If you’re doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, you know that one of the categories is “Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900.” If you’re not doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, you’re missing out, but that’s another topic altogether. It might seem a little difficult to find historical fiction set before 1900 (especially since I haven’t sent out a list of books that qualify yet), so, in the interest of giving you options, here are some books that qualify for that part of the challenge which have come out in the last couple of months. Even if you’re not doing the challenge, these books cover interesting time periods and characters and are well worth checking out.
Let’s start with Goddess of Fire by Bharti Kirchner, set in India in the 17th century, just at the beginning of the British East India Company’s involvement with India. The main character is Moorti, a very young widow who’s about to be thrown on her husband’s funeral pyre for suttee when she is rescued by a very unlikely angel of mercy: Job Charnock, a founding member of the East India Company. She’s renamed Maria and begins her life with the company, first as a servant and then, as she learns English, as a more vital part of the company. There are many books about the British Raj as it became established in India, but few that take you inside the beginning of the East India Company’s reign, and fewer still with a main character as likable as Moorti/Maria.
For another book about a remarkable real life woman, try Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. A very unusual woman for her time, Margaret (formerly an attendant the queen of England) married a man, William Cavendish, who encouraged her to think for herself and to write. When she returned from exile at the end of the English Civil War, she became a scandal and a celebrity, known for her writing and her wild behavior (appearing topless at a theatrical premiere, for instance), but she was no 17th century Kardashian. She was the first woman ever invited to join the Royal Society of London, and a mainstay of the Scientific Revolution, and her story is as vivid and full of life as “Mad Madge” herself.
If you’re in the mood for a picaresque story of someone who’s lived a wild life in the 18th century in London, there’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson. The main character, Thomas Hawkins, is on his way to the gallows as the book begins, and he’s explaining how none of the trouble he got into along the way was actually his fault, or the result of any malice on his part. True, he was living in sin with his girlfriend. True, he said the wrong thing to the local criminal mastermind, and true, he really shouldn’t have gotten involved helping the king’s mistress get away from a brutal and desperate husband, especially since that involved him Queen Caroline, who’s promised him a pardon if he keeps his mouth shut, but really, he was always trying to do the right thing. Whether that will keep him off the gallows is a good question, and the heart of this rollicking book.
I’ve recently written about my love for revisitings of famous books, and Nelly Dean, by Alison Case, falls into that category as well as the historical fiction before 1900. For those who actually read Wuthering Heights, instead of just seeing the movie(s), the name of Nelly Dean will be quite familiar: she’s the servant who tells the story of Heathcliff and Cathy and all the Gothic details of life at Wuthering Heights. She doesn’t talk about herself in the classic book, so Alison Case has taken it upon herself to give Nelly a back story and a new perspective on all the much more famous characters of the book. If you’re a fan of Wuthering Heights, give yourself the gift of another take on the story of passion, heartbreak and redemption.