We Asked You: What are your favourite books set in the past?

16 March 2015

By Pan Macmillan

This month we wanted to hear all about your favourite books set in the past. We love being swept back in time, reading how historical events shaped lives and sharing those experiences. Your suggestions did not disappoint – we were taken from 785 AD Norway to post-war France and beyond. Here is a selection of the suggestions that truly made us travel through time, as well as a few of our own titles too. A must-read list for all Historical Fiction fans!


Winter in Madrid, CJ Sansom
Recommended by @susieyenson

For a vivid and haunting account of what life was like after the Spanish Civil War, delve in to CJ Sansom’s Winter in Madrid. This intimate and compelling tale offers a remarkable sense of history unfolding, and the profound impact of impossible choices.

1940: The Spanish Civil War is over, and Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, while the Germans continue their relentless march through Europe. Britain now stands alone while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett: a traumatised veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old schoolfriend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories. Meanwhile Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged on a secret mission of her own – to find her former lover Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades, who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.


Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Recommended by @aynslie70

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War, Margaret Mitchell's magnificent historical epic is an unforgettable tale of love and loss, of a nation mortally divided and a people forever changed. Above all, it is the story of beautiful, ruthless Scarlett O'Hara and the dashing soldier of fortune, Rhett Butler.

Since its first publication in 1936, Gone With The Wind has endured as a story for all our times.


Edge of Eternity, Ken Follett
Recommended by @PipsMcE, Philippa McEwan, Publicity Director

Ken Follett proved to be a popular choice, with Pillars of the Earth and World Without End both being recommended. Edge of Eternity is the epic final volume in the Century trilogy.

As the decisions made in the corridors of power bring the world to the brink of oblivion, five families from across the globe are brought together in an unforgettable tale of passion and conflict during the Cold War.

When Rebecca Hoffmann, a teacher in East Germany, finds herself pursued by the secret police, she discovers that she has been living a lie. Her younger brother, Walli, longs to escape across the Berlin Wall to Britain to become part of the burgeoning music scene.

In the United States, George Jakes, a bright young lawyer in the Kennedy administration, is a fierce supporter of the Civil Rights movement - as is the woman he is in love with, Verena, who works for Martin Luther King, Jr. Boarding a Greyhound bus in Washington to protest against segregation, they begin a fateful journey together.

Russian activist, Tania Dvorkin, narrowly evades capture for producing an illegal news sheet. Her actions are made all the more perilous as her brother, Dimka, is a rising star in the heart of the Communist Party in the Kremlin.

From the deep south of America to the vast expanses of Siberia, from the shores of Cuba to the swinging streets of Sixties London, Edge of Eternity is a sweeping tale of the fight for individual freedom in a world gripped by the mightiest clash of superpowers anyone has ever known.

Wideacre, Phillippa Gregory
Recommended by @MSEDollyp

Wideacre Hall, set in the heart of the English countryside, is the ancestral home that Beatrice Lacey loves. But as a woman of the eighteenth century she has no right of inheritance. Corrupted by a world that mistreats women, she sets out to corrupt others. Sexual and wilful, she believes that the only way to achieve control over Wideacre is through a series of horrible crimes, and no-one escapes the consequences of her need to possess the land.


The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell
Recommended by @imogenmummy1986

A chilling fictional memoir of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer turned family man and factory owner living in post-war France.

He is an intellectual steeped in philosophy, literature, and classical music. He is also a former SS intelligence officer and cold-blooded assassin. He was an observer and then a participant in Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front, he was present at the siege of Stalingrad, at the death camps, and finally caught up in the overthrow of the Nazis and the nightmarish fall of Berlin. His world was peopled by Eichmann, Himmler, Göring, Speer and, of course, Hitler himself. Max is looking back at his life with cool-eyed precision; he is speaking out now to set the record straight.


War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Recommended by @mlle_nattyprose

Considered by many to be the greatest novel ever written, Tolstoy's masterpiece is a story of family life set against the backdrop of war. The novel begins in 1805 in the crowded and gossip-filled rooms of a St Petersburg party and follows the fortunes of the aristocratic Bolkonsky and Rostov families as Napoleon's armies sweep through Europe, culminating in the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and Napoleon's defeat. Tolstoy's vast novel takes in both the epic sweep of national events and the private experience of individuals, from the keen young soldier to Napoleon himself, and at the heart of it all the complicated triangle of affection that binds his central characters.


The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Recommended by @arbitrarygenius

The Book Thief transports us to Nazi Germany in 1939, using the voice of Death as the narrator.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp, and Liesel scratches out a meagre existence for herself by stealing books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbours during bomb raids - as well as the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

This heartbreaking story offers a unique perspective on these terrible events, and highlights the ability of books to feed the soul. 


Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Freemantle
Recommended by @BazGriffiths

For fans of Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, Elizabeth Fremantle's first novel, Queen's Gambit, is a riveting account of Katherine Parr, the Tudor queen who married four men and outlived three of them - including Henry VIII.

Rich in atmosphere and period detail, and told through the eyes of Katherine and her young maid Dot, Queen's Gambit is the story of two very different women during a terrifying and turbulent time.


The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald
Recommended by @arbitrarygenius

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece; a tragic love story played out in a world of dangerous illusion amidst the famous decadence of the roaring twenties.

Jay Gatsby’s parties are legendary. Night and day, the rich and beautiful descend upon his mansion to drink and to dance. For Nick Carraway, newly arrived on Long Island, the handsome, wealthy Gatsby seems to lead the perfect life. But beneath that shimmering facade Gatsby harbours an obsessive desire for the only thing he truly wants, but can never have.


The Sealed Letter, Emma Donoghue
Recommended by @ellamwatkins

Based on a real-life scandal that gripped England in 1864, The Sealed Letter is a delicious tale of secrets, betrayal, and forbidden love.

Helen Codrington is unhappily married. Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull hasn’t seen her once-dear friend for years. Suddenly, after bumping into Helen on the streets of Victorian London, Fido finds herself reluctantly helping Helen to have an affair with a young army officer.

The women’s friendship quickly unravels amid courtroom accusations of adultery, counter-accusations of cruelty and attempted rape, and the appearance of a mysterious ‘sealed letter’ that could destroy more than one life . . .