Ten novels to make you passionate about history

Our suggestions for the best in historical fiction.



Here is a big handful of books which will make you want to rush to the library to read about the era in which the novel is set. We’d like to follow this list up with others. Send us your suggestions. We’d love to hear from you.

The Betrothed (“I Promessi Sposi”)      
by Alessandro Manzoni (1827/1842)

Set in Lombardy during the Spanish occupation of the late 1620s, The Betrothed tells the story of two ordinary young people, Renzo and Lucia, who are prevented from marrying each other by the local robber baron, who wants Lucia for himself. Most of the novel recounts the many trials and dangers they separately face before ultimately bringing about the happy marriage that seemed so close on the first page. Wonderful characters emerge at every turn of the story, some drawn in great detail though without ever slowing the narrative momentum, and always from a perspective which is wise, often gently ironic but always understanding. Each one lives. A great sense of humanity pervades the book, and an optimism grounded in faith. Colquhoun’s translation (1951) is reputedly the first to do the book justice in English. (CM)

A Tale of Two Cities       
by Charles Dickens (1859)

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” says former dissolute Sydney Carton as he waits for the guillotine to fall at the end of this story of the French Revolution. Isn’t it the most sublime ending in English literature? Was there ever an adolescent, forced to read this novel at school, who did not weep over the last page? I am pretty sure I did, and not just because Dickens is a master of sentiment but because Carton’s sacrifice – of love and atonement -- is a moment of true heroism. This “tale” was also a wonderful corrective to any romanticism about the French Revolution that I might have imbibed in my youth, or any illusions about the Ancien Regime that it so violently overthrew. And of course, it has all the Dickens strengths of plot complexity, scene changing and character painting that make him a master of story telling. (CM)

Quo vadis               
by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1895)

A love story set in ancient Rome under the Emperor Nero, AD 64, between a young Christian woman, Ligia, and a Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius. Published in 1895, it paints an impressive picture of life in the imperial capital, with all the excesses of luxurious pagan life, in contrast to memorable scenes of Christian persecutions and life in the catacombs. St Peter figures as the revered head of the secret community. Its author, a famous Polish literary figure of the time, provides compelling detail and shows how the tiny Christian sect possessed a spiritual power of a different order compared to the brutal civilization of ancient Rome and its corrupt and vicious emperor. (FP)

Come Rack! Come Rope!              
by Robert Hugh Benson (1912)

A famous novel set in the late 16th century during the suppression of Catholics in England under Elizabeth 1st. Benson, the convert son of the Archbishop of Canterbury,  constructs a gripping tale of fugitive Catholics pursued by government spies, determined to stamp out the old Faith. The central characters are a young Catholic couple who plan to marry but who decide, after the harrowing public executions of Catholics friends, to surrender their romantic plans; the young man, Robin Audrey, becomes a priest and is eventually martyred in the brutal Tudor fashion. Several historical figures come into the story, such as members of the Fitzherbert family and others implicated in the Babington Plot to rescue Mary Queen of Scots. The book, a famous classic of the genre, gives a vivid idea of life for loyal Catholics during this turbulent period. (FP)

My Antonia      
by Willa Cather (1918)

One of this American writer’s novels of the pioneering West where she grew up, it focuses initially on the heart-breaking struggle of a Bohemian family to wrest a living from the untamed prairies. Antonia, about 12 at the beginning, stands out from this family as a courageous free spirit whom no hardship can daunt or break. Her story is told by a friend from childhood who sees her again after many years, when she has found her place in the land, sun-browned and fruitful and somehow emblematic of it. Cather typically uses plain language to powerful effect, painting vivid scenes of the Nebraska plains in all their glory and cruelty, and evoking emotions ranging from the unassuageable homesickness of the immigrant to the unlikely empathy between two young people of very different nature and social class. It is an utterly absorbing read. (CM)

The Bridge on the Drina              
by Ivo Andric (1945)  

The only Bosnian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ivo Andric incarnated the Yugoslav ideal. He came from Catholic Croatian stock, but wrote as a Serbian, served in various official capacities for the Communist government and as a parliamentarian in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His most famous novel is a fascinating insight into the turbulent history of the Balkans. Written in a social realist style which weaves history lessons into the lives of imagined but historically representative characters, it chronicles four centuries of life in Bosnia. At the centre of the book is a real bridge in the  town of Višegrad which is a triumph of Ottoman architecture. The novel begins with its construction by a Grand Vizier who had been born as a Christian but was stolen as a child by the Turks to serve in their armies. The narrative moves on through the revolutions of the 19th century and into World War I. It is a vivid but very humane and tolerant book. (Don’t be put off by the all-too-vivid account of an impaling, the Turkish method of execution which opens the book.) (MC)

Helena                 
by Evelyn Waugh (1950)

Set in the last decades of the 3rd century and the start of the 4th, Helena tells the well-known but legendary story of the finding of the true cross in Jerusalem by the Empress Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. It was Evelyn Waugh’s own favourite among his books, although critics have disagreed with his estimate, preferring his Sword of Honour trilogy and Brideshead Revisited. It is conjectured that he identified with Helena’s faith in its straightforwardness and simplicity: “She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor or hungry...” Nonetheless, Waugh felt that “she just discovered what it was that God had chosen for her to do and did it.” This quiet sense of purpose was close to his heart. The book also provides a lively contrast between the piety of Helena and the life and behaviour of the imperial court, as well as giving revealing glimpses of its author’s own faith. (FP)

Doctor Zhivago            
by Boris Pasternak (1957)

Like every Russian novel one needs a vast whiteboard to chart the characters, the characters’ names and the characters’ relatives in this sprawling love story set around the Russian Revolution. At its centre is Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and a poet. He marries Tonya, a lovely girl of his own social set, but in the chaos of World War I and the ensuing Revolution, he becomes separated from her and his son. Then he meets Lara, a beautiful nurse, and has a affair which he chronicles in his passionate poems. But the new Bolshevik government tears them apart as well. Then he takes up with another woman and has two children with her. Pasternak paints a vivid picture of the destruction wrought by the Revolution – not just of Czarist Russia but of souls. Yuri, like nearly all the other characters, disintegrates morally as Communism crushes boulders of individuality, independent thought and passion into gravel roads for the onward march of the proletarian revolution. David Lean’s interpretation is a fine film but it hardly does the Nobel Prize-winning novel justice. (MC)

The Raj Quartet: The Jewel in the Crown/the Day of the Scorpion/the Towers of Silence/a Division of the Spoils            
by Paul Scott (1965-75)

Published in the 1960s, this long novel in four volumes charts the end of the British Raj in India during the years 1942-1947. It provides a much more complex and nuanced picture of British rule than EM Forster’s A Passage to India, with memorable characterizations and understanding of the predicament the British faced in the last gasp of empire. In his sympathetic portrayal of characters such as Hari Kumar, Sarah Layton and Lil Chatterjee, none of whom conformed to their “caste” status, Paul Scott raises important questions of the benefits (or otherwise) of British rule and the rules and restrictions that resulted from it, as well as the racism underpinning the whole enterprise. Well worth the effort of reading the whole series. (FP)

In the First Circle  
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1968/2009)

The title of first English version of Solzhenitsyn’s powerful story of Stalinist Russia, published in 1968, was just "The First Circle". But Solzhenitsyn had toned down his original manuscript in an effort to get it published in Russia and the complete version, entitled In The First Circle (of Hell, that is – a reference to Dante’s Inferno) only appeared in English in 2009. Partly autobiographical, its central characters are the occupants of a special kind of prison on the outskirts of Moscow who are forced to develop voice recognition technology aimed at catching “traitors” such as the diplomat with whom the story opens. But their experiences reach out into the great prison camp that was Russia at that time, while exploring universal themes such as human dignity, moral choices and stoical heroism. A long but magnificent drama worthy of the Nobel Prize that was awarded the author soon after. (CM)

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK. Carolyn Moynihan, the deputy editor of MercatorNet, writes from Auckland, New Zealand. Michael Cook, the editor of MercatorNet, writes from Sydney. 



This article is published by Francis Phillips , Carolyn Moynihan and Michael Cook and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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