Charlotte Mendelson’s 6 Favorite Fiction Books With Historical Themes

British novelist and essayist Charlotte Mendelson is the author of: Almost EnglishWhen we were badand Rhapsody in green† her latest novel, the Exhibitionistwas long-listed for the British Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990-2012)

Howard’s intricate, painful, expansive series of five novels, a panoramic extract of the intimate lives of three generations of one privileged family, is usually, stupidly, dismissed as ‘household’, a ‘historical tale’ of the English middle class in the 1930s. up to and including the 1950s. Fools: It’s a masterpiece. If the author were a man, we’d all take it seriously. Buy it here.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)

James Baldwin, a gay black man, knew Otherness; his writing about race is exciting, but this short, poignant novel about an American man’s affair with an Italian waiter in Paris is unmatched for its understanding of fear, poverty, passion and the end of love. Buy it here.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)

Anna Burns won the Man Booker Prize for this dazzlingly daring, utterly truthful study of domestic terrorism, oppression, gossip, religion, sexuality, and young femininity, based on but not limited to the Troubles. I, always a late adopter, have only now discovered why. Buy it here.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

I am an evangelist for this devastating masterpiece. Jane Eyre is the milksop sibling of Villette‘s Lucy Snowe, the introverted introvert: intelligent, passionate and dark. It is a love story, a hate story, an adventure and the most extraordinary portrait of an inner life. The end will kill you. Buy it here.

Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg (1963)

The most insightful study of a traumatized family I know, this semi-autobiographical story of an Italian family from the rise of fascism to the aftermath of World War II is funny, loving, and disturbingly glamorous. After that, read what happened to Natalia Ginzburg herself; your heart will break. Buy it here.

The Passage of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

The dryly brilliant Hazzard is now almost completely ignored, but her quirky novels of desire, loss, war and recovery are stunning. This winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, about two Australian orphaned sisters who started over in England in the 1950sis my heartbreaking favorite. Buy it here.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The week magazine. If you want to read more, try six risk-free issues of the magazine here

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