The Best Fiction Books » Historical Fiction

The Best Historical Novels

recommended by Vanora Bennett

Which are the best historical novels? Bestselling author Vanora Bennett recommends.

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Let’s start with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I wouldn’t normally think of it as a historical novel – why did you choose to put it on your list?

Partly because it’s one of my favourite books of all time and partly because I think it counts as a historical novel in my definition, which is very broad and is simply a novel that shows people’s lives from an earlier time. I don’t like the idea of containing historical fiction in this genre ghetto where you are sort of writing for the women’s market and you’ve got a lot of patronising. I love this idea that Tolstoy is telling this story from the past and meditating on what he thinks the nature of history is about. His idea is that it is very much an accident that things happen, and there are these small things – someone is in a bad mood at the time – that have vast repercussions across people’s lives. I love that. There are these Napoleon figures, these very vulgar kind of post-revolutionary French figures who are destroying the old Europe and who are mixed up with our heroes and heroines living their lives. I think it’s the most amazing mixture.

It’s told from the perspective of five aristocratic families: do these different points of view make it more accessible?

Yes, absolutely. It’s a panorama and you see everything from these epic battle scenes to a magical sleigh ride at night in the snow, which was the most beautiful and lyrical passage. You do have the sense of the whole of society interacting as they fall in love or their fortunes change because of the war; you see things on a big scale as well as a small scale at the same time.

Let’s move on to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

I read this a few years ago and it was one of those books you always remember because it creates a whole new way of thinking. I had no idea at the time that the medieval mindset was any different to the modern one. It is about the adventure of a Franciscan friar and his novice in medieval Italy and it is part murder mystery, part game with semiotics and medieval knowledge. At university I read lots of French books referring to this medieval period where all knowledge was supposed to be classified, and re-classified and super-classified, and it became sort of idiotic, this academic approach that these monks had. Yet there was something amazing about this belief that you could classify knowledge. It’s also very good storytelling, but the part I remember was the sort of library filled with knowledge and these games, which teased you with knowing things and not knowing things. It’s just this very complex mindset that’s really different from our own and because I knew nothing about it, it was just terribly exciting to be taken off into this world.

This book seems to appeal to a very wide variety of people from mathematicians and science fiction enthusiasts to linguists and literature professors…

I must say that I have tried to read a couple of other books by Umberto Eco and found them quite difficult, so I think he was reaching out to the world of fiction. There was an interesting book that I read recently by him about art and beauty in the Middle Ages, but it was so much more an academic book. I think The Name of the Rose crosses boundaries in a way that others don’t.

Let’s go on to the next book, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears.

This one is really complicated – maybe I just like them complicated. Pears is also a really intelligent man and has oscillated between writing fiction for entertainment and academics. He’s lived in Italy and he’s a professor and this book sort of speaks to all of those things. On the face of it, it’s about a murder in 17th-century Oxford, but quite amazing things are going on that are creepy yet fascinating. There were things I hadn’t thought about before like body stealing to learn dissections and anatomy. There is a lot about this rudimentary science, well, rudimentary to us but very exciting and magical to them. The first part of the book is told by one character and you feel you’ve learned the story. You get to the next part and it’s one of the other characters telling the same story but from his point of view and it’s really different. There are four characters who each tell it and each time you learn something new. Then you’re thinking it’s a clever game, but with the final story it suddenly becomes something different. I don’t want to give the story away but it’s a very moving and strange story with these religious overtones and it’s just amazing. It really blows you away.

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As a reader you tend to trust your narrator, so how does having four affect the way you’re reading the story?

I think it is reinforcing the way that the boundaries were being shifted at the time and that knowledge was expanding. You’re looking at the cadaver from different points of view and then looking at the story from different points of view too. It all fits together very beautifully. Then there’s the shock of something else.

Let’s move to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. She is very popular at the moment.

I love everything Hilary Mantel writes. She writes really dark things – historical novels and contemporary novels, they’ve all been extremely good. She’s got a real sense of other life out there and she weaves it brilliantly into her retelling of life as we live it. This is the first time she has taken on the hugest moment in British history; she’s gone from glimpses and cameos into this centre stage thing. The Tudor monarchy has a big moment with England leaving the Church of Rome for love – that’s the moment every film and television writer is interested in. She turns it upside down.

The idea that we’ve all held to be true is that Thomas More was the good guy, the man with the principles, who was prepared to die for them. He stood by his Catholicism and resigned from being Henry VIII’s servant and wouldn’t go with the change in church. Whereas Thomas Cromwell, who came afterwards, we’ve tended to believe that he was a bad guy. There’s a nasty picture of him by Holbein looking very thuggish, with slitty little eyes. She takes this Thomas Cromwell, who we think of as the bad guy, as her hero. Not an out-and-out hero but he is a nuanced character and she sort of remakes him as a human. She does re-create this sense of unexpectedness and threat and how is it going to end? Mostly we are too familiar with this story, we’ve lost that sense of how is it going to end?, so it’s very fascinating and very modern.

Thomas Cromwell is a boy from the gutter whose dad was a drunkard from Putney and he sort of arrived by his own merits. Anne Boleyn is this hugely ambitious girl, not beautiful but bug-eyed and calculating like a sparrow on speed. All the ladies pinch and push and all the aristocrats are these puffed-up fools who are cushioned by their sense of entitlement. Cromwell has ten times their brain power and is sly. He might look like a thug on the outside but he’s smarter than you think; he can outwit them and run rings round them. Yet unexpectedly he has this gift of compassion and he is able to look at people and pity them. By reinvestigating Thomas Cromwell she has managed to shed a whole new light on the story and her telling of it is very plausible as well.

Let’s talk about the next book, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. This is very different from your other choices…

It is. It’s about a girl named Nan who goes off to the Pantomime Theatre, which is on the South Coast of England, and sees a girl named Kitty, who is a male impersonator, on the stage and falls in love with her. You’re not sure if it’s a sexual love or a girlish crush but she does go off to London with her and it does turn into a love affair. They begin living together but it becomes complicated because they have to hide. Then Kitty falls in love with a man and Nan is heartbroken and goes off into this strange Edwardian underworld. She sets off as a male-impersonating prostitute for a little bit and goes off with men who think she is a boy, and it’s all very odd. She then gets taken in by an aristocratic woman who wants to keep her as a mistress. Finally, she ends up living with a family who are poor and hardworking and who are saving the underclass from themselves. At this point, all these lovers from her past come back and she has to choose. You feel she is going to go off with Kitty, but is she?

What I like is Waters’s sense of being very true. I think she was writing a PhD about London theatre at the turn of the century and then thought, well, I should do something that people want to read. It’s a very complete world; you really feel that you are there and that all these things are happening and you don’t have a moment where you find it hard to suspend your disbelief.

There are probably not a lot of lesbian-themed historical novels.

Exactly. I sort of had this feeling when I first started to read it that it was trying quite hard on this shocking chic of lesbian love and overstressing it. By the end though, it became a love story and it was sort of conventional – conventional in the sense that it came down to who she loved and who was the right person for her. It transcended the fact that they were women and gay. I didn’t read it for a long time thinking that I wouldn’t enjoy the book, and it was sort of better than the sum of its parts in all kinds of ways. I really was pleased to have discovered it.

Interview by Erin Yardley

November 11, 2010

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Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett covered the first post-Soviet Chechen war for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times. She received a US Press Club Foreign Reporting Award and an Orwell Prize for Journalism. She is also a best-selling historical novelist.

Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett covered the first post-Soviet Chechen war for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times. She received a US Press Club Foreign Reporting Award and an Orwell Prize for Journalism. She is also a best-selling historical novelist.