Historical Musings #6: Non-Fiction

Historical Musings As my previous Historical Musings posts have all concentrated on historical fiction, I thought it would make a nice change to discuss historical non-fiction this month. As you can probably guess from the title of my blog, I would rather be reading a novel than any other type of book, but I have been making an effort lately to read more non-fiction and some of the books I have read in the last few months include She-Wolves by Helen Castor, a book on the lives of four medieval queens; An Accidental Tragedy by Roderick Graham, a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots; and Rebellion by Peter Ackroyd, the third volume of his History of England series (this one covers the English Civil War and the Restoration).

I find most periods of history interesting, but I tend to be drawn to subjects that I’ve previously read about in historical fiction. I picked up She-Wolves, for example, after reading Colin Falconer’s novel, Isabella, because I wanted to know more about Isabella of France. Similarly, I chose to read Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood and The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones to add to the knowledge of the Wars of the Roses I have gained by reading fiction. It can be fun and often quite enlightening to read a factual account of a character or an event I’m only familiar with through fiction and to see how closely (or not) the fictional version had followed historical fact.

However, it’s not very often that I finish reading a work of non-fiction feeling as satisfied as I would have done at the end of a novel. The only non-fiction book I can think of that I truly loved and that I connected with emotionally in the same way I would with fiction was Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Of course, Chang was writing about her own experiences and those of her family so although Wild Swans can still be considered historical (it covers a whole century of Chinese history) it is in a different category from the other books I’ve mentioned so far in this post – and in general, I just don’t find non-fiction as engaging as fiction.

My questions for you this month, then, are these:

Do you enjoy reading non-fiction or do you prefer to gain historical knowledge through fiction? Do you choose your non-fiction reads based on subject or author (or both)? Which historical non-fiction books and authors are your favourites?

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22 thoughts on “Historical Musings #6: Non-Fiction

  1. Annie says:

    I much prefer historical fiction to nonfiction. If a nonfiction author is particularly engaging, I find that I end up enjoying the book as much as if it were a novel. (Ben Macintyre leaps to mind here.)

    I usually approach nonfiction via novels. For example, I really love novels set in Russia between 1900 and 1950. But when I read them, I sometimes feel like I’m missing nuances about the culture or the history–particularly if the author is Russian. Once I’ve read a novel, like Vasily Grossman’s Forever Flowing, I read up on relevant topics on Wikipedia for a quick overview then watch for nonfiction that will fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I recently started reading Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands for a class and have found that it made Forever Flowing that much richer.

    The problem with reading a lot of nonfiction, for me, is that it raises my bar for novelists. If I know quite a bit about the history, I have less and less patience with anachronism or error.

    • Helen says:

      I tend to approach non-fiction via novels too and it’s unlikely that I would pick up a non-fiction book on a subject I know nothing about. I know what you mean about it raising the bar for novelists, though. The two periods I’ve read most about are the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors and as a result I’m much more likely to notice inaccuracies in novels set in those periods.

  2. jessicabookworm says:

    Due to all the non-fiction I had to read during my studies, after leaving university I threw myself into reading novels. Over the last couple years I have got into reading non-fiction for pleasure again. I particularly enjoy memoirs, and Christian and Historical non-fiction. Like you in my history reading I am often drawn to historical characters that I find interesting. I am currently reading The Rise of Thomas Cromwell by Michael Everett.

    • Helen says:

      Maybe part of my problem with non-fiction is that I still associate it with school and university. I’m hoping that as I continue to read more non-fiction I will start to feel more enthusiastic about it and have a better idea of the sort of books and authors I enjoy.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    i like non-fiction, but only if I’m in the mood. Plus it has to be something that *really* interests me! I find I can’t always rely on novels for facts as such and as there are so many that play with real people as characters, non fiction becomes even more important to me!

    • Helen says:

      I much prefer fiction to non-fiction but I would agree that it’s a mistake to rely on novels for facts. There are a handful of historical fiction authors I know I can trust when it comes to accuracy but otherwise I do like to read some non-fiction on the same subject if possible.

  4. beckylindroos says:

    I enjoy nonfiction history from time to time – recent favorites have been The Secret Histories of the Mongol Queens by Jack Rutherford, The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones, The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. And I enjoy books by Eric Larson or David McCullough or Charles Mann – – I enjoy biographies, too.

    I sometimes choose a nonfiction book because of an historical fiction I’ve recently read, but not always by any means. My nonfiction choices are often just because something catches my eye.

    I left university more than a few decades ago and read novels only for a long time – then something happened and I started reading more nonfiction again just out of my own interest. That went on for about 20 years so now I’m a bit full. (I was a history major.)

    I’m often surprised by how accurate the fictions are and with “errors” I try to think of why the author did that – if there’s a literary theme or just for the sake of the story. I usually try to give credit for imagination (Garcia Marquez and Thomas Pynchon) but I love accuracy (Michael Shaara).

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed the two Dan Jones books but haven’t read any of the others you mention. I’ll have to look out for some of those books and authors. And yes, I am often impressed by the accuracy of some historical fiction novels – and I can also accept that sometimes an author has a good reason for moving away from the facts. I’m always pleased when a novelist includes an author’s note where he or she explains how much of their novel was based on fact and how much on imagination.

  5. Jess @ Curiouser and Curiouser says:

    I really enjoy non-fiction, particularly non-fiction about history and women from history, but I’ve been spreading out and reading some different non-fiction this year. I’m currently reading Emily Urquhart’s Beyond the Pale which is all about her research into her family history and folklore after her daughter was born with albinism – it’s a fascinating read! I also read Samantha Ellis’ How To Be a Heroine earlier this year, and loved it, and Jody Gentian Bower’s Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story.

    I really need to read some of Helen Castor’s books because I love her documentaries, and I also recently started Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn which is really interesting so far; it’s less about the history of Anne Boleyn and more about how we have interpreted her over the years, how some people think of her as a whore and others think of her as the mother of the Reformation. I recommend checking it out! I also like Ian Mortimer’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England and A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, they’re wonderful reads if you want to learn more about life was like for the Average Joe rather than the monarchy and the aristocracy. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for those recommendations, Jess. The Creation of Anne Boleyn sounds fascinating – I’ll definitely think about reading that one. It sounds a bit different from other books I’ve read about Anne Boleyn. I have Ian Mortimer’s Medieval England book on my Kindle but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I’m pleased to hear you think his books are good reads!

  6. Alex says:

    I really enjoy non-fiction about history. Actually I think history and science are the large majority of all the non-fiction I read. I chose them mostly for the subject, but if I want to read more about, for instance, the life of Lord Nelson, because there’s a lot of choice I do a little research into the authors.

    Recent good ones: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America; The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World; Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe; Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45.

    You should organize a challenge for these type of books. Have a lot waiting in the TBR 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for all of those recommendations, Alex! A historical non-fiction challenge would be interesting…that’s maybe something to think about for next year.

  7. whatmeread says:

    I enjoy historical fiction more than nonfiction, but it has to be good historical fiction. However, I do read nonfiction of all types, but especially history. I sometimes pick my nonfiction because of the author (for example, Eric Larson, Desmond Seward, or Stacy Schiff) and sometimes because of the subject. And there are certain subjects I’m attracted to, the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, the Victorians, strong women in history.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read anything by any of those authors, though I’ve heard good things about all three of them. I’m more likely to choose nonfiction based on the subject – like you, I love reading about the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors and the Victorians. 🙂

  8. piningforthewest says:

    It depends how reliable the authors are. I enjoy historical fiction but I want the facts to be correct so the writer has to do a lot of research for me to be happy with it. The same thing goes for non-fiction really, I want facts not a lot of speculation, I can do that for myself. Antonia Fraser is my favourite historical biographer.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s annoying when a book has too much speculation and not enough factual information. I haven’t read anything by Antonia Fraser yet but I’ve heard a lot of positive things about her books, particularly the one on Mary Queen of Scots.

  9. Charlie (The Worm Hole) says:

    I’m like that; I’m drawn to non-fiction about those I’ve read in fiction. Not exclusively, but mostly. I guess fiction can make people seem more interesting and more real at the beginning. I think it’s easier to remember the factual if you read them round that way, too.

    As for your first question: both. It’s good to get the facts as well as interpretations. I like how fiction enables us to explore the things that history hasn’t told us. It brings more reality to the possibilities than a discussion of evidence. My favourites are Alison Weir’s Six Wives of Henry VIII and Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain. The latter’s a bit like the Chang you’ve mentioned – family but it’s like reading fiction.

    • Helen says:

      I find it much easier to retain facts that I learn through fiction than through non-fiction, so reading in that order definitely seems to work best for me. Thanks for reminding me about On Gold Mountain. I’ve read most of Lisa See’s novels and enjoyed them, so I really should read that book too.

  10. Small Review says:

    I’m like you, I’d much prefer to get my historical facts through fiction rather than non-fiction. I’ve been trying to dip my toes into historical non-fiction lately and so far it’s been hit and miss. I tried and didn’t really like David Starkey’s Reign of Henry VIII and Susan Higginbotham’s The Woodvilles (though I’ve enjoyed her fiction books). They were interesting, but they did a lot of “according to…” and “insert block quote here” and jumping around. They felt disjointed and I had a hard time engaging even though the facts should have been interesting.

    On the win side, I’ve read Dan Jones’s The Wars of the Roses and enjoyed it. I liked how he kept the pace moving and how he covered events in a linear, novel-like fashion. The only drawback for me was that I wasn’t able to connect with his “characters” on that deeper emotional level that I can get from a good fiction book.

    On the big win side, I thoroughly enjoyed Anna Whitelock’s book on Mary I and Caroline Weber’s book Queen of Fashion about Marie Antoinette. Both books were linear and were approached more like Dan Jones’s book. What sets them apart for me, though, is that I was able to connect with the “characters” deeply as if I were reading a novel.

    I’ve only read the first few chapters (in a bookstore) of Ian Mortimer’s book 1415 about Henry V, but what I did read was gripping. He writes like a novelist! I have high hopes for his books.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed The Wars of the Roses too (it’s called The Hollow Crown here in the UK). Have you read his previous book, The Plantagenets? I thought that one was even better. I’ll have to look for the Anna Whitelock and Caroline Weber books – they both sound great, and like you, I think it’s important to be able to connect with characters emotionally whether I’m reading fiction or non-fiction.

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