by Geoffrey Churchman

At last night’s Kapiti Historical Society meeting Desiree Jury spoke on this subject in which she is well qualified, having written a 900-page PhD on it in the 1970s.

It is a very popular fiction genre and although professional historians don’t take historical novels seriously, there has long been a big market for them.  Many, of course, get turned into movies.

Not surprisingly, Desiree has written her own historical novel — Two Shadows — which has a post-Napoleonic Wars context with settings in England and Australia. This is available from Amazon as either a paper or e-book.

But first a definition. According to an historical novel is “a novel that has as its setting a period of history and that attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity (which is in some cases only apparent fidelity) to historical fact. The work may deal with actual historical personages, as does Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934), or it may contain a mixture of fictional and historical characters.”

The first such book I read was Man Alone by John Mulgan from 1939 in secondary school English class. As it covered the years of the Great Depression in NZ in the first half of the 1930s, at the time it wouldn’t have been viewed as historic, but would be now.

Desiree covered facts and myth in the modern English historical novel and looked at some modern writers who have set the standards. She also examined aspects of this genre such as narrative focus, the place of necessary anachronisms (in dialogue particularly), style, and the importance of selecting a credible storyteller who describes everything to the reader. She also provided a quick tour of some of the great books which have stood the test of time and before the meeting sent a list of recommendations of novels and authors to get into.

This was the list she supplied:

Rosemary Sutcliff: Sword at Sunset

Rudyard Kipling: Kim, The Knife and the Naked Chalk (in Rewards and Fairies), The Man Who Would Be King

Sir Walter Scott: Waverley, Ivanhoe

Alessandro Mazzoni: The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi)

Victor Hugo: Les Misérables

Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace

Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago

Guiseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard

Naomi Mitchison: The Conquered, The Corn King and the Spring Queen, Cleopatra’ s People

Robert Graves: I, Claudius, Claudius the God

Alfred Duggan: Knight with Armour, Conscience of the King, Three’s Company, God and My Right, Count Bohemond

Mary Renault: The Last of the Wine, The King Must Die, The Bull from the SeaFire from Heaven, The Persian Boy

Zoé Oldenbourg: The World is Not Enough

Maurice Druon: The Iron King (The Accursed Kings series)

Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

Patrick O’Brien: Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin series)

C.J.Sansom: Dissolution (Shardlake Tudor series)

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light (Thomas Cromwell trilogy)

Robert Harris: Lustrum, Imperium, Dictator (Cicero trilogy)

Stephen Pressberg: Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign

Bárbara Mujica: Sister Teresa


George Macdonald Frazer: the Flashman novels

Philip Henscher: The Mulberry Empire

Stephen Pressfield: The Afghan Campaign, Beast of War (1988 movie)