At Cheshire Writing Services, we’re passionate about bringing forgotten artistic gems back to the fore. Here is our own selection of classic historical novels which deserve to be cherished (and if you don’t agree with any selection, please let us know!):-
Forever Amber – Kathleen Winsor (1944)
It is impossible to do full justice to Forever Amber in a short review; but this intricate, beautifully written novel of Restoration London ticks every box in terms of its characterisation, plot and historical research. The hedonistic ambience of the age is wonderfully invoked on every page; in a time when one might very well be dead tomorrow, most people ‘gathered their rosebuds’ and generally lived in the moment. The story of Amber St Claire, rising from poverty and obscurity to become mistress to the Merry Monarch, offers an intimate glimpse into a precarious but vibrant age. The author claimed to have read over 400 books on the Restoration period and it certainly shows in her meticulous attention to detail and realistic depiction of the age. However, the central characters leap off the page with equal authenticity; this is the kind of book that leaves you thinking about its main protagonists long after finishing the story; an excellent piece of writing in every sense.
The Haunting of Toby Jugg – Denis Wheatley (1949)
Toby Jugg is one of the greatest yet most underrated supernatural novels ever written. While horror scribes like Stephen King, Peter Straub and Clive Barker all have their moments, it must be said that their work is seldom – if ever – truly terrifying. The Haunting of Toby Jugg is another crawl space altogether. From the very first page, an incapacitated British airman is subjected to the most disturbing attacks on his identity, beliefs and sanity. The precarious nature of his wheelchair-bound existence imbalances us from the first, since we see the emergence of occult forces through his vulnerable eyes. A riveting demonstration of literary imagination, this novel strokes our deepest fears with masterful aplomb and holds the reader’s attention from start to finish. However, there is also light amidst the overpowering darkness: for Toby’s resolute determination to stay sane while resisting his sinister guardians’ occult powers is profoundly inspiring.
The Master Mariner – Nicolas Monsarrat (1969)
Nicolas Monsarrat served in the Royal Navy throughout World War Two, so there was little he did not know about nautical life. His intimate knowledge and love of the sea are present in every page of The Master Mariner, his evocative testament to Old England’s seamen. The plot is hauntingly simple: Master Mariner Matthew Lawes is doomed to serve in England’s navies for all eternity after betraying his country. In Book One, Running Proud – the only book Monsarrat completed to his satisfaction – we follow Lawes across three centuries, from the sixteenth century to the Battle of Trafalgar. He meets historical heroes like Drake and Nelson, not to mention famous villains such as Montbars the Exterminator, a French buccaneer renowned for his deranged and sadistic practices. In Monsarrat’s capable hands we soon feel we have lived several lifetimes, met these astonishing people and served as a humble seaman ‘before the mast’ in all weathers. Fascinatingly, each section of The Master Mariner is written in the literary style of the era it describes, so the early sections are written in Shakespearean English while the later sections are in a polished, eighteenth century style. Not only an astonishing book but quietly influential; Neil Gaiman being one author who has obviously mined its pages.
Aztec – Gary Jennings (1982)
A great historical novel should entertain and educate in equal measure. Gary Jennings’ Aztec not only does both, it makes us believe we have lived another man’s life in a far-off and utterly alien world. The fictional narrator is a certain Mixtli, the son of skilled artisans who by judgement and good fortune rises into the mercantile class and then, for a brief time before the Spanish conquest, the Aztec nobility. His autobiographical account is full of extraordinary journeys and adventures in the three nations of the Nahuatl One World, not to mention the fascinating peoples of central America, including the Maya, with whom they trade. A veteran of the Korean war, Jennings went so far as to learn both the Aztec language and lost art of pictographic writing, actually living in Mexico for over a decade to refine his skills and knowledge. His time was well-spent, for every page of Aztec is drenched with intimate knowledge and love of his subject. My only criticism of this astonishing novel is Jennings’ rabid hatred of Catholic Christianity; not because I don’t share his views but because his strident rants occasionally mar his otherwise brilliant characterisation, action and world building. However, do not let this lonely caveat prevent you from reading this gripping, 900-page masterpiece.