5 must-read HISTORICAL NOVELS
1. I, Claudius by Robert Graves, 1934.
WHAT: Fictionalised biography of the Roman emperor, told as though it were an autobiography, from the long reign of Augustus to Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius himself. A stuttering Claudius tells us his own fascinating story, with an insider’s look at the multifarious plots and traitors. WHY: This superb tract paved the way for an epic BBC TV series in 1976, starring Derek Jacobi with his unforgettable “pudding bowl” haircut.
2. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, 2009.
WHAT: Mantel rewrites English history from 1527 to 1535 with Thomas Cromwell – as great a statesman as England has ever seen – as the hero. He escapes his drunken blacksmith father, but regarded as a low-born outsider – now with a direct line to King Henry VIII – is seen as unfit by the rest of court, other than his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey. WHY: This Booker Prize winning novel brings new passion to the Tudors.
3. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, 1859.
WHAT: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens writes in the opening lines of this tale of the French Revolution. The year is 1775, and Jarvis Lorry travels from London to Paris on a secret mission for his bank employer, accompanied by 17-year-old Lucie Manette. WHY: The struggle to hang onto sanity under systemic abuse is as relevant today. “Sow the same seed of... oppression again, and it will surely yield the same fruit.”
4. The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, 2015.
WHAT: The minute details of this ancient world make The Secret Chord chime... this and the complexly drawn character of King David himself. He is both hero and tyrant, visionary and despot, a genius at warfare who plucks exquisite chords from his harp. The contradictions are tantalising. WHY: Brooks researched it for three years. “I travelled to the land and walked the places David is said to have walked,” she says. Her research shows.
5. Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, 1982.
WHAT: Oskar Schindler was a capitalist, a black marketeer, a womaniser and a boozer who made his fortune at his factory during the war, as well as a longserving member of the Nazi party. Yet he risked his life and his livelihood to protect Jews, by giving them jobs at his factories, the “ark” of the book’s title. WHY: Schindler’s List became an Oscar-winning film. “If this factory ever produces a shell that can actually be fired, I’ll be very unhappy,” said Schindler.