Historical Novels that Cast Famous Figures as Central Characters
- Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes (2005) Two very different boys grow up in England. One becomes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the iconic detective Sherlock Holmes. George Edalji, the half-Indian son of a vicar, becomes a solicitor but is unjustly put in prison, convicted in a bizarre case of animal mutilation. Sir Arthur, reeling from the death of his wife and his guilty love for another woman, hears about the case and begins to investigate. (While a number of writers have ‘borrowed’ Sherlock Holmes for their own novels, this one about Sir Arthur is based on a true story)
- Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012) Second book in the trilogy. Here King Henry VIII wants out of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and advisor Thomas Cromwell has to figure out a way to make that happen.
- Circling the Sun by Paula McClain (2015) In 1936 at age 33, Beryl Markham becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, east to west. How? Here, a fearless young English girl grows up in East Africa among expatriates, trains racehorses and falls for big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (of Out of Africa fame), who teaches her how to fly. Hemingway praised Markham’s own memoir West with the Night, saying she “can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.”
- Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (1998) John Brown’s legendary raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, VA, helped spark the Civil War. Here the radical 19th century abolitionist’s life and death (hanged for treason) get epic treatment.
- The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle (2004) A zoologist by training, Indiana professor Alfred Kinsey switches to sex research in the 40s (The Kinsey Reports). Here we see him through the eyes of his naïve young research assistant (fictional) who becomes part of his inner circle–personally, professionally and sexually.
- Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (2007) It’s the early 1900s and Mamah Cheney and her husband hire architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design their new house. Illicit love, marriage and scandal follow, and Mamah pays the ultimate price for loving Frank.
- The Paris Wife by Paul McClain (2011) Ernest Hemingway and his first wife in Paris in the 20s (see blog for more details).
- Under the Bright and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (2014) The Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson is a young lawyer who likes writing best when he meets and falls in love with artistic Fanny, an American. She’s ten years older, unhappily married and a mother, but they marry in 1880; there’s much turmoil; he writes classics like Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- The Women by T.C. Boyle (2009) Frank Lloyd Wright, as viewed by the four very different women who love him. The author’s trademark wit and literary chops are on full display. A different read from Loving Frank.
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009) The first book in a trilogy. King Henry VIII and his struggles (political, church, personal) are viewed from the perspective of the low-born Thomas Cromwell, who becomes one of Henry’s closest advisors.
(Obviously this is a partial list. I hope to add to it.)