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message 1: by Joy (new)

Joy Abney | 6 comments I thought the group might enjoy this:

Historical British Novels
by Cynthia Crossen

I have a niece who's read ALL of the historical novels about the English; she loves Philippa Gregory. Is there an obscure novel she might not have come across that I could get her for her birthday?

—J.M., Cold Spring, N.Y.
Until last week, I had never read anything by Philippa Gregory. I was put off by the covers of her books—her best known is "The Other Boleyn Girl"—which suggest the subgenre of historical fiction that Hilary Mantel, author of "Wolf Hall," calls "chick-lit with wimples."

My library had Ms. Gregory's 2008 "The Other Queen," so that's what I read. It wasn't bad. Bosoms didn't heave, manhoods didn't throb, and the real historical characters seem to have done more or less what history says they did.

In my favorite historical novels of Great Britain, I can really feel the cold, smell the smoke and taste the mutton. Among them:

"Jack Maggs" by Peter Carey. Inspired by Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations," this is the story of an ex-convict who returns to London from an Australian penal colony in the 19th century.

"The Crimson Petal and the White" by Michel Faber. It's been described as bawdy—the heroine is a prostitute—but this novel of 19th-century England is about class, medicine, manners and hypocrisy.

"The Observations" by Jane Harris. The saucy heroine of this novel (set in Scotland) is tart in every way; though she's nothing but a servant girl, she outsmarts many of her so-called betters.

"The Quincunx" by Charles Palliser. This 800-page doorstop is one of the few modern historical novels that deserves to be called "Dickensian." It teems with plot, characters and the bare bones of 19th-century London.

"Rose" by Martin Cruz Smith. A mystery, a love story and a terrifying depiction of the lives of coal miners in 19th-century England.

"Restoration" by Rose Tremain. A doctor in the 17th-century court of Charles II survives the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London and, barely, his marriage to one of the king's mistresses.

"Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters. Crime and love in Victorian London as two women plot to escape their destinies—one as a petty thief, the other as a captive of her aristocratic uncle.

My promise: None of these falls into the category of historical fiction George Steiner once described as "improbable gallants pursuing terrified yet rather lightly clad young ladies across flamboyant dust-wrappers."

Write to Cynthia Crossen at

message 2: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth | 17 comments My OH is reading and thoroughly enjoying Rose by Martin Cruz Smith right now.
I am not sure that all of these are going to appeal to a Philippa Gregory lover though. I loved Restoration, DNF The Crimson Petal and the White and enjoyed Fingersmith but had to skip a very gruesome death scene. I DNF the Quincunx and haven't read The Observations or Jack Maggs.

message 3: by Robin (new)

Robin (ukamerican) | 188 comments What a strange thing to claim - to have read "ALL the historical novels about the English". Does the writer actually mean all the Philippa Gregory novels? Or maybe just that the niece has read all the most popular, well known historical novels? Whatever it meant, it was very poorly worded.

I agree the recommendations probably wouldn't appeal to a Philippa Gregory fan. But it's hard to recommend something when you don't know what the girl has already read aside from Philippa Gregory - I might suggest Alison Weir but what if she's already read those? Difficult to tell what the writer meant by "ALL the historical novels about the English".

message 4: by Carolcares4u (new)

Carolcares4u (crazycarol) A much older book that is full of history and personalities is The Matriarch. Anyone read this one?

message 5: by Chris (new)

Chris (chrismd) | 2 comments I agree that this list is not what the writer's niece is going to be looking for. I would have suggested going back to the Jean Plaidy (and her other pseudonym Phillipa Carr) or Norah Lofts' books. See if she's read Sharon Key Penman. And finally, I'd turn her on to Diana Gabaldon.

message 6: by Joy (new)

Joy Abney | 6 comments I loved the Gabaldon series, but I must confess I can't see Claire in reading glasses! But, I guess she is aging like the rest of us. I am a new grandmother myself and alas have reading glasses. I guess her books are not a good recommendation for the European Royalty group, unless you count her brief and humiliation encounter with the King of France! :)

Whatever will Gabaldon do with Claire and Jamie in the next book? I confess, I'm NOT ready for Jamie to get old and decrepit.

message 7: by Cel (new)

Cel Jel | 15 comments Anyone that loves British historical novels has to love Sharon Kay Penman's books. They are great.

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