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?