The 10 “best” historical novels, sort of…

19 June 2013

The BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen, which began last Sunday, has led numerous books editors to pick their 10 best historical novels. I played this silly dinner party game last year (although I forget the inspiration). And, while admitting that it was nigh on impossible to pick 10, I came up with:

J.G. Farrell’s Empire Trilogy
Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities
Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour
Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander
Robert Graves’s I Claudius
JM Coetzee’s Disgrace
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Pat Barker’s Regeneration
Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

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There were some frankly lamentable omissions from my list. George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series (of which the first is much the best of a good bunch), War and Peace, Les Miserables, Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great series, Catch 22, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (which was so good that it made me realise how much I’d underestimated Wolf Hall), Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of George Shearston, Rose Tremain’s Merivel novels and on, and on, and on. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Sir Walter Scott…

I can’t see the point of altering my list (life’s too short); but I might change my reasons for choosing some of those particular books.

JM Coetzee’s Disgrace is an uncomfortable read, and I suspect that if one re-read it today, while many people are wondering if South Africa will withstand Nelson Mandela’s seemingly imminent death, it would assume other qualities (if ‘qualities’ is quite the right word). Since compiling the list, I have dipped back into the Empire Trilogy, the Raj Quartet and Sword of Honour. Each bears repeated attention and merits study. This time, for instance, Paul Scott’s dialogue stood out: there is a scene where Sarah Layton is trying to tell her father, recently returned from captivity in Germany, an intimate detail and he cuts her off with words of kindness rather than disgust. This familial exchange would have worked in any book worth its salt.

I’ve also flicked through The Leopard after a friend, who was reading it for the first time, reminded me of Lampedusa’s beguiling sense of place of time. Night is falling as Don Fabrizio takes his carriage to see his mistress in a nearby town. The hills above the darkening road are lit by enemy soldiers’ campfires. I have not done the description any justice because I missed the paragraph in question on my lazy speed-read; but my friend’s account reminded me of when I first saw the image in my mind’s eye. Best look for it again.

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Show comments
  • Kristian Gustafson

    Are we all to high-brow for Pillars of the Earth? And what defines “historical novel”? Anything that happened before we got our 2.1s from Oxbridge?

  • D B

    I suppose it depends on how you define “historical novel”.

  • schultpe

    Erich Maria Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT must be included in here somewhere.

  • Charles G


  • Michael William Stone

    There’s also Alison MacLeod’s “The Heretics”, about the life of Anne Askew. Best thing I’ve ever read about the Tudor period.
    Margaret Irwin’s novels are also pretty good.

  • Thor fenris

    How on Earth is Disgrace Historical? It was written in the 1990s and set in the 1990s.

    • DBlackburn

      That, in 2013, is what makes it historical.

  • Jambo25

    Vasily Grossman ‘Life and Fate’ and ‘Everything Flows’. In my humble opinion two of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

    • Kristian Gustafson

      Life and Fate is frankly jaw-dropping. Few enough have read it in English, though, and so it hasn’t entered the canon like War and Peace, it’s inspiration

  • Terence Hale

    The 10 “best” historical novels, sort of… OK but … I have
    most of the book in my library but Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan
    Denisovich is wrong because he won the noble prize, must better is August
    1914 a wonderful book from him.

    • Bob339

      Nobel prize.

  • Peter Jackson

    Thackeray’s Henry Esmond.
    Harrison Ainsworth’s Lancashire Witches

  • Bill Peschel

    Thank you, BBC, for protecting Americans from seeing “The White Queen” trailer. Wouldn’t want it to be popular with the wrong people, you know?

  • Aaron Ellis

    Olivia Manning’s ‘The Balkan Trilogy’; Roth’s ‘The Radetsky March’ (the last few pages of which made me cry).

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