Historical fiction me! (social change edition)
December 4, 2017 7:45 PM   Subscribe

I would like some recommendations about historical fiction which are set in times of significant social change, and look at how people react to this. It doesn't have to be the main theme but I would like it to be in there.

Examples of what I'm looking for are: the coming of Christianity to Europe (Hild by Nicola Griffith, The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson) or the impact of a cooling climate on a remote Viking colony (The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley). I also recently watched a film set in Japan as it was starting to encounter the Western world.
posted by ontheradio to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You are looking for George Eliot's *Middlemarch,* which follows the lives of small town inhabitants negotiating reform of all kinds--political, social, medical, mechanical.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:08 PM on December 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel are excellent examples of this vis à vis the Henrican Reformation.
They're also simply superb pieces of writing!!
posted by Dorinda at 8:10 PM on December 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell takes place around the time Japan encounters the Western world.
posted by wallawallasweet at 8:12 PM on December 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

These are both 20th Century US specific, but classics for a reason:

The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos which follows a cast of characters before, during, and after WWI.

Armisted Maupin's Tales of the City series, which was originally serialized in the late 70s/early 80s. Takes place in San Francisco and was one of the earliest reports of the HIV epidemic.
posted by Ufez Jones at 8:15 PM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B and its sequels, by Sandra Gulland, are about the French Revolution and all that came after.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:19 PM on December 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Wolf Hall & co. are great, but I think Mantel's earlier novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, while not as dazzling as the Cromwell books, is a little more directly concerned with social change and its popular effects. Ah...read 'em all, you won't regret it.

Zola's Germinal is a famous study of the Industrial Revolution.
posted by praemunire at 8:20 PM on December 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

Oh, two other good ones: McCann's Let the Great World Spin is about the collapsing NYC of 1974, and Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence tracks the slow dissolution of the NYC aristocracy of the mid-19th century. I was shocked a couple of years ago to discover what I should already have known--it's actually a post-war book!

Am I wrong--Tales of the City isn't historical fiction, is it? They're set near-contemporary to the publication date, no?
posted by praemunire at 8:26 PM on December 4, 2017

I'm not sure if it's exactly what you're looking for but I highly recommend the Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly. They're set in the 1830s among the free people of color in New Orleans and they're historical mysteries but broader topics of race, slavery, and the shift from French to American for the city. A Free Man of Color is the first one.
posted by threeturtles at 8:27 PM on December 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Pretty much all the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century are about people living in times of rapid and uneven change. Tolstoy's characters might be more insulated from it than Turgenev's or especially Dostoevsky's, but they all have to make their way in a society where modern ideas and economics are colliding with an old agrarian way of life and its rigid social structure.

Balzac is practically the textbook example of nineteenth-century literature that deals head-on with social change.

One more recommendation: The Aesthetics of Resistance, by Peter Weiss - an extraordinary modernist novel about a group of working-class teenage leftists in 1930s Germany, and later in Spain during the Civil War, who devote their lives to resisting fascism, both by fighting and by studying art, which they see as a vast archive of struggles for justice objectified in aesthetic form.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 8:50 PM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. It chronicles the melancholy death of Habsburg Empire from the eyes of a minor noble family, starting in 1848 (but heavily weighted towards the early 20th century); the change is front and center. I hate aristocratic nostalgia but this still made me sad (and there is more going on than just that.

Ragtime by Doctorow. Superb read by any standard. A pastiche of fictional and
fictionalized stories from the early 20th century. In this one the change is more in the background.
posted by mark k at 9:01 PM on December 4, 2017

Well. My go-to historical fiction is C.Q. Yarbro's St.-Germain series. Don't get put off by the fact that he's a vampire; it's really a very small part of the stories. Each book is set in a different time and place, usually at some sweeping change. For instance, there's Medici Florence w/Savonarola, Nero's Rome, Sun King France, 10th C. Saxony when Christianity is moving in, Peru & Mexico at the time of the Conquistadors, China when the Mongols invaded, pan-Asia when Krakatoa erupted in 535 ce, and many more (I think the series is up to 27 books). She's the best at "you are there" writing, i.e. no contemporary attitudes snuck in.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:13 PM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Going out on a limb, ignore if not meeting the need: Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright. It's fantasy to the extent that it is set in an imaginary country, but it reads very much like historical fiction and addresses the themes you have in mind.
posted by huimangm at 10:13 PM on December 4, 2017

Caedfael series - after the crusades, during the time when Stephen and Maude were battling it out for the throne
posted by freethefeet at 10:36 PM on December 4, 2017

I just read Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. The titular surveyors' travels through pre-revolutionary America bring them into contact with all the social foment of the era, with detours into the riots and social disturbances of the early industrial revolution in Europe. It's also laugh-out-loud funny...
posted by Ted Maul at 1:39 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists puts the protagonists at the front of the trade union fight and is "widely regarded as a classic of working-class literature". I also love Alexandre Dumas so would suggest the Three Musketeers trilogy for a front row seat for some rather exciting historical happenings in France.
posted by london explorer girl at 2:32 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is a magic realist take on India’s transformations from 1947 to 1979. It’s idiosyncratic and strange, of course, being Rushdie, but it creates a really vivid sense of the history and the characters’ response to it.
posted by Aravis76 at 3:18 AM on December 5, 2017

The Warmth of Other Suns, about the large movement of African Americans from the U.S. South to cities in the North, Midwest, and West from about 1915 to 1970. (The movement is known as the Great Migration.) It uses fictionalized stories to relate the experiences of actual people.
posted by fuse theorem at 5:15 AM on December 5, 2017

Vanity Fair possibly?
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 5:47 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom is about the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the midst of the Reformation. There's a mystery in there too.
posted by elmay at 6:53 AM on December 5, 2017

Seconding Mason & Dixon and all the Mantel novels mentioned.

Please remember that "historical novel" does not mean "novel written earlier than yesterday"; it means a novel about a period far enough in the past (relative to time of writing/publication) to qualify as historical (generally at least a century). "Pretty much all the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century are about people living in times of rapid and uneven change": maybe, but they are not historical novels. There are such Russian novels from the nineteenth century (Bulgarin's 1832 Dmitrii Samozvanets [The False Dmitry] was an early one), but they're all imitations of Walter Scott and generally pretty terrible. (An exception is Lazhechnikov's 1835 Ledyanoi dom [The ice house], set in 1739-40, which is a lot of fun if by no means "great"; it's being translated as The Palace of Ice, I believe.) Midnight’s Children is about Rushdie's own lifetime, for Pete's sake.
posted by languagehat at 7:54 AM on December 5, 2017

Yeah, if you're open to fantasy I recommend Guy Gavriel-Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan, which is inspired by the religious and dynastic changes in the Iberian Penninsula in the medieval period (aka the parts of Spain that were Moorish); I also really like his Sarantine Mosaic novels, set in a fantasy Constantinople, again at the time of religious/dynastic shift. All three novels do a great job looking at how artists/craftspeople were caught up in the changes.
posted by TwoStride at 8:31 AM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, how could I forget Mary Renault? Her books set in Ancient Greece are probably the most convincing historical novels I know; you absolutely believe the worlds she plunks you down into. Start with The Last of the Wine and The King Must Die, and if you like those there's another half-dozen where those came from.
posted by languagehat at 1:03 PM on December 5, 2017

For the Russian Revolution: Dr. Zhivago or And Quiet Flows the Don.
posted by dilettante at 2:45 PM on December 5, 2017

> For the Russian Revolution: Dr. Zhivago or And Quiet Flows the Don.

Again, those are not historical novels. Is the concept unfamiliar? If those (about events that happened during the lifetime of the author and in fact are to some extent autobiographical) are historical novels, then everything but sf is historical novels.
posted by languagehat at 8:55 AM on December 6, 2017

Since everyone is recommending rather heavy period lit I'll continue going the other way and throw out the Mistress of the Art of Death series by Ariana Franklin. It's about a female physician (trained in Salerno, with a Muslim assistant) in 12th century England under Henry II. While definitely forensic-style mysteries, the medieval setting is really good and larger issues come up a lot especially gender, race, and religion. It portrays an England under Henry trying to leave the dark ages and enact fairer laws, with a lot of complication, of course.
posted by threeturtles at 2:33 PM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

These are about more recent times and deal with conflict and extremely rapid change, rather than the longer, slower shifts of climate change or industrialization, but three that might fit what you're looking for are:
--A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam -- a family in Bangladesh in the 1960s and 70s (leading into the Bangladesh Liberation War)
--Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie -- a small interconnected group of people in Nigeria in the 1960s and during the Nigerian Civil War/Biafran War
--Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres -- one town in what is now Turkey in 1900-1920s, through WWI into the establishment of the Republic of Turkey
posted by josyphine at 4:42 PM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Some wonderful recommendations here, thank you all so much! I'm looking forward to investigating all of them.

Movablebooklady, have you got any particular favourites within the CQ Yarbro series?
posted by ontheradio at 6:41 AM on December 7, 2017

I discovered that Middlemarch was written as historical fiction - the events in the book take place around 50 years before the book was written!
posted by ontheradio at 6:13 AM on December 10, 2017

Damn, now I'm going to have to remember the titles. Wait wait, I'll go to Goodreads which has them all listed. My personal favorite is a corollary to the main series. In "Hotel Transylvania" first book published, St-G meets Madeleine. In "Out of the House of Life," she's the main character in 1820 Egypt where's she participating in an archaelogical dig. Meanwhile, he writes her long letters about his life in Ancient Egypt (c.1500 bce) and how he became a healer in the Temple of Imhotep. Lots of fascinating information about his early life.

For books in the main series, I particularly like "The Palace," set in Medici Florence (one of the early books). I also like the Peru/Mexico Conquistador-era one "Mansions of Darkness."

Here's a link to the Goodreads page about this series. You can browse and see if something else intrigues you.St-G series I always recommend picking one that's set in a time and place you're interested in and start there. I don't read the series in published order but in chronological order as that helps my history sense keep things straight. You can read them as stand-alones but there are a few references to past events that usually are explained. I hope you enjoy them.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:55 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

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