If You Like….

I was chatting with a friend the other day about popular history books that read like novels. They haven’t quite reached the “add dialogue and stir” stage (i.e. Jean Plaidy), but they’re way too much fun to be assigned in history classes.

If you like biographies and history books that read like novels, you’ll probably like….

— Antonia Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots. It may be nearly fifty years old, but it’s still a wonderful read. Also recommended by Fraser: Faith & Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot and Marie Antoinette: The Journey;

— Flora Fraser’s Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire and The Unruly Queen: the Life of Queen Caroline (Prinny doesn’t come out so well in this one);

— Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, The Children of Henry VIII, The Princes in the Tower, et al;

— C.V. Wedgwood’s A Coffin for King Charles, about the last phases of the English Civil War and the badly botched trial of Charles I (which has some wonderful, unintentional slapstick as the Parliamentarians go tripping over their own buckled shoes);

— Caroline Moorhead’s Dancing to the Precipice, about the tumultuous life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin from Ancien Regime through Revolution, to the U.S. and beyond;

— Theo Aronson’s The Golden Bees, the book that got me started on the Bonapartes back when I was ten, tracing the tumultuous Bonaparte clan from its inception through the final, weak sprigs on the family tree;

— Deborah Cadbury’s The Lost King of France, about the poor little missing Dauphin;

— David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag, about the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean;

— Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, about the scandalous Idina Sackville (I read this book for fun, and wound up writing The Ashford Affair);

— Sara Wheeler’s incredibly engaging biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Too Close to the Sun;

— and pretty much anything by Barbara Tuchman, but especially her account of the tumults of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror.


— And how could I forget one of my very favorite authors, Garrett Mattingly? His The Armada is a rollicking good read (you’ll never look at Francis Drake quite the same way again), and his Catherine of Aragon is a sensitive and thought-provoking portrait of the discarded queen.

What are your favorite histories that read like novels?


  1. Diana on November 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    I really like Antonia Fraser’s biographies the best, my two favorite being Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antionette: The Journey. I also enjoyed the Six Wives of Henry VIII.

  2. Rachel Koehne on November 19, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Oh, loved under the black flag! i found it on a spring break to st augustine in high school and couldnt put it down.

    i dont know if these would count but i recently fell in love with edward rutherfurd’s sarum and london. cant wait to read russka 🙂

  3. Céline on November 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Any of the biographies written by Stefan Zweig: Marie-Antoinette, Marie Stuart, Fouché, etc.
    Love them all!

  4. Lauren on November 19, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Celine, I couldn’t agree more! Zweig is wonderful.

  5. Lois M. on November 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    It’s been a long, long time since I read it, so I’m not entirely sure, but I can swear that Hatshepsut by Evelyn Wells was like that.

    The book is from 1969, and I discovered it in the good old first semester Western Civ class I had, where we had to do a book report on a book related to certain time period topics. Me, loving Ancient Egypt went to that section. Last year I found a great used copy on Amazon so I could finally own it for my very own (but haven’t reread it yet! LOL)… do believe a lot of the ideas that were in there have been totally changed now, but still, really don’t care too much. 😉


  6. Georgia on November 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Oh, I love all things Barbara Tuchman too. I just reread portions of A Distant Mirror for an online history course.
    Another recent fabulous historical biography is Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, A life. Actually, all her books are really wonderful — incredibly witty and scrupulously researched.

  7. Catie on November 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I love Ian Mortimers “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitor’s to the Fourteenth Century”. I haven’t yet read his “Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England,” but am eagerly looking forward to it!

  8. Sheila on November 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Elizabeth Longfords Queen Victoria. I belive Longford is Antonia Fraser’s mother, a great example of the tree and apple saying.

  9. Jeffrey on November 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death Of Princess Charlotte and the unexpected rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch by Kate Williams. This is one of the best historical accounts of the British Monarchy I have ever read. It is so fantastically improbable that it reads more like a novel than the historical truth. I LOVED this.

    La Fayette, Hero of the American Revolution by Benjamin Becker. Another incredible life that reads more like a fictional novel than a larger-than-life true biography.

  10. Susan Blexrud on November 19, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I LOVED Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Haven’t read her sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, yet, but I’m sure I will. I also like Allison Weir, and one of her books you didn’t mention, Elizabeth I. Great dialogue!

  11. Elizabeth K. Mahon on November 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    I adore Carrolly Erickson’s biographies of Marie Antoinette, Josephine and Empress Alexandra, actually all of her biographies read like novels, not to mention her book Our Tempestuous Day about the Regency period. Lucy Moore’s Anything Goes is a very good general overview of the 1920’s in America.

  12. Bryana on November 19, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    Jane Dunn’s “Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens”, a dual biography of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s my favourite historical biography of all time, and reads like a novel that you can’t put down.

  13. Nessa on November 19, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    I love biographies by Stefan Zweig, Antonia Fraser, David McCaulay(his latest”The Greater Journey:Americans in Paris.” is just amazing) and Alison Weir nonfictions. Right now, I’m waiting for The Accursed Kings series by Maurice Druon that will be re-released again in April 2013 – they are fantastic!

  14. Lizzy on November 19, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    I love Georgiana:Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman it reads just like a 18th century romance!

  15. Abby on November 19, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    Elaine Forman Crane’s Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell- it’s a legal history about a trial from colonial Rhode Island which reads like a murder mystery. I actually did assign it for one of my classes in the spring and I am very curious to see what my students think of it.

  16. Bevin on November 20, 2012 at 4:31 am

    It’s a different time period, but I recently read Eunice Lipton’s Alias Olympia, (ostensibly) about the model who posed for Manet’s Olympia. It’s sort of a blend of looking into her life, along with a lot of introspection (and little more personal information than I was expecting) from the author.

  17. Pam on November 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    For those with more of a yen for the Victorian, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale is fantastic, a Wilkie Collins-esque non-fiction account of one of the first “modern” sensational murder mysteries centered around the grisly murder of a small child in a posh country estate and one of the first “great” detectives, whose career was nearly destroyed in the process. There’s upstairs-downstairs drama, insider vs. outsider, and all kinds of good stuff.

  18. AmyN on November 21, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    I, too, enjoyed Fraser’s Pauline, The Lost King of France, and the Lafayette book mentioned by Jeffrey. There was another book about Marie Therese but I can’t remember the title…hmmm. Lots of interesting suggestions listed here.

  19. Lauren on November 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    “Marie Therese: Child of Terror” by Susan Nagel? (Looking at it on my bookshelf right now!) Also an excellent book.

    • AmyN on December 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      Marie Therese: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter by Susan Nagel~

  20. SusanN on November 22, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Susan Mary Alsop (esp The Congress Dances).

    And I loved Thomas B. Costain’s Plantagenet books when I was young.

  21. SusanN on November 22, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Oh, and what about Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra?

Leave a Comment