Historicals Over There

Etta Wilson

Blogger:   Etta Wilson

Location: Books & Such Nashville Office

Weather:  Mid-70s

British fiction is no doubt the parent of American fiction, and from the passion for the Victorian novel in Britain came the blossoming of novels here in the late 1800s. Building on the work of such early novelists as Sir Walter Scott, who idealized the past, Charles Dickens added sentimentality and intimacy in his novels with their sharp criticisms of English culture. These hallmarks of British novels made their way across the water and influenced the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and a little later Bret Harte and Mark Twain. American women were also writing novels, although we hear more about the poet Emily Dickinson than we do series novelists such as Martha Finley, author of the Millie Keith books (1876).

But we Americans still like to read British novels, and most of us know enough British history to appreciate a novel set in the Britain of yesterday. The great craze for anything by or about or related to Jane Austen proves it. How many of you have read Pride and Prejudice (1813) or Emma (1816)? The hallmarks of those early British novels remain true of historical novels written today–the love triangle, the mistaken identity, the separation caused by class distinction, and the terrible illness. Many titles by George MacDonald come to mind, and one more recent title is The Courtship of the Vicar’s Daughter by American author Lawana Blackwell (2007).

Who are your favorite British novelists (either from another era or who are writing historicals today)?

24 Responses

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  1. Christen Civiletto Morris says:

    My favorite British novelist is CS Forester, the author of the Horatio Hornblower series. The stories were tales of naval warfare set during the Napoleonic era. My father had a fantstic library of war books in the 70’s and 80’s, but not much was geared towards a young tween. I read all of his books and gained a fine appreciation for history as a result!

  2. Etta Wilson says:

    I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Forester’s novels in the 80s. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Lindsay Franklin says:

    I love Austen, mainly for her wit. But as a fantasy author, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention C.S. Lewis and Tolkien (even though they are often still considered “contemporary”).

  4. Debra E. Marvin says:

    The series Cranford prompted me to read Elizabath Gaskell. I admit I’ve often seen a film adaptation on a novel before I went back and rediscovered the author a number of times.

  5. Jill Kemerer says:

    I adore P.J. Wodehouse for humor, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte for romance, and Henry James for his creepy story (The Turn of the Screw? Hope I got the title right!).

    Regency romances have the power to glue me to the couch. Also, I just read Jody Hedlund’s The Preacher’s Bride set in 1659 England and didn’t want it to end. So good!

  6. Lori Benton says:

    About five years ago I discovered British novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote during the Victorian era. For a treat, when you have about fifteen minutes to relax and watch, here’s actor Greg Wise reading from one of her novels, North and South (not the American Civil War north and south!).

    There are also readings of Jane Austen’s novels on this site. Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion. She’s another favorite British author. But I suppose my all time favorite British author is Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter, author of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, and quite a few historicals from various eras, from medieval to WWII. She had a fascination with Welsh history, and so do I.

  7. Lori Benton says:

    Etta, this has been a fun discussion of historical fiction this past week!

  8. Etta Wilson says:

    Lindsay, you raise an interesting point about whether or not we can ever classify fantasy as historicals. A good fantasy sort of sublimates the setting, whether past or future.

  9. Cristin says:

    I love Robert Harris (Fatherland, Archangel, Pompeii, and a new trilogy about Cicero, a Roman politician). He combines thorough research, well-woven suspense, and beautifully crafted prose, and his books are meaningful, even haunting.

  10. Lindsay Franklin says:


    I would say it depends on the type of fantasy. High fantasy like Lord of the Rings wouldn’t qualify… unless we’re talking about Middle Earth’s history! 😉 There is a whiff of history in Lewis’ Narnia because it takes place during WWII (with prequel The Magician’s Nephew being several decades earlier). When we get our few glimpses of the “real world” in those books, the historical setting comes into play. However, I wouldn’t personally consider them historicals. I just had to mention them as my favorite Brit authors writing in a past era. 🙂

  11. Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT begins as a 1930’s Austinesque, morphs into a WW II war history, morphs again to be Post-Modern, and then ends on a decidedly anti-Post-Modern note, “There is a truth, and it matters.” I think his other stories are written as contemporaries, but this one novel earns him a place in British Historicals.

  12. Lynn Dean says:

    I love Ellis Peters. Her Brother Cadfael mysteries brought the Crusade period to life. I have to remind myself that he wasn’t real. 🙂

  13. Lori Benton says:

    But Lynn… he IS real. 🙂

    Have you read any of Peters’ historical fiction (not part of her mystery series)? I think it was all written as Ellis Peters. Her novel SHE GOES TO WAR (WWII) was the first epistolary work I ever read (or listened to, I believe I had an audio version of that). Loved it! Primed me perfectly for THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY (which I also listened to, read by several different readers).

  14. Lori Benton says:

    Correction: I meant to say, I think all Peters’ historical fiction that wasn’t part of her two mystery series was written as Edith Pargeter.

  15. Kathy Hurst says:

    My all time favorite is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Jack Aubrey is a British sea captain during the Napoleonic era. Those books have the sound and feel of the time. They are so authentic that I bought the lexicon, A Sea of Words, so I could understand the nautical terms accurately. I read all twenty of these and was so sad when I ran out of them.

    I also enjoy P. J. Wodehouse for the humor and Jane Austen. Another favorite is Wilkie Collins, who wroteThe Moonstone and Woman in White.
    Thanks for asking us about historicals this week!

  16. I have a great respect for Patrick O’Brien’s work. His Aubrey/Maturin series is represented in full, in my collectable books. It was sad that O’Brien never achieved the acclaim due him during the greater part of his life.

    I have many Forrester novels as well and mark the inspiration/challenge O’Brien took Hornblower.

  17. Interesting posts and discussions this week about historicals (though it’s been a busy week and I’m just now getting to read them)!

    I wonder, Etta, whether you think there’s much market for historicals targeting upper elementary or middle grade kids? I could see it as a good way to help history come alive for them, especially if the stories tie in with the things they’re studying in school. But do publishers see potential?

  18. Nick Harrison says:

    I own all of Barbara Pym’s novels and have reread them several times. At any given I’m likely working my way through one of her novels. The humor is wonderful and her writing voice is appealing. I got my daughter hooked on her too. I started with “Some Tame Gazelle,” but my favorite is “A Glass of Blessings.”

  19. Etta Wilson says:

    Leigh, there is some market for middle grade and Ya historicals, but it pays to research the publishers carefully before submitting. I’m off this afternoon to a signing by a local author of a middle-grade fiction book about Ulysses –which is about as historical as you can get.

  20. Etta Wilson says:

    Nick, thanks for mentioning Barbara Pym’s work, not to be confused with Barbara Cartland. Interesting that the British Barbaras seem to be prolific.

  21. Wow, you’re right, Etta — Ulysses is about as historical as they come! Thanks for the insight.

  22. Lindsay Franklin says:

    Leigh, I personally know very little about this side of the industry, but if you don’t have any luck in larger houses with YA historical, you might want to look into the more niche homeschooling houses. Again, I don’t know anything from the publishing side there, but I know as a homeschooling mom, we read a TON of historical fiction geared toward younger readers. My eldest is in 4th grade, and the novels our curriculum providers have me reading aloud to him are definitely at the YA level. He independently reads some at a slightly lower level, more like middle-grade. Just a thought! 🙂

  23. My all-time favorite is M.M. Kaye who wrote the great Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon. These two novels were set in exotic India during the colorful era of the British Raj. I also love her cozy murder mysteries set all over the world, as M.M. Kaye was an army brat and then married a British soldier. I also love Mary Stewart for her romantic suspenses set in the 60’s and 70’s. I cut my ‘reading’ teeth on those during my teens.

  24. Great post! Historical fiction is my favorite genre. In the past I have read most of the authors mentioned in all of the comments. Within the past couple of years I have discovered two authors that have great writing styles–Kate Morton and Susanna Kearsley. They are not Christian authors, but write great historical fiction. The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, and The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton are my favorites. Each have written several books. Thanks, Etta!