Historical fiction is a genre that has a complicated relationship with history, so complicated, indeed, that Hilary Mantel, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy, dedicated her Reith Lectures to that very subject. "Some readers are deeply suspicious of historical fiction. They say that by its nature it’s misleading," she said.
The Wolf Hall trilogy is a work of historical fiction told through the eyes of Henry VIII's henchman, Thomas Cromwell. “History, and science too, help us put our small lives in context," Mantel said. "But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.”
Two of the books in the trilogy have already won the Booker prize, the UK's most prestigious fiction prize. But the Wolf Hall books also appealed to Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of a 500+ page biography of Cromwell. In the introduction he writes, "To call them 'historical novels' does them an injustice; they are novels which happen to be set in the sixteenth century, and with a profound knowledge of how that era functioned."
The fact is that, when they're done well, historical novels are a really exciting way to learn about history, because they combine the emotional involvement of fiction with the narrative of events that took place and details of how life was lived in the past.
For that reason, we're always excited when a historian chooses a work of historical fiction as one of their expert recommendations. Below, we've listed all the historical fiction that’s been recommended by historians (or other experts) as shedding light on their area of expertise.
The Tudor dynasty, which ruled England from 1485 to 1603, has been the focus of extraordinary public attention in recent years, thanks to the success of books like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the lavish television drama The Tudors, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. We asked Alison Weir, the author of many bestselling factual and novelistic books on the period, to recommend her favourite works of Tudor historical fiction.
The ancient world offers an excellent canvas for historical fiction but too many books fall victim to anachronistic thinking, says Oxford ancient historian Harry Sidebottom, author of two series of historical novels set in Ancient Rome. Here he recommends some of his own favourites, all written during the golden age of classical historical fiction half a century ago.