The best historical books about the common people

Lucienne Boyce Author Of The Fatal Coin: A Dan Foster novella
By Lucienne Boyce

The Books I Picked & Why

Mary and The Wrongs of Woman

By Mary Wollstonecraft

Book cover of Mary and The Wrongs of Woman

Why this book?

The eighteenth-century writer Mary Wollstonecraft is one of my literary heroines. This may not seem like the best book to pick as she died before she could finish it, but there’s enough here to make her personality – intelligent, trenchant, independent – shine through. It tells the story of upper-class Maria, imprisoned by her husband in a lunatic asylum; and working-class Jemima, an asylum attendant. Jemima was born out of wedlock and into poverty, and has suffered economic exploitation, sexual violence, hunger, and destitution. Jemima’s story forms only part of the novel, but the bond formed across the class divide between the two women is the catalyst for Maria to start to understand the roots of her own oppression.


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Adam Bede

By George Eliot

Book cover of Adam Bede

Why this book?

I love George Eliot’s work, and this, her first novel, is my favourite. Adam Bede is a carpenter who’s in love with dairymaid Hetty Sorrell, but their lives are turned upside down when the squire seduces her. Eliot confronts issues of class, illegitimacy, gender power imbalance, and the double standard – it is not the squire who suffers the consequences of the affair. Dinah Morris, the cousin who stands by Hetty in her trouble, is a wonderful character. She’s a Methodist preacher at a time when church authorities insisted women shouldn’t minister – the Methodist Conference banned women preachers in 1803, and the Church of England didn’t ordain women until 1994 when 32 women were ordained at Bristol Cathedral – I was there! So Dinah represents a strong working woman who is making a truly radical stand against a powerful institution.


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Feet in Chains

By Kate Roberts, Katie Gramich

Book cover of Feet in Chains

Why this book?

My father was Welsh, and so I’m drawn to Welsh stories and history. Feet in Chains is about Jane and Ifan Gruffydd’s struggle to keep body and soul together on their small holding near Caernarfon, and raise their children. Ifan is a quarryman, at the mercy of powerful employers who can lower wages or increase hours at will. Kate Roberts was herself the daughter of a quarryman and was brought up on her parents’ smallholding in Caernarfonshire. Like two of the Gruffydd children, she won a scholarship enabling her to attend school. She became a teacher, but had to give up her career when she married because of the marriage bar on women. Her personal experiences give the novel much of its power. 


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The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868

By V.A.C. [Vic] Gatrell

Book cover of The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868

Why this book?

The Hanging Tree is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read about how the other half (more like seven-eights actually) lived. It describes the experience of the mainly lower-class people who suffered under the Bloody Code, when over 250 offences carried the death penalty. By using diaries, memoirs, broadsides, petitions for mercy, letters, and other contemporary documents, Gatrell gives voice to the executed, their executioners, witnesses, reformers, judges and juries. It’s an unflinching study of a ghastly reality that goes to the heart of what it means to be a civilized society and challenges several cozy myths along the way. I admit it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, and of course, the subject matter is dark, but Gatrell is a compelling writer, vivid, forthright and passionate.


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City of Beasts: How Animals Shaped Georgian London

By Thomas Almeroth-Williams

Book cover of City of Beasts: How Animals Shaped Georgian London

Why this book?

One of the cliches of historical fiction is that it can bring the past to life in a way that factual historical books can’t. If you read the superb City of Beasts you’ll think again! The book studies the many ways in which animals contributed to and shaped eighteenth-century London. History has largely overlooked their presence – but Almeroth-Williams puts them back in all their noisy, smelly, messy, toiling existence. Here, too, are the men and women who worked with them - the drovers, milkmaids, grooms, and pig keepers whose lives don’t often find a place in the history books. If you want sights, sounds, and smells, here they are in plenty. Few books I’ve read, fact or fiction, have given me such a vivid impression of the every day, working life of Georgian London.


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