Discover more from Well Read with Anna Bonet
Two historical novels to get lost in
From Renaissance Italy to postwar London
In school, I dropped history the first chance I could. I always thought it was simply because I enjoyed other classes more, but now I realise it wasn’t helped by the fact the history teacher bored me to tears.
Whether or not this is connected, I don’t know, but I’ve never been hugely drawn to historical fiction. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I’m trying to read more outside my comfort zone. So, I would love to know your favourite historical novels. Which would you urge me to pick up?
In the meantime, here are two that I have read and adored…
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
So many people raved about Maggie O’Farrell’s award-winning historical novel Hamnet that when I didn’t love it, I felt I must have the wrong opinion. I found The Marriage Portrait, meanwhile, utterly spellbinding: this exquisitely layered book begins with a bang - we are brazenly told that our protagonist, Lucrezia, will die - then wraps you up in rich, immersive storytelling.
Set in Renaissance Italy, this is the fictionalised account of the real Duchess of Ferrara, who is married to Alfonso, a Duke, at 15 years old. We follow her coming of age in a stifling court, as she grapples with an increasing suspicion that her husband might murder her. This book also has one of the best endings I’ve ever read.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
When people ask me what my all-time favourite book is, I can never tell them a single one - but here is a novel which I will always mention. Described as ‘possibly the definitive fictional account of the Windrush generation’, Small Island taught me more about Britain’s recent history, inequality, prejudice, racism, love, belonging and shared humanity than anything ever has.
The novel revolves around Michael and Hortense, who emigrate to London from Jamaica in 1948, and Queenie Bligh, whose house they lodge in. Queenie is frowned upon by her neighbours for taking them in, but she doesn’t have any choice: her husband hasn’t returned since the war. Each of the characters’ stories are interwoven and it all comes together into this achingly good, funny, angry, tender book. I can’t tell you how much I treasure this novel: I’d sell my soul to read it for the first time again.
Four words: Zadie Smith’s The Fraud. As I’m not going to be around at the beginning of September to share my favourite new books of the month, I must tell you about this one now. Serendipitously, it fits with today’s theme.
Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors and yet I was nervous to read her first historical novel. Set in London during the Victorian times, it uses the real events of The Tichborne Trial - in which a poor Australian immigrant claimed to belong to an aristocratic family - as a launchpad to explore race and class in a society 40 years on from the abolition of slavery. This is an absolute epic: it sparkles with witty prose and a brilliant cast of characters, and is as dazzlingly clever as you’d expect for a Zadie Smith novel. What on earth was I worried about?