Today we’re excited to welcome Beatriz Williams, author of the upcoming novel A Certain Age, to The Savvy Reader to share her Top 5 Favorite Historical Novels!
Before I moved to the country last summer with my husband and four children, we spent several weekends house-hunting. I say “several weekends” not because we had trouble finding a building with enough space to store the kids. (Two words: bunk beds.) Oh, no. The problem was the books. Covering all surfaces, stacked up as end tables, boxed up in storage. SO. MANY. BOOKS. So when our Realtor ushered us into the library of a creaking colonial farmhouse and waved his arm at the walls of empty bookshelves, we knew we were home.
Which brings me to my current problem. I mean, honestly. From a lifetime spent devouring historical fiction, how am I supposed to narrow down my favorites to a list of five? There are the acknowledged Great Works. There are recent literary blockbusters. There are the fandom favorites. And I have loved so many, and in this wonderful new world of writing historical fiction myself, I’ve met and loved so many authors whose books I deeply admire. On what basis can I possibly single out five?
Well, since I had to choose, I went into that wonderful library and pulled from the shelves—not quite at random, but mostly on impulse—five historical novels that have, at one time or another, for one reason or another, affected me deeply. For what other reason do we read, after all?
In order of having read them:
Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery. Yes, it’s technically a children’s book, although really what today we’d call Young Adult. Anne of Green Gables is all grown up, married to Gilbert Blythe, and the mother of six coming-of-age children when the First World War breaks out. Not only did this book break my young heart in several places, it brought me to an understanding of what this colossal war meant to ordinary families on the home front, who loved and were loved by the men who went to war.
Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne du Maurier. I went on a du Maurier binge in college, and really just about any of her books will do. I picked this one because it’s not quite as well known as Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, and because it’s such a delicious rendering of what ought to be a hoary old tale of Cornish pirates and the women who love them. Demonstrates how a good writer can make any romantic cliché new again.
Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks. I was late to discover Faulks, and this book attracted me because I’d become obsessed with the First World War after reading Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth in college. I encountered Birdsong around the same time as A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and loved how both writers wove together narratives from present and past: a storytelling method that exactly suited this history addict’s sense of intimate connection to the past.
The Reverse of the Medal, Patrick O’Brian. Absolutely no writer on earth so perfectly constructs a historical world than O’Brian, and yet his genius transcends history-as-fiction to express the timeless human condition. All of his Aubrey-Maturin books are splendidly gripping, literary in quality yet as page-turning as any blockbuster, but there’s a scene near the end of The Reverse of the Medal that reduces me to a blubbering mess in a few powerful, restrained, marvelous sentences. If you haven’t read O’Brian before, however, you might want to start from the beginning: Master and Commander, when a young naval lieutenant meets a penniless Irish doctor at a musical concert in Majorca during the Napoleonic Wars, and the rest is…well, history.
The Crimson Rooms, Katharine McMahon. My editor gave me this rich, evocative murder mystery—set in London’s legal chambers during the 1920s—after our first lunch meeting, and I loved everything about it—the beautiful language, the use of telling detail, the authentic characterization, the flawless sense of period, the deep yet delicately-expressed longing with which the central love story takes shape. It made me think about what I wanted to do now that my manuscript was going to be published; where to go from that first step, what kind of novelist I wanted to be. And something else—the vital joy of reading books that make you a better writer.