The best books to unlock treasures from Sweden’s Gustavian Age

Who am I?

Stockholm was the first city that I traveled to outside of the U.S. Landing there at Midsommar and visiting the Old Town made an indelible impression. I lived and worked in Sweden for almost 10 years, and had little time for history then, but later found Stockholm in the Gustavian age irresistible as the basis for my first novel. It was a period of cultural flowering, of occult fascinations, social change, and great drama. Readers tend to look further south, in France and Great Britain, for their historical fiction, histories, and biographies, but there are great stories further north as well. 


I wrote...

The Stockholm Octavo

By Karen Engelmann,

Book cover of The Stockholm Octavo

What is my book about?

The Stockholm Octavo is the story of Emil Larsson, a self-satisfied customs agent and devoted card shark living in Sweden’s capitol city in 1791. His gambling partner, gaming house owner Mrs. Sofia Sparrow, insists on reading Emil’s Octavo, a form of fortunetelling with playing cards revealing eight people surrounding a significant event in his life. Emil believes the Octavo will lead him to comfort and ease via a convenient marriage, but instead it involves him in an assassination plot against King Gustav III — and a chance to change history. Personal ambition, politics, assassination plots, love, fortunetelling, and folding fans combine in a heady fantasy with a historical core.

The books I picked & why

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The Wolf and the Watchman

By Niklas Natt Och Dag,

Book cover of The Wolf and the Watchman

Why this book?

There are so few novels in English that explore Gustavian Stockholm, and this is a thrilling page-turner set in 1793 that explores the dark side of the capital city one year after the assassination of King Gustav III. Mikel Cardell, a watchman with a brutal past in the army, and Cecil Winge, an investigator who is hovering near death himself, team up to find the perpetrator of a heinous murder. Author Niklas Natt och Dag (translates to Night and Day — an old aristocratic name) has written a story steeped in graphic, gory period detail and authentic atmosphere.  


The Life and Songs of Carl Michael Bellman: Genius of the Swedish Rococo

By Paul Britten Austin,

Book cover of The Life and Songs of Carl Michael Bellman: Genius of the Swedish Rococo

Why this book?

Musician, poet, drunkard, genius, and scoundrel, Carl Michael Bellman was a fascinating historical figure that I badly wanted as a character in my novel but had to cut. If music can define an era, then Bellman is the voice of the Gustavian age. This wonderful, illustrated non-fiction work brought Bellman and 18th century Stockholm to life for me; I borrowed it from the library for two years while working on the first draft of my own book. (Eventually, I bought my own copy.) Bellman’s songs and spirit remain part of Swedish culture today. 


The Fatal Friendship

By Stanley Loomis,

Book cover of The Fatal Friendship

Why this book?

I loved learning about the close ties that existed between Sweden and France in the late 18th century and the French Revolution figured in the plot of my novel. This fabulous non-fiction work explores the politics, intrigues, and plotting of the period through the intimate connection between Marie Antoinette, doomed Queen of France, and her purported lover, Axel von Fersena Swedish nobleman. The revolution was reaching a fevered pitch when King Gustav III of Sweden sent von Fersen to assist the French royal family in their escape from Paris — an epic failure told with passion by Mr. Loomis! 


Désirée: The Bestselling Story of Napoleon's First Love

By Annemarie Selinko,

Book cover of Désirée: The Bestselling Story of Napoleon's First Love

Why this book?

Sometimes you want to know what happens after. What happens after King Gustav is assassinated, his son is deemed unfit and abdicates, and the next King — Gustav’s brother Karl — dies without an heir? Eventually, Sweden ends up with a King brought in from France. Huh?! This book is a bit old-fashioned but a fun, easy read that weaves together French and Swedish history with the story of Désirée Clary, the daughter of a silk merchant who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s first love and later became Queen of Sweden as the wife of General Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. (The Bernadottes are Sweden’s royal family to this day.) 


Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie,

Book cover of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Why this book?

While the connection between Sweden and France played a bigger part in my own book, Russia was another major player in Gustavian politics. Bribery, spies, influence peddlers, and diplomatic posturing were all part of the scene in Stockholm. To make it even juicier, Catherine the Great was Gustav III’s cousin! She had her eye on Sweden as an extension of her empire and arranged to have her 13-year-old granddaughter marry Gustav III’s son. This brilliant biography was a delightful period rabbit hole to dive into when primary research was done. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Sweden, France, and empresses?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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