The best historical novels inspired by the lives of famous writers

The Books I Picked & Why

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

By Therese Anne Fowler

Book cover of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Why this book?

Zelda Fitzgerald was one half of literature’s power couple in 1920s America. She finally gets the artistic credit she deserves in Fowler’s examination of her complex marriage with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I especially enjoyed that this novel doesn’t shy away from representing Zelda’s flaws, even as it seeks to reject the two-dimensional stereotype of the ultimate flapper that many readers will be familiar with. Here’s to seeing more nuanced, and at times unlikeable, women protagonists in historical fiction!


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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?

Jane Austen seems never to have experienced the kind of sweeping romance the heroines in her novels enjoy, but what if she did have secrets, which have been hidden to us until now? In Miss Austen, Gill Hornby brings to life Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister, as she seeks to protect her famous sibling’s reputation. Writing Austenian dialogue and letters is no mean feat, but Hornby more than pulls it off in this quiet, but compelling read.


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Hamnet

By Maggie O'Farrell

Book cover of Hamnet

Why this book?

William Shakespeare came to London and took the theater world by storm, but what of the wife and children he left behind? His son Hamnet may be the title character of O’Farrell’s lauded historical read, but it’s Shakespeare’s wife Agnes—the eccentric girl, skilled healer, and grieving mother—who drives this novel forward. The prose is sparkling, the relationships feel real, and the conclusion is heartbreaking. 


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Mrs. Poe

By Lynn Cullen

Book cover of Mrs. Poe

Why this book?

I didn’t know much about the life of American Gothic writer Edgar Allen Poe before reading this novel about his mistress, Frances Osgood, who was also an author. The parallels with my debut book are obvious. Cullen and I share interests in adultery, the muse/artist dynamic, and the stultifying inequality of nineteenth-century marriages.


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Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel

By Edmund White

Book cover of Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel

Why this book?

Stephen Crane is most famous for his 1893 novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, but it is his lost companion novel, about a male sex worker in late nineteenth-century New York, which is the focus of Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream. White moves between a frame story about Crane’s last days with his “wife” Cora and the story of Elliott, the supposed inspiration for the manuscript. I’m a New Yorker by choice so love reading books set in the city and I very much enjoyed this gritty portrayal of love and sex between men in the past. Crane isn’t the only writer who makes an appearance here—there’s a cameo from Henry James too!


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