The best historical novels featuring positive LGBTQ+ characters

Rosie Garland Author Of Vixen
By Rosie Garland

The Books I Picked & Why

The Persian Boy

By Mary Renault

Book cover of The Persian Boy

Why this book?

Although published in 1972, this novel feels as fresh as the day it was written. I read it as a child, a long time before I knew what ‘gay’ was, let alone knew it meant me. But the voice of the narrator Bagoas spoke to me clear across the centuries. He’s a young man from the time of Alexander the Great, sold as a eunuch slave, and he’s heartbreaking, funny, and poignant. An absolutely stunning creation.

The novel also taught me how it’s far more effective to write about a famous historical character from the viewpoint of a bystander.

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The Color Purple

By Alice Walker

Book cover of The Color Purple

Why this book?

Wow, just wow. In this rollercoaster of a novel, the reader is swept into the fully realised world of 1930s Deep South USA. The narrative does not shy away from the realities of abuse and racism, and at times is a grim read. However, the loving relationship of Celie and Shug is central to the story and shines through as a guiding light. Redemption is hard-won through the transformative power of love and self-acceptance. I particularly recommend the novel to folk who’ve only seen the movie. The book does so much more.

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By Sarah Waters

Book cover of Affinity

Why this book?

This wasn’t the first Sarah Waters novel I read (it’s her second), but it was the one where I completely fell in love with her writing. Set in Victorian England, Margaret Prior is haunted by her past. Thinking she’ll push the shadows away through charitable works, she becomes a Prison Visitor. However, she meets – and falls for – mysterious inmate Selina Dawes and things go very, very wrong. 

I love novels where things are not quite as they seem and Waters is a mistress at creating an unsettling atmosphere. It also taught me a lot about writing from the viewpoint of more than one character.

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Orlando: A Biography

By Virginia Woolf

Book cover of Orlando: A Biography

Why this book?

This short novel was groundbreaking when first published in 1928 and is still unsurpassed. At the time, it was illegal in the UK to publish a story about a lesbian relationship, unless presented as a fantasy. Inspired by Woolf’s real-life relationship with Vita Sackville-West, the central character Orlando gallops through the centuries from Elizabethan England to 17th century Constantinople and beyond, shifting gender and enjoying a variety of male and female lovers as they go. The novel taught me a lot about the power and pleasure of writing otherworldly elements into what is seemingly a ‘real’ world.

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By Jane Eagland

Book cover of Wildthorn

Why this book?

Set in 19th century England, this novel is aimed at Young Adult readers and is a reminder that a good read is simply good, whatever age bracket it’s aimed at. It resonated with my own teenage struggles to break free of restrictive expectations – even though mine were trifling compared to what the heroine Louisa has to go through! She resists the restrictions of Victorian society and the limited choices available to women, and is locked up in an asylum. It prompted me to read more about the era and discovered the shocking truth of how this really happened to women who stepped out of line…

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