summer of 1911 and made such a big impression on me that I wrote a novel of my own set in that summer. The first line of The Go-Between is famous: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Cue the dissolve into an Edwardian dreamworld that slowly turns nightmarish. 

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Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

By Cormac McCarthy

Book cover of Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

Why this book?

The back cover of the edition I own states, "Through the hostile landscape of the Texas-Mexico border wanders the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who is quickly swept up in the relentless tide of blood." The story is set in the mid-19th Century, and it is a Western, albeit one that makes almost any other Western seem as amiable as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is a very violent book, but also a very sensual one. You are always right there. I could quote almost any sentence from the book to prove this, but here’s one: "They set forth in a crimson dawn where sky and earth closed in a razorous plane."

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