Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of historical fiction, you've heard the names Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton, Anthony Doerr and Kristin Hannahrepeatedly over recent years. No longer dismissed as bodice-rippers rife with anachronisms or dreary textbooks dressed up in barely discernible plots, historical fiction is gaining the respect of critics and readers alike, regularly appearing on shortlists for major literary awards and on bestseller lists around the world.
Generally speaking, historical fiction is any story that is set in a time period in the past, but depending on who you ask, the criteria can be more - or less - stringent than that. The Walter Scott Prize, created in 2010 to recognize excellence in UK, Irish, and Commonwealth historical fiction, limits the definition to events that take place at least 60 years before publication, during a historical period with which the author has no personal experience.
Regardless of how long ago an historical novel takes place, accuracy and authenticity of the historical setting are absolutely essential. But that doesn't just apply to the physical setting; the worldview of the characters, their values, mores, and general sensibilities must accurately reflect their era. Truly great historical fiction has the ability to portray those sensibilities in a way that can do more than just provide a glimpse into the past - it can also provide insight into contemporary situations and ways of being.
The fact that we're talking about fiction also means that while historical authenticity is important, imagined elements of the story don't have to be based on fact. There is a wide variety of opinion on how much artistic license a writer should be permitted with fictional components, as reflected in the diverse selection below. For the actions and experiences of fictional characters, some will say the only limitation is the author's imagination but for non-fictional events and people, the story must stay true to the historical record. Others allow more leeway, allowing the author to put real people into imaginary situations, as long as the historical outcome remains unaltered.
The books listed below include examples of historical fiction by the strictest of definitions, as well as those that fudge the rules a bit - or a lot. Written over the last 200+ years, with settings that range from ancient Rome in Robert Graves' I, Claudius, to 19th century Egypt and an imaginary relationship between Gustav Flaubert and Florence Nightingale in Enid Shomer's The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, to 15th Centrury Florence in George Eliot's study of the Italian Renaissance, Romola.