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My Top Ten Must-Read Historical Novels

I rather foolishly offered to come up with a top ten must-read list of historical novels for Authors 18 (a group of debut authors with novels coming out in 2018). Trying to whittle down a list of books in my favourite genre to only ten was definitely not easy, and if you ask me in a month (or even a week) what my top ten are, they’ll probably be different! But for now, here they are, with thanks to Jennifer Klepper for the lovely graphic and for promoting my list on social media.
I thought I’d add a justification for my choices, since some of them might be unfamiliar or controversial to other readers. I tried to choose a variety of time periods and subgenres, but for the most part I chose books that changed me and stayed in my mind for months or even years after I read them.

  1. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is the urtext for Christian feminists. I’m not sure this one needs any justification, but if so, I’ll just repeat a line from The Boston Globe‘s review: “The Red Tent is what the Bible would be like if it had been written by women, but only Diamant could have given it such sweep and grace.”
  2. Atonement by Ian McEwan is for the English professor in me, but it’s also just a brilliantly-crafted story about childish mistakes, lies, forgiveness, and the power of storytelling.
  3. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt is definitely not for children. A rich, disturbing family saga that begins in the late-Victorian period and ends after WWI, this book defies description. Byatt’s books are dangerous because I always finish them thinking, “I can never hope to match this as a writer, so I shouldn’t even try.” Read at your own risk!
  4. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. This book has everything I look for in any novel: fairy tales, fascinating
    characters, history, a complex plot, a vivid sense of place. Morton is above all a consummate storyteller.
  5. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. A haunting gothic tale with an intricate plot. I was so immersed in this book I don’t think I ate, slept, or talked to anyone until I finished it.
  6. Abigale Hall by Lauren Forry. Another suspenseful gothic tale and the newest novel on this list. This one made me scream out loud while reading it, but it might be too gruesome for some readers. Read my full review here.
  7. Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder. The best Canadian historical novel I’ve ever read. Beautiful language, fascinating characters, and a story that fully drew me in even though I have no interest in running or any sport that involves running! Read my full review here.
  8. Amy Snow by Tracy Rees. This is the novel Dickens should have written. It recreates an authentic Victorian world whose characters I was sad to leave when the book ended. There’s some mystery too, but I loved it mainly because it felt like my favourite Victorian classics.
  9. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Waters is the master of plot twists. I want to take her books apart and learn from them how to write a story that keeps the reader gasping and on the edge of her seat. Brilliant.
  10. Middlemarch by George Eliot. The astute reader may ask why I included this actual Victorian novel on a list of the top ten historical novels. It doesn’t fit the typical definition of historical fiction, which is fiction that’s set at least 50 years in the past. Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) set the novel in the early 1830s, only 40 years before it was published. My best answer is that this novel should be on the top ten list of any novels of any genre. Don’t let the literary status or the length of Middlemarch fool you: it’s a great big perfectly-constructed soap opera, and once you’ve read it, it will colour everything you see forever. In a good way.

What do you think of my list? What would you change? Have you read any of these novels, and if so, do you think they’re worthy of being on a top ten list?


  1. Sarah Johnson

    I like your list! I’ve read five of them and loved them. Anything by Kate Morton would be on my list of favorites, actually (I may be slightly more partial to The Distant Hours, but they’re all good). One of these years I will read Middlemarch!

    • Clarissa Harwood

      I agree about Kate Morton! Middlemarch works well if you read it in small bits: the chapters are short, so you can read one or two every day. I’d love to see your top 10 list (or top 100 list), since I’m willing to bet you’ve read more historical fiction than I have! 🙂

  2. Jennifer Klepper

    Great post! I like to think of these lists not as “top” 10 but as “must read”, because, as you say, there are so many others that are worthy of the list. What’s great about yours is that it isn’t a recap of the same 10 books that make every list, so it helps readers find great books they might not otherwise have thought to read.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Thanks, Jennifer! Yes, it definitely makes more sense to think of the list as “must read” instead of “top 10.” I’d actually love to see lists like this from people who write in genres I’m not very familiar with. It would give me a place to start!

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