The best overlooked and/or largely forgotten historical fiction novels

The Books I Picked & Why

Godric

By Frederick Buechner

Godric

Why this book?

There’s a sort of electric thrill on opening a book, reading the first sentence, and realising that you are about to plunge into something strange, wonderful, and expansive. It’s like labouring up a hill towards a distant ridge and then, on cresting the ridge, finding a whole new unsuspected world opening up before you. It was like that for me when first reading Godric. “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” That’s the first line in the book. If, like me, you read that and are immediately interested, then read on, for you won’t be disappointed. Godric takes an almost forgotten figure from history, a 12th-century hermit, and, by the magic of an almost alchemical use of language, brings him and his times to life, neither diminishing their strangeness nor distancing him from the reader. 


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Eagle in the Snow

By Wallace Breem

Eagle in the Snow

Why this book?

For writers of historical fiction, Eagle in the Snow has attained almost mythical status. First published fifty years ago, the book is still in print mainly through the enthusiastic recommendation of readers. Wallace Breem wrote only two other works and died in 1990, so there will be nothing more from his pen. It adds piquancy to the themes of the story: it’s a tale of the passing of things and the dying of an empire. It’s the tale of a man struggling against the fading of the light, even though he knows the struggle is hopeless. It’s a story of endings in a world that does not understand its mortality.


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The Mask of Apollo

By Mary Renault

The Mask of Apollo

Why this book?

The final sentence of The Mask of Apollo has haunted me for decades since I first read the book in my teens. When I read it again, many years later, I discovered that the story is as moving as I remembered. Renault weaves a fascinating re-creation of classical Greek theatre with Plato’s attempt to tutor a true philosopher king in the kingdom of Syracuse. But it’s the final chapter, after Plato’s death, that raises the book to the level of tragedy. For then we meet the young Alexander, already almost god-like in his charisma, a fire seeking fuel for its burning. Alexander burns through the world seeking it, but what he is looking for in the world has already left it: a broken Plato has already died.


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Goodbye, Mr. Chips

By James Hilton

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Why this book?

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is supposed to be a sentimental paean to a lost England. I am here to say that this is wrong. The sentiment in Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a true sentiment: a sentiment for what was lost – the ideal of the gentleman – and grief for what those good, earnest teachers turning out schoolboys had done: turned boys, with all their enthusiasm and courage and hope, into meat for the grinder of the First World War. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is not the story people think it is. Read it and see.


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Helena

By Evelyn Waugh

Helena

Why this book?

Helena is Evelyn Waugh’s most overlooked novel but it is my favourite. I love it for how Waugh depicts Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constatine, but what raises it to a place in any best-of list is a passage of writing that ranks as Waugh’s best - and he sets a very high bar for himself. Towards the end of the book Helena prays for her salvation but, reading it, we realise that Waugh is praying for his own salvation too, for those “who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation… of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.” 


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