My top choice would have to be Norah Lofts's Suffolk trilogy: The Town House (1959), The House at Old Vine (1961) and The House at Sunset (1963) – they are essentially one continuous book.
It is, simply, the most outstanding historical novel that I have ever read, and my favourite book of all time, to which I return again and again. It encapsulates six hundred years of England's history, from 1380 to 1956, told through the stories of those who lived in a medieval house in Baildon, Suffolk. Baildon – where Norah Lofts set many of her books – is actually Bury St Edmunds, where she herself lived in a beautiful old house. She deserves to be accounted one of the great writers of the twentieth century.
In the Suffolk trilogy she creates a world in which vividly-drawn characters wrestle with fortune or commit dark deeds, and tragedy leaves its imprint. There are many different storylines and themes, and one gains a powerful sense of real lives – and sinister undercurrents. There are interludes between the stories, leaving the reader avid to find out what has happened in the gap, with tantalising dark hints. The whole trilogy is a joy, the writing accomplished.
I have been instrumental in getting these books republished, and I was delighted to learn that Norah Lofts has recently been the subject of a university thesis. It's clear that there is a growing body of opinion that her work has been underrated, especially this epic tale.
It wasn't the only one of its kind. Lofts wrote another, Bless This House, in a single volume, about an Elizabethan mansion through the centuries, and A Wayside Tavern, which recounts the history of an inn from Roman times to the present day.
Lofts herself perfectly summed up the essence of historical fiction in The Brittle Glass (1942): "And so out of the bits and pieces I could gather, out of my own imaginings and speculations, I built up a picture and a story... After all, how much nearer, even with much documentary evidence, can we come to understanding the myriad dead who have gone to their graves, carrying their real secrets, of motive and essence and personality, into the silence with them?"
Alison Weir's The Marriage Game is published by HutchinsonReuse content