So you’ve finished Bridgerton, inhaled Julia Quinn's original book series, and plundered Austen – what now?
As soon-to-be-debut novelist Sarah, Duchess of York can tell you, historical fiction is addictive once you get going. So we have raided our bookshelves to bring you a selection of titles that will help these drab winter months pass in the blink of an eye.
While some of these are part of wider series – and therefore all the better for bingeing later – the standalones should also point you towards authors with back catalogues worth investigating.
For the sake of space, we will assume that you know Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series backwards and that you recite passages from Beloved by Toni Morrison every night before bed.
Should that not be the case, then please add them to your list immediately.
In the meantime, here is our choice of the best historical fiction books, primed and ready for the minute you need a fix.
We were looking for captivating writing that brought to life a period far from the author’s own time, that would, in turn, help the reader to forget where they are.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
‘The Grand Sophy’ by Georgette Heyer, published by Cornerstone
Don’t be put off by the all-round chocolate boxiness of the packaging: inside Heyer’s considerable back catalogue lies incredibly smart writing that is as moreish as, well, chocolates. One of the most popular writers of the early 20th century (at one point, her books sold half a million copies each), Heyer specialised in Regency romances with dashing heroes and nippy plots. Her army of devotees have their own favourites, but we champion The Grand Sophy, a rollicking good read that will be of particular joy to Bridgerton viewers, combining as it does the sense and style of Lady Danforth, the gossip of Lady Whistledown, and the permanent glister of scandal that ties the whole thing together.
When “Cousin Sophy” comes to stay, the troubled Rivenhall family expect a dear meek thing. Instead, they get a capable, independent problem solver who turns them all on their heads, much to the annoyance of the Rivenhall heir and his appalling fiancee. Imagine Mary Poppins minus the snobby attitude, with the addition of a hefty private income and several horses. A joy.
‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks, published by HarperCollins
This gripping tale of a Pennine village cutting itself off to quarantine against the 1666 plague might hit too close to home for some readers right now (Brooks’s starting point was a real-life Derbyshire village that isolated for the greater good), but those who persevere will be rewarded with the sort of book that makes you forget what you were doing and what the time is.
Anna is housemaid to the village’s charismatic rector and his wife, with whom she forms a bond as they try to minister to the sick. As the village dissolves into accusations of witchcraft and worse, Anna finds that her home contains many secrets.
Brooks has reimagined several other historical and literary events, most famously in 2005’s Pulitzer Prize-winning March – a view of Little Women retold from Mr March’s perspective.
‘The Wages of Sin’ by Kaite Welsh, published by Headline
Kaite Welsh was inspired to write her Sarah Gilchrist series after studying at Edinburgh University and seeing a plaque to one of its first female medical students. In this exhilarating and neatly detailed thriller, her heroine Gilchrist is placed in that role, facing acrimony from her professors, fellow medics, and female students alike. Welsh’s intelligent lead has much in common with Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart, as, in addition to fending for herself on a professional level, she is soon drawn into solving a crime that nobody else cares to notice, and in turn finds herself drawn into a murderous underworld.
Welsh’s excellent books (a sequel followed) avoid non-contemporaneous feminism, but the anger pulsating underneath her writing comes through in Gilchrist’s attempts to live a purposeful life despite opposition from all sides.
‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’, by Sara Collins, published by Viking
Bridgerton may have felt cosy, but unless you were watching with your ears shut, you’ll have noticed there was plenty of darkness behind the frothy fabric choices. Collins’ astonishing gothic debut, set just after the Regency era, faces said murkiness head on, tackling slavery both in its monstrous form and in the genteel drawing rooms of those making money off it from a distance. Frannie is a slave on a Jamaican plantation, the owner of which gives her his surname and forces her to assist in his terrible experiments on African people.
Later brought to England, Frannie becomes a servant to a couple who are murdered. Frannie is accused of the crime but cannot remember the night it happened. Steady your heart rate for this one; it’s a fantastic read that established Collins as an addictive writer of great skill.
‘Sharpe’s Enemy’ by Bernard Cornwell, published by Harper Collins
Bernard Cornwell famously taught himself to plot by taking other books apart and seeing what made them work – but the flair that characterises his work is entirely his own. You could throw a dart blindfolded at his bibliography and find something hugely enjoyable to read (an adapted version of his The Last Kingdom series is currently available to watch on Amazon prime) but his Sharpe series, about a gifted Napoleonic War soldier who rises up the ranks after he saves Wellington’s life, is the one for which he is best known and loved.
Sharpe’s Enemy is the 15th book in the series, but a fantastic introduction, brimming with Cornwell’s trademark villainy, cunning plots, and women who do far more than simper in flouncy skirts. If the sea is more your game, try Patrick O'Brian’s excellent Master and Commander series.
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García Márquez, published by Jonathan Cape
Some people loathe One Hundred Years of Solitude, and those people are wrong. This dream of a book takes history and the real world and ensures they only rarely meet, with Márquez providing his own magical reality for seven generations of the Buendía family, and the town they build, Macondo.
Time does not pass for Macondo as it does for the rest of us, but the story is narrated in such an ordinary way that the magic becomes mundane. It is slightly tricky to keep track of the endless Buendía sons, but you get used to it. Just lie back, enjoy Márquez’s captivating writing, and let history repeat around you.
‘Anno Dracula’ by Kim Newman, published by Titan
Few people have more fun with history than Kim Newman, the walking encyclopaedia and film journalist behind a vast number of novels and non-fiction books, as well as Mark Kermode’s BBC Four film documentaries. In his long-running Anno Dracula series, Newman merrily twists history (and literature) to suit his own ends. And thanks to his imagining a world in which literary characters run amok – in this first book, the widowed Queen Victoria marries Count Dracula – it is merrily anarchic and relentlessly entertaining. The series spans eras from the Victorian to the late Nineties, so whatever your historical itch is, you’ll find a book guaranteed to scratch it.
‘The Signature of All Things’ by Liz Gilbert, published by Bloomsbury
A million snobbish jaws dropped to the floor on reading this exceptionally enjoyable and skilfully written novel by “the Eat, Pray, Love woman”. Gilbert takes the reader on a voyage from the American South of the 19th century to Tahiti on a scientific nature exhibition, while asking subtle questions of the reader about whether a small life is worth any less than one lived in the open.
In any later century, heiress Alma Whittaker would have taken her place as a great scientific mind but, born in 1800, she is fated to be ignored in favour of men. This epic story of sexual and scientific discovery is as detailed and beautiful as the plants that Alma dedicates much of her life to understanding.
The verdict: Historical fiction
Georgette Heyer invented the Regency novel – many have tried to imitate it, but her combination of wit and style is unbeatable. Come for The Grand Sophy, stay for Heyer’s extensive and terrific back catalogue.
If you want more from the hit period drama, explore the books behind Bridgerton