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);
— 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;
— 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.
AMENDED TO ADD:
— 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?