From Dickens to Mantel – the fiction that makes the past gloriously real
Later this month, the Royal Shakespeare Company will stage an adaptation of The Mirror and the Light, the final novel in Hilary Mantel’s great trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. The first two novels in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both won the Booker Prize: a reminder that historical fiction has repeatedly reached literary heights.
Indeed, Walter Scott’s Waverley, published in 1814, and the only novel to have given its name to a station, stands as one of the most significant works in the history of European literature: both its use of the Jacobite uprising was innovative. of 1745 as a fictional backdrop that served to launch a whole new genre. Today, history is as likely to be a theme on the shelves of fiction as it is on the shelves of non-fiction. At best, it can bring the past to life like nothing else and transport the reader to an era that might otherwise seem incredibly distant. A fictitious view of history cannot be less faithful to a bygone era than a vision written with scholarly intent.
Here is my pick of 20 must-see historical novels. I chose to exclude those which, although taking place in the past, are not classically classified as historical fiction (therefore no War and Peace, no Les Misérables, no Midnight’s Children). The story should be the central theme of the novel. I also sought to convey something of the astonishing breadth of the tradition.
There are novels which, like Waverley, are deeply rooted in realism; and there are novels which freely embrace the supernatural. There are novels which are conscious works of art; and there are novels that serve primarily as adventures, or romances, or both. The whole story is here.
Ivanhoé, by Walter Scott (1819)
Scott’s transition from 18th century Scotland to medieval England proved to be a colossal success. Much to the frustration of medievalists, his portrayal of a society divided between Norman and Saxon continues to influence how the Middle Ages are understood to this day.
The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
No character has ever broken a loop with such dashing effect as the eponymous heroes of Dumas’ thrilling adventure story. Chivalrous swordsmen, villainous beauties, Machiavellian cardinals: the 17th century has rarely been made so glamorous.
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859)
As influential in the way the British perceive the French Revolution as Ivanhoe was in the evolution of attitudes towards the Middle Ages, this is quite simply the greatest historical novel written in English.